Monday, November 09, 2009

Mono Monday: Choosing the Right Big Lights

Normally, I try to balance lighting technique, trends, gear and a smattering of general silliness on this site.

Apologies for fact that that Strobist is in somewhat of a gear-oriented spate of posts. There is a reason for that -- namely that I have gotten a little ahead of myself.

A few On Assignment posts are in a holding circle because they were shot with larger light sources. And before getting to those, I wanted to take a look at the process of how to go about choosing a big light system in the first place.

Recently, I revamped my kit after spending 20 years using the same set of well-worn monoblocs. I thought it would be a pretty easy process, but it turns out that there has never been a wider array of "studio" flashes than what is available today.

The purchase merited a lot of thought, and I figured some folks be able to benefit from the experience. More, inside.
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My old White Lightning 600's (pictured at left) have given many, many pops of trouble-free service. And last year I augmented them with an ABR800 ring flash, with the idea that a slaved monobloc / ring light would go with just about any system I would want to put together, WL/AlienBees or not.

And this kind of long-term thinking is very important, IMO, when considering a big lights purchase. It's a marriage, really -- or a very expensive fling if you screw it up. So you want to look at long-term costs, value and capabilities of several different systems before choosing.

And speaking of long-term value, I quickly decided that the money I could get for my used WL's would not come close to the value they would have for me as a backup bag. They are pretty fugly at this point. But they work, and I know them well. Which counts for a lot.

So as a backup, an auxiliary bag or as a loaner for colleagues, I would not be selling them.


So. Many. Choices.

I started like a lot people do, clicking around the web like a kid in a candy store.

First, I looked at photographers whose work I admired, and found out what they used. This was quickly discarded as a very poor way to choose a system, because I was clearly working under a completely different set of variables than would be any other photographer. We all shoot -- and light -- differently. What works best for Annie, Joe, Chase, etc., might not work best for me.

So, I decided to take out a sheet of paper and write down some of my considerations and priorities. And that yielded this:


1. AC powered or not, they must be battery capable. Or I would have to build into the budget a good, pure sine wave generator. (This Honda 2000-watt model seems to be the go-to for many shooters.) I have gotten used to being able to shoot without AC (mostly because of the speedlights) and that is not something I was ready to give up.

2. System integration would be very important. There are some very cool, one-off type designs out there. But I wanted to leverage the dollars I spent for the long term, which means that money spent on light modifiers (no small sum) would need to work across a wide range of system flashes if/when I evolved or upgraded.

3. I found myself to be surprisingly variable on price. Rather than just go by absolute dollars, I decided to estimate how much use I would give them over their lifetime and let that dictate the price I was willing to spend. Which is to say that, if needed, a more expensive set of flashes could end up being just as cheap (or cheaper) over the long run than would a less expensive set with a shorter duty cycle.

4. What will they be used for? Primarily, two things: Shooting people in high ambient level environments (i.e., competing with the sun) and lighting bigger scenes. These are the classic duties that speedlights just can't do very well.

5. And speaking of speedlights, I have found that I have a natural preference for monoblocs as compared to pack-and-head systems. I do not like the idea of losing several light sources if a pack goes down. Not that pack-and-heads were out of the question -- many good choices here, in fact. But I would essentially treat a single pack and head as a monobloc equivalent.
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So, those were the criteria.

After a lot of initial looking around, web cruising, brochure reading, etc., I came down to three brands which would get each serious consideration. In alphabetical order, they were Elinchrom, Profoto and WL/AlienBees.

In one way or another, they could all fit the bill. But they each also had distinct advantages and disadvantages over the other two systems. So over the next few Mondays we'll be looking at each of these systems in context with the others, in the same way I did when there were real dollars at stake.

Mind you, your variables when looking at purchasing big lights will be different than mine. But I hope my experience will be helpful as a template when you overlay your own set of priorities.

And so as not to restrict this conversation to my own decision process, I certainly encourage your input via the comments as well. As someone who recently went through the process, I can say with certainty that others will benefit from your experiences.


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73 Comments:

Blogger Brian Downer said...

I absolutely agree with you regarding the affinity for monoblocks versus pack/head systems. Being able to manage a wide variety of lighting ratio's, without compromising quality of light (as in quality, quantity, consistency of a light source), pretty much demands the ability to control each light source independently.

My personal preference for monoblock systems is Hensel. I absolutely love everything about these units, and they have proved their value many times over. They are incredibly robust, consistent, and provide a fantastic light. The Plus series includes an integrated remote, with channel selection, that means I can control any light source from camera location.

For location work, I decided that I didn't want to worry about a generator, and tried the pack/head route. My choices were between the Hensel Porty, and Elinchrom Ranger. Based on a friend's recommendation, I went with the Ranger and skyports. After direct comparison between the two systems, Hensel is by far my favorite. I've had both systems on location at the same time, and I've found myself having to ditch the Ranger setup after multiple misfires, and bringing out the Hensels and extension cords. In retrospect, I would have been much happier with the Porty Plus system.

There is one downside to the Hensel monoblocks. They can be considerably heavy. Especially when you need to use them on a boom.

November 09, 2009 12:16 AM  
Blogger Duane said...

Sweet! Look forward to this series. I already have my collection of mono blocks but watching your evaluation process will be very educational!

November 09, 2009 1:52 AM  
Blogger Vincent T said...

I look forward to reading what you have to say on this. One consideration for me is dual voltage capability. I travel a lot, and while I spend most of my time in the US, I find myself in countries that had 220-240vac 50hz line voltage. I'm looking to buy a big light or two but absolutely need that versatility. Just something else to think about with these that doesn't come up with battery powered speedlights.

November 09, 2009 2:10 AM  
Blogger GaryN said...

I was going to go with AB monolights, but found a GREAT deal on eBay for a set of Speedotron Brownlight pack + heads. For me, the Speedotron pack unit worked out better than monolights, as I got the pack and 3 heads for about $200. I think that was less than the price of 1 AB monolight. So for those that are cost constrained, like me, watch eBay and keep an open mind.

November 09, 2009 2:13 AM  
OpenID pixeldarkroom said...

I wasn't really going to get into big lights yet but I have to say I did think about the different kind of work I could to with them. So far, the stuff that I shoot works out with small strobes. I look forward to the next posts. Thank you, David.

November 09, 2009 2:41 AM  
Blogger Christian said...

I have been trying to unravel this myself and its been a nightmare, especially considering the investment. I want quality, portable and powerful. Sometimes I think the McNally principle of just adding more sb-8/900's might get the job done 95% of the time.

November 09, 2009 2:45 AM  
Blogger Russ Robinson said...

I've got 3 Alien Bees B1600s & a Vagabond II battery pack, and absolutely love them all. I *did* initially purchase them because one of my favorite photographers uses them (Zack Arias), but fortunately it really worked out well for me. This kit is very versatile, packs plenty of power, and travels well. Highly recommended!

PS- I've also been using their CyberSync transmitters, and have yet to see a misfire. Excellent product for substantially less than PWs.

-Russ

http://RussRobinsonPhotography.com

November 09, 2009 4:57 AM  
Blogger highlight hair said...

Looking very much forward to this, as I have been looking seriously into the "new" Profoto mono's... I assume those are the ones you are going to look into? :)
They are expensive, compared to other brands - question is whether or not that extra $$ is worth it :)

November 09, 2009 4:59 AM  
Blogger HONE said...

Brilliant. I have no clue about the big lights. When I asked questions on forums, no-one seemed to understand what it was that I was asking, and that literally, that I-knew-nothing (about studio strobes).

Even when I explained what I was looking for---more power to overcome ambient at a distance using light modifiers, and faster recycle times, various wireless triggering methods---I was essentially told, "when I shoot portraits, the subjects are still", and "You never mentioned cost", and the feeling that I got was that I was an outsider asking ridiculous questions.

What does cost mean when you do not even know the market? Let alone what you have mentioned about something lasting quite a bit longer, but being a little more expensive?

Looking forward to your following posts on this topic.

Love your work,
Scott

November 09, 2009 6:20 AM  
Blogger SS Buchanan said...

That Honda link is broken already. Could it be this one?
http://www.hondapowerequipment.com/products/modeldetail.aspx?page=modeldetail&section=P2GG&modelname=EU2000i&modelid=EU2000IAN

Looking forward to the rest of this series.

November 09, 2009 7:40 AM  
Blogger david x said...

mind you I'm speaking from ignorance here, so this might be a stupid idea, but did you consider multiple little lights instead of one big light? there would be two hassles I can see right away, 1) fooling around with power on multiple strobes (but you'd mostly use them on full power, otherwise you wouldn't need more than one, right?) and 2) mechanical issues mounting multiple strobes on one stand (but this doesn't seem difficult to solve). oh, I guess changing 4 sets of batteries might be a little problem too ;-). but still...from the system point of view more little lights would use all the same stuff you already have, and the right little lights wouldn't require anything new except mechanical support (e.g. lp120s have built in optical slave, so one radio could fire a group of them). or maybe it is just a little early in the morning ;-).

November 09, 2009 7:56 AM  
Blogger Matt Wynne said...

I am sure that many will get a benefit from your in depth depiction of your selection process. I went through it at the beginning of the summer and shared many of the same criteria, I am curious if we came to the same conclusion?

I chose the Elinchrom BX 500 Ri and reviewed it on my blog, MWynne.com Photography Blog

I am curious about the generator that you mentioned. I have worked with it in the past to power HD's and Laptops but wasn't aware that it could be used for big flashes. Thanks for posting.

November 09, 2009 8:11 AM  
Blogger Marcin Kruk said...

Really good timing with this post - can't wait with for next monday.

November 09, 2009 8:25 AM  
Blogger Andreas Reinhold said...

Considering my own experiences, I chose an solution, that kept the mobility of small flashes put has enough power for larger locations. I chose Elinchroms (in my case the inexpensive D-Lite 4s) and an Explorer XT for power supply and I am extremely happy with the results. What I really like is the constant color temperatures the Elinchroms have, from full power, all the way down.

November 09, 2009 8:33 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I'm facing the same choice as well, with many of the same criteria, so I am looking forward to this discussion. I have narrowed my choices down to WL/AB and Elinchrom, as I decided the Profoto's are too pricey for me.

-Scott.

BTW, the link to the Honda generator is a dead link.

November 09, 2009 8:35 AM  
Blogger Matti Vaittinen said...

I'm really looking forward to this! I'm going to buy a few studio flashes during this winter and Profoto or Elinchrom will be my choice.So this post from you will come just in time :)

November 09, 2009 8:51 AM  
Blogger Craig M. said...

I think a big consideration is flash duration. The faster the better.

November 09, 2009 9:56 AM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

Another one for Hensel - bought my first unit from a friend who bought it in 1972, and it worked until March 2007 when I decided not to invest 300 Euros to fully repair it but instead go for a new Expert Pro Plus 500 unit. Another unit from 1976 also died in March 2007, and also 300 Euros would have it fully repaired. Those two units from 1972 and 1976 cost a total of 63 German Marks in service over the combined 67 years of usage - including tax and shipping. I bought unit after unit, starting in 1983 - and all of them are still in service today. We run a professional rental station with Hensel equipment and our studio is number 3 in town. We get to see a lot of photographers with their own equipment, and many seriously reconsider their choice after seeing Hensel units in action.

To me there is no alternative to the Hensel Porty Lithium generators, and now that the AC adapter is out they double as full fledged studio devices as well.

Also, Hensel has a yet unseen industry department, and developments from that merge with the photography department now, leading to devices like the new Speed Max with up to 31 flashes per second and down to 1/60.000 sec flash duration in IGBT technology.

To me Hensel has the largest potential on the market regarding future development, and for us it has proven to be the best bang for the buck over several decades now.

November 09, 2009 10:23 AM  
Blogger JC Ridley said...

One thing to remember - AB/WL's warranty and customer service are top notch

November 09, 2009 10:34 AM  
Blogger Will Crawford said...

I've been using a few of Calumet's Genesis 200 monolights over the last year. I originally bought them as location lights - they cost half what an SB900 does, and I can power them off on an old PC UPS for all the shooting I want. Started using them as my main studio lights since the flexibility of the monolights was vastly greater than my 20 year old Black Lines.

November 09, 2009 10:40 AM  
Blogger PaulL said...

Glad to see you getting into more than only speedlights, David.
Just a note: a "pure" sine-wave generator is not always a necessity, depending on the monoblocs you choose. I went with AB's some time ago (currently 2 AB1600s, 2 AB800s, and two AB400s) -- my location power source is a pair of deep-cycle marine batteries (125 amp-hours)from WalMart in plastic coolers for portability, with Black & Decker off-the shelf inverters. Each one's total cost is about $90. They'll each power 2 AB800s for 200-300 pops, and in over 4 years of use I've had no problems with the inverters not being "true sine-wave." They also fit well with the Strobist "roll your own" mentality :)

November 09, 2009 10:41 AM  
Blogger Josef Moffett said...

I have a question. I actually think/suspect that it has already been answered in a post a long time ago, but I can't find it anymore).

Given that one would want to get as much use/value out of a lighting system, it would be useful to know the equivalence of watt/seconds to GN of a simple flash. This way you can quickly then combine big lights with little lights in various ratios.

To take a concrete example, the Alien Bees B400/B800/B1600 gives us their power in W/s and the SB800 in a GN. Right now, that's not helping me (until I can play around with the kit and learn) and it would be nice to know before how they balance up (at same distance from subject, bare light, angle, etc.

November 09, 2009 10:43 AM  
Blogger Kevin Halliburton said...

I just went through the exact same process and finally settled on the Aliens, primarily because of the affordability and portability of the Vagabond power pack. I was also impressed with the current value, vision and integration of some of their new products.

My biggest long term concern with building an Alien Bees/ White Lightning studio is that it seems like the whole company keys 100% on the innovation and vision of Paul Buff. As solid as his vision and products have been to date, I'm a little uneasy about the feeling that I'm putting all of my studio lighting investment eggs in one basket and trusting Paul to carry it. How do you put something like that on your analysis spreadsheet?

November 09, 2009 11:08 AM  
OpenID almostinfamous said...

starting out with lighting, my then classmate and now colleague got himself a 125ws generic monolight, with a softbox as a kit for about 1/5th the cost of the sb-800. we also borrowed(for about a year) an sb-26 flash for an additional light.

moving on up, with a small budget, we purchased an elinchrom d-lite2 'to-go' kit and have since augmented them with a skyport receiver and a couple of vivitar 285s as hard-light sources.

Really digging the elinchroms and now that we are getting a little bit of money our way, we are saving up for a pair of FXRi 400s(the indian equivalent of the BXRi) to complete our basic setup. then, it's on to the light modifiers!

I too look forward to your future articles :)

November 09, 2009 11:18 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Interesting that you have opted for the products on your list. When you were summing up the properties and benefits you were looking for the equipment which came first and foremost to my mind was Bowens.

The bowens gemini range fits all of your criteria and more.

1) They are both battery (powerpack) and ac power capable.
2) there is a huge system of modifiers at your disposal both from the original manufacturer as well as from third parties who make s-fit accessories. And old modifiers such as umbrellas can be used easily because the holder fits any umbrella. Unlike for instance the elinchrome range which takes only bespoke shaft diameters.
3)they offer fantastic value for money over their life time as they are solidly built work horses. I still use my old esprit 500s in conjunction with my newer gemini heads.
4) the gemini range offers seamless compatability with the pocketwizzard range by adding a pocket wizard trigger card (other trigger systems work flwaless as well)

I presume that your decision has probably already been made, but I would suggest that bowens is well worth a look for your use

November 09, 2009 11:36 AM  
Blogger Ranger 9 said...

A mild rebuttal to your position on pack-and-head units vs. monopacks: All else being equal, a monopack puts much more weight at the top of the lightstand.

In particular, users upgrading from speedlights might find the grip equipment they already own would be fine for a separate head, but can't safely support a monopack. Making the move to big lights goes up in cost and complexity if you have to replace all your stands etc. as well.

A compromise that has worked well for me is to use a mix of pack/head and mono units that come from the same manufacturer and take the same accessories. I had to buy one new heavy-duty stand to hold my biggest monopack, but other than that I'm able to share grip gear between my AC and speedlight outfits.

November 09, 2009 12:01 PM  
Blogger John said...

Awesome! I'm planning on upgrading to a new set of "more powerful" light sources, and honestly, I've kinda been thinking you were going to post something like this sooner or later. Excellent timing and I can't wait to hear what you decided on.

...I don't think I'll be buying a set of Profotos any time soon due to the price, but I'll still be interested in your findings.

November 09, 2009 12:06 PM  
Blogger mstrubbe said...

I have three white lightnings ultras which have been workhorses for most of my career. I doubt I'll ever sell them, despite having to work four screws to secure any kind of reflector or softbox. (Yes, they're that old. So am I.)

However, I've been thinking about upgrading to a pack system because the monolights are top heavy. Add a large softbox and they're more apt to sink downward. They're also precarious the higher you hike them up. Weebles wobbles but...

Also like the advantage of being able to control the power from the ground, rather than shimmying up the light stand to change the settings. (I know some systems you can control via remote, but not all.)

In any event, I'll be interested in reading your findings, David!

--Mary

November 09, 2009 12:15 PM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

Paul Buffs exceptional service was mentioned..... and is often mentioned in forums. While this is a good feature, it means at the same time that many people had to use this service, which in turn hints towards the reliability to expect.

After buying my favorite brand it took me 15 years of almost daily use until I needed service - because I knocked over a lamp stand. Service was fast and cheap.

November 09, 2009 12:37 PM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

@ Josef Moffett:
W/s and GN can't be easily compared.
The GN characterizes a flash with a fixed reflector, while W/s is the power stored in a flash unit.
With a softbox mounted this unit will render a significantly smaller GN than with a 9" reflector or a 14" longhorn reflector.

The light former is decisive for this. Also, the length and pressure inside a flash tube in combination with the tube voltage are important for the efficiency of a flash tube.

A ring flash like the Sigma EM-DG 140 has about the same power as a Canon 580 EX II, but both return very different GN. This is why.

November 09, 2009 12:44 PM  
Blogger Bill Giles said...

The only time that I prefer the pack & head is when using a boom or really tall light stand. It is primarily to limit the weight at the top of the stand or boom, but having the controls at ground level doesn't hurt. I am not opposed to using packs and heads as long as it is one head per pack. I have a bunch of Norman heads that I can use with Dyna-Lite and Zeus packs.

It is nice to stick with one brand so that the accessories are interchangeable.

November 09, 2009 1:20 PM  
Blogger BMC Photo Blog said...

David,

Thanks for taking on this series. I've been looking at systems for the last few months. I have a set of SP Studio systems lighting (2 x 3200s; 1 x 1500) with octaboxes and grids, etc. It was cheap and it's reliable...other than the color of the light is not consistent and causes problems, especially working with a white backdrop. So I am looking for a new system and got mortally confused and frustrated trying to figure out what to do. In the end, I've suspended my search until I can see what the new Einstein stuff from Buff looks like once in production. Seemingly right on the horizon. Which, for me at least, begs the question why you took them out of consideration for your search. Sounds like the need wasn't that immediately pressing since you have a working set you're keeping as a backup anyway. Just curious if there was a specific reason you decided the Einstein's weren't worth waiting for.

Thanks

Brian

November 09, 2009 1:40 PM  
Blogger Mizz Maze said...

Looking forward to your analysis. Is flash duration one of your factors for consideration?

November 09, 2009 1:56 PM  
Blogger PK said...

Some time back I was considering monoblocks as I wanted to set up a small studio. I ultimately decided against it as I could only afford either a set with low cost, low power monoblocks or a single monoblock with a bit more power and I wasn't sure just how much power I would need. Besides, it seemed like a better idea to get a good on-camera strobe and hope to score some small strobes for cheap instead of buying the low-power monoblocks. Will probably get monoblocks in a distant future though.

But I am looking forward to seeing what you have to say on the subject. Will you be showing us how much power would be needed for different type of shoots as well? The answer I would typically get to this question is "get the most powerful monoblock you could possibly afford", which is sort of a useless answer when you're wondering what you need if you're shooting full-body portraits in your home studio...

November 09, 2009 3:59 PM  
Blogger Neil Turner said...

Like you I shoot in the wind and the rain and like you I favour battery power. Where we differ is about monobloc versus pack/head combinations. I love the idea that the weight is in the pack which can be used at the base of the stand and can be controlled even if the head is buried inside a modifier. I hate monoblocs because all of the weight is perched at the top of the stand and that is inherently unstable. Indoors it doesn't matter, but on location it can make a big difference.

One of the reasons that I went with the Elinchrom is the white LED modelling light. I don't used modelling lights but I do shoot the odd bit of video here and there and the purity of the modelling lights on the Elinchrom has really helped me out on more than one occasion.

Product support is also important and here in London that support comes from our old friends at The Flash Centre which is THE place for Elinchrom.

Several months in and I am still a fan of the Ranger Quadras. I did a shoot in high winds and spray on the beach at dusk a couple of days ago. The sand got into my bags, coated my cameras but did not have any effect on the lights. These packs are sealed to a very high standard and the heads are so small you can slip them into a freezer bag. What's not to like about this kit?

Neil

November 09, 2009 4:22 PM  
Blogger James said...

Thank you David for sharing your buying process with us.

I plan to get (2) of the new Einstein 640 from Paul Buff. Are they the ultimate imo? No, but extreme value for the dollar.

November 09, 2009 4:40 PM  
Blogger Robert Jordan said...

I work at a university where the office budget is even tighter than my personal budget, so I bought a pair of White Lightning 600s with office bucks.

Back then I shot 35mm E6, eventually upgrading to a 4-lens 6x7 system. Over the years, the office budget has gotten much, much better and as soon as they were available I was able to buy Nikon D1, D2x, and D3 bodys for our staff photographers. At the moment I have three Nikon D3s on order.

My favorite AC strobe is still the WL. They are simple, rugged and consistant. Repairs are few and very fast and affordable. We now have 2-Alien Bees, 2-600, 2-800, 4-1200, 2-1600 and a 3200 WL monolight.

White Lightning rocks!

November 09, 2009 4:49 PM  
Blogger Carlton SooHoo said...

I have the Profoto ComPact 600R monolights which are very powerful indeed. I bought them on sale at Calumet. The built-in Pocket Wizard feature is very handy.

However, I discovered they are not well matched with the portable Innovatronix Explorer XT battery. This combination results in a 15 second refresh time between shots. Tech support at Innovatronix acknowledged this problem, but there is no remedy. I can't use another brand of trigger, and the ComPact 600R can only be triggered via pocket wizard.

So I'm very interested in the Honda portable generator as a portable power solution in the field.

November 09, 2009 5:28 PM  
Blogger kirk tuck said...

I've just started using Elinchrom Ranger RX packs but they're really wonderful. The "A" heads give a really short duration which gives a different look than my traditional "slow burners". I'd look at the new 400WS quadras and a few of the bigger Ranger packs as part of a scalable system that can used the same accessories from light to light.

And the batteries seem to last forever at 1/2 power on the Ranger RX (1/550WS).

Love the digital interface.

November 09, 2009 6:25 PM  
Blogger TEKeez said...

I'm looking to add monolights also. have you seen the info on Buffs Einsteins. Totally digital with a built in receiver. Top of the line from a top of the line company. I heard release may be December and priced right. $450 with many big time features.

November 09, 2009 7:15 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

You lost me on this one. I thought strobist was all about cheap, portable lighting...

November 09, 2009 7:21 PM  
Blogger Robert Davidson said...

Last spring I decided to try using bigger lights than the Canon 580 EXII and 430 EX that I had been using with a Canon STE-2 infrared slave trigger I had been using. My criteria were quite different from yours, in that I was not totally sure whether I was ready to make the move to big lights. So, one of my most important criteria was to keep the initial cost as low as possible, while still getting somewhat decent quality.Long term durability was therefore not really on my list of criteria.

While I like the idea of battery capability, I determined this was too expensive for me. I also came to the conclusion that the Honda 2000 watt generator would eliminate the need for battery power, and do so at a lower cost than investing in battery units.

My search led me to Adorama's line of Flashpoint monolights. Just to try one out, I purchased their 150 watt-second monolight for $99. I figured that even if I didn't like the unit, $100 wouldn't be too much just to stick my toe into the monolight waters.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality and initial reliability of that $99 unit. Like all of the Flashpoint monolights, it included a 7" reflector, has a user replaceable flashtube and modeling light. This 150 WS model indicated a GN of 118 with the included reflector. Flash output is continuously variable from full to 1/8 power. (On the small 150 WS unit, the modeling lamp did not vary in intensity along with the flash output, but the more poweful units I later purchased did vary the modeling light intensity along with the flash output.)

I was so impressed with the quality of the $99 unit that I bought a couple of 600 watt-second units (The indicated GN of these units was 252.) All the units have built in optical slave which can be turned on or off. I started to trigger one with the long PC cord (included with each unit.) By triggering one light and switching on the slave on the others, every light fired every time. Over the course of several months, I never had a single flash fail to fire.

After a couple of months, I bought two PocketWizards, and I now know why everyone who uses them loves them. The long PC cord worked fine, but It is great to eliminate that long tether that is so easy to trip over!

I used the same light stands for these monolights that I used for my Canon flashes.

In addition to the umbrellas, I got a Westcott Halo 45" octagonal softbox. It stores as easily as an umbrella and is almost as easy to set up.

I added two additional stands: a Manfrotto convertible boom/lightstand to hold a hairlight up high over a person's head and a short Manfrotto background lightstand that can hold a light as low as 3" off the floor and as high as 3 feet.

I also got Flashpoint's reasonably priced barndoors and Grid with filters, and a snoot to use on the hairlight. Just this week a got a Flashpoint 30" X 60" softbox. My lightweight lightstands seem to have no problem holding a 600 WS monolight with this large softbox installed.

I figur these low-cost monolights will give me a lot of great experience using monolights. How long they will last remains to be seen, but my initial impression is that they are higher quality than I expected for the price.

I first saw "Strobist" a couple of days ago, and I plan to spend a good deal of time going through Lighting 101, 102 and the On Assignment archives. I was inspired to dig out my old Vivitar 283 that I bought back in 1976. I removed the automatic sensor and plugged in the Vari-Power module. I tested out the Vivitar SL-2 optical slave I had with it, and the whole unit works as good as it did 33 years ago! I'll be using it as I refresh my lighting skills with Lighting 101 and 102.

Again I am most impressed with Strobist, and I will be reading here regularly. I hope my ramblings about my early experiences with big lights are somewhat useful to someone.

November 09, 2009 8:03 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Thanks David. I almost the calumet travelites this past weekend. Glad I waited. Looking forward to your post. Also, doing it in a way that we have to consider what we need rather than you endorsing one.

November 09, 2009 10:09 PM  
Blogger Cyndi's Fed Up said...

I've got 2 AB400s, 3 AB800s and 2 WL XL3200s (sometimes a guy has to overpower the sun). Added a Vagabond II a year ago. Quality has been great. I've had no problems with color inconsistency or reliability. I also like being able to use my Paul C Buff softboxes and other light mods on any light. They're affordable and I can't envision using any other manufacturer's lights.

November 09, 2009 11:53 PM  
Blogger Sterling said...

love my alienbees. consistent, reliable, affordable.

www.sterlinghancockphotography.com

November 10, 2009 12:16 AM  
Blogger james said...

I bought 2-AB-800 this year due mainly out of the lack of affordable SB-800 in the market. For the price of the AB-900 flash from Nikon I was able to buy practicly these two AB's for the same price. I found the AB's work great with Radio Popper Jrx line, with the help of you great people at Strobist I was able to make the DIY Ez-cubes to allow power dial control over my 2-Nikon Sb-800's. Way to Go and Chaulk another one up for reasons to be connected to Strobist! Did you know high speed sync with AB and Radio Poppers is over 1/4000 of a sec? By using a PX transmitter and the Jrx poppers you can get higher shutter speed to sync. That has to be a plus for balancing out the sun with flash.So far the AB's have been the best choice and the most under rated lights on the market. At least they do not break the bank. My Broncolor lights even the accessories cost a bundle. I should have bought the AB's from the start and put the saving toward better glass to shoot with! If we are voting here I cast one for AB's and give Strobist 5 star rating!
My Radio Poppers are a lot better than commander more could ever be. They work seemless with the AB's. Keep it coming I am eatting all up you guys rock!

November 10, 2009 2:58 AM  
Blogger Helen Oster said...

That was a really thorough and interesting review of Adorama's Flashpoint products - I've passed it to our purchasing department.

Thanks for taking the time to present your feedback so clearly.

Helen Oster
Adorama Camera Customer Service Ambassador

helen.oster@adoramacamera.com
www.adorama.com

November 10, 2009 5:23 AM  
Blogger Esteban said...

It's a shame it has to be such a problem getting a hold of Paul Buff's lights here in Sweden...
I'm a little sceptival towards this internet-commerce-ebay-thingie. :D

November 10, 2009 7:28 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

My AB1600s have taken a few falls while atop a 13' lightstand and suffered no ill effects. I'm sold.
www.jasonryman.com

November 10, 2009 8:11 AM  
Blogger stuart said...

I'm curious as to why you feel the need to buy gear.
Why not rent gear on a per job basis, billing the cost to the client? I only know of one photographer that I work for who owns his lighting gear. The rest rent depending on the job billing the cost to the client.

November 10, 2009 11:10 AM  
Blogger Michael Clark said...

David -

I'm sure you'll have more feedback than you can shake a stick at. But if you want to read up on my full review of the Elinchrom Ranger series strobes here is a link to my newsletter that contains that review:

http://www.michaelclarkphoto.com/fall_2008.pdf

November 10, 2009 4:00 PM  
Blogger Wayne Mah said...

I recently got set up with big lights... and I blame Chase Jarvis for that. After a visit with him and playing with his Broncolors... I needed to get some big lights of my own and went through the process of choosing.

I came down to the exact same 3 options... Alien, Elinchrom or Profoto.

If money were no object, I'd choose Profoto... and since it's not it was ruled out. So then it was a choice between Alien or Elinchrom.

Seems like Elinchrom's modifiers are top notch and had a good reputation. Both companies have the option of battery pack and monolight. However, Alien had some design issues with their latest release and I didn't want to get into all the complications of that even though there might not be anything wrong with their soon-to-be released lights.

I ended up buying the Elinchrom portable Speed AS kit and the 2 x BX500Ri monobloc kit... and I'm very happy with them. I love that you can control the power remotely on the BX Ri's... I think that is the way of the future with studio flashes.

November 10, 2009 5:05 PM  
Blogger jamesmooneyphoto said...

I don't think I've ever owned anything as indestructible as my alienbees, shooting this photo on sunday

http://www.flickr.com/photos/akama9/4087441061/

someone tripped over a power cord pulling a unit into the water, as it was still attached to the vagabond pack. It spent almost 5 minutes completely submerged almost 4 feet deep ( which i'm guessing is MUCH longer in strobe years) and all I could do is admit I had just watched $500 drown (pocketwizard was attached), when I got home I just let it dry out on it's own, no rice. Turned it on this morning and it works perfectly, modelling lamp tracks, power levels are accurate, cooling fan works and it holds and dumps charges as it always has.

Personally I'm finding that these units are perfect

November 10, 2009 9:03 PM  
Blogger Pierre said...

Don't forget to mention that a great way to be sure of your purchase before spending the money is renting the gear first. Many rental houses carry multiple lines and there is nothing like try before buy. When you are talking potentially $2k-$4k and above for a full kit the rental fees can pay for themselves.

November 10, 2009 9:19 PM  
Blogger Boone said...

Gosh, and here I was just about to buy a couple of LP120s to go along with my 580EXII. That's so 2007. :(

Those AB1600s are awfully tempting, but I can't help but think that I need to be limited by speedlites before it makes sense for me to get into more powerful lights.

November 10, 2009 11:11 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

I would prefer a pack and head system, I currently use Travelites, which I can't believe didn't make it into your pool..

A pack like Profoto 7a is absolutely bulletproof, and as much abuse as they take in rental houses, I'd use a profoto pack with your AB backups !!

November 11, 2009 12:14 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winzeler Photography // said...

I went through this process not too long ago and after considering pretty much the same brands you are looking at, I finally settled on Elinchrom for the following reasons:

1) Battery life + Durability. The Ranger blows everything else out of the water with regards to battery life @ 1100 watt bursts (namely Profoto - 600r, 7b, 7b 2). As you know a lot of my work is location based (Snow, water, mud, dust, etc.) and the packs are durable.

2) Integration with best modifiers out there (Rotalux system). The new quick release system is consistent across the board and a dream to use, even for the big El Octa and large soft boxes. I can't begin to tell you how nice it is to have consistent set-up for all light shaping tools, especially on commercial shoots w/ assistants.

3) Sky-port triggering. Controlling monolights (600RX is what I have) and the Ranger all from the camera is fantastic. The Sky-ports are growing on me and only when I'm working with subjects and locations outside of their range, do I pull out the wizards these days.

4) Short flash duration and recycle time. For my sports and action photography, flash duration and recycle time are super important and it rocks here.

5) One more plug for battery LIFE! 500 pops @ 1100 watts...are you kidding me. Every time I used Profoto, I was always concerned about the battery life as they expired before the shoot was done more of the time. I hated hauling around large batteries on-location for back-up purposes. (Better than a generator I guess)

6) Priced just right. I was interested in cost of ownership, NOT the initial price.

Major complaints w/Elinchrom:

1) How light shaping tools attach to modifiers. The usual complaint you'll hear from Profoto users. It's not horrible, just not as clean and adjustable as Profoto.

2) Few rental houses have them due to slightly less durability some say. Not sure this applies to the ranger, but may apply to their monos and other packs.

3) Modeling lamp on Ranger is on a timer 15/30 seconds and can't be changed.

I look forward to your analysis David!

In full disclosure - I recently partnered with Elinchrom in the "Making of" section of their site. However, all of my Elinchrom gear was purchased at full retail price long before becoming featured. Their gear just works well for the type of shooting I do.

-Kevin
Utah Advertising Photographer | Kevin Winzeler

November 11, 2009 1:30 AM  
Blogger Adam Erickson said...

I agree with the vote for Hensel. I did a ton of research on light quality, consistency, and variability of output power. I came very close to getting some Elinchroms like Leibowitz, but the Hensels offer so much more for about the same price. I cannot say enough good things about my Hensels. The only negative is that the kit light stands are not the best, but they are still better than most kit light stands.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericksonphotography/

November 11, 2009 3:03 AM  
Blogger Bruko said...

one other thing to consider, IMO, would be rental possibilities. Profoto and Elinchrom are industry standards, which means you can get a chimera octabox easily for rent if you need one without having to actually own one. Also, if you have 3 lights and need 4, you can rent another one with the same characteristics easily.


that said, will be looking forward for further posts about this!

November 11, 2009 5:06 AM  
Blogger aklein said...

I am a little goofy and purchased a pair of Profoto D1's. Of course I now have a pair of Travelite 750 remotes for sale. There is something about quality that makes me happy. The travelites are great but the Profotos are amazing. I will be interested in the process.

November 11, 2009 6:15 AM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

Another vote for Hensel monoblocs. I won't repeat what others have said, but I will mention that I have gotten them to sync at 1/8000 sec. Yep - you can really turn noon into night.

ProFoto has more modifiers, so if you plan to buy a lot of those (expensive) items, they seem to have a better selection than most.

For everyone else - think used. Some of the better lights can be purchased on eBay or elsewhere. Hensels are quite cheap, because they are not that well known. And you can get some real deals on Speedotron Black Line pack and heads. Robust and easy to repair.

David - you might want to do a series on cheap (used/new) big lights. I believe most of your readers are looking for real bargains for their hobby.

November 11, 2009 7:26 AM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

About Hensel not being too well known - that's a question of perspective. They are available all over the world, with representatives in about the same number of countries as Profoto. In Europe, there are the big three - Hensel, Profoto and Broncolor. Broncolor certainly in details has the most advanced solutions, but is a pain from the overcomplicated user interface and the bloated price. Hensel and Profoto are pretty much on par, with a price advantage for Hensel and the easiest operation as well. After that there is a considerable gap, followed by Elinchrom, Bowens, Richter, Hedler (in this sequence).
And then, after a long dark nothing there are the various Chinese imports.

I have handled almost everything that the market had over the last 40 years, and I think that many endorsemenst for certain products stem from lack of market oversight.

Also, I have found that the majority of first time buyers do buy after consulting other users on the web or sometimes just reading the product brochures. Few really have any first hand experience at all with what they are buying.

It cannot be stressed enough: Before buying anything, hold it in your hands, attach/detach a large light former, switch it on and compare to at least one, better two other brands. this will usually give you enough insight to get an idea of what you are buying into.

November 11, 2009 11:14 AM  
Blogger silpha said...

With the addition of HDV capabilities to many of the newer model pro and semi-pro DSLRs, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of purchasing some sort of continuous lighting system as opposed to monoblocs. Up until now, I have used only speedlights and the occasional clamp light with 5000k CFLs to achieve a fairly daylight balanced setup. The problem with CFLs is light output. The advantage is low power consumption and therefore, i think they could be used as a viable portable continuous system. Another drawback is controlling their output, most are not dimmable. The ones that are dimmable are still rather costly. So i started investigating LEDs. http://litepanels.com offers some interesting options until you see the price.

November 11, 2009 12:17 PM  
Blogger king george said...

I have White Lightning and Broncolor monoblocs. I also have a number of SB 900's. I fire these units with pocket wizards. I like that I can use the pocket wizards on all lighting units rather than using the manufacturer's proprietary remotes. Does any manufacturer make a hand held remote that just controls light levels?

November 11, 2009 1:28 PM  
Blogger seenew said...

2x Alienbees B1600
1x Alienbees B800
1x Alienbees ABR800 Ringflash
Vagabond battery pack

various softboxes, grids, and other modifiers.

Small, lightweight, very portable kit.

November 12, 2009 5:34 AM  
Blogger CARL QUEDENFELD said...

I appreciate this discussion as I am narrowing my choice to Hensel or Elinchrom. I want a studio monoblock set up which I could take battery powered to location and a Ranger or Porty set up. My question is repair and rental in the US. Which one has more availability ? It seems Hensel is less well known or established ?? I like that Hensel has the Visit to accomadate location work with monoblocks. I do know you can do this with Elinchrom by getting other products to provide power but like the total system of Hensel.
Any responses appreciated
Thanks,
Carl Quedenfeld

November 15, 2009 12:40 PM  
Blogger CARL QUEDENFELD said...

I appreciate this discussion and have narrowed my choice to Hensel or Elinchrom. My desire is to have a studio monoblock set up that I can take on location one or two blocks with a battery power. Hensel has the Visit which answers this Elinchrom I would have to buy someone elses products I guess. I also want to have a battery system like the Ranger or Porty. My question is how Hensel and Elinchrom compare with repair and rental in the US ? Any input is appreciated
Thanks
Carl Quedenfeld

November 15, 2009 12:44 PM  
Blogger Shadi Eideh / شادي عيدة said...

I ordered meself my first big light few days back, and sicne i've been gravitating to action and high speed stuff, in large scenes (bikers, breakdancers, etc) , I ended up with a Ranger Speed RX AS pack and Freelight A head. Excellent recycle times and very short flash durations (1/5000), the batter lasts 250 fires on full power, and i don't think i will always have 11000WS on full power all the time during a shoot. The other system I was looking at with same specs or higher was the profoto A, but given the investment, I'd rather not lose a marriage over a light system :)

November 15, 2009 4:00 PM  
Blogger Daniel Goncalves said...

I went with the battery powered pack and head combo. The Profoto 7B. I like the portability even though it is pretty heavy (600b would be a lighter solution). I can shoot with two lights off of it with a total of 1200w/s.

I can use it in the studio as well making it very versatile. Love it. I have 2 photogenics but find myself reaching for the 7B because of the battery capability and not being tied down.

http://fotobiashoots.blogspot.com

November 17, 2009 3:16 AM  
Blogger Telmo Ferreira said...

I experimented for the 2nd time today, the Honda 2000i (European version, 230v) and it doesn't keep up with my 200w head when connected directly.

My advice is to try before you buy.

November 18, 2009 12:19 PM  
Blogger Scott Clark Photography said...

I've been using a mixture of White Lightnings and AB's for a while now. They have worked absolutely wonderfully. One of my W.L.'s smashed against a rock after being blown over by the wind while doing an outside shoot with a band, but it still works great. The cybersync radio slaves have worked flawlessly as well. My two complaints are with the cybersync they don't have a proper on/off switch which causes the batteries to drain and the WL/ABs are not compatible with international power sources. I'm currently based in Mumabia, India and so I have to shoot off of my vagabond battery for every shot. Still works great though.

November 20, 2009 8:05 AM  
Blogger rjgreenphoto said...

Unless I missed it, nobody mentioned Dynalites. I have 4 lights and a pack plus 2 monolights and have been very happy with them over the years.

November 25, 2009 8:23 AM  
Blogger C2 said...

I am interested to follow your review of products and the reasoning behind. There is a lot of marketing and then there is the real world. Pulling these apart and examining them will be interesting to watch. I settled on a AB because of accessories (from AB and others). I would interested to hear / see a review of the CyberCommander as this could be very valuable during a dynamic shooting environment.

November 29, 2009 3:51 PM  

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