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Choosing Big Lights: AlienBees

The last installment of the Big Lights series is a look at AlienBees, a very popular line of studio strobes available in the US -- and recently, in Australia/NZ. But before I get into them, I will preface the post with this:

Early this fall when it came time for me to pull the trigger, I was having a very difficult time deciding between the Elinchrom Quadras and the Profoto Acute line. So I decided to go with a very comprehensive set of AlienBees.

Confused? Lemme explain…

An Inexpensive Way to Learn

Having spent a significant amount of time deciding on which line of flashes I was going to marry, I realized that my main unknown was not so much the gear itself but rather my not knowing what kind of a big lights photographer I was.

My experience with the bigger flashes falls mostly in the neighborhood of nuking large areas -- gyms, large interiors, etc. And that is not the kind of thing I want to do, going forward.

I had grown much more comfy with my SB's than I was with my WL 600s, and that scared me. Not from a standpoint of inexperience but from that of not knowing exactly how to distribute what would amount to a big chunk of cash when buying lights.

So I decided I would date the AlienBees before deciding which flash system I wanted to marry. And who knows, if the AlienBees proved sufficient my wallet would come through the process largely unscathed.

And not knowing what I wanted, I bought ... everything.

Cheaper by the Dozen

By themselves, the lights and modifiers are inexpensive. But there are also quantity discounts to be had. Buy four flashes, as I did, and you get 20% off of every accessory you purchase at the same time. Which almost makes them free to test drive.

This is because, unlike your late-model digital camera which just lost $100 in value as you read this sentence, flashes hold their value very well. And new gear bought at a 20% discount will pretty much get you your money back on eBay whenever you are ready to sell. Which was my plan.

I bought three AB800s, an AB1600, stands, booms, strip boxes, a soft box, beauty dish, grids for the boxes and dish, tele reflectors -- pretty much everything that was for sale on the site, it seemed.

I did skip the remotes, as I am already full up on PocketWizards Plus II's. But when I was done I still had not managed to rack up a $3,000.00 total, as the 20% off added up to some pretty big savings.

And why not go crazy? My thinking was (and still is) that I could use them for months at almost no net cost. And if I liked them enough, I was done with my flash search.

It was a pretty heady day, getting the contents of a full studio delivered to the front porch by the UPS man. And over the last few months, I have learned a lot about AB's -- and about myself as a lighting photographer.

Likes, Dislikes

There is a lot to love about the ABs. At the top of the list, of course, is price.

You can get an AB800, with reflector, power cord and sync cord for $280.00. Which is about what it costs to see a movie in New York City. You can get the AB400 for $55 less, but that is a very small difference for one full f/stop. My advice is to skip it and go for the AB800.

This is ridiculous, silly cheap for a studio flash. So much so, in fact, that it has sort of blown the curve of what people think is an appropriate amount of money to spend on a big flash. Paul Buff sells direct only and manufactures by the boxcar load. He has created an entirely new business model in the industry.

Are they built like a Mercedes? No, they are not. But their service/repair policy is so generous that it does not really matter for many people. And they are sufficient for most uses, and that is what matters to their owners.

Buff also extends that "built good enough" ethic to his modifiers, with mixed results. Soft boxes, the dish, grids, and many other items I have found to be first rate and surprisingly heavy duty. The stands are serviceable, but are not what you would call confidence-inspiring. Also, his standard reflectors are ingeniously designed to accept a 7" grid without an accessory clip. But I would be happier if they were parabolic, rather than conic.

In short, the ABs allow you to jump in the pool for cheap. Try stuff -- heck, try it all -- and see what you end up using and/or liking. I especially like the Vagabond II, a $300 battery pack and pure sine wave inverter which will run (3) AC-powered AB800s on full power for 300 pops.

I bought two of them. I was like a shark in chummed waters -- I got that crazed look in my eyes that my wife gets when Ann Taylor has a 75% off sale at the mall.

What You Won't Hear

While I absolutely recommend experimenting in the shallow-priced AB waters, here is one thing you will not often hear said among AB owners:

"I just love the quality of the light..."

You hear that about Profoto, Elinchrom, Hensel, Broncolor, etc., But when AB/WL people start talking they usually come down to price and/or portability.

And you are not going to hear me rave about the gorgeous light quality either, because ABs do have a bit of quirkiness to them in that department. I can't quite put my finger on it or quantify it, other than to say that I am sometimes a little surprised by what I get from them.

So of course we did some testing. Here is a series, shot all of the way up and down the power range of a single AB800. They are not dead on, but neither are they grossly inconsistent. Maybe it's a UV thing? I really don't know.

And don't get me wrong -- I have been shooting assignments for months with these things with no complaints. And I still do not know if it is the lights themselves, or me not being fully used to them.

There are people (usually from expensive, prestigious photo schools) who turn up their noses and reject the AlienBees out of hand. That's ridiculous. They are the number one selling brand of studio flash, and for good reason. Similarly, there are people who are just as rabid in their support of the units.

I suspect that the truth lies in the middle somewhere. They are an amazing value, to be sure. But they are not the equivalent of a high-end Broncolor system, either.

And frankly, for the money I can live with a little quirkiness. I have some On Assignments coming up on which I used the AlienBees, so I will let you judge for yourself. It is a very subjective thing, light quality.

Want vs Need

What do I want? That's easy -- I want everything.

Which is pretty much what I bought. And exactly what I would not have been able to do with, say, Profoto. Not without knocking off a rich relative a commercial loan, anyway.

But what do I really need? That's a different story.

And that has been the most valuable part of my AlienBees experience -- learning what I need in a big light system as opposed to what I want.

Here's what I found out: Ninety percent of the time I shoot, I am going to be making a portrait and using two light sources. This is proving to be a transportable and predictable workflow from my speedlight shooting. Heck, it is probably because of my background working out of a waist pack that I have evolved that way.

Generally, it will be a restricted key and an on-axis fill of some kind -- ring, light off of a white wall behind me, umbrella behind the camera, whatever. Or maybe I will use ambient as a base and use one light as a key and other as a separator light. Usually as a rim light or a light on the background.

While sometimes I will use a third source, that is surprisingly rare. But having the third source gives you backup on the first two, which is very important. Any system you design should leave you without a single point of failure. Which is one reason I gravitate to monoblocs over pack-and-heads. And why six SB-800s in a small bag are more useful to me than one or two big monos.

Occasionally, I throw a lot of light sources at something. Just once in the last three months, shooting social media headshots for a local financial company, I used five sources. (But that was 3 AB800s, an AB ring flash and an SB800.) So maybe if I went with more expensive lights, I might have to miss out on an occasional job. Or just have to shoot differently. Or rent.

As an aside, the shot above was done using the three lights visible in the frame, and two more. The center light lit the background. The side lights lit each other. There was on-axis light from a ring. And an SB-800 on the ground shot a little up-light kicker to define the lights.

I may stay with the ABs, and I may not. But for less than the price of a single Profoto Magnum reflector, I have essentially been able to sort of "rent" a huge set of lights, stands and mods for months. That rental fee (net buying/reselling costs) was recouped many timed over on my first assignment with them. Which is why I am so pleased to have used them to discover how I want to light.

Learning from the Experience

Using what I learned from my drunken AlienBees gear orgy, I could now estimate with more confidence what I would need to buy should I decide to go with, say, Profoto.

I would want an AC pack, three lights (two regular heads, one ring) some pretty specific mods, and battery-powered packs to power at least two heads. And with the year-end specials Profoto is running, I am actually giving serious thought to pulling the trigger. If that seems strange, remember that I bought the ABs a while back, and that part of my reason in getting them was to evaluate both them and myself as a lighting photographer.

Here is the 40th Anniversary deal that is making me drool for Profotos: If you buy an Acute 600B (battery unit) or an AC-powered value kit, they throw in $1000.00 worth of accessories. Different countries have slightly different rules on the promo, so check if yo are interested.

This bonus appears to be stackable, too. So I could get two 600B packs, and an Acute 1200 value kit. For under $8k USD, that would give me two heads and the ability to run them on AC or battery power. My only single point of failure is the AC pack, and that is covered by the battery units.

And with the $3k USD in free accessories, I could get extra battery modules, a ring light head, a soft ring reflector (working with the Moon Unit has made that a must) grid reflectors and a Magnum reflector. I could get by with my ratty, 20-yr old White Lightning 7" grids that are pictured above. That is a setup I could live with for a long time. And I never would have been able to know that with any confidence without using a wide variety of AlienBees gear for several months.

Would I drop $8k for that? Absolutely.

And I am less concerned about the up-front price than I am about really knowing what gear I want to settle into. This is long-haul stuff -- a marriage. And I still have a month to decide before the special expires.

(Curse you, Profoto, for making the deal last up to the last minute of tax-spending season. That was evil. It's like a month-long test of fortitude, taunting me until New Year's Day.)

Back to the Bees

Do I regret jumping on the AlienBees? Not for a second. They have been very serviceable (not to say inspiring on all counts) and have provided some very valuable clarity for essentially no net cost should I decide to change horses. And I very well may stick with them for the long haul. I haven't decided yet.

If you have access to them (the AU/NZ distributorship is selling to surrounding Asian/Pacific countries, it appears) you can hardly go wrong as an entré into bigger lights. And given that they all have built-in slaves, they will definitely play nicely with your existing speedlights. (AB becomes main light, speedlights become fill/rim/background, etc.)

[UPDATE: The AU distributor of AlienBees confirmed that they are shipping to different countries, which will be good news for some of you who are outside the US.]

They are just so deliciously inexpensive. And with the (upcoming) "Einstein" versions, ABs get even more interesting as the light color issues are supposedly vastly improved. A lot of other improvements coming, too. I'll be keeping tabs on that.

Getting off of the Couch

Yeesh, I feel like I just went through a therapy session. And believe me when I say that is an honest a look as I can give you into my thought process on buying personal lights. And six months after I started, I am both well-equipped and yet strangely in limbo as to what I will do next.

So in some twisted way, I hope that this has been of at least some help. Hell, it probably just left some of you more confused. I am a little conflicted in that I now know enough to have prompted some questions I did not know to ask at the start of the process.

And I hope you AB/WL owners will sound off as to your experiences in the comments, good or bad. This is too important a decision to go on just one person's say so. Your opinions certainly will help others make better decisions.

Please share them with us.


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