In this case, the term “strobe” refers to “studio strobes,” or more accurately, AC-powered monolights (so-called, “mono,” to differentiate them from traditional pack-and-head, studio strobe systems which can support multiple light heads). This is probably one of the most common questions asked by beginning photographers looking to improve their lighting skills. Unfortunately, it’s a simple question, with a not-so-simple answer.

The main problem is, strobes from different manufacturers tend to offer very different feature sets and benefits, and of course there is no single, super-strobe that does it all. Build quality, after-sales support, and available accessories are usually best-supported by name-brand manufacturers (e.g., Elinchrom, Profoto, Dynalite, etc.), but feature sets also vary quite a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer, and even from model to model within a single manufacturer’s product line. Some strobes may offer a wide power-range, while some are very lightweight, while still others have premium features already built-in, e.g., radio-frequency (RF) receivers for wireless remote triggering.

studio strobes: AC-powered monolights

Here’s a brief overview of a selection of entry-level studio strobes. But, they’re only “entry-level” in price (with the exception of the Elinchrom ELC HD Pro 500, Elinchrom’s new flagship 500Ws monolight which has a current street price of $1,049). They’re certainly good enough for almost any level of professional work, and a lot of pros rely on these very same models for their everyday work. But before you choose a monolight, you must first consider the entire system you’re buying into, since not everything from every manufacturer works together. Here are a few of the key purchase considerations before deciding to buy into any particular manufacturer’s system:

• Maximum power output.
• Minimum power output.
• Recycle time.
• Built-in RF, optical or infra-red receivers.
• Wide-ranging power control.
• Ease of operation.
• Inter-operability of preferred modifiers (e.g., Elinchrom Rotalux).
• Ability to top-mount from a boom.
• Weight.
• Bulk.

Personally, I’ve been wanting to simplify my lighting set-up for interior portraits (exterior portraiture can have its own set of requirements), and reduce the number of components in my system. Although I own and use PocketWizard-brand radio-frequency (RF) triggers for shooting above-sync shutter speeds outdoors (i.e., “HyperSync“), for indoor studio use, choosing a brand of strobe with built-in triggers can have huge advantages. This reduces the number of potential “failure points,” so if you forget to change batteries in one particular trigger, the shoot still goes on. While built-in triggers offer a lot of convenience, not every strobe manufacturer offers this feature in their products, and there are significant other trade-offs you may need to consider when deciding on a particular system. But, there are two manufacturers in particular which offer unique speedring designs, making their softboxes easiest to assemble: Paul C. Buff and Elinchrom.

• Paul C. Buff:

Price, performance, and a complete system. Aside from the very affordable Alien Bees’ line of PCB strobes, Buff’s flagship strobe, the Einstein E640, has a class-leading, 9-stop power range, and accommodates an entire line of Paul C. Buff modifiers that are among the most affordably priced set of lighting tools on the market. Among the product line’s most significant features is their umbrella-like, integrated speedring design, making set-up of their brand of softboxes about as quick and easy as it gets. From Buff’s sophisticated computerized CyberSync triggering system, to large parabolic umbrellas, to a variety of affordable softboxes, each with their own value-priced, available softgrid, it’s hard to beat the variety, price, and performance offered by this US-based company.

Perhaps their largest downside is their limited availability outside the US. Also, some users report a less-than-perfect modifier attachment design, making the secure attachment of large modifiers sometimes a challenge. Third-party accessory supplier, Kacey Enterprises, makes unique flash accessories, several of which are designed specifically for the Einstein E640, including a more robust method of mounting both the flash unit and its modifiers.

• Elinchrom:

The long-time Swiss manufacture of pro lighting gear also offers a unique, integrated speedring that’s quick and easy to set-up. Elinchrom’s Rotalux softboxes themselves also have a unique design, employing an ultra-thin reflector fabric making them the lightest modifiers in the industry. These two features alone are enough for some to choose Elinchrom for their personal studio set-ups. But in addition to that, the majority of Elinchrom’s strobes come with built-in, proprietary Skyport triggers, even in their least-expensive model, the 100Ws, Elinchrom D-Lite RX1.

Elinchrom currently offers two lines: Their more-affordable D-Lite RX series, and their new, top-of-the-line, flagship monolights: the Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 500 and ELC Pro HD 1000 (Elinchrom’s older Digital Style RX-line of strobes are now being phased out). Buy ’em now! Elinchrom’s high-performance ELC Pro HD series is currently being sold at significant discounts (up to 50%) by major online resellers as of May 2015. These are a new class of monolights for Elinchrom, with four years in research in development invested, these impressive units offer the most features and highest performance of any previous Elinchrom monolight. Perhaps the most impressive new feature of the ELCs is their best-in-class recycle times. These things are fast–so fast, they’re even able to keep up with continuous shooting speeds of today’s fastest DSLRs (when at minimum power). The ELC Pro HD monolights offer a lot: Built-in Skyport receivers, insanely-fast recycling, plus an excellent array of available modifiers, but unless you benefitted from this May’s uber-sale, this all comes at more than twice the price of an Einstein E640.

• Bowens:

Of course, there are many other brands which offer both value and performance: Bowens offers a competent line of robustly built strobes in a variety of power output levels and feature sets. Their unique yoke design makes Bowens the only monolights on the market to make inverted-mounting a breeze, plus the Bowens units have an excellent power control layout and display (another strobe with a built-in ability for either top- and bottom-mounting are the excellent, but unfortunately discontinued Speedotron Force 5 and Force 10 monolights). Also, Bowens is one of the few manufacturers among PocketWizard’s “Technology Alliance” partners, offering both built-in PocketWizard compatibility in select models, as well as the BowensGEM PocketWizard receiver module.

brief overview of select 200-600Ws AC studio strobes:

Bowens Gemini 250R:
• Min/max. power: 7.5Ws-250Ws.
• Power range: 5-stops.
• Fast recycle: 1.0 sec. at max. power.
• Mount: Bowens S-type.
• Heavy: 6.4 lbs.
• Built-in card slot accepts Bowens Pulsar or PocketWizard RF receivers.
• Optional PocketWizard receiver, GEM (HyperSync not supported).
• t=0.5 value: 1/1,100th at max power.
• Side-mounted yoke permits inverted-mounting without inverting controls.
• Easy-to-use dual power controls, plus large LED power-level display.
• DC-powerable with Bowens Travelpak batteries. • Robust steel housing.
• Bulky (15″ in length).

Dynalite Uni400:
• Min./max. power: 50Ws-400Ws.
• Power range: 4-stops.
• Very fast recycle: 1.4 sec. at max. power.
• Mount: Dynalite.
• Lightweight: 3.6 lbs.
• No integrated PocketWizard solution.
• t=0.5: 1/675th at max power.
• AC/DC-powerable.
• Compact and robust build quality.
• Long t-value makes for an excellent HyperSync strobe.

Elinchrom D-Lite 200 RX2:
• Min./max. power: 12Ws-200Ws.
• Power range: 5-stops.
• Best-in-class recycle time: 0.8 sec. at full-power.
• Mount: Elinchrom.
• Very lightweight: 2.9 lbs.
• Built-in Elinchrom Skyport RF receiver.
• No integrated PocketWizard solution.
• t=0.5 value: 1/1,200th.
• Directly mounts Elinchrom Rotalux modifiers (up to 53″).
• Compact form factor.
• Less-robust plastic construction.

Elinchrom ELC HD Pro 500: LIGHTBASICS’ TOP-PICK [review coming soon.]
• Min./max. power: 7Ws-500Ws.
• Power range: 7-stops.
• Best-in-class recycle time: 0.7 sec. at full-power; up to 20FPS at minimum power.
• Mount: Elinchrom.
• Moderate weight: 5.2 lbs.
• Built-in Elinchrom Skyport RF receiver.
• No integrated PocketWizard solution.
• t=0.5 value: 1/2,940th-1/2,330th (min. to max. power).
• Directly mounts Elinchrom Rotalux modifiers of any size.
• Less-robust plastic mount.
• Best alternative to Profoto D1 or Broncolor Siros if you prefer Elinchrom modifiers.

Paul C. Buff Alien Bees B800:
• Min./max. power: 10Ws-320Ws.
• Power range: 6 stops.
• Fast recycle: 1.0 sec.
• Mount: Balcar.
• Very lightweight: 2.9 lbs.
• Built-in CyberSync-compatible RF receiver.
• No integrated PocketWizard solution.
• t=0.5 value: 1/3,300th at max power.
• Inexpensive.
• Directly mounts entire line of affordably priced Paul C. Buff modifiers.

Paul C. Buff Einstein E640:
• Min./max. power: 2.5Ws-600Ws
• Best-in-class power range: 9-stops.
• Fast recycle: 1.7 sec.
• Mount: Balcar.
• Moderate weight: 4.3 lbs.
• Built-in CyberSync-compatible RF receiver.
• Available integrated PocketWizard receiver, PowerMC2 (supports HyperSync).
• Pre-optimized HyperSync settings in PocketWizard firmware.
• t=0.5: 1/2,000th at max power.
• Directly mounts entire line of affordably priced Paul C. Buff modifiers.
• Touch panel-only control interface may be difficult to use when inverted.

Phottix Indra500 TTL AC/battery-powered monolight: NEW!
• Min./max. power: 4Ws-500Ws.
• Power range: 8 stops.
• Recycle time: 1.0 sec. when powered by AC power pack.
• Recycle time: 2.0 sec. when powered by battery pack.
• Mount: Bowens S-type.
• Moderate weight: 4.6 lbs.
• Built-in Phottix Odin RF receiver.
• Built-in Canon and Nikon TTL compatibility when used with Phottix transmitters.
• t=0.1 value = 1/250th-1/15,000th.
• LCD display auto-rotates when inverted.
• Fairly pricey at $1,199, but costs far less than Profoto B1, Ranger Quadra.

f/stop range:

One of the most useful features a strobe can offer is power range: The ability to dial down its output from full-power, noted as “1:1,” to 1/16th-power or less. While most major-brand AC monolights offer at least a five-stop range, there are several monolights with more range, and a select few with a 9-stop range. Here’s a summary of stop-range and their equivalent minimum power divisions for easy reference:

1-stop = 1/1
2-stop = 1/2
3-stop = 1/4
4-stop = 1/8th
5-stop = 1/16th
6-stop = 1/32nd
7-stop = 1/64th
8-stop = 1/128th
9-stop = 1/256th

Again, the majority of major-branded AC monolights have only a 5-stop power range, with certain brands only offering a 4-stop power range. Here’s a list of popular brands which have power ranges in excess of five stops:

6-stop range monolights:
• Hensel Integra-series. • Novatron M300.
• Paul C. Buff Alien Bees-series.
• Photogenic PowerLight, StudioMax-series.

7-stop range monolights:
• Broncolor Siros-series (select models).
• Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 500.
• Photoflex FlexFlash 400.
• Profoto D1-series.

8-stop range monolights:
• Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 1000.
• Phottix Indra500 TTL.
• Phottix Indra500 TTL [battery-powered].

9-stop range monolights:
• Broncolor Siros-series (select models).
• Paul C. Buff Einstein E640.
• Profoto B1 [battery-powered].

While two of the 7-stop range monolights are very expensive (Broncolor, Profoto), the budget-priced Photoflex FlexFlash 400Ws flash comes in at a very affordable $389.95. However, for about the same money, you can get a lighter strobe with half the recycle time (1.0 sec. vs 2.0 sec.), but you would give up 2-stops of range. While the battery-powered Profoto B1 portable TTL-capable monolight offers an impressive 9-stop range, it comes with an equally impressive price of $1,995. In contrast, Paul C. Buff’s Einstein E640 AC monolight easily wins the price-performance contest with its class-leading 9-stop range and reasonable price of $499.95.

why is range important?

For most home studios, a 200Ws strobe is often adequate. Even when using large modifiers, a 400Ws strobe is often too much power for a typical home studio. For example, attaching a 3′ octa to 400Ws strobe can yield apertures as high as f/11-f/16 at your camera’s base ISO, even with the strobe set to its minimum power setting (for 5-stop range strobes).

portable strobes: DC-powered monolights

We’ve already discussed one of the most interesting new portable strobe products on the market: The Phottix Indra500 TTL. But there are a number of other portable strobe systems on the market, ranging from several thousand dollars to as low as about $500. True portable strobe systems are “pack-and-head” type systems, where the capacitors, battery, and power supply all reside in a separate pack, leaving the head itself, small and lightweight. These differ from Speedlights in that they can put out between 400-650 Watt-seconds of power, whereas a Speedlight can only manage about the equivalent of 50-80 Watt-seconds (a direct comparison is difficult due to the way power is measured in a strobe, vs. a typical Speedlight).

One of the most popular portable strobe systems among pro shooters are the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra series; however, at a starting price of $2,123 for a single head and Li-ion battery pack, the Elinchrom units come at a premium price point. B+H’s house-branded, Impact LiteTrek 4.0 is a 400Ws portable strobe system which currently sells at a discounted price of only $549, and includes a 7.2 amp-hour, Li-ion battery. However a new import-product on the market, the Godox XEnergizer sells for only $533, and looks very interesting, and is basically marketed as a poor man’s Ranger Quadra. The manufacturer rates it at 600Ws, and appears to be one of the best values today in a powerful, portable strobe system.

If you’ve been considering a Ranger Quadra, you may want to look into this unit first. The first thing I look at when considering any battery-powered lighting system is the cost of replacement batteries (though sometimes the OEM battery is difficult to identify/source). I also look at the total amp-hour rating as a rough estimate of capacity. Note that certain OEM replacements can often be significantly less expensive than buying the flash manufacturer’s re-branded battery. Here’s some battery replacement costs for some common portable strobe inverter/battery packs:

Portable DC flash replacement batteries:

• Godox XEnergizer: LiFePO4; 12.8V; 8 amp-hours: $179.
• Elinchrom Ranger Quadra: Li-ion;; $374.99 • Impact LiteTrek: Li-ion; 12V; 7.2 amp-hours: $174.95.
• Bowens TravelPak [for Bowens Gemini strobes only]: SLA; Yuasa NP7-12 [OEM replacement]; 12V; 7.2 amp-hours: $15.

Phottix Indra500 TTL AC/battery-powered monolight:

Phottix-600-1

• Phottix’ Indra500 press release
• product specifications redux:
• Min./max. power: 4Ws-500Ws.
• Power range: 8 stops.
• Recycle time: 1.0 sec. when powered by AC power pack.
• Recycle time: 2.0 sec. when powered by battery pack.
• Mount: Bowens S-type.
• Moderate weight: 4.6 lbs.
• Built-in Phottix Odin RF receiver.
• Built-in Canon and Nikon TTL compatibility when used with Phottix transmitters.
• t=0.1 value = 1/250th-1/15,000th.
• LCD display auto-rotates when inverted.
• Available at B+H PhotoVideo and Adorama for $1,199 (DC-version).

You can buy the the version which includes the AC-power supply, or you can choose the version which includes the 5-amp hour DC battery, but does not include as AC-power supply.  Extra 5-amp hour batteries sell for $232.99, and an available 10-amp hour battery sells for $367.99. That’s a lot of power reserve for not a lot of money, compared with the bigger brands. Probably the best way to buy the Phottix Indra500 TTL is with the AC-power supply for $827.99, then opt for a separate high-capacity, 10-amp hour battery for $367.99 (plus power cable). Note that some users have reported inconsistent functionality with the included remote where flash-exposure compensation (FEC) is either non-functional or inconsistent. A new version of the remote has been reported to become available later this year (fall 2015).

godox xenergizer RS600R:

godox1

UPDATE: Various users have reported Li-ion battery problems with this version of the Godox XEnergizer product. Based on the available information from various user reports on public forums, it’s NOT recommended to to purchase any Godox portable flash unit with the “XEnergizer” branding on the power pack. A redesigned, US-warranted version of the product will be sold through CheetahStand US (at the moment, the XEnergizer DC monolight is only available through eBay importers–read the XEnergizer preview here).

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