Choices: External Power Sources

You use a few 60-watt-second strobes long enough, and you are going to start to wonder about alternatives to AA batteries. The very thing that makes the flashes attractive - small size and light weight - also limits their power output, recycle time and number of flashes.

Here's the normal track for most shooters:

You start with AA's, of course. Then you want more total flash capacity, so you buy a Quantum QB1+ battery, because it costs less than the high-voltage stuff.

But since it is only a 6-volt system, so you gain no advantage on recycle time. And you are still carrying around the extra weight.

After a while, you start to resent the fact that you are carrying around the extra weight without the extra recycle speed, so you buy a hi-voltage battery and you wonder why you didn't do that in the first place.

And yes, I know there are some cool other 6-volt systems out there, too. Some garage engineer is always introducing a new 6-volt rechargeable batt. But again, it comes back to this: If you are gonna carry around the weight, you may as well bite the bullet and get the super-fast manual recycle times. They make the flashes far more versatile.

Here's the thing. The plain old AA batts are a really pretty good deal, when it comes down to it. If you work for a paper, they are normal supplies. If not, you can get them for about 20 cents each in bulk at Wal-Mart or Home Depot. They have a bad rap, if you ask me.

The Ni-MH rechargeables are okay, but they run at 1.2 volts each instead of 1.5 for alkalines. So recycle time is further hurt, and the flash thinks the batts have worn out before they actually are.

EDIT: Points taken (from the comments section) on the Ni-MH batts. They seem to be a very good choice if high-speed recycle is not important. And the batteries definitely are environment friendly, which a big plus. They are also easier on the wallet in the long term.

Apparently there is another Nikon batt pack that uses them, too, as per another comment. Although I do not know how it fits so many different SB's, some of which have different Hi-V connectors. More info would be appreciated.

Thanks much for the input, guys. And if you are not reading the comments, you are missing out on lotsa good info...

If I had it to do all over again - and it is a constant lament that I don't - I would have bypassed the heavy-duty 6-volt external packs and just used AA's for most of the time. If you are gonna be shooting a lot, stick another 4-pack of fresh batts in your pocket or waist pack. Easy, lightweight and cheap.

(You wedding guys are a different breed, of course. You need capacity, and lots of it. Quantum QB1+ battery packs may well be the best economical choice for you.)

Even now, most of the time I use AA's. I use hard light more and more these days, so I tend to hang out in the 1/16th to 1/4th power range on manual. But when I light sports - like wrestling, or hoops - I go with two high-voltage packs.

This is one reason I look for strobes that have a jack to accept a high-voltage battery pack. Having the ability to get a one-second recycle at full manual power is a great thing. (Most of the Nikon SB bounce flashes have high-voltage jacks.)

Here is my setup. I have 6 SB-style strobes (kind of like Mrs. Strobist and shoes, I guess) but only two high-voltage packs. The kind I use are ten years old and made by Lumedyne. I absolutely love them. They cost less than the Quantum Turbos. They take the beating of rattling around in my trunk. And they just go and go and go.

The current model, the Lumedyne High Voltage HV UltraCycler, is a little dressier than mine are, but the guts are mostly the same. There is a better "remaining power" meter, too. If the rechargeable batteries ever wear out, Lumedyne will rebuild them for much less than the cost of a new pack. And the batts they use in there are so good there is an 8-year, pro-rated warranty.

You'll need to get a cord to fit your flash. The connections are the same as the Quantum Turbo cords, so you can search both areas for the cord to fit your flash. But this is money well-spent that will will benefit you for years and years to come.

Much like the Pocket Wizards, you'll eventually want one of these. Hopefully, it'll be before you spend an equal amount of money going through 6-volt systems and accessories. You are probably only going to need one, even if you use multi-light setups. One light is usually doing your heavy lifting, set on full or half power for bouncing into an umbrella or ceiling. So you stick the Lumy on that flash and use AA's on the lower powered one(s).

The only exception is cross lighting basketball from the up in the stands. You'll need two batts (and Pocket Wizards) to do that effectively. Yeah, I know it is expensive. But that same setup will serve you well through all of your cool, lit environmental portraits, too.

And for you Canon shooters (who shoot with those neutered, PC-less Canon strobes) it's payback time. You have a great option. The CP-E3 compact battery pack uses AA's, Ni-Cad's, Ni-MH's, whatever. It is small and light and even comes with a cord to fit your flash for about $135. Full-manual recycle times are less than 2 seconds. Make sure it is compatible with your model. If you are going to use Canon strobes, I'd grab one (or two) of those and some Ni-MH AA's while you are there (or grab them from Wal-Mart.)

Nikon makes a similar setup. But it only fits a few of their flashes. If you shoot with SB-800's or SB-80DX's, you are in luck.


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Blogger worldwideweems said...

Nikon's SD-8A fits everything from the SB-24 newer. Its older brother, the SD-8 fits SB-24 to SB-28 (but not the SB-28DX.)

Either one will cut full power recycle time to under 2 seconds with NiMH batteries.

May 05, 2006 2:25 AM  
Anonymous Alson van der Meulen said...

I think you're a little harsh on NiMH batteries. At least for the SB-800, Nikon specs a larger number of flashes (150 vs. 130) and slightly faster recycle time (4-30 s vs. 6-30 s) for 2000mAh NiMH batteries compared to alkaline batteries (page 19 of the manual), and the NiMH technology has improved since they wrote the manual. I believe this is due to less steep discharge curve (voltage remains fairly constant) and a lower output impedance (can supply more current). It may be that they redesigned the more recent flashes to work better with NiMH. Of course you have to charge them (may not be practical if you use say 20 per shoot) and they self-discharge in a few months or so (doesn't work very well if you seldomly use them), but unless these two are a problem, I'd recommend NiMH batteries over alkaline. If you don't care about the cost savings, you might even consider that it saves the environment. I just carry an extra set per flash (not larger than an extra set alkalines).

The SB-800 also includes a fifth battery holder (recycle time is about 1s faster, doesn't change the number of shots).

If you don't care about the costs, lithium batteries are also an option. They hold their charge for ages and have the largest capacity of the 'normal' batteries.

Another external battery pack is the Black box by Al Jacobs. It's mainly designed to provide a large number of shots, not a fast recycle time since it doesn't use the HV connection (but it won't melt your flash either) ;).

May 05, 2006 5:04 AM  
Anonymous James Davis said...

It's worth noting that although Alkaline AAs are rated at 1.5v and NiMH batteries are rated at 1.2v they have different discharge curves.

The NiMH will output at a voltage of 1.2v long after the Alkaline battery has dropped below an output of 1.2v. See the graphs here as an example.

May 05, 2006 5:56 AM  
Anonymous Mike S. said...

Do you have any experience or knowledge of the offerings of Digital Camera Battery? They seem to be less expensive than Lumedyne (?apples to oranges?) and have at least two connector sockets per battery.

Another great blog. Keep this up, I can barely stand it!

May 05, 2006 8:41 AM  
Anonymous Tim Vacula said...

I bought two sets of NiMH batteries for my two SBs back in 2000. I still use them (along with a spare set and others in my Pocket Wizards now). So, it has been over 5 years since I purchased a AA battery - and I use my SBs to occasionally photograph weddings, with one in a 54" Westcott Halo set on 1/2 to 1/4 power. One set of NiMHs easily does an entire wedding. This is on top of my "day job" averaging 50,000 photos a year.

This is just my testimonial for NiMH. No, maybe it won't give you a 2 second recycle time on full power, but the way I shoot, a second at even 1/2 power is quick enough. I don't shoot for a newspaper that regularly stocks cases of AAs, either! So this has worked MUCH better on our budget.

I've been using two SBs to do all my stuff for years now, but I appreciate your blog helping me push my lighting techniques farther. Great work!

May 05, 2006 9:30 AM  
Anonymous Mason Trullinger said...

I use Al Jacob's Black Box model which uses different electrochemistry than the other types of packs. It uses a sealed lead-acid battery which is great for number of shots (I get around 900 pops on my Vivitar 285 at full power) and the recycle times are around 3 seconds. So if you don't need the fast recycle times, it is a pretty good option.

May 05, 2006 11:50 AM  
Anonymous David S. said...

As with many other posters, I think you're way off base on alkaline vs NiMH. I sat down and timed the flash recycle for full power flash on an SB-24 with NiMH batteries and with alkalines. I got a ~4 second recycle time with the NiMH, and a ~15 second recycle time with the alkalines. (Your results will vary depending on how drained the batteries are and what the ambient temperature is)

What is going on here is that alkaline batteries behave as resistors, limiting the maximum output amperage. By contrast, NiMH batteries (and those expensive lithium AAs you can buy) have almost no resistance, and can put out lots of amps quickly at their rated voltage.

alson van der muelen: Besides their high capacity, those expensive disposable lithium AAs have one other feature that can make them worth the price: they keep working in the cold. If you're going to be shooting outside when it is below freezing, they can be cheaper than trying to keep your equipment warm.

May 05, 2006 1:43 PM  
Blogger worldwideweems said...

I failed to mention that the SD-8 and 8A has to be connected to the power socket on front of the flash and the PC connection on the flash. I don't know why. SO, if you are using a PC cord with your SB, this battery pack will nopt work for you. Unless...

There is also a TTL socket on the side of SB flashes. It is a 3-pin plug with threads. You can use it to connect two SBs with an SC-18 or SC-19 and have ttl control. Or, you can take one of these cords, cut it in half, and make two Pocket Wizard cords.

May 05, 2006 7:08 PM  
Blogger finnbar said...

I am glad you mentioned Lumedyne batteries.
There aren't too many batteries that will work day in and day out without memory issues and quirks. Lumedyne batteries are the most reliable items in my camera bag - hands down. They don't have bells, whistles or quasi tech looking functions which might be the reason they always seem to work.
Lumedyne is an old fashion company that stands behind their product 100%.

May 05, 2006 7:30 PM  
Blogger finnbar said...

I am glad you mentioned Lumedyne batteries.
There aren't too many batteries that will work day in and day out without memory issues and quirks. Lumedyne batteries are the most reliable items in my camera bag - hands down. They don't have bells, whistles or quasi tech looking functions which might be the reason they always seem to work.
Lumedyne is an old fashion company that stands behind their product 100%.

May 05, 2006 7:31 PM  
Anonymous Neal Vaughan said...

NiMH batteries have long has a reclying advantage over alkaline batteries. The relatively steady discharge curve also gives much more reliable recycle times than alkalines.

May 06, 2006 11:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comment about AA batteries. You "should" label them by sets to keep all the batteries in a set together. Use a permanent marker and simply write a number or letter on the battery. Example: A for set A, B for set B, etc.

The reason is if you mix old and new batteres together, they will discharge at different rates. At a certain point the old battery will "die" before the new ones. And if one battery dies, you have to yank the set from the flash, because you don't know which battery is dead?


July 08, 2006 11:10 PM  
Anonymous jes1111 said...

Having acquired a handfull of SB-24 and SB-26 units via eBay, I was looking into the power choices. AA cells are simply not up to the job, IMHO: too slow, too few flashes, too expensive and too much hassle trying to keep them in sets and recharged.

I looked into the various external battery units that are available commercially and decided they were all way too expensive for what they are. So I went shopping: bought two Panasonic-branded 6V sealed lead acid batteries and an intelligent charger, plus some connectors/sockets and cable. The batteries (evidently designed to power fire alarm systems or whatever) are 6V 7.2Ah units.

Then the tricky part: modifying the flash units to allow me to power them from an external source. The Quantum solution (a 4-cell dummy attached toa cable) was also stupidly expensive. The SB-24 units proved to be simple. The Nikon hi-voltage connector under the rubber cover on the front comes out easily so I made up some tiny aluminium plates to cover the rectangular aperture that results and drilled them to hold a standard panel-mount power socket. Two wires from the back of that socket were then soldered to the tabs on the back of the internal battery receptacle. The SB-26 units were a bit more of a problem. The plastic moulding behind that hi-voltage connector is completely different and so I eventually gave up and fitted the new power socket in the door of the battery compartment. Thus, the SB-24 units can still be powered by AA cells but the SB-26's are now dedicated to being powered externally.

Result? I haven't established how many flashes I could get, but recycle from full discharge is less than two seconds. The two batteries fit neatly into a little LowePro consumer-cam shoulder bag. Total cost: around 80 Euros (about USD100) for a system to power TWO strobes.

I'm quite pleased with myself ;-)

September 15, 2006 3:02 PM  
Anonymous Doug said...

I haven't played with the Nikon SD-8(A) since getting my SB-800, but I did use it on my SB-28 and it seemed to really decrease recycle times. I wasn't using it too much, just when I could borrow it from the store I worked at. I've considered picking one up for my SB-800.

As for NiMH batteries, I am using these in my SB-800 (with the 5th battery adapter on) to shoot sports. I have the flash set at 1/8th power, shooting a full 8fps, and getting the "full" output for each frame. I am able to shoot two or three sporting events before I have to recharge my batteries. These are working really well for me now. I know that if I was shooting TTL, I would not get a good enough recycle time, but shooting on manual, I get great recycle times. In my opinion, NiMH is the way to go for me.

September 23, 2006 5:45 PM  
Anonymous esteban said...

What about Dyna-Lite's Jackrabbit II battery packs? I'm thinking seriously in getting one of those packs but I would like to hear an opinion before spending few hundred bucks.

September 27, 2006 5:28 AM  
Anonymous Justin Bregar said...

There's also the SP Systems high-voltage pack. I've bought one and can verify they recycle an SB-800 very fast using the CKE cable from Quantum. They're around $125. I've got a post about it on my blog and they're available at both Adorama and B&H.

November 08, 2007 10:24 PM  
Anonymous Gert-Jan Maas said...

Why don't buy an extra flash and run them in side by side?

Less harsh shadows, half the recycle time.

With prices on sb26's it may even be cheaper.


November 14, 2007 4:26 AM  
Anonymous Tracy M said...

I am wondering what everyone thinks of Eneloop batteries, particularly recycle time, compared to AA and niMH. Anyone with experience using these?

January 04, 2009 11:08 AM  
Blogger Paul Chance said...

Dave, is it time to update this thread with the newer technology of Batteries on the market now?

August 09, 2011 9:13 AM  

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