Home Buyer's Guide Monolights 2012
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Buying Your First Monolight

Tips for choosing and using these versatile, reasonably priced studio strobes


Monolights: What To Look For
  • UV-coated or gold-tone, user-replaceable flashtube
  • Interchangeable reflector
  • Umbrella holder (in the reflector or external to the housing)
  • Compact size for easy storage and portage
  • 3- to 5-step (or greater) flash output control (stepless or 1/10-step increments)
  • Proportional modeling light (halogen, preferably not less than 100W to 150W)
  • 300 Ws to 400 Ws units for portraiture; 600 Ws to 800 Ws for tabletop/still life
  • Constant color temperature
  • Auto dumping (to release excess voltage when powering down, so you don't have to do it manually to prevent overexposure on the next frame)
  • 6V or less sync/trigger voltage (so it won't fry your digital camera)
  • Choice of wireless triggering systems: photocell, infrared, radio (a transmitter or trigger is often optional)
  • Kit with one monolight (you can do quite a bit); two monolights (for key light and background light); three lights if you're really ambitious (key, background, hair)

What's Next?
You can save yourself a lot of trouble if you buy a monolight kit. The kit can come with one, two or three lights fully accoutered with case, light stands, AC and sync cables, reflectors, flashtubes and modeling lights. Shop wisely, and that kit also may hold one or more umbrellas or softboxes. For starters, I recommend umbrellas—white-surfaced for a softer, more neutral light, preferably in the 40-inch-diameter range. The softbox that comes with most kits is a 2-foot-square box that's only useful for head-and-shoulder portraits. One umbrella can cover several people.

Is A Powerpack In Your Future?
As you build up your lighting system, you may find that those economical monolights make for a very bulky kit. With a powerpack-based studio lighting system, you can add smaller, lighter heads without making the kit unwieldy. Of course, a powerpack (or generator) itself is often a pretty hefty piece of equipment, but it can drive two or more heads (depending on design), and all the controls for those heads are centrally located in this box. Pros opt for powerpacks because they can supply lots of light in a very consistent manner, with reliably short recycling times. Of equal importance, more capable packs boast ultrashort flash durations needed to freeze movement. Very few monolights have this capability.

What do you do with two or three lights? First, consider adding a collapsible reflector, which can replace a fill light. That leaves your other lights to serve as a hairlight (add a grid or snoot) and background light (with a background reflector or barndoor set). You may want to add a more colorful fabric backdrop in place of that drab white wall.

With the flashtube in place, the next step is to plug in the modeling light. Then the reflector, if not permanent, should be attached. Moving to the rear, the AC and sync cords are next. Put it all on a light stand, attach an umbrella, plug it into the wall, connect the sync cord to the camera or use a wireless trigger, switch everything on—and you're ready to shoot.

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