7.04.2011

A Monday Ramble about the "cheap" lights and why old knowledge may be holding you back.

My latest infatuation. Cheap studio flash.  Here: The Elinchrom D-Lite 4 it

When I started out in photography there were basically two choices in buying flash.  If you were shooting large and medium format film (and most of us were) you chose between Speedotron and Norman strobes. The Speedotron Black Line Stuff was heavy, cool and expensive.  The Norman PD series was heavy, less overtly cool and slightly less expensive.  There were plenty of inexpensive options but all of them were limited by their power output.  Novatrons were a popular choice for the "dirt cheap" option but all the dirt cheap stuff was off the table for serious shooters because we needed raw power and only the big brands offered that.  The basic gear was a 2,000 or 2400 watt second box that weighed in at around 30 pounds, recycled in about 4 seconds at full power and was a pain in the butt to ratio.  If you shot lots of still life or big sets you might opt for the 4,000 watt second units.  Most of us did our still life and food shooting with 4x5 sheet film and to get a good f-stop for deep focus (f22-f32) on the slow film of the time required raw power.

So the big, high powered boxes became a truism in our business.  The belief was that these were essential to "professional" work.  Then the bulk of photographers moved to medium format for their work in the 1990's and all of a sudden we needed less light and more control.  That's when the Profoto and Elinchrom monolights became popular, along with Dynalite packs and heads.  The stuff was sturdy and metal and was good at the "wear and tear" aspect of our work.  And over time habituation made these units and the bigger units that came before them the defacto standard for "professional" gear.

But a funny thing happened.  Canon and Nikon started making digital cameras that could be used at....gulp....400 and 800 ISO and, along with their smaller format sensors, the need for raw power from big flashes vanished.  Back in 2008 I wrote a book about the phenomenon called Minimalist Lighting that was a very popular look at how the change in cameras and imaging in general allowed us to use smaller and smaller lights to accomplish what we used to do with raw tonnage and brute force.  But most of us already had substantial investments in "old school" lights and we kept using them.

I recently sold all of my Profoto boxes and heads and monolights (except for the battery powered Acute 600b) and I looked at a studio that was, all at once, freed up from the tyranny of traditional practice and conventional flash wisdom.  I knew I needed some lights in order to do the more or less traditional work that came my way and I was ready for a change just for change's sake.  I love my battery powered Elinchrom Ranger RX so I started looking for some cheap monolights to augment that system.  At the very least I'd be able to use the same reflectors and speedrings.  I thought I'd hit the sweet spot of capability and price when I found a set of used traditional Elinchrom monolights,  a 500 watt and a 250 watt set of their original, made in Switzerland, metal monolights.  They worked well and the price was astoundingly good.  $400 for the pair.  In a Pelican case.  From a trusted dealer.

I thought I'd done well until I used them at a portrait shoot.  I banged my head against the wall in frustration.  I'd become spoiled at the way you could dial down speedlights from Canon and Nikon in small increments until you got down to the point where you were adding little puffs of light instead of belligerent blasts of photons.  Even with both monolights dialed down to the minimum I was still getting too much light.  Way too much for my taste.

So I started looking again.  I don't like to use speedlights (Canon 580 ex2's,  Nikon SB-800's) for studio portrait shoots for several reasons:  1.  They are not graceful in accepting all of my favorite modifiers.  2.  They don't have modeling lights.  3.  They don't recycle quickly enough.  I was looking for all of the benefits I used to get with traditional lights but I wanted them to be more flexible in terms of power settings and I really wanted modeling lights.  And here's what I finally found out:

All of those cheap brands of lights that we'd been turning our noses up to for years were exactly what I wanted.   I've been on a buying frenzy for the last week and a half and I haven't even spent as much as the replacement cost of one 600 watt second Profoto monolight.

So, what have I been buying and why?