My latest infatuation. Cheap studio flash. Here: The Elinchrom D-Lite 4 it
When I started out in photography there were basically two choices in buying flash. If you were shooting large and medium format film (and most of us were) you chose between Speedotron and Norman strobes. The Speedotron Black Line Stuff was heavy, cool and expensive. The Norman PD series was heavy, less overtly cool and slightly less expensive. There were plenty of inexpensive options but all of them were limited by their power output. Novatrons were a popular choice for the "dirt cheap" option but all the dirt cheap stuff was off the table for serious shooters because we needed raw power and only the big brands offered that. The basic gear was a 2,000 or 2400 watt second box that weighed in at around 30 pounds, recycled in about 4 seconds at full power and was a pain in the butt to ratio. If you shot lots of still life or big sets you might opt for the 4,000 watt second units. Most of us did our still life and food shooting with 4x5 sheet film and to get a good f-stop for deep focus (f22-f32) on the slow film of the time required raw power.
So the big, high powered boxes became a truism in our business. The belief was that these were essential to "professional" work. Then the bulk of photographers moved to medium format for their work in the 1990's and all of a sudden we needed less light and more control. That's when the Profoto and Elinchrom monolights became popular, along with Dynalite packs and heads. The stuff was sturdy and metal and was good at the "wear and tear" aspect of our work. And over time habituation made these units and the bigger units that came before them the defacto standard for "professional" gear.
But a funny thing happened. Canon and Nikon started making digital cameras that could be used at....gulp....400 and 800 ISO and, along with their smaller format sensors, the need for raw power from big flashes vanished. Back in 2008 I wrote a book about the phenomenon called Minimalist Lighting that was a very popular look at how the change in cameras and imaging in general allowed us to use smaller and smaller lights to accomplish what we used to do with raw tonnage and brute force. But most of us already had substantial investments in "old school" lights and we kept using them.
I recently sold all of my Profoto boxes and heads and monolights (except for the battery powered Acute 600b) and I looked at a studio that was, all at once, freed up from the tyranny of traditional practice and conventional flash wisdom. I knew I needed some lights in order to do the more or less traditional work that came my way and I was ready for a change just for change's sake. I love my battery powered Elinchrom Ranger RX so I started looking for some cheap monolights to augment that system. At the very least I'd be able to use the same reflectors and speedrings. I thought I'd hit the sweet spot of capability and price when I found a set of used traditional Elinchrom monolights, a 500 watt and a 250 watt set of their original, made in Switzerland, metal monolights. They worked well and the price was astoundingly good. $400 for the pair. In a Pelican case. From a trusted dealer.
I thought I'd done well until I used them at a portrait shoot. I banged my head against the wall in frustration. I'd become spoiled at the way you could dial down speedlights from Canon and Nikon in small increments until you got down to the point where you were adding little puffs of light instead of belligerent blasts of photons. Even with both monolights dialed down to the minimum I was still getting too much light. Way too much for my taste.
So I started looking again. I don't like to use speedlights (Canon 580 ex2's, Nikon SB-800's) for studio portrait shoots for several reasons: 1. They are not graceful in accepting all of my favorite modifiers. 2. They don't have modeling lights. 3. They don't recycle quickly enough. I was looking for all of the benefits I used to get with traditional lights but I wanted them to be more flexible in terms of power settings and I really wanted modeling lights. And here's what I finally found out:
All of those cheap brands of lights that we'd been turning our noses up to for years were exactly what I wanted. I've been on a buying frenzy for the last week and a half and I haven't even spent as much as the replacement cost of one 600 watt second Profoto monolight.
So, what have I been buying and why?
I started with one of these (above). It's an Elinchrom D-Lite 4 IT. It does some stuff I don't really care about like working with pre-flash pulses on speedlights and it has some sort of built in radio trigger called a Skyport which is largely meaningless to me. But what it does have is: 400 watt seconds of power, usable over a six stop range. The power range is set electronically in 1/10th of a stop increments. It recycles at full power in less than two seconds. It has a one hundred watt modeling light. It has the same mounting ring as my other Elinchrom gear. The modeling light can be proportional or max or off. There's a fan that's thermostatically controlled. It cost about $300. Did I already mention that it's small and light? This is most of what I want in a portrait light. And it's nearly $200 less than my Canon 580 ex2. Is it "professional"? It will be the next time I use it to create a nice portrait for a big company and I process their credit card. I like it enough that I bought a second one. It came in a package with an umbrella and a reflector. Works for me.
Time moves on. I can carry two or three of these onto a location by myself, use them to photograph an executive at just the right fstop and then pack up and get them back to the car by myself. That's the state of professional photography right now: pragmatism.
Will these lights last a decade like my Profoto gear did? If I handle them correctly I assume they will. If I fling them around like a gorilla in an old Samsonite commercial then I doubt even the most robust lights will last very long. Electronic interfaces are more robust than physical ones. Smaller lights have less inertia.
But I didn't stop there. I thought about acquiring some more lights to use on backgrounds and in situations where I needed to add accent lights, hair lights (which I despise but sometimes need) and generally fill in the lighting inventory. I was browsing at my regular local store when I spied an even smaller set of lights from a company called Interfit.
Another cheap but workable light. The Interfit EX 150.
I played around with a demo and found them to also be very nice. They aren't built to flash and recycle thousands of times a day, five days a week but then that's not the reality of my business anymore either. On a good day we'll do a bunch of portraits. And I'll shoot maybe 1,000 frames. I thought these would be just right for the times when I wanted to add a puff of light to a background for separation. Things like that. And, miracle of miracles, these lights take the same accessories as the Elinchroms.
When I asked the price I almost fell down on the floor. I thought Alien Bees flashes were cheap until I played with these. The price of a "kit" was $299. That included two 150 watt second monolights, complete with tungsten halogen modeling lights and reflectors. And the kit also came with both an umbrella (decent enough) and a 24 by 24 inch softbox (flimsy but workable). Two lights that have built in slaves, 1.5 second recycle time, audible recycle alerts, modeling lights, a six stop, click stop power range. Wow. I'll take them. It was only after going thru the box in the studio that I realized the kit also came with two light stands. Not big enough to use with bigger modifiers but nice to have when you need to clamp some foamcore reflectors onto something for a little fill.
The bright back end of the EX150. Slave port, audible alert and power levels.
After several years and several books about shooting with battery powered lights I'm here to tell you that there's still a reason to buy studio flashes. Most of the reasons rotate around fast recycling and endless power but if you've explored the cost and complexity of making your Vivitar 283 fit into a large softbox, diffused the light from the 283 to work best with the modifier, placed the whole contraption on a lightstand and added triggering to the mess you'll know that you've already spent far more on that set up than on one of these monolights. And with the monolight you'll get a modeling light, stand attachment, built in IR slave, audible recycle alert, and some place to easily hang all your modifiers.
I'm not making a sales pitch for the two lights above. What I am saying, at least as far as my business is concerned, is that the changes in camera characteristics make much of what we believed about "professional" electronic flash equipment irrelevant. We need less power. A quantum leap less power. But we still want the features that make visualizing our final photographs easier. We are confronted with price resistance at every step. Our new clients are unaware of what came before and have no expectation that we'll arrive with Sherpas toting steamer cases full of big metal flash gear. Nor are they willing to pay for the care and feeding of our Sherpas or the purchase and upkeep of yesterday's heavy metal.
I see myself realigning my business with the new reality. Spend less. Get more. What my clients are paying for is not raw gear. They are paying me to know how to light, how to shoot and how to think. If they need big lights and the 1100 watt second Elinchrom Ranger pack isn't enough we'll be glad to rent the biggest ones around. And charge the rental to the job.
I think we should have basic lighting gear. Enough to do the routine jobs that we market to our core clients. But the days have having $100,000 worth of lighting and shooting inventory, and being ready to handle any task, no matter how Herculean, are long gone.
My Profoto gear was getting long in the tooth. It had all seen many flashes. Many take offs and landings. Much time banging around in cases. But over the last few years we've been pressing more and more speedlights into service. In many cases the portability was efficient, the set up quicker, the transportation to and from job sites less arduous. But the real story is that I used the lights almost always at their minimum power settings. And sometimes I was still throwing ND over the front to get the power down. That's why the speedlights kept making appearances---they could be turned down so I could get my money's worth out of that Zeiss 85mm 1.4. I could shoot at f-stops that looked interesting like 2.8 and 4.0 instead of the workmanlike 5.6 and f8.
When I priced replacing the Profotos I tallied up $6000. And that didn't include all the speedrings, beauty dishes and reflectors I had on the shelves. The new gear from Profoto is good but is it three times as good? Is it five times as good? Do the light shapers really matter when most of the time the light is coming thru huge scrims or large Octabanks? For me, the answer was no.
Where does this leave me? Well....I've got the big Elinchrom Ranger and two heads for stuff that needs maximum light. The plus is that this system is battery powered so I can use it anywhere. I've got the two, traditional monolights in 250 and 500 watt configurations. They are reliable and very sturdy. I've got two of the D-Lite 4 IT's. I love these lights. They are highly flexible within their power range. And now I've got two, small Interfit EXD 150's and they work so well on white backgrounds.
Why did I keep the Profoto 600b? I like using it on remote locations because it's smaller and lighter than the big Elinchrom. If you need to walk a mile or two from your vehicle you'll appreciate that. I also have four batteries for the unit so I can get thru a day of shooting without searching for some place to plug in the charger. Finally, I've got beauty dishes and grid spots and speedrings for the unit. They come in handy. But mostly I'm not ready to get rid of it for nostalgic reasons. I find it comforting. Crazy but true. I've done good work with it. Better work that I've done lately with conventional studio strobes and I guess I've become superstitious.
Wrap it up. Inevitably someone will ask me what I think of some other brand out there on the market. Or some other line of flashes within a company's vertical inventory. Why don't I have the Alien Bees anymore? Why didn't I get the expensive Elinchroms? Have I played with the Speedotron Force 10 or the Comets? Why don't I love Skyports and take advantage of being able to change level settings remotely like Scott Kelby and Will Crockett?
Because I'm only one guy and I'm more interested in what I want and need. No one pays me to endlessly review all the options. I had Alien Bees but I got rid of them after I did the studio lighting book because I hated the fit and finish of the stand adapters and the slider for changing power levels. I also hated the garish logos everywhere. The lights themselves never failed me and are in use in studios all over the country. They work fine. I didn't get the expensive Elinchroms (BRXI) because they cost too much and I didn't need all the bells and whistles. Have I played with the Speedo Force 10? Yes. It's a fine (and heavy) monolight. I always found Comet to be far too expensive for what you get. Will Crockett and Scott Kelby are sponsored by Elinchrom and I'm not. I can still move about the studio and twiddle a knob if I want to change the power setting. Nothing really moves so quickly that I need instantaneous setting power (ISP) in my day to day work.
I like inexpensive lights. I've found that the photons don't really care. I can make portraits with LED's, florescents, tungsten lights and daylight. I love to shove more of the light thru huge scrims or softboxes. That seems to eliminate a lot of differences in the actual quality of light. The modifier becomes the look. If the lights don't work out for me I haven't sunk so much capital in them that I'll cry in my beer. I'll learn, blog about it and move on.
But it's important to understand that a lot of our "common knowledge" about professional lighting is based on habit, tradition and old information. It's all changed now. It's all in flux. Control now trumps raw power. Accessibility (cost) now trumps absolute build perfection. But in the end the thing that remains important is your point of view and your ability to use whatever light you have in your tool box as beautifully and masterfully as you can.....
Addendum: All product photos done with available light using an Olympus EP-2 and a 60mm lens from the late 1960's.