Mono Monday: Choosing the Right Big Lights

Normally, I try to balance lighting technique, trends, gear and a smattering of general silliness on this site.

Apologies for fact that that Strobist is in somewhat of a gear-oriented spate of posts. There is a reason for that -- namely that I have gotten a little ahead of myself.

A few On Assignment posts are in a holding circle because they were shot with larger light sources. And before getting to those, I wanted to take a look at the process of how to go about choosing a big light system in the first place.

Recently, I revamped my kit after spending 20 years using the same set of well-worn monoblocs. I thought it would be a pretty easy process, but it turns out that there has never been a wider array of "studio" flashes than what is available today.

The purchase merited a lot of thought, and I figured some folks be able to benefit from the experience. More, inside.

My old White Lightning 600's (pictured at left) have given many, many pops of trouble-free service. And last year I augmented them with an ABR800 ring flash, with the idea that a slaved monobloc / ring light would go with just about any system I would want to put together, WL/AlienBees or not.

And this kind of long-term thinking is very important, IMO, when considering a big lights purchase. It's a marriage, really -- or a very expensive fling if you screw it up. So you want to look at long-term costs, value and capabilities of several different systems before choosing.

And speaking of long-term value, I quickly decided that the money I could get for my used WL's would not come close to the value they would have for me as a backup bag. They are pretty fugly at this point. But they work, and I know them well. Which counts for a lot.

So as a backup, an auxiliary bag or as a loaner for colleagues, I would not be selling them.

So. Many. Choices.

I started like a lot people do, clicking around the web like a kid in a candy store.

First, I looked at photographers whose work I admired, and found out what they used. This was quickly discarded as a very poor way to choose a system, because I was clearly working under a completely different set of variables than would be any other photographer. We all shoot -- and light -- differently. What works best for Annie, Joe, Chase, etc., might not work best for me.

So, I decided to take out a sheet of paper and write down some of my considerations and priorities. And that yielded this:

1. AC powered or not, they must be battery capable. Or I would have to build into the budget a good, pure sine wave generator. (This Honda 2000-watt model seems to be the go-to for many shooters.) I have gotten used to being able to shoot without AC (mostly because of the speedlights) and that is not something I was ready to give up.

2. System integration would be very important. There are some very cool, one-off type designs out there. But I wanted to leverage the dollars I spent for the long term, which means that money spent on light modifiers (no small sum) would need to work across a wide range of system flashes if/when I evolved or upgraded.

3. I found myself to be surprisingly variable on price. Rather than just go by absolute dollars, I decided to estimate how much use I would give them over their lifetime and let that dictate the price I was willing to spend. Which is to say that, if needed, a more expensive set of flashes could end up being just as cheap (or cheaper) over the long run than would a less expensive set with a shorter duty cycle.

4. What will they be used for? Primarily, two things: Shooting people in high ambient level environments (i.e., competing with the sun) and lighting bigger scenes. These are the classic duties that speedlights just can't do very well.

5. And speaking of speedlights, I have found that I have a natural preference for monoblocs as compared to pack-and-head systems. I do not like the idea of losing several light sources if a pack goes down. Not that pack-and-heads were out of the question -- many good choices here, in fact. But I would essentially treat a single pack and head as a monobloc equivalent.

So, those were the criteria.

After a lot of initial looking around, web cruising, brochure reading, etc., I came down to three brands which would get each serious consideration. In alphabetical order, they were Elinchrom, Profoto and WL/AlienBees.

In one way or another, they could all fit the bill. But they each also had distinct advantages and disadvantages over the other two systems. So over the next few Mondays we'll be looking at each of these systems in context with the others, in the same way I did when there were real dollars at stake.

Mind you, your variables when looking at purchasing big lights will be different than mine. But I hope my experience will be helpful as a template when you overlay your own set of priorities.

And so as not to restrict this conversation to my own decision process, I certainly encourage your input via the comments as well. As someone who recently went through the process, I can say with certainty that others will benefit from your experiences.


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