Over the last few years CononMark has been working hard to get its brand known worldwide. With the introduction of the K4T – the first-ever studio light that combined TTL and HSS – CononMk certainly surprised a lot of people. Not many photographers had heard of CononMark/CononMk before the release of the K4T, which preceded the Profoto B1 by several months.
A while back, I published my review of the K4T, in which I concluded that this device delivers everything it promises. During my tests it quickly became one of my favourite flashes, combining a small form factor with a lot of power and control. I have to admit that recently I began to admire the innovative spirit of CononMk, because they are trying to compete with the big brands on the market. And if you ask me, they are managing pretty well.
One of the concerns I had during my review of the CononMk K4T was with their radio trigger. The original supplied trigger was not of comparable quality to the K4T itself. It is not able to control multiple different lights simultaneously and I am not convinced over its the build quality either. The only way to describe it is to say it felt rather cheap; not something that belongs on top of any (semi-)professional camera. It simply had to be improved if the K4T wanted to achieve its full potential.
When CononMk announced that they would introduce a trigger with ABC grouping it showed that they are listening to their users. The release of this new accessory promises to eliminate the biggest weakness of the K4T: the trigger. But is it any good in practice? CononMk kindly agreed to send me a sample unit to test.
Something else worth mentioning is that the new trigger is available for Sony, as well the already existing Nikon i-TTL and Canon E-TTL variants. This makes it the only TTL studio flash with Sony support. Unfortunately I do not have access to a Sony camera, so at the moment I am unable to test the Sony version. My primary camera during this test will be the Nikon D800, as usual.
First impressions and build quality
CononMk was kind enough to send three different triggers: one Canon, one Nikon and one with the Sony multi-interface hotshoe. The first thing that I noticed about the triggers is the increased level of build quality. Plastics feel more durable, the different parts of the plastic housing connect better and have a better finish to them. Compared to the older “3G” trigger the new version is really a welcome addition. One concern regarding build quality though: the plastic hot shoe. The strength of the plastic hot shoe should be sufficient for this application, but I would have preferred to see a metal one. Maybe it’s not needed, but it would give a better appearance.
The main difference, besides the build quality, from the old 3G trigger is that the new ABC Trigger has wireless group control, and for each of the three groups (A, B and C) the flash exposure compensation (FEC) can be adjusted. In these three groups TTL and manual power modes can be used simultaneously. Another improvement over the old trigger is that FEC is now denoted in 1/3 stops. The old trigger was indicating FP +/- XX, a value which I was not exactly sure of what it meant.
On the display of the ABC trigger the current set values for all three groups are shown as well as some other settings. I have no complaints whatsoever regarding the display. It is big, easy to read and provides the needed information in a clear and organized way. Changing settings using the buttons is natural and can be done intuitively. If you have shot with other TTL triggers there is really no need to read the manual. It works in a similar way to other commonly-used TTL triggers. A welcome feature on the CononMk ABC trigger is that the modelling lights of all groups can be turned off and adjusted individually.
On the exterior are a large number of buttons, as well as a USB port for future firmware upgrades. The high number of buttons is a little bit odd at first, but it means that each function has its own dedicated button. I love this, because it is intuitive and natural to use. Changing settings when using other gear with fewer buttons can feel rather like entering some cheat codes on the original PlayStation: if the exact order is not followed correctly the wrong settings are changed.
Although two AAA alkaline batteries were included with the trigger I opted to use some NiMH batteries instead. It seems that the battery level indicator is optimized for alkaline batteries as it shows a incorrect value: my full batteries were seen as empty, due to the voltage difference between NiMH and alkaline batteries.
Before you start to use TTL mode for shoots you have to realize that TTL has severe limitations. This applies to any TTL strobe or speedlight out there, irrespective of the brand. The processor that determines the exposure has its own logic and it can happen that this logic does not correspond with your logic. Especially when multiple TTL sources are fixed, things can become quite complicated quite quickly. If you position your rim light behind your model and still put it in TTL mode, the exposure of it can be way off, since it tries to expose your subject like if the flash would be positioned on-camera. It evaluates the light from the front of the model, and not the rear.
Many people say that TTL is for amateurs; manual power is the way to go for professionals. I partly agree with them. If you work in a consistent environment where you have to time to set-up your equipment manual power will give you a much more consistent result and also it will offer you more control. If anything changes, such as model position or ambient light, you will have to go back to the drawing board so to speak. It is good because it forces you to think about your light. Personally for me, I prefer manual over TTL when I have control over the whole situation that I will photograph. If the situation changes rapidly, for instance when subjects are moving or you are changing locations, TTL is very useful. But when you switch to TTL, do realize its limitations.
I have to admit that there are situations where I would have liked to use TTL but I couldn’t get a consistent exposure. Irrespective of you are using Nikon, Canon or Yongnuo, TTL metering can be easily fooled. Be aware that TTL is not the holy grail and will certainly not solve all your problems. For flat lighting TTL is fine, but anything else can be and will be troublesome.
It is not every day that I go with 1200 Ws of TTL power to a photo-shoot. Packing my equipment was a surprisingly easy compared to packing AC-powered monoblocs. I did not have any trouble bringing the three K4T strobes in a single camera bag. If you ignore the battery pack the K4T is the same size as a Speedlight, such as the Nikon SB-910.
Initially I tested the new ABC trigger with just a single K4T flash to see if the new trigger has a similar performance to the old one when using only a single strobe. It seems that performance with the new trigger is identical to the old trigger. For example, I get the same slight overexposure (1/3 to 1/2 of a stop) when using large apertures (f/2 or bigger), which was the case with the older triggers. Some modifiers also offset the TTL metering it seems; for those bigger adjustments are needed.
Controlling multiple groups is really a breeze with the new ABC trigger. Press the letter of the group you want to adjust, press the adjustment buttons and press “Enter”. It makes changes easy and fast to do, similar to other remote power adjustment systems such as the YongNuo YN622N-TX. What I absolutely love is that there is almost no need to touch the strobe once you started shooting. By using the trigger you can change all the settings that you would need during a shoot. Modeling light, slave cell, modeling light intensity etc: all are accessible.
During one of the first shoots I noticed something odd. When I deactivate the TTL function of the main group (set to A), then the strobe which is in group B will not fire in TTL mode. It seems like in order to activate the TTL metering the main group needs to be changed to the strobe you want to use TTL with. It sounds a bit tricky and it is. I still have occasions where I do not completely understand why my flash does not fire because I didn’t set the master channel right.
Consistency of the TTL exposure is excellent. However, as I stated earlier TTL metering can be easily fooled. The K4T with my gridded beauty dish tends to overexpose all the time, since the light coming out of it covers such a small portion of the frame. If I use a 120 cm octabox then the exposure is what I would expect it to be from TTL mode. It is also possible to mix TTL groups and manual power groups. This means that you can fire your main light in TTL mode and your rims in manual power for example. By doing so your rim lights do not overexpose because of bad TTL metering. In general, TTL metering should be used with flat light since it is made for this type of exposures.
When you want to shoot wide open with high ISO you will have to be careful that the K4T does not overexpose your photo. Since the maximum power output is high, the minimum power output is also quite high compared to a speedlite. The K4T is not suited for those situations where finer control over the power output is required; you will have to use speedlites since they have lower power output. This is only when you are using bare flash. A flash modifier such as a softbox tends to absorb enough light and makes the problem disappear.
Underneath I have included a number of photos that I have made with the set of K4T flashes. They are a mix of TTL and manual power exposures. During my time with the K4T I grew quite fond of the possibility to use TTL if the situation required some quick action, but most of the time you will end up with using manual due to the more precise control it offers.
In my previous review I mentioned that the CononMk K4T is only available in Comet mount. According to my contacts this is not going to change: CononMK chose the Comet mount since it is much smaller than others such as the more common Bowens S-type. For me and my collection of S-fit modifiers it is a pity, but only this way they can keep the size of the flash down.
Fortunately, there are special Bowens adapters available. The previous adapter that I was using was not great since it increased the distance between the softbox and the flash tube. It limited the spread of the flash inside the modifier, almost a bit like a mini-snoot. The new adapter is much more compact, solving the previous issues. This new Bowens adapter can be left attached when the K4T is packed in your bag.
The new ABC trigger for the K4T is a very welcome addition to the already capable K4T flash. It makes the flash much more enjoyable to use, especially since it is now possible to use multiple strobes simultaneously. The small size, HSS capabilities, high power and TTL mode make it a excellent option to consider for location photography. In my opinion the CononMk K4T combines everything that you would need in a flash while retaining a small form factor.
A big question for CononMk: what is next? Half a year ago their HSS TTL monoblocs were unique. With the lack of a distributor in Europe and North America they are missing out on a big chunk of potential sales. I think there is demand for their hardware, but now they have to find retailers that want to sell their equipment. Without any sales a good product still fails. Customers in North America or Europe are not willing to buy equipment at this price from a Chinese webshop. If they drop a lot of cash for a powerful flash it has to be with a local distributor. This way good warranty and returns are guaranteed.
What I miss in with the CononMk ABC trigger system is the possibility to mix the K4T with my other speedlites. Often a second or even third K4T monobloc would be overkill for the situation and having a speedlite would be just fine. At the moment there is no other possibility than to stack triggers if one wants to retain the remote power adjustment capabilities of these speedlites. I would like to see some HSS and possibly TTL receivers for speedlites that work with the ABC trigger.
Something which has to be realized is that all this power does not come cheap. The price of a K4T with trigger is around $900 which means that a three-head kit would run $2700. It is a substantial investment for some serious power. You do get value for money since the monoblocs from CononMk do pack a lot of features. Flashes with similar performance are still priced at a premium. The real question that you should ask yourself is how do you really need TTL? If so, then the CononMk is an excellent option to consider.