The quick and successful search for an affordable and feature rich monolight. Why and what.

Neewer Vision VC-400 HS.

Last year I got rid of a lot of old, battered and obsolete monolights. It was a clean sweep. I got rid of ancient Profoto units as well as orphaned Elinchroms and a pair of Photogenic monolights. It felt good to push out stuff from the "early" days of studio flash lighting, to streamline my studio space and to rationalize the inventory. I don't regret the "massive purge" for a second. 

And while I'm happy shooting most portraits and non-moving subjects with a brace of Aputure LightStorm LED panels there are times when I do need to use flash to do some of my work. After a bit of dancing around on Amazon.com I came across a product from a company called, "Neewer" that seemed to fit the bill. It was the Neewer Vision 4 and it had features I wanted at a price just about anybody could afford. At the time the light was $289 but I noticed (probably due to a decline in general interest in lighting) that recently they've been priced as low as $189. A full featured monolight for a fraction of what we used to pay for a brand name, hot shoe flash. 

I bought one Vision 4 to try it out. Here's what I liked: It doesn't have a power cord, all power comes from a big rechargeable lithium ion battery that's nicely incorporated into the body of the flash. The interchangeable battery is rated to provide up to 700 full power flashes. Nothing to sneeze at since
the unit is rated at 300 watt seconds per pop! I can vouch for around 500 flashes but haven't done any recent shoots that require many more exposures at full power... At half power or lower I've shot well over 700 exposures in a day of shooting and still had battery reserves.

The Vision 4 comes with a standard reflector, a flash tube cover, a very nice and compact flash trigger and a charger for the battery. You can get more batteries for somewhere around $60 each, if you need back ups... The interface on the back is digital and pretty straightforward. The Vision 4 even comes with a modeling light ---- but that is also its only Achille's heel. (To quote Hugh Brownstone, "Hold that thought."). 

After working with the one Vision 4 for nearly five months I ordered a second, and then a third. They now constitute the core of my electronic flash lighting system and have proven themselves to be reliable, indoors and out. For $189 per unit they are an insane bargain at a time when 1 Profoto B1X unit is over $2,000, and even a Godox battery powered AD600 Pro unit is $900. Both of the later units are more powerful but.....really......the times you'll need 500 and 600 watt seconds are.....limited. I recommend the Vision 4 lights to everyone but.... (and now we come to the crux of my request to "Hold that thought."). 

"Everyone but" people who need strong and consistent, continuous modeling lights with which to do their work. I thought I had some good workarounds to compensate for the two weak points of the Vision 4 units modeling lights but I was nearly undone on a recent shoot and I should have known better.

The issue is the built-in LED modeling light on the Vision 4; it is a fairly low output LED unit centered in the middle of the flash tube. It's the equivalent of a 30 or 40 watt conventional light bulb but the real issue is, that to save power, the LED unit stays on for only 30 seconds. Each time you want to use the modeling light you have to hit the button again and work fast. It's not optimal if you are working under conditions that feature low ambient lights levels and if you need the modeling light under low light conditions in order to help your camera and lens combination achieve quick and reliable focus.

My "workaround" in previous low light shooting environments has been to bring along a small LED panel and to aim it at the front of the softbox, or into the umbrella or diffuser I am using, and to try and make that work as an "always on" modeling light. It's never  powerful enough and I find myself chaffing at having to move two items every time I want to make one lighting change. I'm also tired of dragging around an extra light stand per unit just for the LED panels.

In most situations the ambient light is ample enough to allow good composition and focus so it's not something that crops up on every shoot, but it can be annoying. I don't really need the modeling lights for their primary function; checking lighting effects on my subjects, because I've got an ample backlog of experience which usually does of a good job of helping me set up lights almost blindfolded. 

So why, after months of using the Vision 4 units with inadequate modeling lights, did I finally feel like biting the financial bullet, confessing my hubris, coming to grips with my faltering judgement, and deciding I really did need at least one flash unit with a conventional modeling light?

The confession: There we were, getting ready to photograph the actor who will be playing "Belle" in Zach Theatre's upcoming production of "Beauty and the Beast." The theater had classes or rehearsals going on in every space on the campus and the only venue we had for our photo shoot was on the main stage at the Topfer Theater. We brought an appropriate background but the theater had not yet designed and implemented the lighting for the show so we'd have to make our own. 

The stage floor is dark, the ceiling are dark and incredibly high, the sides of the stage are curtained in black velvet and the few work lights that were available in the moment weren't enough. I set up my three Vision 4 units and placed small, battery powered LED panels in front of the main light and the fill light. At the distances I wanted to use the lights from the subject the illumination from the LED panels was weaker than the argument for wide reaching tariffs.

But why not just use the big LED panels I'm always writing about? 

Well, this was one instance where we were counting on the motion freezing power of flash. "Belle" would be spinning around in a full dress and we wanted to freeze all the action. We also wanted very sharp images that would hold up well to a huge, newspaper wrap around. We knew we'd lose sharpness from both the size of the final enlargement as well as the four color printing process on cheap newsprint. We wanted frozen movement and eyelashes with detail even though we were comping for a full body shot with additional space around for cropping..... Just the right use for studio electronic flash. 

My camera struggled to hit focus until I turned one of the LEDs around and used it directly as a focusing aid. Not an optimal way to do things! It looked like tacky technique.

I finally got my focusing down to a reliable pattern and we finished the shoot with good images but the lighting part of the equation was harder than a lazy guy like me thought it should be. I started getting nostalgic for traditional modeling lights. 

I decided that what I needed was (at least) one fixture that used a 150-250 watt modeling light and that really meant that battery powering was out of the question. I'd have to suck it up and bring at least one light that needed to be plugged into the wall. I had a good idea of what was available from the "big boys" of traditional studio flash but I was (and am) loathe to spend the kilo bucks needed to go back and play in that realm. I was also keenly aware of the amazing progress in quality that some of the Chinese companies have made in the flash industry. With the Neewer Vision 4's as a good example of an inexpensive, quality product I started (and ended) my search with the Neewer product line. 

I was looking for a unit that had a perfect combination of features: I wanted a bright and continuous modeling light, at least 300 watt seconds of power per pop (especially for those times when I shoot outdoors with big soft boxes and try to over power the sun), I wanted a recycle time under one second at full power, I wanted a (almost universal) Bowens speed ring mount, and I wanted a rugged unit that had a cooling fan. Sometimes I shoot hundreds of shots quickly when doing marketing assignments for theaters and I don't want to stop and wait for flashes to cool off.  I also wanted to pay less than $400 for this "dream" unit.

It all seemed like an impossible "ask" but I jumped in and started researching. 

What I found was the Vision VC-400 HS. For me the important specs were those about the modeling light. It's 150 watts and can be set to full power, or proportional power. Nice. The modeling light features a "soft start" which means the circuits ramp up delivery of power to the lamp slowly which extends use life tremendously. One box checked! The unit is rated at 400 watt seconds. Second box checked. The VC-400 HS has a feature which allows you to switch between an extremely short flash duration or highly accurate color consistency. This is extremely cool. You can set the flash to deliver pops with 1/8,000th of a second duration. That's enough to freeze most motion very well. When you don't need  the super fast duration you get pristine color from frame to frame. The unit will also fire at its full 400 watt seconds up to 20 times in a row with a recycle rate of less than one second. Another box checked!

The other side of the coin is that this fast duration capability, and the ability to cycle at full power so quickly, come with a trade off in overall weight. The unit is almost 2.5 kilograms. The weight and the solid build come from the need to have larger and beefier capacitors which, if you only use the units in the "consistent color mode" represent an over-engineered design that should be reliable and long lasting. The icing on the cake is a built-in fan cooling that's nice and quiet.

Finally, the unit has a built-in 2.4 GHz receiver ( the radio trigger is an optional extra). I was happy to find that the triggers which ship for free with the Vision 4 units also work flawlessly with this unit. I have one out to play with and two more as back-ups.

The ad copy says these light are "engineered in Germany" and the VC-400 HS is specifically designed for professional advertising and commercial use. 

I have allowed the flash to "form" its capacitors by leaving it plugged in, set to full power and turned on overnight. I've tested every function and am absolutely delighted by every thing I've played with. The VC-400 HS uses the same accessories as the Vision 4's and matches the look of the overall product family. I can't imagine a better flash for anywhere near this cost. It set me back....
$189. Less than the cost of a Magnum reflector from Profoto....

My close photographer friend, who is addicted to European brands of lighting, chided me for buying "cheap lights." He'd just bought a set of the Profoto B1X units. I riposted that I could replace this light 20 times for the price he just paid for his two light set. We'll hope it never comes to that. 

As photo savant, Frank G. said to me, "Once the photons leave the flash tube they don't remember the brand." Brilliant.

Neewer Vision VC-400 HS.

I like these units so much I'm sticking some affiliate links and ads in this post.
Never obligated to buy anything here or pay me anything, but if you give these lights a try and buy them from Amazon.com after clicking thru from here I'll make a small amount of money and you will pay no more than the usual price anyway. If you and the rest of the VSL crew buy a lot of these lights I'll just turn around and use the cash to buy one more. I like them that much. 

Time will tell, though, about overall reliability. I'll keep you posted.

Thanks, Kirk


Gato said...

One thing I like about my Chinese lights is that they are cheap enough I can keep spares on hand.

I've only had one failure on a job -- Not a flash problem, the cold shoe mount broke and dropped a Yongnuo about 7 feet to concrete. I just went out to the car, got another flash and kept shooting.

Last time I got an estimate on a flash repair it was $175, plus shipping. And a 2 week turnaround. Makes $189 look mighty attractive.

A Wright said...

Commenting to say thanks for the blog. I am one of your RSS feed readers so I will try an remember to drop by "in person" from time to time :-)

Doug Levy said...

"The times you need 500 and 600ws are limited." I find that really interesting. I use my 2400 and 1200 ws packs in that range all the time - mostly so I can throw light a distance or through multiple modifiers/layers of diffusion. But it's nice that those settings are 1/4 or 1/2 power, not full. The 2400ws pack is 3s at full power - I find for how I work 3s is a LONG time.

neopavlik said...

Nice find, I have a tendency to be clumsy so modeling lights like that are a no go for me...I can just see myself breaking it and drawing blood on myself while I'm trying to downplay the accident and continue with the shoot.

I use the 1200W Xplor Extension head outside a bunch for HSS because I try to balance the sun at wide open apertures and need to toss out a lot of light. Because of that I'm tempted by the Elinchrom ELB 1200 (for HS). The Profoto B1(X) has that neat way of attaching modifiers; but not enough power and I loved the exposed dome/tubes by Profoto so the recessed tube is disappointing.