I used one of the compact strobes listed below, outdoors on a sunny winter day, to photograph kids having a great time in the new fallen snow. I balanced the strobe with the ambient light by positioning my subjects in open shade from a tree, setting the camera exposure for the normal sunlight (so the shadowed subjects would naturally be a bit underexposed) and then setting the strobe to match the aperture I’d just established. Now my subjects were perfectly lit—by the strobe, not the sun. Then it’s just a matter of repositioning the strobe so it looks just right on your subject and adjusting the power of that strobe up or down in order to get the exposure dialed in. Remember here that the shutter speed has no effect on the strobe exposure. To adjust the strobe exposure in the camera, simply dial the aperture up or down (wider open to allow in more light, stopped down to reduce the exposure) or move the strobe closer or farther away as the exposure gets darker as the light moves farther away. I put my strobe in a shoot-through umbrella (a brolly box, in fact) in order to create diffused portrait lighting, but there’s no rule against shooting with the strobe unmodified if the hard-edged shadows and high contrast of a bare bulb fit the subject. You can use any of the strobes below with this technique, as well as many other studio-style lighting effects.
640ws: Paul C. Buff Einstein
If there’s one light that really defines the “useful/affordable/compact” monolight genre, it’s likely Paul C. Buff’s Einstein. Pretty powerful, certainly compared to the other lights in this category, the Einstein weighs in at 640ws, adjustable in tenth-stop increments across a 9-stop range, which gets the light down to just 2.5ws for shooting at wide apertures or for balancing with relatively low ambient light. The controls are all-digital via the rear LCD, and the Einstein is known for its color consistency and short flash durations—as short at 1/13,500th of a second—ideal for stopping very fast moving action. The Einstein also comes with a15-foot sync cord and, less exciting, a 15-foot power cord. But the power situation is interesting with the Einstein because it was built to work with varying voltages available in North America, Europe and elsewhere around the world—anything in from 95 to 265 VAC. For a traveling photographer, this is a big help. Price: $499, www.paulcbuff.com.
400ws: Dynalite Baja B4
The Dynalite Baja B4 isn’t as compact as some of the other monolights in this group, although it’s certainly not a huge fixture. But it’s packing something these other monolights aren’t: a built-in rechargeable battery. That DC option makes the Baja B4 especially useful in remote locations and outdoors. At 400ws, it’s powerful enough to mix with even strong, direct sunlight. The Li-ion battery provides more than 500 full-power flashes on a single charge, and even more when dialed down six stops (in tenth-stop increments) to the minimum output of 12.5ws. The Baja B4’s full power flash duration is 1/500th with a minimum duration of 1/12,800th at the lowest power setting. The stroboscopic C-mode can produce 5, 10 or 15 flashes per second, A 5-watt LED modeling lamp is helpful for setup and the 2.4 GHz Power Control Wireless Receiver is a great way to adjust power settings remotely from the camera—with the optional and fairly affordable hot-shoe transmitter. The Baja B4 comes with an umbrella reflector, too. Price: $599, www.dynalite.com.
400ws: Elinchrom Quadra Living Light Kit
Speaking of battery-powered strobes, Elinchrom’s Quadra Living Light Kit also uses a built-in battery to take the strobe out of the studio and to any destination you’d like. The snowy day images included here, in fact, were shot with this Elinchrom kit. The majority of the strobes in this roundup are monolights, primarily because most compact and affordable strobes are built in that format. But the Elinchrom Quadra Living Light Kit is a pack and head system, where the battery and controls are separate from the light heads, in this case allowing those heads, and frankly the pack as well, to be incredibly small and light. The pack weighs just 6.6 pounds with the lead-gel battery and measures about 8 inches tall by 6 inches wide and 3.3 inches deep. The palm-sized head is just 6×3.3×3 inches and weighs just half a pound. It’s built on Elinchrom’s Ranger Quadra Hybrid AS RX strobe pack—which can accommodate two strobe heads via two outputs, one a high-power channel and the other at half the power and for superfast flash durations up to 1/3000th—and includes an Elinchrom Standard strobe head, an 8.2-foot flash cable, a lead-gel battery (for optimum performance even at low temperatures, as opposed to the optional Lithium Ion battery which is lighter and longer lasting), a sync cord and an Elinchrom EL Skyport transmitter all included. (The pack has a Skyport receiver built in.) Add a second flash head and second battery and the whole kit still fits in a briefcase. Price: $999, www.elinchrom.com.
320ws: Interfit Honey Badger
Have you heard of the Honey Badger? In this case, the tough little guy of which I’m speaking is Interfit’s new 320ws compact strobe that retails for just $299 and weighs in at just three pounds in a cube-like 5x5x6-inch form factor. The Honey Badger’s maximum output is 320ws—enough for lots of studio uses, and it can be used outdoors, even in bright sun. It’s well more than a typical shoe-mounted speedlight, and with its seven stops of adjustability (in tenth-stop increments), the Honey Badger might be perfect for folks who want to balance the strobe with ambient daylight while shooting at wide apertures in order to capitalize on beautifully shallow depth of field. That’s something that simply can’t be done with more powerful strobes that can’t get down to the 5ws minimum output of the Honey Badger. It’s built to deliver short flash durations (1/900th at full power) to freeze fast action with a one-second recycle time on full power that’s pretty darn fast, comparatively. This monolight also incorporates a 60-watt LED modeling lamp (equivalent to the output of a 300-watt tungsten lamp) which is also daylight balanced to provide a more accurate look at what the strobe will deliver and which can, theoretically, be used as a constant light source of its own. The Honey Badger comes with a 24×24 softbox as well. Price: $299, www.interfitphotographic.com.
160ws: Paul C. Buff DigiBee DB 400
The DigiBee DB 400 from Paul C. Buff provides 160ws of power, adjustable across seven stops in 1/10-stop increments. At 2.5ws minimum, the DigiBee really is ideal for use in low-light situations in which the photographer wants to combine his strobe with the ambient light rather than simply overpowering it. Like its big brother, the Einstein, the controls are all digital and adjusted via the LCD on the back of the fixture. The modeling lamp is an LED, but it produces an equivalent output to a 400w tungsten lamp—great for seeing what you’re doing, and for use as a constant light if necessary. The DB 400 recycles quickly, just half a second for a full power recharge, and produces short flash durations of 1/1450th even at full power. The light measures 5.25×7.25×4.75 inches and weighs just 2.5 lbs., and it ships with a 15-foot sync cable as well. Price: $309, www.paulcbuff.com.
100ws: Elinchrom D-Lite RX One
If what you’re looking for is a world-travel-ready, low-power strobe, the Elinchrom D-Lite RX One is for you. A 100ws light, adjustable in tenth-stop increments across a five-stop range, you can dial this light all the way down to 6ws for use in conjunction with low light or when shooting at wide apertures. Much like Paul C. Buff’s Einstein, the D-Lite RX One is compatible with multiple voltages, from 90-260 VAC, which makes it useful in many locations around the globe. Flash duration is 1/1,100th at full power and the flash recycles in half a second at full power as well. The RX One has a built-in EL Skyport Receiver that can be triggered by the (optional) EL Skyport Speed Transmitter. Photographers can also download free software to access special features such as flash delay for strobing effects and a Wi-Fi module to gain full remote control of the light from apps on iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. The RX One comes with a 16-foot sync cord, as well. Price: $229, www.elinchrom.com.