RobGalbraith.com
Go to advertiser website.
     Home
     RSS
     CF/SD/XQD
     About
     Contact
Go
Go to advertiser website.
 
Stopping action with the Paul C. Buff Einstein 640 monolight - Continued
Surprising CyberSync

First, a disclosure: we're biased in favour of PocketWizard. Not because LPA Design is paying us to be. No, the bias is way worse than that. A deep distrust of wireless systems other than PocketWizard comes from being burned to the ground by non-PocketWizard equipment in year's past and, in more recent times, witnessing significant non-PocketWizard failures in the course of training photographers who had invested in cheap wireless gear.

PocketWizard wireless had its fair share of triggering problems in 2009, owing to the RF noise put out by certain Canon Speedlites within the PocketWizard frequency band. It hasn't shaken our belief that LPA Design is still the outfit most likely to deliver near-100% reliable wireless triggering going forward, based on the company's strong track record over time. Particularly for sports and other longer range applications where the transmitter to receiver distance can be 150ft/45.7m or more.

But not with the Einstein 640. Not yet, anyway. The Einsteins being manufactured today emit RF noise at U.S./Canada PocketWizard frequencies, enough to limit range to less than 100ft/30.5m in line of sight testing. In real world use, reliable triggering tops out at perhaps 50ft/15.2m. The Einstein 640s we're using limit PocketWizard range even further, as they were built before Paul C. Buff implemented the first of two planned range-improving modifications.

The photo below shows a PocketWizard MultiMAX's Noise Sniffer activated and measuring a peak noise value of 69, which is high enough to drag real world working range down to roughly 30ft/9.1m.

Keep it Down: A PocketWizard MultiMAX in Noise Sniffer mode showing high RF noise levels at U.S./Canada PocketWizard frequencies (340-354MHz). The CE PocketWizard band, 433-434MHz, is slightly less affected by Einstein RF emissions. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Units being built now aren't this PocketWizard RF noisy, but as mentioned, they're still restricting PocketWizards to a fraction of the range they're capable of. Using a several-foot-long sync cord, with an RF noise absorbing ferrite choke on it, provides only a slight range boost.

Company founder Paul Buff indicates that a complete PocketWizard RF noise fix for the Einstein 640 is in development and will be rolled into newly-built units as soon as the second half of August 2010. Buff indicates that starting around the same time or perhaps a bit later, Einstein 640 owners who are concerned about PocketWizard range can begin sending in their units to be retrofitted with the noise fix.

LPA Design and Paul C. Buff have cooperated to develop the necessary corrections, ones that should push real world PocketWizard range to several hundred feet or more when connected to an Einstein 640. This is expected to be true with either an existing PocketWizard like the Plus II plugged into the flash's sync jack or the upcoming PowerMC2 module in the Einstein's transceiver slot.

Note: Other hardware changes are also in the works and should be ready at about the same time as the PocketWizard-related fix. More information about that is coming later in the article.

Because it hasn't been practical to trigger our Einstein 640s with PocketWizards, we've given the Paul C. Buff CyberSync system more of a workout than anticipated. In fact, it's all we've used once we figured out that PocketWizard range was going to be unusably short, especially with the Einsteins we have. This has been an eye-opener, since CyberSync has proven impressively reliable at up to moderate distances.

The CyberSync system is comprised of several receiver, transceiver, transmitter and remote power control pieces. CyberSync's crown jewel is the Cyber Commander, a transceiver device that provides full remote adjustment of the Einstein 640. Setting the power level, modeling light behaviour, operating mode (Action or Color) and turning the unit on or off, all this is possible with the Cyber Commander.

We're not going to review this part of the CyberSync system - that's planned for a future article. Instead, we're going back to basics to relate our experience with the range and reliability of the CST Transmitter + CSXCV Transceiver pairing.

Open in new window
Open in new window
Fired Up: The CyberSync CST Transmitter and CSXCV Transceiver. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

With the small CST in the hot shoe of the camera, and the even smaller CSXCV in the top slot of the Einstein 640, we've enjoyed near-perfect triggering in the studio, during multiple location portrait sessions, while shooting many of the spinning wheel photos you see in this article and in 1000+ pop trigger testing. This has been true whether making frames one at a time or when motoring along at 9 or 10fps. The CST's signaling interval, specified to be 256s, is as short or shorter than any other wireless triggering device and means that the maximum usable shutter sync speed is often the same as for a wired camera-to-flash link.

What all of this cheerful news has in common is a triggering distance of less than about 60ft/18.3m. Beyond about this distance and the story begins to change. The same wireless pairing was used for the basketball and volleyball practices discussed earlier. During setup, the four Einsteins fired just fine. Trigger distances here range from about 40ft/12.2m to about 150ft/45.7m, so the fact that everything was working a-ok prior to the first practice was encouraging.

During that first practice, however, a couple of wireless problems cropped up. We saw one instance of a flash firing out of sync, resulting in the strange effect you see in the photo below, and a handful of instances of a flash not firing. It was the same flash in the same location each time.

Latecomer: One of the four flashes was triggered later than the others, resulting in the strange effect shown. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

For next day's practice, three changes were made. We deployed a different Einstein at that spot, switched from the CSXCV Transceiver module to the CSRB+ receiver for all four lights and ran them on frequency 9 instead of frequency 5. The outcome was the same, or nearly so. While the late-firing problem didn't repeat, the same light location again didn't fire several times. Out of 540 frames shot over two days of practices, there was one instance of firing out of sync and twelve instances of no firing. All from the same light position, even though the light and wireless gear at that location was changed from the first day to the second.

Statistically, this isn't too bad. But, when compared to PocketWizard's essentially perfect performance in this same venue, year in and year out, including triggering a flash at the same problematic spot (not to mention up to seven others in varying locations around the same gym), this number of misfires from the CyberSync system is not good.

Diagnosing intermittent wireless problems can be extremely difficult. The only thing we could potentially pin the non-firings on was the presence of a nearby Wi-Fi access point. Well, sort of nearby. It's through a large interior window roughly 35ft/10.7m away. But it's far closer to the one problem light location than the other three, which fired reliably.

Both Wi-Fi and the CyberSync system operate within the 2.4GHz band, so it's possible that spikes in activity at this access point caused sporadic triggering interference that led to the misfires. Or not. There's no way of knowing, short of performing sophisticated Wi-Fi network analysis at the gym, and we have neither the equipment nor the expertise to tackle that.

What we did do in response was conduct a series of line of sight trigger tests closer to home, in a manner similar to and a location the same as the various Canon Speedlite - PocketWizard RF noise solution tests we've done over the past year or so.

We were able to test out CyberSync gear plus two other 2.4GHz systems - the Elinchrom Skyport and Profoto Air - and the results were surprising, at least to us. In a nutshell, the CST transmitter to CSXCV transceiver range was solid to about 110ft/33.5m, while at about 90ft/27.4m, the Skyport RX transmitter to receiver working distance was just slightly shorter. The Air Sync pairing managed closer to 200ft/61m.

These numbers are derived from the maximum distance we could record 20 successful firings in a row. In the same test, using U.S./Canada (340-354MHz) PocketWizard MultiMAXes to both send and receive, we were able to reach about 850ft/259.1m and still achieve 20 sequential pops with no misfires. To go further means standing in the middle of a busy intersection, so it's possible that the MultiMAX wasn't yet done. But we couldn't safely test that.

The MultiMAX pairing also fired reliably at various distances up to the maximum. This is where things get strange with all three of the 2.4GHz products. CyberSync fired at up to about 500ft/152.4m away, but between about 110ft/33.5m and about 300ft/91.4m the number of misfires was all over the map, sometimes approaching 20 successful fires and sometimes not coming close, like the edge of the working range was changing from moment to moment.

The Skyport system behaved the same way, only the distances were shorter overall and it wasn't possible to successfully trigger the system even one time beyond about 450ft/137.2m.

The Air Sync transmitter was able to get a signal to the receiver from about 750ft/228.6m, but firing was reduced to every once in awhile at that distance, while it showed the same intermittent firing behaviour as the other two systems when beyond about 300ft/91.4m.

Plus, all three systems would not fire at about 250ft/76.2m when the transmitter was at eye height. The transmitter had to be lower than a nearby fence line for any triggering to occur. In the same spot the MultiMAXes fired just fine, suggesting that whatever the source of wireless interference it was affecting 2.4GHz and not PocketWizard 340-354MHz.

The aerial below gives a visual idea of the working distances we achieved with the four wireless systems tested. Remember, though, the working distance for 2.4GHz systems is likely to fluctuate. What we learned from this testing is that the 2.4GHz signals flying around the neighbourhood, including skimming over top of a neighbour's fence somehow, must be having an impact on triggering reliability with the Paul C. Buff, Elinca and Profoto wireless offerings. And, trying to establish an accurate line of sight maximum range figure for each is difficult if not impossible because of the constantly-changing nature of this interference.

In addition, the CST transmitter - CSXCV transceiver combo actually fared better in the real world confines of the basketball/volleyball gym than in this line of sight test, when our experience with other wireless has consistently been the opposite.

wireless_map.jpg

What can be said, since it has been true of several thousand triggerings, is that CyberSync reliability is excellent up to moderate distances of about 60ft/18.3m, the sort of distances that encompass studio or location portraits and many other standard lighting situations. The reliable range may be much longer than this sometimes, presumably when there aren't too many interfering 2.4GHz devices in the vicinity. But it probably won't be shorter, since CyberSync's ability to overcome such interference looks to be solid to about 60ft/18.3m. Beyond that, our experience suggests that triggering reliability will vary.

If you mostly use lights within about 60ft/18.3m, and you've been weighing, say, PocketWizard Plus IIs vs a combo of CST Transmitter and CSXCV Transceiver for triggering Einsteins, CyberSync appears to be a viable and less costly alternative to the entry-level PocketWizard. If you also need to trigger a camera remotely, including in a relay setup with lights, or you need long working distances, the scales tip back in favour of the Plus II. Once the Einstein 640's PocketWizard RF noise difficulties are sorted out, that is.

The point of this section of the article is not to do a full comparison between CyberSync and PocketWizard. Rather, it's to say that used within its limits, we've been pleasantly surprised to see that the CyberSync system is dependable. But, its reliance on 2.4GHz appears to make CyberSync subject to intermittent interference, most likely because of the sheer number of devices around that use this same frequency. This interference constrains range and sends reliability into a nosedive when trying to use the system beyond moderate trigger distances.

Note: If you own Einstein 640s, PocketWizards and CyberSync gear, Paul C. Buff has written up a clever way to use all three together to get both long range and triggering dependability. We've confirmed that the configuration they describe does work, though our use has been limited to backyard testing so far.

Taking it to 11 with the Dynalite AP1600

The arrival of the Einstein 640 monolight is one of the reasons why 2010 is shaping up to be a good year gear-wise for photographers who shoot indoor sports with flash. It provides very good action stopping capability at 320ws and can completely freeze most any athlete's motion at 80-160ws. Compared to other monolights, there is no comparison. The motion stopping capability of the Einstein is unmatched in this type of flash.

The other reason for sports photographers to celebrate this year is the expected fourth quarter arrival of the Dynalite AP1600. This 1600ws pack, with Dynalite's existing AH4000 (formerly called the 4080SP) bi-tube head attached, picks up where the Einstein 640 leaves off, providing even shorter flash duration at comparable power settings as well a lot more power. It's also heavier and bulkier to transport, it will be more money and is ultimately targeted at photographers who need to light larger venues than the Einstein 640 is designed for.

For us, one doesn't compete with the other, they're for two different types of indoor sports photography. It's useful to briefly compare the two here, though, so you can see how they differ and decide if either or both suit your particular needs.

Open in new window
Open in new window
Old School: A beta unit of the upcoming Dynalite AP1600 sports pack, left, and AH4000 bi-tube head, right. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The Einstein 640 achieves sports-friendly flash duration through the use of IGBT tail trimming circuitry and is rife with modern features such as remote power control and an LCD display screen. The AP1600 is far more old school, but in a good way. To achieve stunningly short flash duration, the AP1600 uses special capacitors created for this purpose and operates at a higher charge voltage than other Dynalite packs.

In our testing, the AP1600 + AH4000 combo is capable of flash duration at 200ws and at 400ws that will freeze just about any athlete. Earlier, we emphasized the Einstein 640 trumps the action stopping ability of other monolights because its IGBT circuitry trims the blurring long tail of light. At 200ws or 400ws, the AP1600 + AH4000's light tail is neither long nor blurring, because the flash tube dims so fast after reaching peak brightness.

The oscilloscope traces and spinning wheel photos show how the Einstein 640 and AP1600 compare at overlapping power settings.

Einstein 640 vs Dynalite AP1600
EinsteinDynaScope
400ws
200ws
EinsteinDyna
Einstein 400ws
AP1600 400ws
Einstein 200ws
AP1600 200ws
The AP1600's design further translates to flash duration at 800ws and 1600ws that is shorter in our testing, on a per-watt/second basis, than Dynalite's current AP2000 sports pack or the stellar Profoto Pro 7a pack + Pro Twin head. What Dynalite has developed is a killer product for big venue sports photographers, or those who toil in any size of venue but want the shortest flash duration they can get.

We've been shooting with beta units of the AP1600 for some time, in conjunction with AH4000 heads, and can attest to the fact that Dynalite's upcoming pack will be an action stopping powerhouse. The small sampling of photos below, shot with a mix of Nikon D3S and D3X cameras, were lit by this combo at 400ws.

Open in new window
Open in new window
Open in new window
Crispy: Photos lit by beta Dynalite AP1600 packs + AH4000 heads. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Beta units also recycle quickly, but not as quickly as final production units will, says Dynalite president Peter Poremba. Those will be capable of roughly a 1.1 second recycle time at 1600ws with one head attached, he says, and quicker still at 800ws, 400ws and 200ws.

The price for the AP1600 is projected to be under US$2000; with an AH4000 bi-tube head and AR-0040 Long Throw Reflector, the total cost per set is to be less than US$3000. We'll have more AP1600 test data and higher power level example photos closer to its release date.

Update, January 4, 2011: The AP1600 and its accessorized twin the SP1600 have been officially unveiled and are available for ordering through Dynalite dealers now.

The full production packs are essentially unchanged from beta units and have the same short flash duration capability, says Dynalite president Peter Poremba. He indicates that internal operating voltage is slightly lower, and that recycle time is slightly faster, relative to our beta fleet, but the real world impact of these differences on flash performance is negligible.

There is a notable change in the AH4000 bi-tube head, however: the length and gauge of the production AH4000's cables is different than our custom-built AH4000s. The production unit's cables reduce the stress on the pack, to enable it to work reliably at higher power levels, says Poremba, though at the expense of a slightly longer - though still impressively short - flash duration.

Because we can't reliably run the beta/custom gear we have at 800ws and 1600ws, the previously-announced plan to capture and show peak action sports pictures and test data at these higher power levels is on hold for now.

To be clear, this restriction applies only to the non-production gear we have. Production AP1600/SP1600 packs and production AH4000 heads are designed to work together at all power settings.

For now, know this: the Einstein 640 delivers the best action stopping capability of any monolight in the 300-640ws power range needed for small to medium size gym and arena sports photography. As a monolight it's fairly compact to transport, quick to set up and take down, can be deployed in tight spaces and is incredibly inexpensive for what it can do.

The AP1600, when teamed up with the AH4000 head, is shaping up to deliver the best action stopping capability, period, at 200ws, 400ws, 800ws or 1600ws. As a pack + head system it's not as easy to travel with as a monolight, you're not going to suspend a set from the rafters of a high school gym and it's also more costly (though in comparison to the very few other short flash duration pack and head combos out there the Dynalite will be a bargain).

Ultimately, shooting partner David Moll and I are ecstatic about being able to use both going forward, for a variety of indoor sports photography at the high school and university level. This is in stark contrast to about three years ago, when he and I were hating the strobe blurry pictures coming from the Elinca Elinchrom Style 600 S system we shared while simultaneously struggling to identify a semi-affordable alternative that could freeze action properly. Things have gone from bleak to rosy with the introduction of the Einstein 640 and soon the AP1600.

Conclusion

It's obvious we really like the Einstein 640. This is primarily because of its action stopping capabilities, but shooting athletes in motion isn't the only thing we do with flash. Its other traits, including colour consistency in Color mode, remote power control and 640ws of power - which is sufficient to light even large groups - make the Einstein 640 arguably the most versatile monolight available. And at a price of US$439.95 in the U.S. right now, rising to US$499.95 sometime in the next few months, the Einstein 640 is a steal at either price.

This flash has launched, however, with two hardware shortcomings. The first affects PocketWizard users only, the second can affect any Einstein 640 owner that switches on the modeling light. The shortcomings are:
  • Internal circuitry that emits significant levels of RF noise at U.S./Canada PocketWizard frequencies. CE PocketWizard frequencies are also affected, though somewhat less so.

  • A modeling light that can produce excessive heat when the flash is angled downward, operated without a reflector attached or with a reflector that has a grid mounted. The Einstein 640 can be damaged if used any of these three ways and the modeling light is set brighter than 125 watts. Customers of Paul C. Buff Europe and Paul C. Buff Australia have been informed that shipments of the Einstein 640 by these subsidiaries have been suspended because of the modeling light problem.
Fixes for both shortcomings are in development. The emitted RF noise doesn't affect CyberSync operation, only PocketWizard and, says Paul Buff, doesn't raise the Einstein's RF noise levels beyond U.S. regulatory limits. It's to the company's credit that they're prepared to make internal hardware changes to address this, given the problem only affects PocketWizard products and not Paul C. Buff's.

An improved airflow system is expected to alleviate the heat buildup caused by the modeling light when used as described above. In addition, the front faceplate and modifier mount mechanism are undergoing a minor redesign, to improve the fit of the faceplate and increase the gripping strength of the mounting fingers.

Once these fixes and refinements are completed the Einstein 640 should be THE flash to buy, with no other monolight on the market providing the same combination of action stopping prowess, versatility and value. The tricky part of any Einstein purchasing decision is really about when, not if. Unless you need an Einstein soon, we recommend that you wait to purchase one until after the dust from the hardware changes has cleared.

Update, October 18, 2010: The revised Einstein, called the Einstein 640 v2, is now shipping. It addresses the key problems with the original Einstein 640 as described above. The Einstein 640 v2 is covered in a separate article.

That said, high demand for the Einstein has kept it perpetually backordered since launch, with the availability situation likely to get worse before it gets better as Paul C. Buff juggles the manufacturing of new units with the reworking of existing ones. Your best bet might be to stay in contact with the company's customer service and judge, based on their guidance, when it's time to order. Note that Paul C. Buff has announced they'll perform the above hardware modifications on any Einstein 640 that needs them for the duration of the warranty period at no charge.
Back to Top: Stopping action with the Paul C. Buff Einstein 640 monolight
Go to Page: 1 2 3 
Go to advertiser website.
2000-2013 Little Guy Media. Not to be reproduced without written permission.