The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Single-Light Setups

When I worked as a professional photographer's assistant, way back when, we did everything with artificial light. Everything. Even outdoors.

Everybody has their own approach to things. Everybody's different. One typical divergence is "He-Man" versus "Lean-and-Mean." In a nutshell, some guys like the Hummer H2. Some guys like the Lotus Elise.

In the studio where I worked, we did everything He-Man. Huge Speedotron Black Line 4800ws power packs, dozens of heads (including Quads), enormous softboxes, racks and racks of Matthews C-stands. Most amateurs think similarly. They think that if they "get into lighting," they need massive amounts of equipment, and a corresponding monetary investment.

Me, I'm a Lotus Elise type of guy. Don't give me a bigger engine—give me a lighter car.

Portability, simplicity, and straightforwardness are what I like. Along these lines, I've always liked working with a single light. Rather than set up separate heads for hairlights and fill lights and so forth, I'd rather do it all with one. I don't even like softboxes—give me diffusion panels. Extra lights? Reflectors. I like the collapsible ones, which shake out to three times their stored size in about half a second. The classic portrait setup is two frame-and-panels: between the light and the subject is a diffuser panel, and, placed so the light hits it directly, a white panel on the far side. Voilá—key and fill. Hairlight? A mirror on a flexible arm clamp! I love it.

(A cost-saving tip: make frames for panels out of PVC pipe you get at the hardware store. Don't even glue it—it holds up fine when fitted together and knocks down completely for easy transport.)

And the light? No sense in going with a pack-and-head for one light. Get a monoblock. When choosing a monoblock, there are several things to keep in mind:
• The controls are on the light. If the light is at the top of the stand and the top of the stand is out of easy reach, then you'll need a remote control if you plan to change the settings frequently. In practice you probably won't need to do this, so don't buy the remote control straight off. Just be sure there's one available.

• Current draw. Most commercial buildings have 30- and 40-amp circuits, but many private homes and older buildings have 15's and 20's. I even did a job once in a building that had 7.5-amp circuits! The bigger your light, the bigger the current draw when it recharges. The monoblock won't be much use to you if it blows the building's fuse once every three recharges.

• Flash duration. Ever noticed how cheaper lights have longer burst times? That limits you to slow shutter speeds. Fine on a controlled set, but what if there's a lot of ambient?
Now, frankly, you'll like most any monoblock you work with. I've always liked the White Lightnings myself, although in my day the Ultras were current and they're discontinued now. Nowadays, for the amateur who's man enough to forego the He-Man approach (and that includes you she-women), there's an even better, even lighter, even cheaper solution: AlienBees. What's not to like? Well, the website is alarmingly cute. And it's certainly not He-Man—not with little cartoon bees all over it. But check this out: no switching power supply; no transformers; just capacitors! This eliminates the traditional objection to monoblocks, which is that you're balancing all that weight at the top of a pole like a pumpkin on a stick. With the AlienBees, there's no weight.

The best AlienBees buy is the B800. Not too big. Not too small. Just right. It was designed by Paul Conrad Buff. (Yes, that Paul C. Buff.) It's light. It's certainly cheap—less than $300 (and not $299.99, either, but actually less than $300). It's got a flash duration that's faster than your camera's top shutter speed. It will go all day on an 8-amp circuit. It's shipped direct to you from a central location in the USA, the Country Music Capital, Nashville, Tennessee. It even retains my favorite original White Lightning feature: you can use regular ol' light bulbs as modeling lights. No more downtime because you forgot to mail-order more dedicated bulbs.

The best online review can be found at Dave Weikel's site. There are lots of pictures. He even takes one apart for you. Even if you don't read it now, bookmark it!

Simplicity. Portability. Straightforwardness. Ahhh.



Blogger Jeff Smith said...

It would be very helpful to me to see a diagram of the setup you describe or better yet a photograph. Thanks.

9:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home