Monolights, flashes and strobes are lighting systems capable of timed bursts of light in a rapid sequence. Because the bursts of light are intermittent, they’re much cooler to use instead of most traditional continuous light sources, especially important in closed studio environments. Low-heat continuous LED lights are challenging this advantage, but monolights and strobes are often rated for much higher light outputs—while the fairly soft output of LEDs makes them difficult to use when looking to freeze motion.
Strobes and flashes such as on-camera speedlights are largely battery-powered while monolights must typically be powered through an AC or DC source like a battery pack or outlet. Most monolights also include a modeling light for previewing the lighting setup and effects you’re creating in a scene.
With monolights, output is generally offered in watt-seconds (W/s), a measure of the maximum amount of power capable of being generated each second (equivalent to joules). While manufacturers often use the W/s as a gauge for the power of a monolight, these numbers should be considered a general rule of thumb because total light output can be affected by numerous other factors, including the design of the light and any light-modification tools used like reflectors.
Very inexpensive base models, often best as secondary solutions for multiple light setups or optically triggered "slave" units, start at roughly 100W/s. For a primary monolight with enough power to light a basic scene on its own, you should start at 300W/s or more. Professional systems begin at 1200W/s or more.
Remember that quality of light can matter as much as power. Higher-end systems can often be matched in output and specs, but top-of-the-line systems from pro companies like Profoto and Broncolor typically offer much better color rendering and more consistent light output from burst to burst, as well as very fast recycling times and durable, light-efficient builds. More affordable systems will often vary slightly by each burst with color shifting as the bulb ages, and even between pops or when adjusting power.
Intermediate systems are quite capable, however, because more power isn’t always better. Changing the distance of your monolight to your subject can be as effective as adjusting the power. This means that lower-rated lights can still provide a lot of illumination when situated close to your subject, while higher-rated lights can be too powerful to achieve a shallow depth of field even at the lowest setting, especially when the distance to your subject is limited in a studio situation.
Depending on your needs, it may be beneficial to purchase multiple mid-tier or low-tier lights over a single expensive pro model. When combined, multiple lights add to your light output exponentially at the same time that they give you much more versatile lighting setups.
STARTER UNITS AND SLAVE MODELS
Elinchrom’s D-Lite RX series is a compact, affordable strobe system that can compete with the versatility of speedlights. Capable of roughly twice the power of a typical on-camera flash at roughly the same price point, the D-Lite RX One 100W/s head begins the series, followed by the D-Lite 200W/s RX 2 flash head and the D-Lite 400W/s RX 4. All three lights feature a five-stop power range and an Intelligent Slave Cell optical trigger, which is designed to ignore pre-flash. Visual Flash Confirmation dims the modeling light until full recycle is achieved, and Skyport Software compatibility gives control over functions from Mac or Windows operating systems when used with the optional Transceiver RX module. An iOS Elinchrom Skyport WiFi app can also be used with the optional Skyport WiFi module for iPhone and iPad control. Estimated Street Price: $225 (D-Lite RX One); $339 (D-Lite RX 2); $399 (D-Lite RX 4).
Westcott’s 5600K Strobelite monolight offers 300W/s effective output, which recycles in 2.5 seconds at full power. The inexpensive fixture includes a 100W modeling light, reflector and mini-to-PC sync cord. The Strobelite Monolight is a great choice as a secondary or fill light because it includes a built-in optical slave trigger. The more powerful Strobelite Plus offers 400W/s. Estimated Street Price: $149 (Strobelite); $229 (Strobelite Plus).
The 150W/s Interfit Stellar XD monolight includes a digital control panel with push-button controls for quickly making adjustments. Full-power bursts recycle in two seconds, and it includes a 150W modeling light and an "S" bayonet mount for using common light-modification tools. Interfit’s Stellar series of monolights begins with this model, and there are more powerful units available. Estimated Street Price: $159.
Adorama offers the affordable daylight-balanced Flashpoint 180 Monolight and Battery kit (FPBPLB) with small umbrella and a bag for carrying the system. Two NP-F960 batteries power the light for up to 700 flashes at full-power 180W/s bursts. The mount is Bowens-compatible for adding widely available light-modification tools or softboxes and other front accessories through the compatible Flashpoint Bowens Speed Ring Adapter. There’s a five-stop range of adjustment. List Price: $249.
|Because you’re projecting light from a single light source with a monolight, the output is high-contrast illumination that can be unflattering with portraiture and too concentrated for many other types of photography. Umbrellas, reflectors, softboxes, diffusion panels and silks, bounces and other light-modification tools will give you a way to manipulate light to control this harshly directional light. There are distinct classes of light-modification tools, but often products will incorporate several characteristics into one design. If you’re interested in using light-modification tools (which you should be), when you’re looking at your monolight options, ensure that they have a mount for adding umbrellas and other tools.
Diffusion reduces and scatters light for less contrast and hence softer, "wraparound" light by passing it through translucent material. Softboxes are a classic and popular diffusion tool for creating soft wraparound light. Many of them add silver or gold interiors to add a touch of specularity or warmth to output. A few other examples include silks, diffusion panels and domes.
Reflectors are versatile because they can be used to both strengthen and diffuse light by bouncing light directly toward the subject or simply by bouncing the rays of light in a way that makes them scatter for more diffuse coverage, like an umbrella. Most reflectors use gold, silver and white surface materials as well as combinations of these to bounce and affect the color temperature of the light. Beauty dishes, handheld reflective panels, bounce boards and umbrellas are examples of reflective tools.
There are also a number of tools that will allow you to channel and shape light output. Snoots, grids, barndoors and flags physically control the dire
With a 400W/s monolight head and recycle time of 1.0 to 3.5 seconds, the Impact LiteTrek 4.0 DC kit includes a 325V Mini LiteTrek battery pack, which will supply up to 650 flashes at maximum and roughly 3500 bursts when using minimum power. It includes a seven-inch umbrella and aluminum case, as well as compatibility with Impact and Bowens bayonet-mount accessories. The head and battery pack are available separately, and a kit is also available with two flash heads. Estimated Street Price: $499 (LiteTrek 4.0 DC Flash Head); $799 (LiteTrek 4.0 DC Monolight and Mini LiteTrek Battery Pack Kit); $1,049 (LiteTrek 4.0 DC Two Monolight and Mini LiteTrek Battery Pack Kit).
Paul C. Buff’s popular Einstein E640 offers nine stops of power variability that can be dialed in at 1/10th of a stop from 2.5W/s to 640W/s. Full-power recycling is achieved in 1.7 seconds, and the unit automatically switches power from 95VAC to 265VAC, with 50Hz and 60Hz frequencies available for use domestically or abroad. The Constant Color setting maintains a consistent daylight color temperature of 5600ºK between bursts while the Action mode allows the color to shift in exchange for much faster flash durations. There’s a built-in slave trigger as well as a standard 1/8" PC sync. Paul C. Buff also provides the optional CyberSync radio remote trigger system. List Price: $499.
The extensive Bowens Gemini series of monolights starts with a 200W/s model, the 200Rx, ranging up to the Gemini 1500Pro with 1500W/s. The Gemini 1500Pro is capable of 1/1400-second flash durations with full-power recycling in 2.8 seconds. It can be powered from Bowens Travelpak battery systems or used on any voltage system worldwide (90-130/190-250VAC). The seven-stop power range from 11W/s to 1500W/s is adjustable in one-stop and 1/10th-stop steps. There’s an "S"-type mount for accessories and a 500W modeling light as well as a built-in optical slave. Estimated Street Price: $419 (Gemini 200Rx 200W/s); $1,149 (Gemini 1500Pro).
With a seven-inch reflector, Dynalite’s 400W/s Uni400JR monolight offers 1.5-second recycling when using AC power, or four-second recycling with the optional Jackrabbit Pack II power pack. Flash consistency is measured within 1/10th of an ƒ-stop with each burst. The Jackrabbit Pack II provides up to 150 full-power flashes, and the light is capable of a four-stop range with 1/3-stop increments in full, 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 power settings. (A maximum sync speed of 1/2200th of a second is available when using 1/8 power.) Two-head systems and kits, including the battery pack, are available. Estimated Street Price: $679 (Uni400JR Monolight); $479 (Dynalite Jackrabbit Pack II).
With a diameter of 3.5 inches and a length of 5.5 inches, the 300W/s TritonFlash from Photoflex is designed to be compact, with dimensions similar to a soda can. Despite its size, the unit is quite capable, with 19 power settings that are adjustable by 1/3 stops. A dedicated power pack is required and is available in a TritonFlash Kit. The light is capable of 750 full-power bursts, and two TritonFlash heads can be powered from the same battery pack. A 35W modeling light is built-in, as is an optical sensor and sync terminal. The TritonFlash OctoDome Strobe Kit adds an extra-small XS 1.5-foot softbox. List Price: $879 (TritonFlash Head); $529 (TritonFlash Power Pack); $1,349 (TritonFlash Kit); $1,499 (TritonFlash OctoDome XS Strobe Kit).
CONNECTIONS AND TRIGGERS
Depending on the model, there are a few different ways to trigger monolights. A PC (Prontor-Compur) cord connects the PC connection on the light head to the PC jack on the camera to sync the shutter with the flash. PC connections are dumb, so they’ll only trigger a strobe. They won’t transmit metering or other information. Not all DSLRs include a PC jack, either, and the cord is generally too short for work on location and sometimes even in studios.
Infrared is most often found in TTL flash systems where the camera and dedicated flash communicate with each other to establish the best metering. Infrared is limited by line-of-sight, as are optical slaves, which detect a burst of light from the master light to trigger secondary light systems.
Wireless radio triggers are a much more reliable choice over infrared and optical slaves. There are systems available for using the TTL functions of your camera, as well. Popular manufacturers include Impact, Interfit, PocketWizard, RadioPopper, MicroSync, Vello and others. Manufacturers such as Bowens, Broncolor and Elinchrom produce their own systems, as well.
Impact Studio Lighting
Paul C. Buff