Becoming a photographer was pretty much the last thing on my mind until February 2008.
Knowing virtually nothing about photography, I started taking pictures of everyone and everything, learning as much as would sink in with every outing and reading as much as possible in every publication I could find. Before long the bug had bitten and I started to see the improvements as I became more aware of what I should and should not be doing. Over the last year, having invested in the right kit and learning from my mistakes as well as listening to photographers whose work I could see was of a good standard, I've managed to develop my own style and am now shooting the sort of images that I want to shoot on a regular basis
The one big lesson that stands out for me above all the others, and one that was learned the hard way for me personally, is that good lighting is key in photography. Good lighting will not make a bad photograph good, but it can turn a good photograph into a great one. Lighting is the one thing in the type of photography that I shoot that separates the mundane and the cliché from the truly inspiring and brilliant. I now shoot using a Mamiya RZ 67 Pro II and use various lights ranging from flash guns through to the Lencarta Safari heads, mixing and matching as the situation dictates but always trying to create the wow factor.
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The Lencarta Safari
A couple of months ago I decided it was time to step up from just using flash guns on location and buy some proper portable lighting. Looking around on the internet at things like the Bowens and Elinchrom kits I was appalled at the price and pretty much gave up hope until a couple of days later, flicking through one of my many photography magazines I came across an advert for Lencarta and in particular, their Safari portable lighting solution. I checked their website, which to be honest is very well put together and has lots of relevant information easily to hand, and was surprised to find out just how affordable their kit is. Rather than just jumping in and buying straight away I thought I should do some research first as things that sound too good to be true usually are.
My first port of call was to ring the company and start digging around for answers, so when I rang and a very helpful man called Garry Edwards answered the phone and not only answered all of my questions but also went into great detail to explain all of the "whats and whys", not only showing that his knowledge of the kit is second to none but also that he very obviously knows his way around a camera, I was again pleasantly surprised. Usually when you ring these places, you get someone who is only there because it's a job and most have never touched a camera and have next to no subject matter knowledge. So at this point, it was a big thumbs up for Lencarta.
I then had a look around on the internet forums for any reviews by people that had actually bought the kit to see what they thought of it as there is nothing like real first hand experience to find out if a company is living up to their claims. After reading them thoroughly I realised that I might actually be onto something here as none of them had a bad word against the products or the service from Lencarta.
A couple of days later I placed my order for a 600 Ws Safari Head, the power pack, an umbrella fitting reflector and a four foot octa soft box. It arrived on my doorstep two days later and I got to work unwrapping it straight away.
On opening the boxes, I realised that the reflector had not been included so I rang Lencarta and they promptly shipped me one out. As far as I am aware, the distribution chain that they use had forgotten to put it in the box, and whilst initially I was a little annoyed that it hadn't been packed with everything else, I did realise that this was due to the distribution company and not Lencarta. The reflector arrived a couple of days later so it wasn't exactly a big problem.
Here's what came in the box:
1 x battery
1 x power pack (the battery slots into the power pack and is interchangeable)
1 x 600Ws flash head with a protective hood
1x hard carry case
1 x charger with attachments for British and European sockets
1 x sync cable and associated cables.The soft box arrived at the same time in its own parcel.
Then there is Elinchrom. Prices start at £1,122 for two 400Ws Quadra heads and power pack. Again, less power than the Lencarta heads (I know that power isn't everything, but the Lencarta heads more than stand up to the other brands when it comes to consistent colour temperature too) and if you want more power than that from Elinchrom you have to opt for their Ranger series with heads starting at over £500 and the power packs at over £1,000. The last but not least of their serious competitors are Profoto, but their power packs start at around £3,500 so I'm not going to say anymore. All the other brands power packs are claimed to give you around 200 full power flashes where the Lencarta claims 1150 although it doesn't state if that's full power or not, but I'll come onto that shortly and I now have no reason to disbelieve their claims. So to put it simply, what you get from Lencarta is amazing value for money.
When I took the Safari head out of the box, it felt lightweight but reassuringly solid with the body made from sheet steel and the attached cable thick enough to hang a battle ship. The head takes any accessory with a 'S' type fitting. The one weak point that I could find was the attachment release slider. This is made of plastic and is quite loose fitting, however it is not responsible for holding any weight and it's operation is smooth and easy so I have no worries about it breaking. The power pack has it's own carry case with fitted foam and a slot for the Safari ring flash. For normal heads they sell a carry bag, but with 30 seconds and a Stanley knife, the ring flash slot now snugly fits my Safari head. The power pack and battery are also incredibly well made and solid whilst being light enough not to pull a muscle when you pick them up.
The soft box that I bought is the standard type that you have to build up and with hindsight, I really should have bought the folding umbrella type as trying to build a soft box on location with any wind at all soon becomes quite a difficult job. The soft box is actually well made but this type is designed to be used in the studio. The folding type is the one for location work.
The charger is lightweight and not particularly solid, but then, it doesn't need to be as it will never be outside and in fairness, it's not a flimsy little thing either. When I plugged the power pack in with the battery fitted, it charged to full in under two hours. Basically, you can tell where Lencarta have saved money, and it's on all the little things that are likely never to go wrong anyway, and if they ever did would be very cheap to replace. All the components are also user changeable and inexpensive. All the important bits that will be used frequently and may take a few knocks are very well made and with a very usable power output of 600Ws, Lencarta have shown a lot of common sense and forward thinking, which unfortunately is not a common thing in today's market. Again, well done Lencarta. On location:
On location, the Safari kit is a joy to use. It's light enough to be easily portable, tough enough to stand up to the demands of the job and powerful enough to use anywhere, anytime. Setting up and operating the kit is a doddle and anyone who is remotely familiar with any flash system will find this incredibly simple, which is probably why there are no instructions included in the box, although they can be downloaded from the Lencarta website.
Here is a rundown of a recent shoot to demonstrate what these lights are capable of. Please click on an image to see a larger version.
In this image, the Safari head was placed to camera right at a distance of around five meters (or just over sixteen feet in old money) with a standard reflector fitted. At below full power, this was giving me a shooting aperture of f/18 which is ample for most things. If I had cranked it up to full power I suspect I could have got f/22 at this distance. Bear in mind that this was shot at about five o'clock in the afternoon, mid summer with temperatures in excess of 32°C. We all know that bright sunlight eats away at flash power so this is quite an accomplishment.
The image below again shows the power of these lights, again shot at f/18 and with the light nowhere near the edge of the frame. You will have to excuse the difference in picture format and colour as they were shot on two different cameras. The squarer images were shot on 6x7cm film and the more rectangular were shot on a Nikon D200. The difference seen here is one of the reasons why I love shooting MF film over a crop sensor body. But that's getting away from the point. What this has established is that these lights are plenty powerful and in the second image I used a Nikon SB 28 to fill in the hair from behind, so it's easy to mix the Safari with other light sources.
As the day progressed we moved to a new location and because the natural light was getting softer, it was time to fit the soft box. The following shot was taken at around eight in the evening, and remember that a soft box of this size eats a good couple of stops of light. Here the soft box and light were about fifteen to twenty feet away (a little vague but I didn't have a tape measure) and the natural light, whilst not being as strong as earlier in the day was still pretty bright. At this distance with the soft box fitted and the light at almost full power, I was getting a shooting aperture of f/10, which is still more than acceptable.
This is shot with an 18mm lens on my D200 and as you can see once more, the light is no where near the edge of the frame. The soft box was raised to around ten feet and angled down, and with the exception of the natural light, is the only light source used.
By the time this part of the shoot was finished, the light was starting to turn a nice subtle gold in the sky so we decided to go for something a little moodier. Luckily the location we were shooting at had just the spot.
In the following shot, below right, the soft box was placed a little further away than in the previous shot (maybe twenty to twenty five feet) with the light again, at not quite full power and was still giving a working aperture of f/10. The quality of light from the safari head with the soft box fitted is beautiful, and here we were lucky enough to get the failing light to just kiss the top of the models head, helping to lift it subtly from the shadows.
The last shot of the day (below) came just after the sun had dipped below the horizon, not quite having no light, but certainly last light and with all the colour in the sky just a memory. With the lack of sun, the effect is that less light gets eaten and in this shot, with the light at the same setting as before, I was able to get f/10 from about 30 feet away and just dropped the shutter to around half a second to catch the ambient light that still existed, with the flash freezing any small movement by the model. This is with the soft box fitted remember, and I think if you had a reflector fitted at this distance and time, you would probably be pushing f/22 or more.
Now I am by no means a great photographer and nor do I claim to know everything there is to know, but one thing that I do know is that by using the Lencarta Safari lights, I no longer have to worry about having enough power when I want to shoot either wide or at a distance and nor do I have to worry about spending time fiddling around trying to push the lights to their limit just to get a shot, which was a frequent problem when I was using a flash gun as my main light source. Another thing that I don't have to worry about is running out of power. With power packs from other makers offering around 200 flashes, I probably wouldn't have got past the first part of the afternoons shoot, but with the Lencarta head and power pack, I shot from around half past four in the afternoon, all the way through until half past nine in the evening and the charge indicator on the power pack hadn't moved from the full power indicator, meaning there was still more than plenty of charge left. I think I should point out that I do not work for Lencarta and I am in no way affiliated with them. I paid for these lights out of my own pocket and was so impressed with them that I thought I should let people know just how good they are.
My next major use of the Lencarta Safari was on a training day which I ran for a group of other photographers. As you can see, it was a pretty ambitious setup, using the Lencarta to overpower the daylight and draw the eye to the subject, as well as to control the lighting direction etc.
The one problem we had was that the light, perched on its stand about 9' in the air, got knocked over a few times. The first couple of times this happened the flash tube popped out and I was convinced it would be broken but no, finding it on the grass and popping it back into place solved the problem!
The light had a couple of other knocks throughout the day and survived all of them with no trouble at all. Now I am usually very careful with my kit and this sort of stuff doesn't usually happen, and whilst I was a little annoyed that I'd forgotten to take precautions against it being blown over, I am utterly amazed at just how tough these lights are. We also managed to run the battery down to the low power beep but there were seven photographers, each taking well over 100 shots each with the light cranked right up to full power before it started beeping. The claimed 1150 shots is now more than believable as we got very close to that number, and every single shot at full power. This light and battery are still throwing up pleasant surprises every time I use them.
The overall build quality is very good. On a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being rubbish and 10 being a Challenger II tank, I would rate this at around 8.5. So very, very good.
Ease of use
If you have used studio flash before, this is even easier. If you have no experience of flash heads, you should be able to find your way around it easily enough, though there are no instructions included.
Value for money
Given that the closest competitor will charge at least double this price for a similar set up, the value for money is superb.
Would I recommend it to a friend?
Price is great.
Performance is great.
Very tough and well built.
Easily man potable.
Who do I feel the Safari is aimed at?
Most certainly at the Semi Pro and Pro on a budget market but easy and affordable enough for most people to buy without having to save until they're dead for it and easily to the standard required by a full time pro.
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