Choosing Big Lights
If you shoot small lights long enough, you will run up against some limitations. You might be trying to light big areas, or trying to get a combo of soft light with a large working distance. Most likely, you might be trying to light against full sun. Or, obviously, any combination of the above.
Suffice to say that at some point you might want a big gun in your lighting bag. But how do you choose?
Speedlights: Not So Great for Full Sun
When shooting outside in full sun, here's the problem: your true sync speed is capped at 1/250th, or worse. Forget about the "magic" of high-speed sync in this context, as it is very inefficient.
That's why you see sometimes people ganging up several speedlights when they use high speed sync at any real working distance:
Using a single speedlight, what you'll find is that daylight will force you to an exposure combo of at or near 1/250th at f/16. You'll only be able to light to that tiny aperture (f/16) at high power, in close, and with the light not softened by a diffuser.
You can do it through a shoot-through umbrella with a speedlight, but it has to be less than a foot or so away from your subject. Awkward.
You can also use a very efficient silver reflective umbrella to juice your light output. But that is not as soft and flattering as a shoot-thru or soft box.
How Powerful is That Big Light?
You may be familiar with a flash's "guide number" (GN) as a power rating. But a guide number is a function not only of power but also the beam shape of the light. Which is to say it can really be juiced with, say, a telephoto reflector or beam setting. Or a light pattern that has a hot spot in the center.
A better, more objective power rating for flashes (small and big) is watt-seconds, or WS. That is the objective amount of power that a flash is capable of using to create light. It is largely a functiuon of capacitor size, which is why most speedlights are limited to about 60WS. Going up from there, every time you double that power rating, you add about one more f/stop of light that can be created by the flash.
So, a 240WS monobloc will put out (all things being equal) about two more stops of light than your speedlight. And a 1200WS power pack for a studio flash head (a pretty powerful unit) is only four stops (and change) more powerful than a speedlight. In other words, as you go higher, each stop gets progressively more difficult to produce. You quickly get into big, expensive, power-hungry flashes.
So just defaulting to a giant monobloc light can also be a clumsy solution.
How Much Power Do You Really Need?
The more flash power you have, the more working distance you can employ (light to subject) when competing with the sun. If doing headshots, a 150-200WS flash may suffice. But a 300-400WS flash would be much better. That's only one more relative stop of light available to you. But it is a commonly needed extra stop.
300-400WS will absolutely give you the power to shoot people outdoors in daylight at modest lighting distances. Or in other light level environments, you can shoot bigger objects at further distances with soft light.
It's all a trade off. Everything you try to cheat/beat—working distance, softness, ambient light level you need to match—will require more power. And more power = more expense, more size and more onsite electrical power requirements.
So it makes sense to do a little research and figure out your sweet spot rather than overbuying.
Some Good Things to Know
First, assuming you can hit 1/250th at f/16 with your flash, you can easily create shallow depth if field if you want. You can knock that working aperture down to your chosen f/stop by using a neutral density (ND) filter on your lens. That's what I did in the head shot above.
ND filters absorb light, allowing you to open up your working aperture while keeping your shutter at 1/250th. So flash-related depth of field problems can be easily fixed. But this still doesn't fix the fact that a speedlight can only hit this full-sun light level when used in a harsh way (i.e., bare and close.)
Second, there is such a thing as a free lunch with respect to high sync speeds. Some wonderful cameras have special "leaf" shutters, which can pretty much sync at any shutter speed. I say "pretty much," because the max sync with leaf shutters is subject to some limitations such as the actual pulse length (t.1 time) of the flash pop itself.
So, my Fuji X100s, for instance, can sync at 1/1000th of a second. In full sun at 1/1000th of a second, my flash only has to hit f/5.6 or f/8. Which is why we could do this full-sun group shot in Cuba at a nice working distance with only two bare speedlights:
Finally, here's the best news you'll hear all day: soon, many cameras will be able to sync at any speed. This is because CMOS chips are evolving to have instantaneous data dumps, rather than line-by-line data dumps.
This is happening to fix the "rolling shutter" problem in video. But we don't really care about that. we just want to soon be able to sync our flashes at 1/2000th of a second. Joy.
Okay, back to today.
Choosing Big Lights
For shooting people, I think 300-400WS is the sweet spot. You can work in close with soft light outdoors. You can stretch the distances with an efficient silver umbrella. And the flash itself is portable, not too expensive and can easily be battery powered.
You want a little insurance? Step up to 600-800WS. And for more flexibility, consider looking to a leaf shutter (like the Fuji X100 series). With 600WS lights and a leaf, you can pretty much rule the sun:
Whatever your need, there is a logical, rational way to get there. And your needs will go a long way towards determining which big light(s) you end up getting.
Choosing Big Lights
When choosing big lights (which are also sometimes called studio lights, even though we use them everywhere) there is a completely different set of variables to consider. Big lights are system-oriented, and you would do well to choose wisely in what will very likely turn out to be a long-term relationship.
You can easily waste a lot of time and money by making poorly considered choices. I know that, because I did that when starting out.
That said, here are some things to consider.
First, the high-end brands (Profoto, Broncolor) are very nice. But they are also quite expensive, and really only make sense if you are regularly shooting big-ticket jobs. Or perhaps renting them on someone else's dime. They only make sense to own if you are using them all of the time and they are making you serious money.
Second, beware the really cheap flashes from pop-up brands that have little (if any) track record. Their low prices can be beguiling, but those savings have to come from somewhere.
They can have hideously long t.1 flash duration times, more than offsetting their ability to balance with the sun at fast shutter speeds. Or the color balance of the flash can be all over the place. They often have sketchy quality control, with slim-to-nonexistent warranties to match.
My strategy is to steer away from the far edges of the value curve, only consider brands that offer a quality factory warranty and choose based on the individual strengths offered by different companies in that subset. Basically, you are looking for reputable companies (and warranties) positioned in the meat of the value curve, and offering a "special sauce" that corresponds to your particular needs.
With that strategy in mind, here are three brands to consider. All solid choices, each also has a special sauce differentiates it from the pack. If one of these brands fits your particular situation, you can be confident won't go seriously wrong.
Paul C. Buff
First (aphabetically) on our list is Paul C. Buff (PCB). I have a lot of first-hand experience with PCB, having shot with their lights since the 1980s. They offer a range of monobloc lights (self-contained, as opposed to pack-and-head) that integrate smoothly with a small flash user. For instance, you can step up from small flashes by buying a single "big gun" monobloc, and retain your speedlights for use in a supporting, fill-light role.
The special sauce for PCB is, without a doubt, value for money. They build and sell direct only, which allows them a pricing leverage that many other companies do not enjoy. You can get a nice 160WS PCB monobloc for about $300, which is far less(!) than the cost of many Nikon of Canon speedlights.
PCB lights are well-built and the company has an outstanding reputation for warranty service if needed. That combo (low price, great warranty) is pretty uncommon in this field.
What's the catch? Geography. Since PCB does not work with distributors, they only sell in the USA. You can pull some strings and get them in other countries. But that typically negates their big price advantage—and even more so, should you ever need to return them for service.
PCB offers four different lines of monoblocs. First are the White Lightnings and AlienBees, both of which are fully analog lights of an older design than their newer models.
The White Lightnings can be very powerful—up to over 1300 watt-seconds each. Whereas your typical speedlight clocks in at about 60 watt-seconds. If you need a lot of power at low cost, these can be a good choice. The AlienBees are also full analog designs. They offer the most watt-seconds per dollar, perhaps, of any decent quality monobloc in the world.
But I would tend to steer you toward their newer designs. Their flagship Einstein e640 (pictured above) is a competely digital (and very capable) monobloc. It offers digital control (to the 1/10th f/stop) and both control and readout of both color temperature and flash duration. It is a very sophisticated flash which, at $499.95, is surprisingly cheap given the value contained inside.
If that is too pricey, I would suggest you look at their newest offering, the DigiBees (pictured above). They start at $309.95, but if you are going to be using them in full daylight situations outside (i.e., balancing with sun) the extra $50 for the "800" model will be money well-spent. That extra stop will often be make-or-break for you.
The DigiBees are a hybrid design, borrowing both from the features of the AlienBees and the Einsteins. (Think digital control of an analog engine.) They are compact—physically by far the smallest of the PCB monoblocs. They feature a recessed LED modeling light, which is where things are going in the future. As such, they are especially good for gelling because the modeling light does not stick out—or get very hot.
Also, the LED modeling light has a very high level of color correctness. So if you also shoot video you can actually use this indoors as a continuous light. They don't ship with a reflector (you may be using them with a softbox, for instance.) So I suggest this 8.5" high-output reflector, for $20.
Paul Buff Lights are very popular in the US. (Again, sorry foreign folks.) They represent great value and a logical step-up from speedlights if you need a little more power. PCB also makes a very good (and value-priced) range of light modifiers.
A solid choice anywhere in the world, Elinchrom is a full-range "big lights" manufacturer that offers many of the advantages of the really expensive brands—but without the eye-popping cost. They are not cheap. But in terms of a full-range system, they are probably the most reasonable choice.
And the "full-range" aspect is Elinchrom's special sauce. It is really solid gear, with a deep bench of flash models and modifiers—without break-the-bank prices. And it is available pretty much anywhere in the world.
Elinchrom offers pack-and-head systems, monoblocs and even a diminuitive line of mini location lights (the 400WS Quadras, pictured above.) No matter what your lighting needs, something from the breadth of the Elinchrom line can handle it.
Elinchrom have been around for long enough to have built a quality reputation for warranty and service, too. Which separates them from many of the newer brands.
The icing on the cake is that Elinchrom's modifier line is both extensive and high quality. In fact, some of the folks that use the uber-expensive lights buy adapters and choose to use them with Elinchrom modifiers. If you are looking for a world-wide, full-range solution, take a strong look at here.
Another of their strengths is the integration of technology into their line, especially with respect to their next-gen remotes. They have trigger platforms that tap into the brains of Nikon, Canon and (most recently) Sony, which offers you a more integrated shooting experience.
In fact, if I were to offer one caveat about Elinchrom, it would probably center on the range of choices: they have a huge product line. So you will want to do some research and inviestigate which of their products will best integrate into your camera brand.
There are, for instance, products that are very similar-looking except for the inclusion of a newer remote control features. So research will be your friend here. In general, the latest tech is always being incorporated into the latest model. So that's a good place to start looking.
Finally, Elinchrom offers a dedicated continuous light head that will allow you to integrate all of your Elinchrom light modifiers into your video needs.
In short, with Elinchrom you get much of the flash and modifier selection of the luxury brands, without having to sell a kidney to pay for it.
Not a "big lights" company per se, Phottix' portable entry to the studio strobe arena is the Indra. If you are looking for a lithium battery-powered portable light that will allow you to work against full sun, Indra's built-in TTL and remote power technology makes it a strong contender.
Good value, strong build quality (important in a traveling light) and a growing cross-platform compatibility all add to the value in the Phottix line. If Phottix doesn't skew as far into the "big lights" arena as do the other two, it makes up for it at the other end of the spectrum: Phottix also makes a cross-compatible TTL speedlight. And this integrated, TTL-enabled continuum of speedlights to big lights is Phottix' special sauce.
Both the Phottix Indras (monoblocs) and their Mitros+ (speedlights) have the company's "Odin" receivers built into the units. The Mitros+ even has a built-in Odin transmitter, make it able to fulfill a dual role as trigger and on-camera fill. And they can all be used together seamlessly, with sophisticated remote power control and TTL capabilities.
This is very exciting—expecially for someone who is combining speedlights and big lights, which many photographers do all of the time. Phottix' ability to offer you one local-control, TTL remote and flash platform is unique—and a hell of a special sauce.
What's more exciting is that other manufacturers are starting to look at this Odin platform, too. The LumoPro LP180R speedlight, for instance, is compatible with Phottix's Odin platform. If you want remote power level control but don't need TTL for instance, the LP180R is less expensive than a Mitros+.
Based in Hong Kong, you might be tempted to lump Phottix in with the other China- and Korea-based brands. But Phottix offers warranties two to three times as long as gear from the OEM legacy brands. So if there is any quality risk it is they, not you, who are assuming it.
Whatever You Do, Don't Do This:
Again, I would implore you to resist the siren song of the super-cheap "eBay" mystery brands from the far east. Among the littany of reasons: No long-term reputation, bad (if existent) warranty, and little to no servicing facilities.
But if you are young and broke and need some hard-won personal experience of your own to dissuade you in the future, by all means go right ahead. (I'm being sarcastic here. Resist the urge.)
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