Monday, April 11, 2011

An Inexpensive Studio Part 3: Better Lighting

Moving up from the super-inexpensive but not very flexible little flashes described in my last post, and skipping over shoe-mounted "speedlights," the next step up are monolights: fully-contained studio flash units with more power, built-in modeling lights, and a lot more flexibility. These are the kind of flash units most people think of when you say "studio flash" -- but they don't have to cost a lot of money. Here are some options for affordable monolights that give you all the options of expensive studio flash systems without all the cost.

To stay very much on the "inexpensive" side of things, a good option is the $59.95 Budget Studio Monolight from Adorama, shown in the image above. I decided to try these inexpensive lights a while back, and was pleasantly surprised at how well they work for such a low price. After buying one, I bought a second one, and these inexpensive little units get regular use in my studio.
Pros: Cheap, relatively small, light weight, reliable. The come with a modeling light, have user-replaceable flash tubes, and have continuously variable power settings from full-power down to 1/16th power. The built-in slave triggers work great in the studio, and will pick up another flash firing at lower power all the way across the room. The color output is pretty consistent, tending just a little bit towards the blue at the lowest power settings.
Cons: Minor, but there are a few (hey, it's $59.95!): The built-in slave triggers don't work well outdoors, especially in sunlight -- but even in the shade if they "see" a bright sky they're not too great. Outdoors they need a PC sync cord or radio trigger to be consistently reliable. The umbrella holder is friction-fit (there's no clamp-down screw), and they're sized for 8mm umbrella shafts; 7mm umbrellas fit, but wobble a bit and can slip (wrap a little masking tape around the shaft to solve this problem). Finally, with no "standard" accessory attachment system, you're mainly limited to Adorama's accessories for this flash (snoots, barn doors, softboxes), though you can use anyone's umbrellas.

Bounced into a 40" umbrella at 4 feet from a subject, at full power, they give an exposure of f/11 at ISO 100 -- perfectly respectable. If you're trying to save as much money as possible, these are likely your best option.

Stepping up a notch are my main workhorse monolights: AlienBees. Made by Paul C. Buff, these relatively inexpensive monolights took the photo world by storm when they were introduced a few years back, and they still remain one of the most popular options for photographers on a budget (or not on a budget!) -- and for good reason. I personally have two AB400 models and two AB800 models. These are solid, reliable, versatile studio monolights at a very reasonable price.
Pros: Rugged, reliable, versatile, reasonably priced. They have user-replaceable flash tubes and modeling lights, continuously variable power from full to 1/32nd power, built-in slave triggers (that work well even outdoors in sunlight), built-in cooling fans, fast recycle times, and very consistent color output at any power level. They'll take any White Lightning/AlienBees/Paul C. Buff compatible accessories, which are available from a wide variety of sources (I often use Calumet softboxes with my AlienBees, with no problems.
Cons: None of any importance! The flash color does tend a little more towards the "warm" side (more yellow) at lower power levels, but the difference is subtle, and is not any problem for post-production.

There are literally hundreds of monolights available for the budget-minded studio photographer, I've just listed two here that I personally bought and use, and am happy with. Both of these are sold by reputable and reliable companies, which is a big plus compared to something you get from China off of E-Bay. I've yet to have any support issues with any of mine, despite many years of use (6 years now on two of my AlienBees units, nearly two years on the Adorama Budget Monolights), but if you do have a problem it's great to have a company that will be around.

One note about advertised "power levels" for monolights...there's little or no consensus as to how power levels are measured or advertised in the industry, so it can be difficult at times to compare actual light output. For example, both of the units shown here say they have "160 watt-seconds" of light output at full power, yet they don't give the same output. Some of that has to do with how the flash is used, which reflector you're using, and other variables -- and some of it is differences in what's being measured. I've developed my own "standard," which is to attach an umbrella to a flash using its standard reflector, put it on full power, and meter a gray card 4 feet away. Doing that test at ISO 100, the AB400 gives a proper exposure of f/12.2, while the Adorama unit gives an exposure of f/11. My advice: do your own testing once you've made a purchase choice, so you understand what your lights are going to be giving you.

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