Flash, flash and more flash. Why do I buy what I buy and what do I regret having bought?

You would think that after years of working in the field I'd know exactly what tool to own for the majority of the work I do.  And you'd be wrong.  When it comes to cameras the trick is keeping up with improvements in digital sensors and deciding which increases in megapixels will drive the rest of the market and where it's profitable for you to end up on that curve.  And cameras are a moving target.  Their bar changes.  At least the manufacturers have done a really good job convincing us that we're dealing with an upward moving bar.  I'm not always sure.

In lighting though it would seem logical to assess what you need for most assignments and buy one time. After all, the quality of the photons coming out of the business ends of flash equipment is all pretty much the same, right? Yeah.  That's the way bright, linear people tend to do stuff.... but.

We bought flash gear in the 1990's based on a couple parameters:  1.  We traveled a lot so it needed to be robust.  2.  We used medium format film cameras with slow film so the need for power was a given.  3.  We fantasized that we'd only need to buy new flash gear once every ten years or so.  That meant that the actual purchase price wasn't as big an issue as it is with gear that you replace every few years.

At the beginning of the 1990's (the medium format decade) I'd been shooting with big Norman PD2000 packs for the better part of ten years.  It was old and very heavy technology.  It was cumbersome to change power levels.  You'd switch banks and flip big switches but there was nothing like the rotating knobs that allowed you to seamlessly turn down power.  The heads weighed a lot.  The boxes weighed in at nearly 25 pounds a piece.  In those days you could always bribe Skycaps to look the other way where weight was concerned, but that changed.

I looked around on the market and found the Profoto stuff.  We bought a big box (2400 watt seconds) for those times we still dragged out the 4x5 camera.  We bought a couple of the 1200 Acute systems for all the rest of our work.  Most shoots were still happening in the studio.  By mid-decade more and more shoots were ending up on location and we bought two 300 watt second Profoto Monolights and a 600 watt second Monolight.  I thought we'd never change again.

Along came digital.  Once the cameras stablilized (around 2005) and started delivering clean files at 400 ISO and even 800 ISO the big problem with using studio flashes, especially for portrait work, was not having too little power but not being able to turn the power on a box or a monolight down far enough.

When I worked with the 300 watt second monolights I could only turn them down to one quarter power.  But if I wanted to work close with a big softbox and wider apertures I'd have to McGyver all kinds of diffusion onto the fronts of the boxes.  The 1200's and 2400's sat mostly unused.

That's around the time Alien Bees came onto the market.  They were small and light and had built in fans.  And you couldn't beat the cost.  I bought a set for two reasons:  1.  They could be turned down.  Way down. and, 2. They could be used with an external battery pack, called a Vagabond.  And if you didn't have much of a budget you could still do things with the lights that we would have struggled with a decade earlier.  The downsides of the Alien Bees were the crappy modifier interface (doesn't hold huge stuff well),  the cheezy product design (butt ugly logos all over the place) and the relatively low build quality.  Yes, the light was fine and the service is good but man, you pay the price in aesthetic joy and ergonomics.....

We got so many "funny" comments from clients about the giant bees on the sides of the lights that I started having the assistants cover them with black gaffer's tape.  But the cincher was the variable color temperature at different power settings.  It's easy to make universal corrections but if one light is different than another light in the same scene it can be problematic.  You'll spend a lot of quality time in post production trying to hit some sort of balance.

So, we had Profoto studio lights and monolights because they were bullet proof reliable and we had tons of accessories that fit together.  The mounting rings were up to the task of holding seven foot Octabanks and other crazy accessories.  They looked like real gear.  Clients got it.  And we had Alien Bees for shots of golf foursomes on the 9th hole and CEO on the pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake.

But even with all this stuff we still needed battery powered camera flashes.  They come in handy when shooting corporate events and stuff at night.  If we were shooting Nikon we'd need SB-600's and SB-800's.  When we switched to Canon we needed EX 580's and EX 430's.  Then I started doing minimalist style shoots with the smaller lights and we added more and more of those.  Which culminated in a book project, which culminated in four more book projects.

After a while I got fed up with the Alien Bees plastic construction and the slight color shifts when I changed power and decided to upgrade the tool kit for exterior location work.  There were two front runners I could afford.  One was the Profoto 600b Acute with a head and the other was the Elinchrom Ranger RX AS system with one head.  I started with the Profoto because it's much lighter and, for the most part I've been happy with it.  A couple of downsides:  Sometimes, with bright sun and big diffusers even the 600 watt seconds isn't enough.  And when you use it in those conditions, at full power, you quickly go thru your battery charge (about 100-125 full power pops).  And at those settings the recycle can get a bit long.  I love shooting with the system just about everywhere so I picked up three more batteries and that buys me a lot of comfort level......

After a year with the Profoto 600b I stumbled across a great deal on a demo package of the Elinchrom RX AS with an extra battery and reflector, case, etc.  I snapped it up with the intention of selling the Profoto but now, over a year later, I still have both.

What do I like about the Ranger?  It pops out 1100 watt seconds and will do so 250 times in a row with one battery charge.  Drop the power to 600 watt seconds and I'm good for well over 500 flashes.  That's cool.  With two batteries you pretty much have a full day of shooting covered with no sweat.  And the top panel is all sealed.  All the touch switches are weather sealed.  It's so......safety, safety.

What don't I like about the Ranger?  Well, the powerpack weighs a whopping 18 pounds.  And the way accessories and speedrings attach to the heads isn't as solid and worry-proof as the Profoto system.  And I wish you could leave the modeling lights on for longer than 15 or 30 seconds.

So, when I need to carry lights further than 100 yards from the car it's generally the Profoto system that comes with me.  When I can put stuff on the cart I go with the Elinchroms.  I'm generally agnostic about the quality differences between the two.

Yesterday I was at the camera store getting rid of some excess tripod when I stumbled across two Elinchrom plug-in-the-wall monolights in a Pelican case for a decent price.  I bought them, undoing the conservational steak I had going for about seven minutes with the consigning of the sticks.

So now I'm thinking about rationalizing down to one system.  And it's hard because there's always the nostalgic and emotional context of past use and past reliability.  But I think I'm taking the reverse plunge.  I've long since sold off the Alien Bees but now I think it's time to say good bye to the old Profoto stuff.  I'm packing up the 600e Acute and two heads.  Saying goodbye to the last 600 w/s Profoto Compact monolight and aloha! to the mountain of accumulated accessories.

I can't quite let go of the Acute B (battery system) and head.  I like it so much for locations.

reality. Most of the stuff we do could be done with one small set of monolights and one battery system.  In fact, you could probably do portraits with camera flashes if you wanted to.  I'd miss the modeling lights and the fast recycle and I'd worry about battery packs on a long day of shooting.

I'm not doing very much studio work these days and when I do still life I'm tending to use continuous lights more and more.  So nothing special needed in the studio.  I don't like a lot of different lights in portrait shots; usually just two:  One on the background and one as the main light.  I prefer a passive fill.  More and more I like the look of just using available light.

I guess if I started over from scratch today I'd see how things would work with one big battery system and one smaller battery system.  Something like the Profoto Acute B for the big main light and just a Canon 580 EX2 for the background.  I'd be willing to be I could do a huge percentage of my work that way.


I spoke to a class last week and I really had to stop and think about my recommendations.  The days of big projects with lots of lights seem to be behind us now.  There's so much to be said for clean 3200 ISO and just little splashes of light.  We don't spend a lot of time constructing big sets.  Even the people who used to do this now shoot most things in chunks and pieces, optimizing as they go, and then let the retouchers assemble everything just right in post production.  To my mind the future is in rentals.  You'll always need enough light to do a good set of portrait lights in this business.  But they can be a small set of monolights with fast recycling and a good selection of modifiers.  Everything else has become specialty lighting and as long as there are good rental sources I'd rather rent than own.

Rule of Thumb

Use it once a quarter?  Rent it.  Use it once a month?  That's a borderline between rent and buy.  If you love having the product around then buy it.  If it's boring but handy, rent it.  Use it more than once a month?  You need to own one.

What Changed?

When we started shooting years ago we shot everything in the studio and everything with flash.  Big flash.  We didn't do video.  We didn't do continuous lighting.  Most studio pros did not also do event/reportage shooting.  Now we do everything.  And it's not possible to own every light for every job that might come along.  The video industry is all about the rental and all the rental gear is billed to the client.  It's part of the job.  Specialty gear is the same way.  We used to shoot three or four days a week, now most shooters are happy to get three or four good, solid jobs a month.  We need less, not more overhead.   We need more, not less flexibility.  Renting makes that all work.

As the economy continues to change we're starting to see adaptations.  The first thing to go was employee overhead.  I can't think of a single photograph I know who still has an employee.  Office managers have become freelance producers or contract book keepers.  All assistants are contractors.
The next thing to go was studio overhead.  No more air conditioning and heating and paying rent on 3,000 whether you used it or not.  Now we work out of home offices and small share offices.  Our office equipment is usually a laptop and an inkjet printed.  Two or three outboard harddrives for back up.  Next up will be all the lighting gear.  There's some stuff that's hard or silly to source.  Like basic light stands and nets and scrims.  And like I said above, you'll want your basic portrait kit.  But to be efficient everything else should be considered specialty gear and rented and charged accordingly.

Judgement?  Nope.  It's not a good thing or a bad thing.  It just is.  If you want to survive in this market you'll have to manage cash flow and manage the resources you bring to bear for the clients.  That means not wasting money on stuff you aren't efficiently using.  It's good to remember that what your client is buying is your ability to problem solve and to deliver a visual product that moves the client's game forward.  They are not hiring you for your gear.  A guy with a Vivitar 285 who can deliver a look and a style that makes consumers hunger for the client's product will get the job based on what's in his book, not what kind of gear inventory is stacked in his garage.

When they removed the financial barriers and the technical barriers to practicing commercial photography the industry re-defined what is important.  All that's important is your ability to deliver the goods.  Nothing else enters the equation.  Elinchrom versus Broncolor versus Profoto versus Alien Bees is a useless exercise if the guy who wins the jobs does so by leveraging available light.  That's about it.
We really do have to sell our vision now.  And sometimes the inventory just gets in the way.

Regrets.  I wasted time and money with cheap flashes.  Whether it was the Alien Bees or some older Sunpak units.  I regret not always being able to say "goodbye" to gear when it's time to move on.  The older Profoto gear worked well but as soon as I hit the wall on not being able to turn it down enough I should have liquidated the collection and moved on.  I regret not getting top of the line battery systems earlier.  I did too much cobbling of stuff together to compensate for either lack of power in the Alien Bees or plastic mounts that stripped or weak mounting hardware for softboxes.  One good gust is enough to wrench off a softbox and rake the speedring across the flashtube.   And I love the water resistance of the Elinchrom Rangers.  Can't imagine bringing anything else along in a heavy fog or a 100% humidity day.

All those are small regrets and for the most part compensated by their inflection on my learning curve.  It's all a building process.

Buy once?  I should be so lucky.  I guess financial competence goes to the incurious.  I always wanted to know what the next system would do.  I guess I could stand to be a bit less  curious.....

Curious about all the lights out there?  We've got a book for that: