Panasonic LX3 and Elinchrom Coffee Madness

For the first two years of it’s genre, the Ricoh GRD, GX100, and Canon G7 were the top compact cameras in the marketplace. This has changed as camera companies have realized that yes, photographers do want high quality image making ability in the palms of their hands. Currently, the high quality compact camera field includes the Ricoh GX200, Ricoh GRD (II), the Canon G10, the Nikon P6000, and the Panasonic LX3 (we’ll ignore the Leica clone model). Ah, and the Sigma DP1. Many reviews are out on these tools, but I have a will to be weird, so when Matt emails me and says we should test out his new LX3 in my new home studio, I says “Hell Yes” in my heads.

Matt picked up the Panasonic LX3 for an upcoming bike tour in Asia, I just got a studio background system, Matt has a set of Elinchrom Ranger Rx flashes, and I have a new coffee pot and set of vintage coffee cups. The keen reader might be able to guess what’s coming next, but I’m about to tell you so it’s irrelevant. There’s a shot I’ve been replaying in my head for a while, a person trying to sip a bit of coffee as it flies through the air, just out of reach of their lips. This is easy to imagine, but slightly more complicated to realize. You need good lighting, a fast shutter speed to capture the coffee in the air (with tack sharpness) and you need a place to do it. With Matt’s email, I knew all the elements were now in place.

Now, we had other tools to do this shot, I have a Minolta 7D, Matt shoots his professional jobs with a Nikon D300, and we both have access to excellent rental shops in Zurich, where you can get whatever you need from Canon to Mamiya, from Leaf to Phase One. But we wanted to explore the LX3 and see how it works in the studio. Does it make sense to use a $2000 lighting kit with a pocket camera? Hell Yes I says in my heads.

Technical Details

The Elinchrom Ranger system was fired using the Skyport radio trigger system, as the LX3 has a hot shoe, this worked flawlessly. The Ranger RX system has a flash duration around 1/2250 sec. depending on the power setting (according to the Elinchrom specs). This is one reason to use a top-of-the-line lighting kit like the Ranger system over my Strobist-inspired Contax and Metz flashes for capturing coffee in the air. With such a short flash duration, you can freeze moving liquids with super precision. Additionally, we used Matt’s Elinchrom Octa box, which provided beautiful wrap-around lighting – and makes my small Alzo softboxes look like, well, small, inadequate light modifiers (for this application).

The full setup included an Apple Green background, and me kneeling on the floor with a few towels laid down to protect the paper from the incoming coffee splatter (only partially effective). We had a system, Matt counted one….two….three, and at each number I moved….left…..right…..left, and at the same time propelled the coffee cup in the air and tried to catch the flying liquid with my lips. Then I would wipe up all the coffee splatter that missed the towels and had landed instead on my new wood floor. This took a few shots to get the timing down, but after a few tries and two beers we were getting acceptable results. One main difference between DSLRs and compacts is shutter lag and focusing time. To get around these limitations Matt pre-focused and locked the focus on his LX3. This essentially eliminated the shutter lag problem. He shot with a shutter speed of 1/1000 and an f-stop of f/8. There were no problems syncing the flashes at this speed, the Skyport system worked much better than my Chinese radio triggers in this regard (high speed syncing). This of course highlights one reason to use the LX3 instead of a DSLR or a digital back system, theoretical high-speed syncing on the order of 1/2000. Chase Jarvis did something similar in his Kung Fu water droplet tutorial. But you really don’t need a $40,000 camera system to capture liquid in the air. In fact, you’re a tad limited if you do pick the Hasselblad because if you use a $40,000 Hassy system you’re limited by the sync speed of the camera. To work around the shutter sync limitation one would generally decrease the ambient lighting in the studio, open up the shutter of the camera, and then fire the strobes separately to capture the action, and close the shutter. The exposure is then determined by the flash exposure and aperture setting of the lens. This technique requires a bit of preparation for each shot. With the LX3 and it’s high-speed sync abilities combined with short duration Elinchrom strobes, you just point and shoot, which is the whole point in using a point-and-shoot camera. ?You’ll need to fiddle a bit with the strobe power setting and aperture setting on the camera, but it only takes a few seconds. ?In this setting the shutter speed was around 1/600, but a lower speed could have been used as well, the exposure of the scene being dominated by the strobes.

The Results

The combination of studio lighting and the LX3 really surpassed what I was expecting. The light quality produced with the Octabox combined with the short flash duration of the Rangers made it possible to freeze the flying coffee with a texture and definition I was not expecting. When combined with the resolution of the LX3, and it’s superb Leica lens, you get a tack-sharp image with excellent color and dimension. The combination of a small sensor camera with a small aperture also meant sharpness across the image. As the LX3 RAW format is not widely supported, Matt shot in JPEG, which was fine for this application. We’re not planning on blowing these images up to large sizes and the exposure was perfect, so the difference between a RAW and JPEG image in this shoot was fairly minimal.

There’s one thing I’ve learned since I started shooting with a Ricoh GRD a year ago, and is reinforced here: pocket cameras, like all tools have limitations, but when the right light is used, the resulting images can be as jaw dropping as those taken with DSLRs. Lighting and composition are generally more important than megapixels, and it’s one reason why I’ve added more flashes and modifiers to my toolbox instead of a new DSLR (but the Sony A900 is oh, so, so tempting). Still, if you’re getting a pocket camera, it’s good to know it can be used in a variety of situations. Like the Ricoh GRD, the Panasonic LX3 works great in the studio environment. When Matt emailed me about shooting with the LX3 in the studio I was afraid I would be motivated to pick up an LX3, but the experience was worse, because now my eyes are set on the new BXri 250/500 Elinchrom flashes announced at Photokina.

About the photographers:

Matthew Anderson recently moved to Switzerland and is currently engaged in the art of producing beautiful wedding photography and the precision of imagery for commercial clients.

I technically didn’t do much photography here, and was more of an art director, have little of a life and fill the void with photo gear.

9 thoughts on “Panasonic LX3 and Elinchrom Coffee Madness

  1. Tim Broyer says:

    Awesome post!
    I have an LX2 that’s going to have to be upgraded now!


  2. Debbi says:

    Fun shot!

  3. Nevin says:

    The first photo is comedic in a nice tone. Like the texture of the tip of that overspilled coffee too. I own a GX200 and it’s a bliss to use.

    I post photos and write “interesting” (I think so) stuff to the photos on my blog. Hope to see you around.


  4. erica says:

    Flan thinks this is the camera we should get. Do you get a commission:)

  5. Neil Cowley says:

    snort – makes me snort my own coffee!

  6. Since you did link to Chase, I’m surprised you haven’t read his stuff. What freezes motion in a setup like this is not short shutter speeds, but the flash itself. You could accomplish exactly the same result with a shutter speed of say 1/100th as long as your ambient isn’t too strong.

  7. The Editor says:

    Hi Niklas,

    Indeed, you are correct, so long as the flash is over-powering any ambient light, the duration of the flash will no doubt determine how well the motion is frozen. Since I’m in a mood to write, here as some other thoughts on the subject. Depending on how you setup your shot, the freezing of motion can be a combination of all three variables you mentioned above: flash duration, shutter speed, and the strength of the ambient light.

    *If you’re shooting in bright sunlight, you can freeze motion with a high shutter speed without any flash.

    *If you’re shooting in low light with a flash with a short flash duration (as Chase did for the article/video you mentioned, and as we did here) then you can use a low shutter speed (needed because many DSLRs don’t sync over 1/250 to do the shot like taking a normal photo), and a flash with a short flash duration to freeze the motion. This method is the classical method, developed by the late Dr. Harold Eugene Edgerton. It’s very useful for stopping bullets in mid-air and exploding glasses.

    *In this shot, the strobe setup was overpowering the ambient, so the exposure of the image was determined by the flashes lighting the entire subject with an Octabox, and since we wanted to see how fast we could sync the RX system to the LX3, it made sense to use a high shutter speed in combination with a short flash duration. The shutter speed could have really been anything between 1/60 and 1/1000 with similar results. By using a short flash duration strobe, we were able to freeze the coffee in the air as desired without going through all the setup hassle of the Chase article/video.

    As mentioned in the article above, one reason for using the Elinchrom Ranger RX system was that, “With such a short flash duration, you can freeze moving liquids with super precision.” And one reason for using a camera like the LX3 with Skyport triggers, is that you can easily sync up to 1/1000 sec. This is highly useful when using flashes in environments with high levels of ambient lighting, like in the sunshine where you might want to have a high shutter speed (say 1/600 to expose for the environment) and still be able to trigger your strobes.

    In this setup, we were just hooking up the Skyport to the LX3 and shooting. Much less complicated than the setup Chase used, which involved setting his Hassy up on a tripod, opening the shutter (the Hassy can’t sync with the flash at the required speed to freeze motion in that setup), and then triggering the strobes separately. We could have done it this way, but sometimes it’s more fun to think outside the Chase.

    I edited the article to make the influence of short flash duration more clear.


  8. faisal says:

    i just want to ask is it possible to sync this flash with the normal 5d mark 2 or no .. the max sync speed is 200 for this camera by the way

  9. Mark says:

    Yes, but the maximum sync speed will be limited to the camera sync speed when using the traditional Pocket Wizards or Elinchrom Skyports. Check out the FlexTT5 from PocketWizard, which includes a utility program to tune the high-speed sync of your radio receivers to achieve a high speed sync by defining the HyperSync timing on the transmitter.

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