AlienBees Flash Units
Whats The Buzz

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The entry-level AlienBees monolight with two of its higher powered friends. The B400 packs 160 ws in its Lexan case, ships with a modeling lamp, reflector, and sync cord for an astounding $199.95.

Could you grow to love the yellow and black bumblebees on the "AlienBees" logotype? You better--it's plastered on everything. Each monolight has three bumblebees and two different logos. The bees are everywhere--stitched onto the softboxes, affixed to the light stands, and even silk-screened, in color, across every cordura carry bag. Yikes!

After settling down from our initial shock one thing became immediately clear--these guys made a big mistake. Instead of sending me their bargain $54.95 13 ft light stand, they clearly substituted one of those $120 Italian-made Cine stands. Instead of the inexpensive $20 backlight stand I ordered, I got a beautifully made $40 stand. Instead of the flimsy $120 30x60" softbox, I got a $300 heavy-duty softbox with a clever aluminum rotating speed-ring, probably worth another $50. I never appreciate it when a manufacturer tries to sneak in the good stuff for the review but then sell the cheap stuff to the public. We checked into it and to my utter amazement, this was the cheap stuff!

Now we're getting somewhere. The flash units themselves were just as thought provoking. All three units--the 160 ws B400, the 320 ws B800, and the 640 ws B1600--all share identical housings and control panels. The design itself is fairly tame. A box-like device made of molded Lexan polycarbonate, each unit features a user-replaceable Xenon flash tube, household base type modeling lamp (known in my house as a "light bulb"), stepless five f/stop power control (full to 1/32 power), total control of modeling lamp output, a built-in cooling fan for prolonged softbox operation, built-in slave, Balcar type reflector mount, and a good firm light stand clamp.

The Bees deliver the works affordably--including the stepless five stop strobe control, built-in slave, cooling fan, and tracking modeling lamp.

Quality Build
These are clearly feature-packed units, but there are plenty of decent inexpensive flash units on the market today. In fact I had a couple of Made-in-China flash units in the corner of the studio, so I figured I'd compare. The first thing you notice when using the AlienBees unit is the build quality. As opposed to many offshore flash units, the Bees seem extremely solid. The light stand clamp is stiff and secure. The two-finger reflector clamp is brilliant, quick and simple but clamps like a vise. The wired remote control option is totally unique at this price point, and the fan cooling is also difficult to find in the sub-$350 market. The stepless strobe control slider has no "hot spots"--it's smooth and linear. Compared to a similarly priced and similarly equipped offshore model, the Bees model just seemed sturdier and more professional.

Softbox Setup
I fired up all three units and fit each one into a different softbox. The manufacturers realize that many photographers use softboxes as their primary light modifiers, so the cooling fan is a must. For my main light I decided to use the massive 30x60" AlienBees softbox. After about a half hour of fidgeting in the corner of the studio, my assistant proclaimed, "This is a defective unit. The factory forgot to stitch in the rod pockets." Sure enough--the well made black shell of the unit had no pockets for the heavy-duty steel rods, nor were there pockets at the end of the box. How do you assemble this thing? The folks at AlienBees informed me that you need to set the white removable front surface of the box down on the ground, insert the steel rods into the tiny pocket stitched into the panel, and then slip the black body of the box over the now assembled shell. It's the exact opposite of the way every softbox in the world goes together. Once we fought with getting those big highly-stressed rods into those little pockets we had it all together.

Assembly nightmares aside, this was some deal. A big pro box suitable for large sets, shipped with a great speed-ring and a removable internal diffuser for $119.95. How they do it for this price is beyond me. The large 48" silver interior/white exterior umbrella was equally nice, and priced at only $24.95.

The galaxy of AlienBees colors: Mello Yello, Alien Green, Deep Space Black, and Martian Pink. I've actually grown to like the black and yellow heads--they look awfully "pro" for such affordable monolights.

Test Shoot
A good price is only a bargain if this stuff works, so now it was time to shoot some pictures. Setting these monolights up is a piece of cake. A standard computer-style power cord plugs into the back and any Balcar reflector quickly clamps onto the front. Once mounted on a light stand you get an idea just how compact these lights are. Even though the B1600 packs a substantial 640 ws of power, it's still smaller and roughly the same weight as a standard studio strobe head.

Once I had a nice lighting setup it was time to fire away, or was it? First of all, everything I own is 1/4" phone plug and the Bees take a decidedly non-pro 1/8" socket. Luckily each unit has a built-in slave, so maybe I could use my infrared transmitter. Not so fast. While some of my very expensive pro gear will pick up the IR transmitter from anywhere in the studio, the Bees needed to be very close and have the transmitter aimed directly at the slave unit. I used the AlienBees sync cord (included with every unit) to hook one unit up to my camera, and rely on the slaves in each head to sync. Now we had a working setup, as the background lights synced perfectly with the main unit.

Since I'm used to 150w halogen lamps the output of the 100w household bulbs seemed a little dim to me. AlienBees informed me that 150w halogen bulbs are available in standard household mount for around $4, so at least that's covered. Flash output was exactly as advertised. The output of the 640 ws B1600 was a 1/2 stop less than one of my 800 ws studio units and almost 1/2 stop more than a 500 ws unit, just about right. The B400 units recycle almost instantly, and even the powerhouse B1600 comes back in a little over 2 sec.

The Bees allow you several modeling lamp options. You can have the lamp off, have it on full, or have it track the output of the flash proportionally. In addition, you can have the model lamp dim when the flash fires and get bright when the flash is recycled. While I would have preferred a good old-fashioned beep, this works.

The big, big, big 30x60" softbox is well made (though a bit finicky to assemble) and comes with a really well designed speed-ring.

Bang For The Buck
After several rolls of transparency film and a few hundred digital shots I can proclaim that the AlienBees flash units represent a new standard in the "bang-for-the-buck" wars. In my opinion this represents a new level of ruggedness, practicality, performance, and low price. As a working pro with tons of expensive gear, I'm tempted to buy a bunch of AlienBees units to have an inexpensive box full of small, powerful reliable flash units that accept my Balcar reflectors.

My photographs looked totally unremarkable--a good thing. Color balance was spot on, recycle time constant, flash-to-flash output seemed stable. The Bees are a pleasure to use as well. Three of the small boxy units fit into a medium-sized Lightware case with plenty of room for cables and reflectors. The light stand clamp really locks these things down. A B1600 head hanging from a large Bogen boom arm and handling the big 30x60" softbox didn't budge once hung. The Lexan cases seem sturdy, and the nearly silent cooling fans do indeed keep the units cool to the touch all day.

While these flash units are easy to love, it's the little things that make them stand out from the competition. Each unit comes with a nice long sync cord and 7" reflector, and even includes the 100w bulb. You can upgrade any unit to a more powerful unit for the measly sum of $25 (plus the difference in price between the two units) for two years from the date of purchase! Feeling a little queasy looking at those "Alien Green" strobes? Simply fire them off to AlienBees and they'll swap out the cases for the same $25. How do you beat that? The user replaceable flash tube is rated for 250,000 flashes, which is almost immaterial since a replacement costs only $29.95.

Honey Of A Deal
It seems clear to me that AlienBees flash units are sure to become immensely popular. They offer everything you could ask for in an inexpensive unit, and they do it with a certain sense of style. The prices--$199.95 for the B400, $249.95 for the B800, and $339 for the B1600--represent tremendous values. True, you'll need to embrace the crazy colors (I ordered mine in black, "Deep Space Black"), the wacky name, and the cartoon bees on everything.

According to Bees' "Creative Director" Natalina Nanni, the nuttiness has been carefully planned. Gen X'ers, claims 21-year-old Nanni, "want to gain some level of fun from everything we do, from the brands we purchase to the media we consume." Well, I don't know about that, but these are some damn good strobes for some seriously short coin.

If you're in the market for some inexpensive lighting units, or just looking for some back-up units for your big ticket studio gear, you'll want to check out the AlienBees web site (www.alienbees.com). Look past the wacky colors, bumblebees, and questionable other-worldy marketing stuff, and you'll find a line of well designed, solidly made all-American monolights that deliver the goods.

For more information, contact AlienBees Inc., 530 East Iris Dr., Melrose, TN 37204; (877) 714-3381.

AlienBees' Notable Features

  • Ultra-compact design
  • Built-in cooling fan
  • Five stop stepless flash control (1 to 1/32 power)
  • Model lamp tracks flash power
  • Impact-resistant polycarbonate case
  • User-replaceable flash tube
  • Full line of accessories
  • Incredibly aggressive pricing
  • Eye-catching colors available
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