A couple of weeks ago, Elinchrom released the Skyport HS, a new iteration of the very old and rudimentary Skyport. The Skyport HS seems to have everything a strobist could hope for, from the laser grid to focus in low-light conditions to the Hi-Sync mode. This new radio trigger is a welcome addition to Elinchrom's product line. At least, it is on paper. The Swiss company was kind enough to lend me a unit before it was even released so that I could play with it and review it for you.
The first thing I noticed when given this new Skyport was its size. If you liked the form factor of the previous Skyport, well, this is very different; it's much bigger. However, it is not for the worse. The new LCD screen and two AA batteries are the main reason for the change in size. Speaking of the AA batteries, this is a more than welcome change. There's no need to spend half an hour in the supermarket looking for the right batteries, as was the case with the previous Skyport iteration.
For sports photographers who shoot lying on the ground on a regular basis, the size might be annoying. Like the old PocketWizard Plus, it can block your view when looking above the camera and hit your forehead depending on your shooting position.
Overall, the build quality is great. The Skyport HS feels way more solid than the first version. It also has rubber that protects the hot shoe attachment to keep the camera fully weather sealed, something that will more than likely be much appreciated by action or wedding photographers that cannot choose the weather or conditions they are shooting in.
The Skyport HS has an LCD screen. Finally! My only point of comparison for a remote with LCD is the Profoto Air TTL that I used to own for my B1. So, I was expecting an interface very similar to and as refined as Profoto's remote. However, it was not, but I am not saying this in a negative way. Let me explain.
When I received my Air TTL from Profoto, I took it out of the box, and I was able to use it right away. With the Skyport HS, it was another story. While not very complicated to use, there are more buttons, more menus, and more items on the screen; plus, the interface is not as polished. In my opinion, comparing them is not really right, though. They are different products for different users. The only comparison we can really make is that, just like Profoto, Elinchrom currently offers a version for Nikon and another one for Canon. They confirmed to me that a Sony version is on its way for 2016 and I may even have heard talk of a version for Panasonic and Olympus micro four thirds cameras.
So yes, the Skyport HS is a bit intimidating at first because of the number of options it has and the weird names found in the menu. For example: ELSP, ODS, Auto MOD, and AF Light are probably not things everyone is familiar with. However, a quick read of the user guide will ensure you are good to go.
The main screen allows for easy adjustment of the units' flash and modeling lamp powers. These changes can be made for all units, per groups (4 in total), or per unit. It comes in handy when working with more than one or two lights in studio.
If we dive into the menu, things get a bit less intuitive. First, the main dial is not used to scroll through the menu options. There are up and down buttons for that. The dial is meant to change the value of the option you want to adjust. I do not really understand why this is. I hope Elinchrom will change this in a future firmware update; the Skyport HS has a USB port allowing for updates and I am sure I am not the only one who would like to see this. I have read the same complaint in other reviews.
Something else that got me confused is when you change an option, there is no "ok" confirmation displayed, but you must press the center of the dial to validate your choice. If you just change the value and hit exit, nothing will happen. It is a bit confusing because there are four buttons below the screen. The two first are meant to navigate in the main menu; the fourth is to exit the menu. Why not use the third to click ok?
Globally, the interface is well done. It might not have been easy to fit everything on that tiny screen, but they did. Frequency, battery status, current group, sync mode, and ODS are visible on top all the time. You know exactly what's activated on your trigger at any given time, unlike the former Skyport.
Just like other radio triggers, the Skyport HS offers different frequencies or channels, if you prefer: 20, to be exact. They also work both in normal and speed mode. So, unless you are planning to shoot in the middle of the crowd at WPPI or Photokina, you should most likely find a channel that will work with no interference.
When using hot shoe flash, there is something in the menu called "AF assist: that will throw an IR or laser beam to help the camera focus. The Skyport HS offers the same possibility. Before, when shooting the first dance at a wedding, if the DJ didn't put any light on the couple, I had to either use my hot shoe flash at a low power to trigger my ELB400 and keep the AF assist working, or keep the modeling light on to be able to focus and shoot with my Skyport. With the AF assist being integrated in the Skyport HS, there's no need for that anymore! Everything is just a tad easier.
Even the second option I had – keeping the modeling light on – is something Elinchrom integrated in a better way. If you do not want to throw a red grid onto your subject, you can now activate "Auto Mod" on your Skyport HS. This will just activate the modeling light when your camera is focusing, preventing the battery pack from being drained after ten minutes of use.
Before getting into what everyone is reading this article for, let's talk about a couple of things that are not so great. The Skyport HS displays the power of each unit that is switched on and on the same frequency. The problem is, if you turn on a unit after having switched on the Skyport HS, you'll have to go into the menu and scan for new units. The strobes will not show up magically, or should I say, automatically.
Also, but this might be a firmware issue, if you change the power up or down too quickly, the display will not refresh properly. You might experience a difference between what the unit is set at and what the Skyport HS shows, hence the "Refresh" button that lets you make sure the info you have on your screen is correct. It is a good habit to press on it every time you change the power of a unit, just to make sure you have everything in sync.
For both of these negative points, I wish Elinchrom had created a menu option allowing the user to choose if the Skyport HS would regularly refresh on its own, particularly after each time something was changed by the user.
One last thing I wished could be found in the menu is the flash mode for ELB and ELC units. It'd be awesome to be able to adjust the strobo, sequence, and delayed mode right from the trigger. There would be no need to walk back and forth to the units to change this. Why not even allow one to change these settings for multiple units at a time? It would a timesaver for people using these modes on a regular basis, even though I doubt many use the strobo or sequence mode day in and day out.
With Profoto getting into TTL and HSS, Elinchrom was left behind with its ten-year-old Skyport. When I reviewed the ELC earlier this year, Elinchrom told me that the future was hi-sync and/or high-speed sync. I thought it was a joke, because to use hi-sync with Elinchrom units, you had to buy into the expensive Pocketwizard system. However, now, at just $249.95, the Skyport HS is way more affordable, and you do not need to buy receivers. You can use the built-in radio system of your Elinchrom units. It is compatible with most previous units, even for Hi-Sync. You can check the full list on Elinchrom's website to make sure your units will work with it.
I won't go too much into details regarding the difference between HSS and Hi-Sync; this would make this article way too long. But keep in mind that HSS and Hi-Sync are different. HSS is light being pulsed while the shutter is open in order to create an illusion of continuous light for the sensor. On the other hand, Hi-Sync works just like HyperSync. It is a precise sync of the flash and the shutter of the camera to get a part of the flash curve. The following diagram might make more sense than my words do to explain Hi-Sync:
In simple words, this fancy Hi-Sync mode allows you to forget about the x-sync of your camera. You can now sync your strobe up to 1/8000 of a second if the head you are using has a long flash duration, or otherwise, up to 1/600th of a second.
Elinchrom lent me the 3 Quadra heads available to try out and see the difference. The HS head was developed to be used in Hi-Sync mode. It has a long flash duration of 1/600 s, making the Hi-Sync results optimal. With the curve of the Action (or A) heads being very steep (more of a peak shape), the sync is not so great, and the results are far from good at high shutter speeds. I took a couple of shots on a white background at different shutter speeds to show you the difference between each head. The first row was shot with an Action head, the second with a Pro head, and the very last with an HS head. All of the shots were taken with the ELB400 at full power, ISO100, and aperture closed down to f/8.0. Only the shutter speed changed.
As you can see, when the shutter speed is fast, there is some vignetting or gradation showing up. This is because of the flash curve. The longer the flash duration, the less it will show. However, Elinchrom developed something called ODS (Over Drive Sync). ODS make it possible to move the point of synchronization on the flash curve (see the graphic above). This way, you can diminish the gradation effect and get the most power possible. The same test as before, but with ODS correction gives us these results:
Elinchrom claims a gain of up to two stops when ODS is adjusted correctly. While I didn't measure it with a light meter, I can assure you that it does make a real difference.
In The Studio
When Elinchrom lent me the Skyport HS, they told me it would work with my BRX. Happy with that great news, I went straight to my studio the day after receiving it, and I gave it a try. I did not play much with the power and used only the 500Ws units I have. It worked great, and I could sync up to 1/500 s or 1/800 s without too much of a problem. I had some minor gradation showing up, but nothing I could not fix in post.
It is far from the 1/8000 s, but still, it is way better than the x-sync of 1/160 s or 1/200 s. It made just enough of a difference to allow me to shoot at wide apertures such as f/1.4 or f/2.0 with my BRX without using ND filters. Being able to quickly change my aperture from f/2.0 for portraits to f/5.6 or f/8.0 for full body shots with my BRX is great!
The possibility of setting low power to shoot wide open was one point that could have made me upgrade to the ELC. Well, with the Skyport HS, I can keep my cheap BRX!
Since my first test, I went back to the studio and shot a couple more sessions with it. I noted that when using the 250Ws or 500Ws versions, the max sync speed was not the same. So, mixing up both could quickly become annoying if using Hi-Sync. Even just using two BRXs at the same power could become complicated quickly. This is not due to the Skyport HS, but rather to the flash duration of the BRX units. Like any other strobe, the flash duration changes with the power and the 250Ws version does not have the same flash duration as its 500Ws counterpart.
Let's forget about Hi-Sync for a minute and talk about the Skyport HS more generally. In studio, it lets you change the flash and modeling light power of each unit. With the previous Skyport, I had to place each unit in a different group to make that possible. But the problem was, once I had more than four units on set, my trick did not work anymore. With the Skyport HS, there's no need to walk around the studio anymore. Also, because the new Elinchrom trigger is bigger, I do not lose it in my camera bags or somewhere between two softboxes in my studio anymore. It might sound stupid, but I have had occasions where I looked stupid searching for my Skyport in every bag I had.
One issue I have with the Skyport HS, like most of my complaints, is something Elinchrom can and hopefully will fix in the future. They released the trigger along with a Quadra head to make the most out of it when using an ELB or Quadra pack. This is all great, but who shoots only with a battery pack in the studio? The ELC cannot freeze action fully because its flash duration is just not short enough. With Hi-Sync, we finally can freeze things like water drops:
So, why not make an ELC HS or BRX HS — something with a long flash duration like the Quadra HS? Because, in all seriousness, I don't see professional photographers going to buy a D-Lite or Digital RX pack to be able to sync at 1/8000 s in studio. It is great to be able to sync up to 1/600 s in order to use larger apertures, but it won't freeze movement.
To me, this is where the Skyport HS really shines, or at least where it made the biggest difference. I used to hate using flash outdoors. I couldn't get something I liked with just one unit! Because of the limitation of the x-sync, I never had my background exposed the way I wanted. I felt like mixing natural and artificial light was more of a pain than anything else. With the Skyport HS, it is an entirely different story! I can finally set my camera however I want to expose for the background and then introduce artificial light where needed.
Being able to sync at up to 1/8000th of a second also means the 424Ws of an ELB400 pack are enough to overpower the sun in most conditions. You do not need to lug around that old and cumbersome Ranger RX anymore. As a portrait photographer, what is exciting is that I can replicate studio conditions almost anywhere and at any time of the day. I can create an almost black background by syncing at 1/8000th of a second and I can also use large apertures in the middle of the day, no matter how sunny it is. Moreover, unlike HSS, you do not encounter much power loss!
At $249.95, it might sound expensive. However, compare it to Profoto's Air TTL, which is priced at $403 or Canon's ST-E3-RT, priced at $263.20, and you see that it is not so expensive after all. I think it is well worth its price and I actually bought my unit the day it was announced. If you're like me and you thought about upgrading your BRX to ELC units, you should perhaps rethink it. The Skyport HS is a cheaper upgrade and might be what you were looking for more so than the ELC, unless Elinchrom decides to release an ELC HS.
What I Liked
- It makes using flash outdoors almost too easy.
- The LCD screen has all needed info at the glance of an eye.
- Focusing in low-light situations is not a problem anymore.
- It's compatible with most units Elinchrom released in the past decade (if not more).
- It's not too expensive for what it offers (not much more expensive than a bunch of quality ND filters).
What Could Be Improved
- There is currently a lack of studio units that can fully use the potential of the Hi-Sync mode.
- It takes a bit of time to start up.
- The main dial not being used to scroll through the menu options just feels weird.
- There's no "ok" or "valid" button next to the "exit" button in the menu options, which can lead to changes not being saved.
- You cannot change the flash mode for ELC and ELB units from the trigger.
All in all, is the Skyport HS worth it? For me, it is. Is it for you? Ask yourself if the x-sync limitation is a problem for you, if you'd like to be able to overpower the sun with your Quadra or ELB400, if you'd like to shoot with wide apertures no matter the lighting conditions, and if you'd like to be able to freeze things at 1/8000th of a second. If you say "yes" to any of those, I think you have your answer. The things that I think could be improved are minor to me, and they surely don't outweigh the advantages. Most of the cons I see are things that can either be changed through firmware updates. To tell you how much of a difference it makes compared to the previous Skyport, I forgot to take my Skyport HS on a recent shoot; all I did during that session was swear at my old Skyport. If you try the new one, you surely won't go back.