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If I told you there was a country that measured its well being by Gross National Happiness, wouldn’t you want to go? I was intrigued. Where was this country, and just how remote was it? I’ve traveled to nearly 80 countries on assignments and workshops; could there still be a country relatively untouched, with pristine unclimbed mountains and secluded monasteries perched on cliffs? The answer is yes.

After 22 hours of flying, I finally landed in the high altitude atmosphere of Paro, Bhutan. Bhutan is easily overlooked. About the size of Maryland, located just north of India and south of China, Bhutan has a population of 750,000. By comparison, the US has a population of approximately 325,000,000. Bordered by the mighty Himalayas to the north, most land travel comes from the south through India. A narrow, airy road system weaves through the rugged mountains connecting the small towns of Bhutan. Due to its remoteness, and tight regulations on tourism, Bhutan still retains much of its character and culture. Buddhism is prevalent throughout the country, and fortress-like Dzongs are iconic centerpieces of Bhutanese life. The people are friendly, peaceful and very content.
On a trip organized by Strabo Tours, I came to Bhutan with some friends to explore this remote country. I had been to Nepal on mountaineering expeditions, and heard from climbers Bhutan was like Nepal used to be before becoming so popular (Bhutan does not allow mountaineering). While I wanted to see the mountains, I was dying to photograph the monks and local people. I envisioned portraits of monks against payer flags, in the woods, and along the trail. The more I researched it, the more Bhutanese culture seemed almost mythical. I imagined monks studying and praying in remote monasteries located high in the misty Himalayan mountains. It sounded like a Hollywood movie backdrop.

For years I have brought my ELB 400 and Quadras with me for travel portraits. These lightweight packs provide plenty of power to use large softboxes, and recycle quickly so I don’t make my subjects wait for the next shot. But then the ELB 500 came out with TTL and HSS. I knew my travel portraits had just taken a monumental leap forward. Bhutan would be the first test.
There was a language barrier to overcome, but our local guide did a terrific job of conveying our intentions. We found subjects through random encounters in towns and on the trail. Other times our guide knew locals and monks who were happy to help out. I can’t stress enough how having a good guide is critical in arranging unique photo opportunities.

My first portraits using the ELB 500 were of one of our guides. We were visiting a local temple, and the courtyard was a perfect location for an environment portrait. I was using my 35mm 1.4 lens, and wanted to shoot at F1.4 to blur the background. This meant shooting at 1/1600, but using the EL-Skyport Pro, HSS worked like a charm. Even more impressive, I was using the 53” Octa Rotalux softbox, which needs a lot of power to illuminate a subject in midday light. Even using TTL, the ELB 500 had plenty of power for the job.
The number one shot on my shooting checklist was creating a portrait of a monk. Not just a snapshot, but an image that really captured the peaceful, friendly nature of these monks. About a week into my trip this became a reality when our guide arranged to have some local monks come visit with us and pose for photographs. These monks were young, and they were excited and interested in what we were doing. We had scouted a location that required some hiking to get there, but I wasn’t concerned about weight. The ELB 500 is so light and compact you hardly notice it. What really surprised me was the monks just picked up the ELB 500 and Octa and started hiking up the trail. I just laughed out loud watching my gear go up the trail with four monks…like this happens everyday!
We started shooting on a path near some old buildings, and the sky let loose. Rain starting falling, lightly at first, and then the downpour really hit. We just kept shooting through the rain until we all needed to take cover because we were getting soaked. This was about as wet as I have been using a strobe, but the ELB 500 just kept on firing. The new design and clear cover really made a difference keeping the pack dry. One of my favorite portraits came from this session. A monk just patiently smiled for a portrait as the rain fell; he seemed totally unfazed by the weather. Raindrops rendered in the final image adding a nice atmospheric element.

Lighting is critical for any portrait. While available light works in some situations, being able to create beautiful soft light no matter what the conditions is what brings my work to the next level. Photographing monks in available light while standing in a rainstorm would have produced flat, drab images. By using my ELB 500, I could underexpose the background for a moody effect, and light my subject to render beautiful skin tones and vibrant colors. Strobe brings my subjects to life, and creates separation from the background, important with environment portraits.
I have to admit when TTL was introduced into studio strobes, I wasn’t that interested. I always used manual flash, and reserved TTL flash shooting for speedlights and quick moving situations. But shooting in this rainstorm made me a believer. We needed to move quickly between locations, and didn’t have time to meter each new shot. Using TTL mode with the ELB 500, we moved from one location to the next, and didn’t worry about changing distances between our flash and subject. TTL flash mode consistently produced the correct flash exposure, very useful for this fluid portrait session. I continued to shoot in TTL mode for the entire trip, and have really become a believer in TTL strobe flash.
Near the end of our trip we were returning through Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Early in the trip we had stayed here a few days, and found this amazing cluster of colorful prayer flags blowing on a mountainside above town. I dreamt about being able to do a portrait here, but high winds and remoteness made this more fantasy than reality. Or was it? Our guide heard us talking about how fantastic it would be to shoot in the prayer flags, and he said he had a friend in town who would be happy to model for us. After figuring out some logistics, we set up a quick shoot in the prayer flags. Incredibly, when we arrived there was very little wind, and our model was ready to go. I really wanted to create a portrait that showed her in a sea of prayer flags, so I positioned her behind a few lines of flags. Using the ELB 500 in TTL mode along with the 53” Octa, we were able to create some beautiful images. And right on cue, as we were breaking down the gear, the wind started howling. Ten minutes later we couldn’t have set up the Octa.

After another epic flight home…stops in Calcutta, Bangkok, Hong Kong, San Francisco and finally Denver, I’m still recovering from jetlag. I might add that the ELB 500 travels great. I just put the pack and head in a small roller bag along with my camera gear, and brought it on the plane. I didn’t have any issues with security or bringing it onboard.
The ELB 500 made me a believer in TTL this trip, and just how durable this pack is. We shot for hours in rainstorms and high winds without missing a shot. The battery on this pack just goes on and on, and I never depleted the battery past 50 percent during the day. This will be my go-to pack on all my future travels.

I’m still daydreaming about Bhutan, but next week I go to Romania. This country is also in a time warp, loaded with pastoral scenes and friendly locals. I haven’t decided on what lenses to bring, but I know one piece of gear that is going with me; the ELB 500.
  • ELB 500 TTL Dual To Go Kit

    $2,124.95More infoAdd to cart

    ELB 500 TTL Dual To Go Kit

    EL10310.1

    The Elinchrom ELB 500 TTL Dual To Go Kit is supplied with two flash heads. This kit is the ideal way to take full advantage of the ELB 500 TTL's fully asymmetric power distribution. Other features include High Speed Sync, Active Charging, and built-in Skyport compatibility.


    The Power and Performance of 500 ws in an incredibly portable package.


    The ELB 500 TTL is powerful enough to overpower the sun, delivers 400 full power flashes on a single charge and has a fast recycling time of 2 seconds at max power. All in a package that weighs just 8 Lbs including the battery and head.

    $2,124.95
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  • Elinchrom Skyport Transmitter Pro for Nikon

    $249.95More infoAdd to cart

    Elinchrom Skyport Transmitter Pro for Nikon

    EL19367

    EL-Skyport Transmitter Plus HS dedicated to Nikon. Features include a large graphic control display, fast access buttons and rotating wheel for easy control, hi-sync functionality, 40 remote channels, a mini-usb port for firmware updates, and more.

    $249.95
    QTY
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  • Rotalux Octabox 135 cm (53")

    $289.95More infoAdd to cart

    Rotalux Octabox 135 cm (53")

    EL26647

    Very popular among beauty and fashion photographers, as they prefer the round catchlight given by this softbox. When using Elinchrom Lights you can make yourself a great folding beauty dish just by removing the front and inner diffusers and adding one of the optional deflectors avialable in the popular Elinchrom deflector kit.

    Another innovative feature which distinguishes Elinchrom softboxes from others is the lightweight dedicated speedring, which utilizes knurled, spring-action sockets to connect the stainless rods which form the frame of the box, to the ring. This allows easy assembly of the box in a de-tensioned state. The user then simply pivots the sockets 90 degrees until they lock into place to tension it for use. The 53" (135 cm) Octa shape features a large surface area which renders a "wrap-around" light quality especially when used at close range. It is ideal for shooting portraiture or fashion.


    Shape

    The 53" (135 cm) Octa shape is ideal for head-and-shoulders portraiture for a group of people, as a hairlight for groups or for reflective products and glassware.

    Quick Setup, Breakdown

    Lightweight, dedicated speedrings utilize knurled, spring-action sockets to connect the 8 stainless rods which form the frame of the box.

    Storage

    Fits assembled but de-tensioned in the included case, ready to set up again in seconds.

    $289.95
    QTY
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  • Elinchrom Q-Reflector Adapter MK-II

    $99.00More infoAdd to cart

    Elinchrom Q-Reflector Adapter MK-II

    EL26342

    Enables photographers to use any accessory of the Elinchrom range such as Rotalux and Litemotiv softoxes or any other EL accessory on the Quadra flash heads.

    Beware when using heavier third-party accessories, as these might put stress on the Quadra Reflector Adapter MK-II.

    $99.00
    QTY
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  • EL-Boom Arm 63-156cm

    $50.99More infoAdd to cart

    EL-Boom Arm 63-156cm

    EL31049

    This boom arm with rubberized hand-grips is a comfortable way to hold lighting gear over the subject to provide an overhead light. The profiled extension tube avoids heads rotating around even when used with a softbox. The two sections can be quickly adjusted with the clip-locks.

    $50.99
    QTY
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  • Rotalux Speedring for Elinchrom

    $54.95More infoAdd to cart

    Rotalux Speedring for Elinchrom

    EL26343

    New Elinchrom Rotalux speedring for Elinchrom lights with improved mechanical rod mounts built to withstand more stress even when bigger boxes are assembled and disassembled, color coding for mounting square, rectangular and strip boxes. One ring for all 11 Elinchrom Rotalux softboxes. The blue and red color marks will indicate and help how to setup square / recta and strip shaped Rotalux softboxes.

    $54.95
    QTY
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