When it comes time to invest in in serious strobe lighting, many photographers opt for the versatility of monolights. Whereas pack-based systems typically provide greater output (measured in watt seconds, or ws, equivalent to joules), monolights are modular, self-contained and less expensive—making them the ideal entrée into the studio strobe lighting universe.
But the typical monolight is limited by power. The most prevalent monolights are under 600ws, commonly in the 300ws range. While these relatively low-power lights can work fine in the studio, they can present a major problem outside of it: They’re practically impossible to balance with daylight.
A typical sunny-day exposure is 1?100 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 100. This requires a lot of light from a strobe to equal the sun’s intensity. The workaround with an underpowered strobe is to position it very close to the subject. To overpower daylight—that is, eliminate its influence in the image and rely solely on the strobe exposure—even more power is needed. For lighting flexibility, high-power strobes are crucial. Thankfully, high-power monolight options are increasing.
MONOLIGHT BENEFITS AND DRAWBACKS
Monolights are inexpensive and modular because, unlike pack and head systems, they can be purchased one light at a time, and different brands of lights can work together. Although you’re not locked into a single system with monolights, it can still be wise to consider the variety of modifiers available—from umbrellas to reflectors, snoots to softboxes—before investing in a particular brand. Proprietary speedrings and connectors could tie you to a specific line, anyway.
Adjusting one monolight’s output has no impact on the power available to other lights, and if one monolight fails, the remaining heads continue to function. If you’re using multiple lights over a large area, monolights can be helpful. They have built-in photo sensors for slaved triggering across distances, and better units have integrated (or atleast optional) radio receivers for syncing multiple units without having to maintain line of sight. Some of these remotes can also adjust output settings, as well. As long as there’s electricity near the position of each monolight—or an optional battery pack, a popular monolight accessory, is used—they can be placed as far from one another as necessary. By comparison, a pack and head system tethers each light to the same pack, limiting their spread, and isn’t as easily powered by battery.
High-end monolights increasingly offer more features and benefits over their entry-level cousins. Color consistency—the ability to precisely reproduce the same color temperature every time, flash after flash, even as bulbs age and voltage changes—is the mark of a well-made monolight. Other indicators of the best lights are build quality, "fine-tunability" (the ability to make very small adjustments to the light’s output) and recycle time. A full-power flash may take five seconds to recycle in an inexpensive unit, but only two seconds in a high-end model.
Flash duration is also a useful measurement of a monolight’s performance, as the ability to produce brighter light in a shorter time makes stopping fast action easier. When working with a high-output monolight outdoors, short flash durations for freezing motion are extremely helpful.
Another useful flash feature is called "auto-dumping." With it, strobes automatically discharge excess power from the capacitors when the output level is dialed down. Without this feature, the photographer has to manually discharge (i.e., fire the strobe) when decreasing power in order to empty the capacitor of the excess power. Fan cooling in monolights is helpful for dissipating heat from model lamps and high-strobe wattages, as well as when using light modifiers that retain heat—like snoots, softboxes and grids.
While it’s increasingly rare to find a flash head that requires factory service to replace model lamps and flash tubes, keep an eye out when shopping for monolights (or any kind of strobe), as you’d hate to have to pay for a repair for something as simple as changing a light bulb.
HIGH-POWER MONOLIGHT MODELS
The Flashpoint 1820A is an inexpensive 900ws fan-cooled monolight. It features stepless power down to 1/8 output—approximately 112ws—and low sync voltage to make the strobe safe for digital cameras via a regular PC connection without requiring an inline Safesync voltage regulator. Flash duration varies from 1?600 to 1?1000 sec., and the Flashpoint 1820A recycles in three seconds to full power. The unit weighs six pounds, measures 13x8x6 inches and ships with a long, 15-foot power cable. A 1200ws model is also available. Estimated Street Price: $299.
Bowens makes the Gemini 750 Pro, a 750ws monolight with a short 1?2300 sec. flash duration. Five-stop adjustability is available in tenth-stop increments, down to 13ws. An optional Travelpak battery makes the unit useful even in remote locations, and the 1.5-second recycle time is fast for full-power flashes. Another notable feature is the Pulsar/PocketWizard card slot to integrate an optional radio receiver. The unit’s multi-voltage power system automatically selects the correct voltage when plugged in, making it adaptable to anywhere there’s electricity, anywhere in the world. Measuring 16x7x6 inches, the Gemini 750 Pro weighs 8.8 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $1,049.
Elinchrom’s Digital Style 1200RX is a compact fan-cooled flash unit. From full 1200ws output down to just 36ws, it offers a six-stop range in tenth-stop increments. An optional two-way remote control allows the power settings to be adjusted remotely from the camera position—taking advantage of the ability to move monolights far afield—and it can even be controlled by PC and Mac computers when tethering. Ultra-consistent flash output is ideal for multi-shot applications where even small variations in power are unacceptable. It has a fast 1?1450 sec. flash duration and a 2.3-second recycle time in a fairly compact 7.6-pound, 12x6x6-inch unit. Low-voltage (5v) sync eliminates the need for a voltage regulator, too. Estimated Street Price: $1,399.
With its 1?2000 sec. flash duration and 2.1 seconds to full recycle, the Hensel Integra 1000 Plus is a high-performance, feature-rich monolight. Built-in four-channel radio receivers augment standard optical slaves, and multi-voltage compatibility makes the unit useful worldwide. It has a six-stop range down to 1/32 power in tenth-stop increments, and the LED display makes for easy reading of adjustments. The aluminum housing on the 16x9x6-inch unit is heavy-duty without being heavy, weighing in at 8.6 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $1,110.
Interfit’s Stellar X monolight offers 1000ws of power with easy-to-use analog controls. Stepless power adjustments cover a five-stop range, down to 1?16 sec., (roughly 30ws), with a three-second recycle time at full power. The fan-cooled unit is 20x10x6 inches and weighs just six pounds. Estimated Street Price: $479.
The Einstein E640 from Paul C. Buff offers 640ws of power adjustable in tenth-stop increments over a nine-stop range—down to 1/256 power, or a miniscule 2.5ws (useful for balancing with low-level ambience). The short 1.7-second recycle time at full power is complemented by a superfast 1?13,000 sec. flash duration for efficient action-stopping power. Color Consistency mode lengthens that flash duration, but ensures color precision, making the unit customizable for a given shot’s need
s. With all-digital controls and an LCD display, the fan-cooled Einstein E640 has low-voltage safe sync and automatically senses input voltage to work worldwide (from 95 to 265 volts). Remote-control capability is optional via Cybersync, and the unit’s Easy Set button makes returning to default settings a snap. A Micro SD card slot readies the unit for firmware updates in the future. This feature-filled light is also compact and light, weighing just 4.3 pounds at just 8x7x5 inches. Estimated Street Price: $499.
The StarFlash 650ws monolight from Photoflex offers adjustability down to 1/8 power—a five-stop range—and a 1?1700 sec. flash duration at full power, which recharges in four to five seconds. It has a rugged aluminum chassis with a rubberized finish for durability, and a proportional model lamp for a what-you-see-is-what-you-get look at the light’s output. The StarFlash 650 measures 16x6x5 inches and weighs 7.1 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $499.
For professonials with bigger budgets, Profoto’s D1 Air 1000 promises quality and performance. The 1000ws unit is adjustable in tenth-stop increments across a seven-stop range, down to 15.6ws (1/32 power). Color consistency at 1?1800 sec. flash duration, as well as fast two-second full power recycling and integrated Profoto Air radio sync control, make the unit useful for a variety of pro assignments. At 12x12x7 inches, the D1 Air 1000 weighs just 6.5 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $1,749.