Don't you just love it when the box shows up from some photographic retailer and everything inside has arrived without damage? I sure do. I think I buy as many lights in a given year as I do cameras. I rarely get emotionally attached to lights but I'm of the belief that good lighting is as important to many photographs as having the right camera or the hippest lens. I got one box this year and it had my "2020 Electronic Flash of the Year" in it. I know I'm a little early but patience was never my strong suit....
But before I unveil my current champ of low cost lighting for 2020 I'd like to call out my favorite two purchases of 2019.
First up is the Godox SK 400 mark ii. A fancy name for a dirt cheap monolight from a fairly well trusted brand. I bought this in the middle of the year when a set-up shoot on a dark stage with 60 foot ceilings convinced me that modeling lights that would stay on constantly were not a luxury but a mission critical feature when it comes to focusing in dark spaces. No matter how powerful your battery powered flash unit might be pretty much all of those lumens are wasted if your AF won't lock or you can can't see where that point of sharp focus is when manually focusing your image.
I have three battery powered monolights, each with its own LED modeling light, but the issue with them is that the modeling lights are dim and only stay lit for 30 seconds. I guess it's a battery saving "feature" but it makes using them in dark environments really, really tough. After a bout of guess focusing, and having my assistant stand by one of the lights poking the modeling light button every half minute, I drove to Precision camera to check out the options. The least expensive, but still capable, electronic flash I found was the Godox SK 400 ii. It's got a metal body, allows for a wide range of Godox triggering options, has a 150 watt modeling light, recycles quickly, even at full power, takes Bowens accessories and, best of all, is only $139. I immediately bought one. I thought it might not stand up to wear and tear but we're going on to about 60 projects on which the SK 400 has been the main light so I think I've already gotten my money's worth out of it, and it still seems pristine and very reliable. It was my best flash purchase of 2019.
The other "Best Cheap Light of 2019" was, without a doubt, the Godox SL 60 W. It's an LED lighting instrument that kicks out 60 watts of clean LED lighting from a COB LED that is about one inch by one inch across, which means it does a much better job giving me hard edges than an LED panel light. This guy also takes Bowens accessories, has a very quiet built-in cooling fan and a very nice LCD read out on the back. You can go from 10% to full power with the nice, big dial on the back of the unit, in very fine little increments, which makes it very easy to control.
At around $139 for this unit, with a 7 inch reflector and a set of four way barn doors, I was very, very skeptical. I had a hard time believing it would be any good at all. But I thought I'd give it a try and ordered one to try out around the studio. After I had the light for about a week I dragged out the credit card and bought two more of them. They've been wonderful for video projects and when not in commercial use I bounce one off the office ceiling for a nice, soft and color correct office light source.
I love these lights and love the price even more. Sure, you might need more power for bigger projects, but within their design parameters they do a great job. Especially for the price. Want to stop down more? Lower your shutter speed or turn up your ISO. Godox makes more powerful units but they get big, heavy and expensive pretty quickly and you only gain a stop for every doubling of power and price. I might get one bigger unit but so far I haven't felt the need to progress beyond these bargain bad boys. Easily may favorite continuous light of 2019.
Here's what the back panel of the SL60 W LED light looks like.
Nice and uncluttered and, yes, you can use it with a supplied remote; though all you
can do it turn the power up and down. The light is one color temperature= 5600K.
But, that was last year. What have I done for me lately?
After last year's black floor, black stage, black ceiling set-up shoot fiasco (not to worry, we pulled it off --- by the skin of my teeth...) I decided I needed more cheap studio flashes with built-in, continuous (and relatively powerful) modeling lights so I went to Precision Camera looking for a couple more SK 400 mk2's. End of the year....Inventory in flux....no available stock and no chance of getting the SK's in before the middle to the end of the month.
So I went home and dialed up the online retailers, knowing I'd be able to source the Godox flash from one of them them. But when I hit the product pages I noticed a new light from Godox that was smaller, lighter and even less expensive than the SK 400ii. In fact, there were two models; the MS300 and MS200, both from Godox. A bit of reading let me know that the model numbers refer to the watt second rating of each light.
Since the only specification that was different between the two lights was the power rating, and the price difference between the two was a measly $10 I opted to order two of the MS300s. It was ordered from Amazon.com so I figured that if I didn't like something about the lights I could always send them back for a refund. They arrived in nice, well designed (from an aesthetic/advertising perspective) boxes and come only with the body of the flash (with flash tube), the modeling lamp (which you must install), a power cord, and a rugged cover to protect the flash tube and modeling light when traveling. They do not come with a reflector.
Not to worry, the vendor had a special offer; you only needed to click on the optional reflector and it would included free of charge.
The construction of the MS300 lights is almost all plastic, including the stand mount and tensioning control for tilting the flash. The receptor ring for Bowens accessories attachment is metal and, honestly, the plastic parts seem like they are well made and will stand up to normal, conscientious use. You won't be able to throw them, unprotected, onto the bed of an old truck but if you generally take care of stuff you'll be fine.
The lights can be triggered by most of the recent and current Godox radio triggers and some of the triggers (XT-1, for sure) can also be used to control the power settings. If you don't use radio triggers the lights come with built in optical slaves which can be triggered by a separate flash. The modeling light controls allow for manual control, proportional ratio, and off. There's a recycle beep that lets you know when the unit has recycled, but you can turn this off, if it bugs you. At full power it takes about 1.8 seconds to recycle. Not quite as speedy as the SK400 ii but perfectly adequate for most uses.
The one thing the experienced user and beginner of modern flashes alike needs to know, about this model, is that there is no "auto power dump" mechanism. What that means is that when you have the flash set for high power, say, 1/2 power, and you turn it down to a lower power like 1/16th, you'll need to fire a frame or hit the test button to get rid of the excess power in the capacitors. Old timers will remember this from the days of big "pack and head" systems but users of many other modern studio flashes will not be familiar with the idea of "dumping the power" to get to that lower power setting. Many more expensive flashes do this for you automatically as you turn down the power.
So, I ended up with two 300 watt second flash units, complete with internal cooling fans and all the stuff a studio photographer might want, along with two umbrella reflectors for the princely sum of $218. Or $109 each. At this price you could almost consider them disposable.
MS300 back panel.
big modeling light? check!
Since they don't come in an array of bright, tacky colors and they don't have giant illustrations of insects on the side of the product housings, there's little chance clients will think one way or another about your choice of lights. So long as they keep flashing on command. Three of these would make a great starter kit for a financially struggling photographer while the well-heeled practitioner might even consider them to be "disposable." Consider this, if this light put your checked luggage over your limit you might be forced to choose between a $109 light or a $140 luggage charge. Leaving the light behind would be $31 less painful.
Need some flashes with good modeling lights? Don't want to invest a lot of money?
And that's why, unless something more fantastic comes along these pups are already my "Cheap Ass Lights of 2020."