For many photographers, stepping up from on-camera flash to the world of powerful studio-style strobes can be daunting. But it doesn’t need to be, especially once you’re introduced to the world of affordable monolight options. These self-contained strobes have all of their controls contained right in the head. Unlike a pack-and-head strobe system, monolights can be plugged individually into an AC outlet. This makes them versatile, for use in studio and on location, because they can be positioned far apart. It also makes them especially practical for beginners because they can be purchased one at a time and they don’t tie you to a specific brand.
The biggest factor in selecting a strobe is power. Strobe output is measured in joules, or watt seconds. A good way to interpret watt seconds is to equate them to the amount of light output by a comparable tungsten bulb. For instance, a 100w/s strobe provides illumination equivalent to turning on a 100-watt light bulb for one second. You might imagine that’s a lot of light, especially given how fast a strobe burst is, but 100w/s is actually a very low-power strobe output. Some units exceed 1000w/s, 2000w/s or even more. In the most affordable monolights, though, high output is fairly rare.
The Interfit ACE 100w/s flash kit, for instance, provides all the basics without the expensive bells and whistles. For under $100, the kit contains an ACE 100w/s monolight with manual controls, stepless power adjustment across a four-stop range and a built-in optical slave and sync port, as well as a light stand and an umbrella for softening the strobe’s output.
Another especially affordable option is the Flashpoint Budget studio monolight, which is available in 120w/s, 160w/s and 300w/s versions. These flashes sell for $50, $70 and $100, respectively, making them perhaps the least expensive way to outfit a studio with strobes. Affordable as they are, they’re not made of plastic. These strobes have an aluminum housing for durability, and features like replaceable flash tubes make them a practical, low-risk investment.
For photographers who want a bit more power, consider the Smith-Victor Flashlite FLC200 and FLC300. These 200w/s and 300w/s monolights are still quite affordable, weighing in at $230 and $260, respectively, and they maintain the easy-to-use roots of their common ancestor, the Smith-Victor parabolic hot lights that generations of photographers have used to learn the basics of lighting.
Elinchrom makes many high-end strobe options popular with world-class photographers, but that doesn’t mean all of its offerings are high-output and feature-laden with price tags to match. In fact, the D-Lite 100w/s, 200w/s and 400w/s monolights cost $230, $350 and $400, respectively, yet they still provide features professionals love. For instance, the built-in Skyport wireless receiver makes wireless synching and triggering of multiple strobes a snap since it doesn’t require external hardware (aside from the camera-mounted Skyport transmitter, sold separately). The D-Lites are fan-cooled to prevent overheating, and they offer five-stop variability in tenth-stop increments. They can also accommodate firmware updates via the built-in USB connection, and an optional wireless module can even provide strobe control via iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
Paul C. Buff‘s Einstein E640 is, in many ways, a wolf in sheep’s clothing because it offers several high-end features in a relatively affordable package. At $500, the 640w/s monolight sports all-digital controls and an LCD display, as well as precisely adjustable power across a nine-stop range (from just 2.5w/s up to the full 640w/s) variable in tenth-stop increments. The Einstein is particularly known for its short flash durations, which make strobing fast-moving action much easier. It also offers rock-solid color consistency via the selectable Constant Color mode—useful when perfect color accuracy is a must.
If you value portability over all else, consider the Dynalite Baja B4, a compact, battery-powered monolight. The Baja B4 is a 400w/s strobe with six stops of range, adjustable in tenth-stop increments. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery is enough for 550 full-power flashes, and the flash duration ranges from 1/500 to a blazing fast 1/12,800—ideal for freezing action. The LED modeling light saves size, weight and power, and C-Mode offers burst shooting up to 15 flashes per second. The Baja B4 retails for $600.
The Phottix Indra 500 isn’t strictly a monolight, though it behaves a lot like one. This 500w/s strobe can be powered by an AC outlet or from the included 5,000 mAh battery, which holds enough juice for 400 full-power flashes on a single, five-hour charge. The Indra 500 also offers many benefits typically reserved for speedlights—things like TTL metering and second curtain sync—thanks to built-in wireless receivers for Nikon and Canon cameras. All these features come with a price: At $1,200, the Indra 500 is one of the most expensive strobes in this roundup.
For photographers who need even more power, step up to the Bowens Gemini 750Pro and 1000Pro PW monolights. At $1,050 and $1,250, respectively, these lights may not be for beginners on a limited budget, but for photographers who need higher power to overcome bright daylight or to achieve deep depth of fi eld in studio situations, these monolights are powerful and featurerich. Adjustable across a fi ve-stop and seven-stop range, respectively, the lights are controlled via manual dials with digital readouts. Optional Travelpak batteries make them powerful lighting allies even in remote locations, and multi-voltage capability means traveling photographers won’t have to worry about compatibility even with varying voltages. Built-in PocketWizard receivers make the lights convenient, as well.
The Quantum Qflash TRIO QF8 is part monolight, part speedlight. It’s bigger than the average hot-shoe flash, it’s more powerful, and it has a built-in parabolic reflector with diffuser— yet it can still be mounted to a hot-shoe and it’s battery-powered. So is it a monolight, or is it a speedlight? It’s a Qflash! The $875 QF8 is available with built-in TTL wireless receivers for Canon or Nikon systems, and can control all the same features including AF assist, high-speed sync and the ability to control remote f
lashes—and adjust their settings and output—from the command center of the primary unit. The great thing about the QF8 and its 80w/s output is that it can’t be overworked; it can fire full-power flashes as fast as possible for as long as the battery will last.
Westcott’s Skylux LED looks like a monolight strobe, but it’s actually a continuous light, powered by efficient and bright LEDs. It’s perfect for photographers who want to shoot video, too, but don’t want to have to buy a second set of lights. The daylight-balanced output will mix well with strobes, and with an equivalent output to a 1200-watt tungsten bulb, this is one bright light. It’s dimmable down to 30% and sports a built-in parabolic reflector for a 60º spread. This bright, efficient, versatile light sells for $1,000.