I’ve recently been looking at upgrading my studio flash heads. Options I’ve considered have varied from the Bowens Gemini Pro 500s, the Paul C Buff Einsteins and the Strobeam EID500s. The latter two having the attraction of being IGBT designs so they have much lower flash durations at low power settings than a normal flash head would have. Price is an issue and I wished to stick with Bowens s-type fitting because of the robustness, standardisation and flexibility of it. So I excluded the Paul C Buff units as they use the Balcar mount system which seems to get very mixed reviews. I rather resented having to pay £50 for a Bowens standard reflector for every flash head that I wanted to mount an umbrella on so I thought I’d look elsewhere.
The Lencarta range of lights caught my attention. They’ve recently added the UltraPro 300W and 600W heads to their range. These are digitally controlled, via an LCD screen on the back of the head, and can also be remotely controlled form the Ultra Pro Commander unit which is a huge attraction. They also have 2.4GHz trigger receivers built into them although as of writing (26th April 2012) Lencarta do not make a transmitter for this but Garry Edwards assures me that a new remote control with flash trigger functionality is due soon.
What are the main attributes that one would want in a pro grade flash head? Robustness, reliability, ease of use, short flash duration, consistent and predictable power delivery and consistent colour accuracy I’d say are key attributes.
Well out of the box the initial impression is very much of robustness and quality, the heads are very solid and very well finished. There are several attractive features that might appeal to pro photographers such as the ability to swap the main stand mount to the top of the flash head so it can be mounted on a rail whilst staying the right way up. Also the ability to move the stand mount back and forth, from front to back, to re balance the head depending on which modifiers you use although I would say that this does require a screw driver so it’s not likely to be something you do very often, more a case of deciding how you want it and leaving it there. I really like the one handed adjustment lever too, not so much because it’s one handed but because it means it’s normally in a convenient position to grab unlike the usual adjustment levers that often end up hard against the flash body. The largest and heaviest modifier I have is a 150cm octobox, with that fitted to the front of the head the adjustment was spot on, a lot easier than most other heads that I’ve used. The umbrella holder is very solid too and is built into the stand mount rather than the body of the flash itself.
On the rear panel display you have to use the upper left and right ‘tab’ buttons to move between the various fields. As you can see ID for remote control can be set, trigger group, flash intensity, lamp (off, full, proportional or manual control) and the mode icon allows you to enable the optical sensor if you don’t have a radio trigger, either internal or external, connected to the head. All of the buttons seem very well defined and of decent quality. The head does make slightly annoying beeping noises as you move around the various fields and change settings but it’s fairly muted and not a problem. As you’d expect the head has auto dump which is done into the flash tube rather than an internal dump resistor. Given a choice I’d have preferred a resistor as I find my models don’t really like unexpected flash firing when the heads auto dump.
Reliability is obviously an unknown at this point but a very positive point is that Lencarta do have a service centre in the UK so if something does go wrong it can hopefully be fixed in fairly short order.
Here are one or two photos so you can get an idea of the build quality and user interface.
Rear view of the head and close up of the display
Side view showing the excellent one handed adjustment lever
On to the more technical aspects of the flash head. The first thing I measured was flash accuracy at the various settings i.e. if you reduce the power by 1 stop does it actually half? I’ve had bad experiences with cheap Chinese flash heads before with this either they have nowhere near the claimed adjustment range or they are very nonlinear so when you reduce power by a stop it maybe only drops by 1/3 stop instead. All of which just makes life more difficult. So how did the UltraPro 300 perform in this respect? Excellently I’d say, have a look at the table below, I’ve shown the ideal flash power based on the quoted guide number of 48m at ISO100 and the actual measure guide number beside it and in the third column is the percentage the actual output power is as a proportion of the ideal expected power. Bear in mind I’m not talking about consistency flash to flash at this point just whether you get roughly what you ask for when changing power settings.
|Power||Power Setting||Quoted GN||Actual GN||% of Ideal|
You can see from the above that at full and half power there was slightly more than expected, which is good as it’s always good to have a little more power (I would just say that the absolute measurement of Guide Number is far from an accurate science so the relatively small amount of 8 to 12% should be taken with a pinch of salt really), at quarter power (75W) there is a bit more of a reduction than expected but not anything to worry about and it’s then very linear until you hit minimum power at which point the head gives quite a bit less power than it’s specified to. I’d have to say that in my case this is also a good thing as I use some of my heads in very close proximity to my models with just a reflector on as hair lights and this requires being able to dial down the power to a very low level, that’s actually the reason I got the 300W rather than 600W head because I probably wouldn’t have been able to get low enough on a 600W head.
So, so far so good. It would be interesting to see how a Bowens Gemini Pro head compares with this but I don’t have one to make the comparison with unfortunately.
The next test I did was colour consistency. I did this by looking at the raw files taken on a neutral grey background using the eye dropper tool in Lightroom to sample the RGB values, they range from 0 to 100. Again don’t pay too much attention to the ratio of the RGB values as I had a custom white balance setup in the camera based on the characteristics of my old flash heads rather than the ideal 5500k that these should deliver.
|Power||Power Setting||Red||Green||Blue||Kelvin White Balance|
Again absolutely excellent performance. Down to 1/8th power there’s no measurable colour shift at all, below that it’s really minimal and I’d say that there’s no way you’d notice such a subtle variation as this.
Next is flash power consistency. As with the other tests I checked this at each setting from 6 down to 1 (full power to 1/32) in 1 stop steps. I took 4 shots at each setting with varying delays between each. I could measure no variation flash to flash from full power to 1/16 power (power setting 6 to 2). At the lowest power setting I did see about 0.2 stops variation flash to flash. Is it a problem? I’d say it doesn’t worry me although it would have been nice if it was more consistent. 0.2 of a stop is really not a big issue and most people are never likely to turn the flash down as low as this so I’d say it’s really not an issue.
The final test is flash duration. This is something that is never going to be great on this style of head because it’s not IGBT or thyristor controlled. Bowens quote 1/2900 second on their Gemini Pro heads but this is a relatively meaningless figure in practical use. Firstly because it only applies at full power, and may well be a lot slower at lower powers, and secondly because the light output of this type of head decays in an exponential manner as the storage caps discharge into the flash tube. What this means in practical terms is that although after 1/2900 of a second the flash head output power will have halved, it will take 1/1000 of a second or longer for the power to drop to 1/10 of its initial level. So if you’re trying to freeze action the 1/2900 figure doesn’t really help.
I’ve shown here an oscilloscope waveform of the flash at 1/8th power so you can see what I mean. The exponential decay of the flash means that it’s a long while after the t=0.5 (50%) point that the light level has dropped to 10% (t=0.1).
Note: Oscilloscope trace showing the exponential decay of light output
I’ve measured the UltraPro head at 1 stop intervals from full power down to 1/32 power and noted the t=0.5 and t=0.1 times. t=0.5, the time when output power has dropped to 50%, is what most manufactures quote because it makes them look good and is the industry standard, even though it’s not terribly useful. t=0.1, the time when output power has dropped to 10%, is a more practical figure if you want to compare it to an equivalent shutter speed, at this point the light level is just over 3 stops down so what little light is still coming out of the flash is not going to show very much on your moving subject.
|Power||Power Setting||t = 0.5||t = 0.1|
|300W||1||1.2ms (1/830th)||6.0ms (1/190th)|
|150W||2||1.3ms (1/770th)||1.6ms (1/620th)|
|75W||3||1.5ms (1/660th)||1.8ms (1/1250th)|
|37.5W||4||1.8ms (1/550th)||1.4ms (1/2300th)|
|19W||5||2.5ms (1/400th)||1.2ms (1/4200th)|
|9W||6||2.5ms (1/400th)||1.1ms (1/5700th)|
Note: The flash durations are shown in ms and in brackets as fractions of a second
That’s OK for this type of head if nothing to write home about, quite a lot slower than the spec. of the Bowens Gemini Pro, so if you’re after action stopping flash durations then this is not really an ideal head but then as I said at the start of this review if that’s what you want to do then you really need to be looking at a switched (IGBT) type of design. One of the reasons Bowens charge so much for the Gemini Pro heads as their faster flash duration and in that respect I guess they do cleanly win out over the slower Lencarta head. At the end of the day if you want true action freezing capability from a flash either use standard flash guns turned down or get something like the Paul C Buff Einsteins because you’re never going to get it from a standard studio head. What the requirement is I think in practical terms is simply to achieve a reasonable level of movement freezing so you don’t get blur as your model blinks or moves their hands. Is a t=0.1 of 1/200th second going to do that? Probably, just about. I guess although the Lencarta UltraPro is not much worse than most other heads in this area (excepting the Gemini Pro) this probably is the most disappointing aspect of its performance yet.
As far as I can see the head quite adequately meets its specified flash recycle times. I didn’t do any rigorous testing of this but at full power the head took about 1 second and at the lowest power it looked as though it could sustain 2 flashes per second, possibly even faster than that. More than fast enough to not be a problem I’d say.
I said one of the other desirable attributes is ease of use. Digital interfaces that you have to navigate your way around are not to everyone’s tastes; they take longer to alter settings and are more fiddly. Is this true of the Ultra Pro head, yea it is really. Would I rather have large visible power level setting knobs like the Bowens heads, yea I probably would to be honest. But for me it’s not a deal breaker nor even a big deal and the fact that Lencarta have a remote control that lets you setup all your heads individually without actually going near them and it only costs £50 and isn’t infrared, unlike the Bowens offering, and has an LCD screen on it so you can see what’s going on is enough of a positive to offset the downside of the slight fiddlyness of the Lencarta user interface.
Update June 2012
I’ve discovered that if you’re working in low light conditions the buttons on the back of the flash head all look exactly the same and are not that clearly labelled so they can be a bit of a pain to work with. It would really be quite beneficial to have the remote control so I’m hoping Lencarta will produce the remote with flash triggering built in, in the near future.
I should point out that I’ve not actually used the existing remote as I’m waiting for the one with the built in flash trigger transmitter to come out.
One thing I am curious about is whether one, or maybe even two, of these heads could be run on a battery powered inverter, such as the Paul C Buff Vagabond Mini or the Innovatronix Explorer Mini. Digital heads can be a bigger problem on battery powered inverters than analogue controlled ones because they can lack tolerance to the inevitable brown outs (temporary dips in the generated mains voltage) that happen due to the current limiting circuitry in the inverters. If I ever try such a thing I’ll update this review to say whether that’s a workable solution to portable flash with the UltraPro heads or not.
Update 24 April 2012
I have been informed that one of Lencarta’s customers has run an UltraPro head (I’m not sure if it’s the 300W or 600W model) on the Innovatronix Explorer Mini without any problems. It seems likely that this would work as the Innovatronix does have quite a high peak power delivery capability. If I get any further and more specific information on this subject I’ll add it accordingly.
So what’s the conclusion? I think you’ll have gathered, if you’ve got this far, that the Lencarta UltraPro head has considerably exceeded my expectations. It does what it says on the tin, although one comment I would make to Lencarta is I wish they would write a little more on the tin so people know what they’re getting. A proper data sheet that tells you things like what is the range of mains voltages the head can operate on (it is 230V only not a universal 100V to 240V head), and at least a stab at the t=0.5 flash duration. It does annoy me when there’s no proper data sheet on products and I would encourage Lencarta to address this and publish more comprehensive data in the form of a proper data sheet or if not that then at least a comprehensive tabulated set of specs on the website.
But that gripe aside this is by all appearances an excellent quality flash head and a serious competitor for the likes of Bowens and Elinchrom at about half the price. I am a little disappointed that the flash duration isn’t a bit quicker but then I guess that would be hoping for a bit much at this price point. The UltraPro 300 is £200 and the UltraPro 600 is £260 as of writing which is a lot of quality flash head for your money. You do have to buy a reflector separately for each flash but they’re £10 each so that’s no great hardship.
How these heads will stand up reliability wise only time will tell but if the general build quality is anything to go buy I think there’s unlikely to be a problem with that. I guess I’m convinced, when the remote control comes out with the trigger transmitter in I’ll probably upgrade my entire studio with these heads and it will be a pleasure to be able to control them all without going round each one in turn to adjust the levels. That combined with predictable, consistent light output will make life a lot easier.
I should point out, in the manner of full disclosure, that I have no affiliation with Lencarta and have only spoken to Garry Edwards to clarify a few spec. points on the flash heads prior to purchasing a single head from them via the usual channels. Equally I’d be happy for them to use this review to tout their products as it contains information that I would have found very useful to have had access to when I was trying to decide what route to take for updating my studio heads.
By trade I’m an electronics design engineer hence the quite technical nature of this review. I like to know exactly what a product delivers so I know how I can rely on it and how I can use it. I hope this review is of assistance to anyone else who is considering buying one of these heads