Follow Up: Choosing Big Lights

Last winter, I blogged about the thinking behind choosing big lights.

There were a lot of loose ends, not the least of which was my purchasing AlienBees partly as a way of putting off making a final choice. How it all sorted out, after the jump.

A little background: I had narrowed the choices down to AlienBees, Elinchrom and Profoto, the rationale for each of which is linked above.

I bought a bag of AlienBees lights and mods both to learn what gear I really needed at a low cost, and to test them out for possible long-term use. By making use of the multi-unit discounts on accessories, I was confident that I could get most of my money back out of them if I wanted to.

In the end, while I was happy with the value for money I found myself wanting on the light quality and consistency. I waited and waited for the long-delayed Einstein monobloc. But in the end they came too late for me.

So I bit the bullet and bought Profoto Acutes. And there has definitely been a learning curve -- complete with some surprises.


Right off the bat I'll mention that MAC Group US is the US distributor for Profoto, and also an advertiser on this site. Given that could create a conflict of interest, here's the deal:

First, I made it clear to them that their presence on the site would not be a factor in choosing a brand of lights. After all, they could jump ship tomorrow -- replaced by YongNuo for all I know.

Nor would I accept any "long-term loaner" gear, which most definitely exists with the more visible photographers. Not dissing those who do, but I try to run this site as straight-up and objective (WRT my personal experiences) as possible.

Further, I bought the Acutes retail and made sure I got a price that would be available to other photographers. I say this both to avoid confusion, and because knowing how and when to buy Profoto makes a big difference in the final price.

Buying Smart

It is no secret that Profoto tends to have one special or another running at various times in the calendar year. And I worked that to the best degree possible. I bought an Acute2 1200 value kit and two AcuteB 600 generators. With the special on at the time, that gave me enough bonus bucks to add an extra battery cassette, magnum reflector, ring light, soft ring reflector, grids, etc.

(The 40th anniversary special is gone, but they are running a 20% off deal even as I write this.)

Even so, Profoto reached so deep into my pockets that I am pretty sure we are legally married in some states. But I was able to combine the purchases and the special deal to decrease the pain by about 30%.

Road Test

Several months in, I have started to get to know them pretty well. In fact, the Earth Treks shoot in January was the last job on which I used the AlienBees. I have been using Profotos ever since for those shoots which call for big lights.

Going in, I saw cost as the biggest downside and everything else being an upside. Those preconceptions turned out to be mostly wrong.


First, the quality of the light is just gorgeous. And on top of that, I can "zoom" them for a wide range of light shapes from the standard reflectors. (You can see much more detailed into of this, here.)

Second is the consistency. Lock everything down on a tripod and fire it ten times. When you scan through the pics on the back of the camera, they all look exactly the same. Dead accurate and very consistent. That may not sound like a big deal, but I could never do that with my ABs.

Meh, but you can correct the variances in post, right? No big deal.

True -- sometimes -- and only if your scene is lit by one flash, with no ambient contribution. Add some ambient light (and/or multiple flashes) and those color variables will come back to bite you in the butt.

It didn't help that both my D3 and the ABs tended to shift red. They compounded each other in ways I sometimes could not fix.

My SB-800s have always been rock solid in both intensity and color. And I can combine them with the Profotos without a second thought. They are all spot-on, and play together very nicely. Maybe that is the case with the Einsteins now, but that improvement happened too late for me.

Lastly, the Profotos are built like tanks -- even in the less expensive parts of the product line. Fortunately, that has not been at issue for me yet, but I can assure you it will be soon. I know myself too well.


I thought it would be price, first and foremost. But once I took into account that I would be using them for many years, the math works out great. With what I bought and how long I expect to use them, the tab is gonna run between $1 and $2 a day. That's less than a coffee habit -- or in my case, a Diet Mtn. Dew habit.

So somewhat surprisingly, I ended up being at peace with the price. But I can always find something to complain about…

Too much power

You must be joking, right? Nope, no joke.

I like to work in close. And even dialed all the way down, the 1200 pack is too strong to do so without dropping down into the "sensor dust" apertures if you are not diffusing the light. They bottom out at 37.5ws, which is the equivalent of a little more than 1/2 power on an SB-800.

This is good in one way -- I will tend to use the Acutes as a main light and add in some SU-4'd SB-800s as accent lights. And in that sense, half power on an '800 as a hand-off point is just fine. But I still want to be able to go way lower.

My fix was to buy some sheets of Rosco neutral density gel. I got a 20x24" sheet of 1/2-, 1-, 2- and 3-stop ND gels. Now I can dial the Acutes down as far as I want, and then some. Using the ND's, I can light with an Acute head in a reflector and grid at three feet away and shoot at ISO 200 and f/2.8 if I want.

It's not an elegant solution, but it works well and for very little money. I can get the high-quality, low-quantity light while working in very close.

Profoto, of course, gives you this ability right out of the box with the D4 generators. But I am saving myself for something truly special before I go selling my extra kidney. (Mama always told me to wait, and that I would know when the time was right.)

No More Sliders

The asymmetric, multi-head power packs can be tough to figure out. I am still learning that stuff, and it is a bear compared to moving the power-level slider on an AlienBee.

They even include a sticker for the side of the pack which helps you to learn to equate the multiple switch positions to watt-seconds, which kinda reinforces the clunkiness. For the record, I felt the same way when I had to memorize my multiplication tables.

Again, Profoto can solve this with a D4 pack. Just get out your wheelbarrow and fill it up with money -- problem solved.

Actually, I considered the D1 monoblocs, as they do have great power range and adjust in .1-stop increments. I just thought the glass dome as an add-on was not an elegant solution to the fact that they really did not make full use of the Profoto light shapers right out of the box.

My Power Solution

I am sure I will get more comfortable with the asymmetric power distribution ratios. But for now I am treating each of my three packs and heads like combo monoblocs. That solves my intuitive power setting woes, and the ND gels give me great range below the stock bottom limits of the Acutes.

Also, I picked up a cheap auxiliary/backup set: A 600ws plug-in pack (600e) and two heads from a dentist on eBay. At the $999 "buy it now" price, I could not resist. It came with reflectors, cords, two soft box rings, and two flash head extension cords. That extra gear gave me a lot of flexibility and backup for not a lot of money. I did the happy dance that day.

(We'll see how smart I was when I find out how much time was left on the flash tubes…)

Oh, and one more money-preserving tip: I swapped in inexpensive inserts in the speed rings of my Paul Buff soft boxes and they now work great with the Acutes. Thanks to JoeyL for that idea.

I have several shoots in the can for and prepped for On Assignments over the next month or so. For those which call for big lights, I am still in a learning curve with the Profoto Acutes. As I go, I will be walking through my various screw-ups, hair-pulling, etc., in those posts.


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