I began my search for the “perfect strobe” about three years ago when the most prominent brands such as Profoto, Elinchrom, Broncolor, Hensel, and Paul C. Buff were at the top of my list of potential options. I was primarily a Leica M9 shooter in those days but I did own a Sony NEX-5 as a backup to my M’s, as well as, a Sony A77mkI DSLT and a Panasonic G1 Micro 4/3 camera for telephoto and travel photography.
Later within that same year (2013 for those without the best memory), the camera world would be shaken in a sense by Sony releasing a groundbreaking series of Full Frame (FF) mirrorless cameras (in 35mm terms). Many photographers were taken with an extreme interest in the possibility of what these cameras would mean for the industry. For the first time in modern history, a FF camera that was much smaller than what traditional DSLR manufacturers such as Canon or Nikon was available to the masses at a price many photographers could realistically afford without going into debt. This is in contrast to the pricing of what is technically the first mirrorless FF camera, the Leica M9. After being on the market for nearly seven (7) years, that camera sells used in great condition for about the same price of a new Sony A7RII as of writing. I won’t argue the technical specs of each camera - there are plenty of places on the internet that do more than enough of that for us all. I will say that my time with the M9 was special. Being a digital rangefinder camera, it is unlike many other cameras on the market. So how did lead this (mostly) self-taught serious hobbyist become much more passionate about photography to the point of deciding to adopt a very expensive system like the Leica M in general? I used the Leica M almost exclusively as my primary system camera for nearly five years before making the decision to surrender 100% (for my primary digital system) to the Sony FE, which is their FF E-mount system. The decision wasn’t necessarily easy as I was giving up simplicity and arguably the world’s finest 35mm based lenses to go to a system made by a company that is likely better known for the Playstation and their home electronics. The simple answer is the decision was 100% a logic-based one that eliminated the subjective emotional factors. The added flexibility that the Sony provided allowed me to sell both my DSLT and the Leica M, and pair everything down to my film cameras, my Sony FE/E-mount cameras, and the Micro 4/3 camera that remains.
Returning to the discussion of strobes, I quickly found that the off-camera lighting options that worked natively and completely with Sony cameras equipped with their Multi-Interface Shoe were extremely limited a few years ago. Who could blame the lighting companies completely though… Sony did have a somewhat erratic track record of technology development and long-term product support. In those days our options were mostly limited to Sony branded Speedlights. The problem was that we were limited to optical slaving only without radio slave options to control or fire the lights. There were many workarounds found and developed during the last few years using reverse engineered products coming from various Chinese manufacturers… This wasn’t really a proper solution for me and did not represent what I was comfortable with investing my hard earned money into personally.
Today the landscape of off-camera flash options is much different with many of the big time photographic lighting starting to fully embrace and support the Sony ecosystem. There are monolight strobes and speedlight solutions from makers such as Profoto, Broncolor, Elinchrom, Godox, Phottix, Nissin, and of course Sony. This increased support may have something to do with many professionals beginning to integrate Sony into their professional kits, professionals and hobbyists buying them for personal use, the flexibility that the Sony FE provides to operate as a “FF 35mm Digital Back” for lenses of long forgotten camera systems, and the ability to use Canon lenses in near-native capacity with autofocus adapters such as the Metabones lens smart adapters or the Sigma MC-11.
Enter the Priolite system. It was founded by a group of former engineers that previously worked for Hensel, another premium German photographic lighting company. I first heard about Priolite approximately a year ago when they released their HotSync Controller for Pentax branded cameras. This was a huge deal in the industry as the Pentax 645 digital cameras are one of the few “affordable” Medium Format (MF) options. The problem is that most MF options offer leaf shutter capability within their lenses and the Pentax system does not currently have a wide range of these options. Because Pentax lenses are limited to the 1/125th of a second x-sync speed of the focal plane shutter implemented, this really limited the Pentax 645 digital cameras in a studio or on location settings when shooting at larger apertures without very strong ND filters.
I began gathering additional information on the different Priolite options, which are divided between the regular MBX line and the MBX HotSync (HS) lines. Priolite currently offers HotSync controllers for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and now Sony as well. Once the Sony controller was released I placed my name on the list to test as soon as a test kit was available. Since I was a Sony shooter, my criteria for investment into a strobe system were as follows:
1) The light must be natively compatible with Sony cameras with the MIS hotshoe.
2) The light must have a secure mount with no loss of modifier options when compared to the competition.
3) The light must be able to sync up to 1/8000 of a second.
4) The light must be able to provide at least 500w/s of power.
5) The light must be able to be used on location or in an indoors “studio” type setting.
6) The light must be of high quality in build material and after-sales support.
7) The light must be easy to use without extremely complicated menus.
All of the lights are battery powered but they can also be plugged into a wall and charged while in use. They implement the Priolite Universal Light Modifier Mount which can accept Priolite modifiers, most Hensel modifiers, Bowens S-type modifiers, and even Profoto modifiers can be used when using the relatively newly created Profoto adapter. The Profoto adapter does not retain the “zooming” ability that makes Profoto lighting very popular with many but it is nice to know that one is able to rent Profoto modifiers while traveling so that all a location photographer would have to bring are their camera, lenses, and lights in order to hit the ground running. The Priolite MBX/MBX-HS lights are available in 300w/s, 500w/s, and 1000w/s varieties. The normal MBX line allows one to sync up to your camera’s maximum x-sync speed, which is usually a maximum of 1/250 of a second for focal plane shutters and up to 1/2000 of a second for leaf shutters on MF and some high-end advanced point and shoot (P&S) cameras. The non-HS line of MBX lights has a faster flash duration in comparison to the HS line which is ideal for leaf shutters. The MBX-HS lights are designed specifically to enhance the abilities of 35mm focal plane shutter cameras to be able to sync above x-sync speeds at all available power levels and ANY shutter speed available on the camera up to 1/8000 of a second. The MBX-HS lights have a longer flash duration compared to the non-HotSync MBX lights. This happens because the bi-directional HotSync controller automatically optimizes the timing of when the flash occurs when you engage the shutter to ensure that the subject is properly and fully illuminated. The HotSync controller is pretty straightforward. You can control up to four (4) groups of lights and have up to nine (9) lights in each group. The controller is responsive to inputs and has direct controls to all of the necessary functions. The controller also can operate light up to 1000ft (300m for the metric crowd) away and uses three (3) standard AA sized batteries that are available pretty much anywhere. The HotSync ability of the Priolite Strobe System is a huge difference compared to many IGBT based strobes that offer their “action stopping” high-speed shutter sync (HSS) capability at lowered power settings but not necessarily at higher output power. Often times this is relegated to the bottom 1/4-1/2 or 25-50% of the total possible power of the strobes. Since the Priolite lights are able to be synced at any power setting and shutter speed, you are able to shoot at wider apertures without the need to use ND filters. One could also shoot on location more easily to overpower the sun if using the 500w/s or 1000w/s units in the partial or full sun. That’s not to say that IGBT is bad or worse - it’s simply different technology and for the way I shoot, HotSync is a superior option. I wouldn’t buy a 500w/s or 1000w/s unit to be stuck shooting at 125-250w/s as a maximum power level to sync at “action stopping” speeds… Speaking of which, there are currently no other 1000w/s battery-powered monolight options on the market available from ANY other manufacturer at the time of this writing.
Priolite is the company, that’s been underneath my nose for the last year or so, that’s making a product that gave me huge check marks across all of my requirements. Just like that… I’ve finally found my lights. I will get and kick the sarcastic elephant out of the room that will eventually get asked - no the Priolite MBX/MBX-HS do not currently offer TTL capability, I’m unsure of the ability to add it through some sort of firmware update, and no I do not believe that the lack of TTL is a deal breaker for me. Priolite MBX/MBX-HS are marketed towards professional photographers and the more advanced hobbyist crowd that generally will meter the light manually for more control of creative effects. This is not to say that TTL does not have its uses - TTL does, in fact, have its uses, can be helpful for many, or is a desirable bonus feature for most people with it included in their lighting choices, but it may not be as critical for most people as competitive marketing seems to suggest these days. If one understands the “Exposure Triangle” and exposure values then one can sort of guesstimate a good starting point and adjust output or camera settings from there… The other option (and this is probably the logical approach when working with multiple lights) is to buy a light meter such as one from Sekonic, Gossen, Hensel, or Lumu that measures incident and flash lighting. There are plenty of options to choose from these days.
In use, the Priolite MBX500HS was extremely easy to use. I unpacked it from the Pelican case, attached the stand adapter to the lighting rail, placed the light on the stand, removed the frosted dome cover, mounted a modifier onto the light, turned on the master power switch on the back of the light, as well as, the power on the controller. The lights and controller synced their power levels and I was ready to shoot once my tethered connection in Capture One was ready to go. The 500w/s monolights have a five (5) stop range while the 1000w/s monolights have a six (6) stop range. I placed a few sample shots below.
You can sign up to test Priolite MBX HotSync Strobes here.
You can purchase Priolite MBX/MBX-HS here.