A monolight is a self-contained studio flash that consists of a power supply, flash head, and modeling light wrapped up inside a single housing. Monolights are typically powered by AC current but there are times on location when an electrical outlet may not be so conveniently located and long extension cords can create safety hazards, even when securely fastened down. I’ve had people trip over taped cords and believe me, it can ruin your day. That’s why a new breed of monolights, such as Adorama’s Flashpoint II monolights, offer a DC option with a battery pack when you might be out standing in a field or, at one time during my tests, in a big parking lot. A switch lets you choose between AC or DC power provided by a dedicated Ni-MH battery pack that measures 7x7x3” and weighs 2.65 lbs.
The Aurora Orion light kit arrived on my doorstep at the busiest time of the year for me. At the end of the summer I take hundreds of high school seniors and thousands of “one shot” photos of the underclass students at high schools. So while it has taken me a while to get around to writing the report, I have used these lights to take thousands of pictures, and I was really glad to have a light kit that I could just pick up and walk out the door with and have all I needed in one really nice travel bag.
Photographers all have their favorite light modifiers. Some like umbrellas, some softboxes, others parabolics, and then there’s the beauty dish, which seems to be a combination of a softbox and a parabolic. For those not familiar with the beauty dish, it’s a round but narrow modifier that you attach to your light. Think of it as a parabolic reflector painted white inside and flattened. If you stopped there, and you could, you’d have a pretty harsh light that makes a well-defined circular pattern with distinct shadows. But there is another little modification that makes a very big difference and also softens the light considerably while still maintaining that circular pattern. There is a bulb cover or center bounce dish that blocks the direct light from the flash and bounces it back into the dish. When used this way, the light output sits midway between a softbox and a parabolic.
“Lighting is really common sense and personal observation. This is applied to a few rules of photography which cannot be broken and to others which I tend to bend a little.”—Paul Beeson
A monolight or monobloc to our European friends is a self-contained studio flash that is typically, but not always, powered by an AC power source and allows for different light modification devices, including reflectors, light banks, or umbrellas. The key phrase in that last sentence is self-contained. To my way of thinking the biggest advantage monolights possess is just that—if you’re shooting on location or for that matter anywhere and the power pack in a pack and head system stops working, so do you. If you have a couple of monolights and one of them fails, you can still shoot.
Let me tell you about my first experience with a Vagabond Mini. I was teaching one of my lighting workshops, using a flash unit with its battery pack. The light and battery pack were a kit I’d purchased as a combo. We’d been shooting a while and the battery pack was almost dead when one of the other photographers there told me he had a Vagabond Mini in the car. We unhooked my dead battery, and using the AC power cord from the flash unit, proceeded to just plug in to the Mini and keep on shooting! And shooting, and shooting… You see, this thing really supplies a lot of flashes and can be used with many flash units. But let’s start at the beginning…
The monolights that I’ve recently tested for Shutterbug combine power supply and flash head into a single unit. Handy, but an alternative approach is using power pack and flash head systems, such as those made by Broncolor (www.bronimaging.com), who offer these components as individual units that can be mixed and matched to produce different lighting setups.
Graslon Prodigy And Insight Flash Diffusers
Made in the U.S.A., Graslon’s Prodigy and Insight flash diffusers were designed to provide softer shadows than traditional portable diffusers. Graslon diffusers feature an optical reflector system that redistributes the light before sending it through the lens. They also have a universal nonslip mounting system and a variety of interchangeable diffusion lenses, including flat, dome, and amber. The Prodigy line offers a large 8x5” diffusion surface, while the Insight line offers a smaller 6x4” diffusion surface.
Photographic umbrellas are the simplest and most inexpensive form of light modifier available and that makes them the most popular, too. Photographic umbrellas look and act just like rain umbrellas except they’re reflective and light is bounced into or shot through them, creating a big, soft light source that’s aimed at the subject. And size does matter. As photographers we live by a few important lighting rules: the closer and larger a light source is to a subject, the softer the lighting effect will be. Conversely, the smaller and further away a light source is from the subject, the harder the lighting becomes. That old lighting rule that “size matters” is important here because a large umbrella is going to produce broader, softer light for your portraits.
Rime Lite (www.rimeliteusa.com) monolights are manufactured by Hyundae Photonics Co., Ltd., a company that’s been building high-quality studio lighting gear in Korea since 1981. They’re now being distributed in the U.S.A. by Dynalite (www.dynalite.com). The Fame Monolights are available in three different models that deliver 200, 400, and 600 watt-second output. (To see technical specifications on the three Fame monolights, go to the Instant Links section of our website, www.shutterbug.com, for this issue.) The monolights feature a circular Xenon flash tube and a modeling light that’s protected by a hard vented glass cover that easily screws on or off. Two knobs on the back of each light allow you to continuously vary the output for either the flash or the modeling light. A cluster of four LED-illuminated buttons let you turn on (or off) sound, the modeling light, the built-in slave, or the ubiquitous “test.”
It’s called “continuous lighting” because it’s on continuously, much like a light bulb or the sun for that matter, enabling you to use your in-camera meter to measure the light falling on your subject. Continuous lighting lets you see how all of the light—shadows and highlights—is falling on your subject, but continuous sources sometimes use quartz or photoflood bulbs that can be hot, even dangerously so, leading to the use of the term “hot lights” to describe them. An increasing number of continuous lighting tools are now being made using other kinds of light sources, even LED, producing cool “hot” lights. And that brings us to the subject of this review—the Calumet (www.calumetphoto.com) Pro Series LED Panel Light.
Gene Kelly had an umbrella while dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain” but he didn’t use it much, preferring instead to get wet. Photographic umbrellas won’t keep you dry but are the simplest to use and most inexpensive form of lighting modifier available, and that makes them the most popular as well. These umbrellas look and act like the kind of umbrella that keeps “raindrops from falling on your head” except that in a studio lighting situation they are usually reflective and light is bounced into them, creating a big, soft light source that’s directed toward the subject. Sometimes an umbrella is covered with translucent material and instead of mounting the umbrella so light is bounced into it, a light is fired through it, turning it into a direct source. While some light is lost shooting through an umbrella, it produces more direct light, and since more light is being directed at the subject it gives you the ability to shoot at a smaller aperture than when bounced into the umbrella. If you compare the apertures produced in the illustrations you’ll see what I mean.
If Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate were graduating from photo school this year, the advice he would be getting instead of “plastics” would be “speedlights,” and why not? When compared to a monolight, the biggest advantage of using a shoe-mount flash is that they’re small and portable, which means you can take them anywhere. Today’s shoe-mount flashes—or speedlights as camera manufacturers like to call them—are sophisticated, seamlessly blending natural light and flash as well as having the ability to group several flashes together, trip them wirelessly, all the while calculating the correct exposure.
There are few things in digital photography more frustrating than problems with color fidelity. One of the most commonly heard complaints is “my prints don’t match my display.” While color accuracy is improved with LCD displays, it isn’t perfect by any means, and if you’re serious about your photography it’s important to calibrate your monitor. And, if you do your own printing, you’ll often find that you can improve the quality of your prints with profiles built specifically for your printer and paper selection.
Several of my fellow portrait photographers have been using cool lights for years. Interestingly, they have not abandoned their flash units but continue to use both, depending on the situation. Having been a strobe/available light photographer for the most part, I was eager to both find out how well they worked and for what subjects they’d be most suited. Interfit was kind enough to send me their very economical ($340 street price) set of two lights, each with an eight-sided softbox, so I could find out for myself. Could they do everything my studio flash units could? Were they a better choice for some subjects than others? After a few weeks of testing, I had my answers.
One of the biggest advancements in recent years in flash photography has been the ability to use your camera-compatible flash off-camera and wirelessly. Canon, Nikon, and others have developed their own systems where you can control multiple units that not only fire at the same time but also can be put into groups with their own settings.