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Photokina 2010: Beyond the cameras, part 1  
Friday, September 24, 2010 | by Rob Galbraith
New digital cameras are always the biggest draw at a photo trade show and Photokina 2010 is no exception. Updated models keep the crowds coming to Canon's and Nikon's booth, as well as to other players such as Hasselblad, Leica, Olympus, Panasonic and Sigma.

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Hands On: The Canon and Nikon booths at Photokina 2010. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

There's more to this sprawling show, however, than just cameras. Here are some of the accessories, workflow tools and lighting gear that have caught our eye so far.

Priolite

A new German maker of lighting equipment led by a former executive at Hensel, Priolite formally introduced its product lineup at Photokina. Including two 500ws monolights: the AC-powered M500 and battery-powered MB500.

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Self Starter: The Priolite MB500 (Photo courtesy Priolite)

Of the two, the latter shows some really innovative thinking. At its core, the MB500 is a 500ws monolight whose basic flash specs and build quality are in line with other European monolights in this power range. This includes a 1/2500 (t.5) full power flash duration spec and the use of voltage reduction to provide output levels below full, with a corresponding lengthening of flash duration and warming of the light output as power is lowered down to its minimum of 37ws.

So far, what we've described is standard fare. The innovation begins with the integration of a Lithium Magnesium battery inside the unit, rated at 400 full power pops and an estimated working life of four years. The MB500 also incorporates an LED array modeling light that draws a fraction of the current of a standard modeling light but emits a brightness equivalent to a 100 watt tungsten bulb. Full power recycling time is 2.2 seconds, which is solid for a battery system, and the battery itself can be recharged to 80% in about 2.5 hours using the included worldwide charger. The flash can be fired while plugged in, with power being drawn from the battery simultaneous with it being charged. When set to 37ws, the flash will fire continuously at up to 5fps.

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Flashy: The MB500's rear panel, left, and front flash tube and LED modeling light array (the flash's glass tube cover has been removed). Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The LED array can be set to flash, with a flash duration of 1/15,000 (t.5), but the pop is both dim and quite blue so this is probably more novel than useful. The MB500 can also fire the main flash and LED flash in sequence, with a user-defined offset between the two, for lighting effects that will almost certainly run the gamut from creative to bizarre.

The MB500 has a built-in 2.4GHz wireless system, enabling the flash to be adjusted and triggered from the Prio-Control A, a hot shoe mounted device that support up to 36 individual Priolite flash units in four groups, called teams, of nine flashes each.

Power is adjustable in 1/10 stop increments for a single flash or all flashes simultaneously. The modeling light can be toggled off and on as well. The system is bidirectional too, meaning you can change a setting manually on the flash itself and that change will be propagated back to the Prio-Control A, in addition to the other way around.

A dual-function mount accepts Bowens bayonet-type modifiers in addition to those from Hensel and Priolite itself. The mechanical design that allows this is tricky to describe, but is clever and appears functional. The unit's LED display can be electronically flipped, so that if the unit is mounted upside down from a ceiling the display will still read correctly. The umbrella slot accepts shafts up to 10mm in diameter.

The selling price in Germany, exclusive of VAT, is 760. This makes the MB500 a relative bargain in its home country when considering that it includes a built-in battery and wireless radio. The Prio-Control A trigger device, at 95, is similarly economical.

The MB500's AC-powered counterpart is the M500. It's the same basic flash as the MB500, with the same flash duration and colour characteristics, and it includes the same wireless radio system. The multivoltage M500's full power recycling time is a speedy 0.8 seconds when powered by 230VAC, and possibly the same or nearly so at 115VAC (we received conflicting information about 115VAC recycling time from Priolite booth staff). At 37ws, the flash will fire at up to 6fps. The M500 has a 300w modeling light.

The M500 looks like a reasonable flash, but the real star of the show is the MB500. It seems likely that the M500 exists so that photographers buying the MB500 for location work will be able to purchase an AC-powered twin for use in the studio. The M500, exclusive of VAT, is 680.

The Priolite M500, MB500 and Prio-Control A, along with a line of reflectors, umbrellas, softboxes and other accessories, are to be available for purchase shortly in Germany. As of this writing, the company has not finalized distribution deals that would see Priolite gear sold and serviced elsewhere. On the strength of the MB500, we expect wider availability to come sooner rather than later.

Updated Profoto Air

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A revision of the Profoto Air Sync transceiver, scheduled to ship in the second half of October, will enable it to trigger remote cameras. While the current Air Sync has this capability, it's hobbled by a noticeable delay that makes it impractical to use for this purpose. The revised unit will remove the trigger delay.

Simultaneous with the release of the remote trigger-friendly Air Sync will be the introduction of a line of Profoto camera connection cables, both with and without an inline pre-trigger switch (the switch, when engaged, keeps the camera awake and is equivalent to pressing the shutter button halfway down). Cables for all the major camera brands are planned, including Canon and Nikon, plus any cable that can be connected to a PocketWizard Plus II or the top camera input of a MultiMAX will also work with the Air Sync, since the Air Sync and PocketWizards share the same 3.5mm mono input jack (cables designed for the stereo input jack on the base of a MultiMAX may not work).

The remote camera can be triggered by the Air Sync's test button or by an external trigger button connected to the Air Sync's second 3.5mm input jack. Profoto doesn't plan to sell external triggers, but again, any one that is compatible with PocketWizard should also work with the Air Sync.

The packaging for the revised Air Sync transceiver is expected to make mention of the camera triggering capability, plus the units themselves will have a C2 revision code on the back, perhaps as part of the serial number, so it should be possible to determine you're purchasing the new Air Sync when they begin to arrive on store shelves next month.

Innovatronix Explorer XTS/XTLi

Between myself, site co-editor Mike Sturk and shooting partner David Moll, we own a couple of hundred pounds of Explorer 1200 and Explorer XT portable power packs for driving 115VAC studio flash in the field. They've been completely reliable, needing only replacement sealed lead acid batteries from time to time to keep them operational. For the money, these are fine products.

Our only quibble has been the metal box shape and corresponding soft case, which are clunky. And, thanks to our experience with the LibertyPak Little Genny LG400 last year, we've come to believe that housing a battery and inverter in a Pelican-style case is not a bad way to go.

Enter the Tronix Explorer XTS, a new portable power pack from Innovatronix that has been co-developed with German reseller Tanala. The Explorer XTS takes the 350w (continuous)/1200w (peak) pure sine wave inverter, pair of 12V/7.2Ah sealed lead acid batteries, charging light, battery status indicators and the power switch from the Explorer XT and plops it all into a Pelican-style case made by GT in Italy. The case, one of GT's Explorer series, comes with a removable harness that enables the Explorer XTS to be worn as a backpack.

Because the unit is intended for the European market, and will be sold only by Tanala in Germany, it's being built in a 230VAC/50Hz version only with three German Schuko (grounded) power sockets (up from the Explorer XT's two). The XTS does not include a connector for an external battery.

The Explorer XTS is expected to sell for about 500 Euros (inclusive of VAT) when it goes on sale. A firm ship date has not been set, though representatives from Innovatronix and Tanala were hoping to have it out before the end of the year.

The two companies have teamed up on another portable power pack also. Called the Explorer XTLi, it's identical in most respects to the XTS but utilizes Lithium battery technology rather than sealed lead acid, for lighter weight and longer run times than the XTS.

The only outwardly visible difference between the XTS and XTLi, other than the name badge, will be an LCD panel in place of the charge/status lights. It will give a more precise indication of the battery's charge life than the indicators on the XTS. Final performance specs for the Explorer XTLi have not been developed, and its release is tentatively expected to follow the XTS by one or two months, which means it probably won't go on sale until the first quarter of 2011 at the earliest. It will sell for about 1000, direct from Tanala.

Phottix Helios

Not that long ago, we lumped Phottix in with all the other unspectacular makers of cheap wireless triggers and other lighting accessories, mostly based in China or other parts of Asia and who compete solely on price and not on product quality or service.

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In the last year or so, however, the Hong Kong-based Phottix has been pushing hard to establish itself as a company with real engineering mettle, though one that's not afraid to mimic the products of other companies too. Among its many 2010 product introductions is Atlas, a PocketWizard-compatible wireless radio remote; Strato, a 2.4GHz manual flash trigger with a pass through shoe on the transmitter that allows a TTL flash to be set on top; and the Foton shoe mount flash series. Plus, the most interesting of all: Helios, a 2.4GHz wireless radio TTL system for Canon and Nikon.

All this development activity means Phottix is a company to watch. And the new Helios system is a product to pay attention to if you light with shoe mount flash.

Helios is comprised of two parts:
  • An on-camera transmitter, which looks a lot like Nikon's SU-800.

  • A slim receiver module which incorporates a top hot shoe (for TTL triggering), sync port (for manual triggering of studio or other lights) and a bottom cold shoe with 1/4-20 socket (for mounting).
It offers four operating channels and can wirelessly control up to three groups of remote Canon or Nikon flashes via the transmitter's buttons and LCD interface. In a brief demo, we observed that the interface is very close to the SU-800 (click on the middle photo at right and you'll see the similarities with Nikon's transmitter), as is the process of selecting a group and then changing its operating mode and output setting.

Operating modes include TTL with adjustable per-group flash exposure compensation, TTL with A:B or A:B C ratios and manual power level control (in full stop increments only, at least on the current prototype). Each group can be turned off as well. Canon High Speed Sync and Nikon FP Sync are supported, as is rear curtain sync. Even the zoom head position of the remote flash can be selected from the transmitter (this is a feature of the Canon version; booth staff weren't sure if it would also be in the Nikon version).

Both the transmitter and receiver can be powered by either AAA batteries or externally through each unit's 5V USB Mini-B power input port. On the back of the transmitter is an AF illuminator. It's not possible to mount a flash on top of the transmitter.

Helios for Canon will ship first, possibly by the end of the year, and the Nikon version will follow that. Pricing has not been set.

BasICColor Discus

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Colour management veteran Karl Koch set out to create the ultimate monitor calibrator, one that could properly measure any type of computer display, including tricky wide gamut models, and do so with a level of accuracy, repeatability and monitor-to-monitor consistency that has been unavailable in consumer-grade calibration devices. The result is the BasICColor Discus, an innovative, pricey colorimeter for calibrating and profiling monitors and projectors.

The Discus, housed in extruded aluminum and tethered to a hockey puck (yes, a hockey puck) counterweight, is a no-holds-barred design meant to read monitor and projector colour, including deep blacks, with greater accuracy than devices from X-Rite and Datacolor.

It can measure any type of computer monitor, including wide gamut ones, and incorporates eight different calibrations that correspond to the most common display technologies, including LED. It can measure the display while directly attached to it, or when positioned some distance away (either for projectors or to take into account room light falling on the display). In the latter instance, a small laser pointer built into the underside enables precise aiming.

Its sensor is designed to be particularly adept at measuring deep blacks, and the use of glass colour filters internally, rather than plastic, means the filters should be less susceptible to fading over time. To help ensure consistent measurements, the Discus tracks its internal temperature and applies a calibration adjustment based on that; Koch says this gives the unit an operating range, without measurement deviation, of 10C to 50C.

The Discus can also measure ambient light. A wheel on the measuring side of the unit can be twirled between three positions: closed, open or open with the ambient light dome over the sensor.

The Photokina show floor is a lousy environment in which to try and evaluate how well a monitor has been calibrated and profiled, so we can't say if the Discus' results live up to its impressive engineering. Given Koch's history and credibility in the world of colour, however, there's reason to be optimistic that the Discus will work as advertised.

The BasICC Discus is slated to ship in the first week of December. Final pricing has not been set, but it's expected to land in the U.S. at a street price of around US$1100-1200. This will be for the colorimeter only. A bundle comprised of the Discus and a one-seat license of BasICColor Display may also emerge, possibly for US$100-125 more than the Discus by itself. An SDK has been developed that enables monitor calibration and profile software makers to incorporate Discus support into their products.

i1Profiler

X-Rite showed off their upcoming i1Profiler software for the first time at Photokina 2010. i1Profiler is the replacement for Eye-One Match, ProfileMaker and MonacoProfiler, amalgamating features from each as well as adding new capabilities into an interface that's also new.

At a press conference, X-Rite talked about the upgrade paths and pricing for owners of one of the existing packages, but the information was given under NDA so we can't yet talk about how you get from the GretagMacbeth or X-Rite or Monaco product you have now to i1Profiler, or what i1Profiler packages there will be.

What can be said is that the new interface looks good, with both basic and advanced paths though the profile creation process. While there are minor tweaks in monitor calibration and profiling, including wider support for DDC-controllable displays than Eye-One Match has, the bulk of X-Rite's efforts have been directed towards RGB and CMYK printer profiling, with an emphasis on iterative target creation and lots of control over the number of patches generated. An example print comparing ProfileMaker with i1Profiler printer profiles showed subtle but noticeable improvements in dark tone transitions.

X-Rite is planning to ship i1Profiler before the end of the year.

Datacolor SpyderCheckr

Datacolor's answer to the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport is the SpyderCheckr, a set of two 24-patch colour targets plus a grey target, enclosed in a folding book-style case, plus Mac and Windows software that generates camera profiles for use in Adobe RAW converters. The case includes a 1/4-20 tripod mounting socket.

The SpyderCheckr is to ship October 15 at a manufacturer's suggested retail price of US$129 in the U.S., or US$169 in a SpyderCheckrPro bundle comprised of the SpyderCheckr and SpyderCube white balance accessory.

Lensbaby Tilt Transformer

The latest variation on the Lensbaby concept is the Tilt Transformer, a tilting and twisting adapter that enables Nikon F-mount lenses to be attached to Panasonic Lumix G, Olympus Pen or Sony NEX cameras. The example photos being shown by Lensbaby at Photokina look great, very sharp where they're meant to be and very soft everywhere else.

The Tilt Transformer for Panasonic Lumix G and Olympus Pen is shipping now for US$250 when ordered direct from the company in the U.S. The Sony NEX version is slated for release on October 28.
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