a word that has been thrown about a lot recently. MP3 players have given
rise to "digital headphones," drugstore minilabs offer "digital
prints," and now we're beginning to see the popularization
of "digital lighting."
Light, of course, is a purely analog thing. The creation and modification
of light, however, is often controlled by digital circuitry. While this
kind of "total control" interface has been available on
pro-oriented studio strobe lighting packs for over a decade, the combination
of super high price and "why do I need this" functionality
has hampered their popularity.
That's not to say that digital control of studio lighting is a
bad thing. In fact, the ability to set each of your lights to an exact
watt-second rating, and have some finite measure of control, can be
a tremendous tool in a busy commercial or portrait studio. Of course
writing down your settings on the back of envelopes and on pieces of
gray duct tape isn't exactly the most high-tech solution, so creating
a way to store those digital settings makes a digital strobe unit that
much more useful.
As appealing as the digital, computer controlled pack and head systems
seem, I've often had a hard time justifying the multi-thousand
dollar price tags. In the past few years I've seen some really
enticing monolight setups that include digitally controlled monolight
units, wireless TV-remote style control units, and even completely wireless
PC control of all the lighting units set up in the studio. The monolights
prove to be a far more cost-effective setup, though many of the European-designed
setups will be in the $4000-$6000 range for a rig consisting of four
light heads and the necessary control hardware and software. While that
may be a lot less than the $10,000+ of a high-end pack and head digital
setup, it's still a decent investment.
I took to using the JTL lights, softboxes, and light stands
with no problem. Pro model Bonnie Griffin never looked lovelier,
lit by a pair of JTL softboxes.
Photos © 2003, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved
Pro Monolight Options
One of the real up-and-coming companies in the lighting world is the California-based
JTL Corporation. When they started out roughly 10 years ago, JTL offered
the typical Chinese-sourced, low-end AC-powered slave strobe units, very
similar to those offered by a half dozen other companies. While the other
Asian strobe companies have devoted much of their attention to the low
to medium end of the lighting business, JTL has gone after the prosumer
and professional market with a vengeance. At a recent photo trade show
I noticed that JTL was now offering a very pro-looking monolight system
with complete computer-based digital control of all lighting units. It
looked "pro" enough, so I thought I'd give it a try.
JTL arranged for me to try out their new Versalight "D" series
lights for several weeks in my own commercial studio. I asked for a decent
cross-section of the Versalight "D" line, which is offered
in power ratings from 300 actual watt seconds all the way up to 1000 ws.
Build And Fit
The Versalight "D" series is the same basic design as JTL's
popular Versalight series. As is the custom on the high-end Euro monolight
systems these days, the "D" series are housed in an aluminum
chassis, with polycarbonate front and rear ends. JTL does the right thing
though, and the reflector-mounting ring is a large piece of cast metal--not
plastic or flimsy aluminum...nice. The Versalights are large, very
solid units with some extremely clever design features. First of all,
the flash tubes are plug-in user replaceable units, with frosted glass
covers. JTL seems unconcerned with the aggressive "watt-second"
games that some manufacturers play. By including frosted covers with the
units as stock, they should know that some far lower powered units with
no glass shields at all will pop out similar f/stops.
JTL also offers clear glass units for those more interested in raw power,
but I like the look of the frosted glass. The units also come stock with
beefy frosted 250w halogen bulbs. Although they have standard U.S.A. Edison
bases, they are double-glass enclosed, so you can handle them with your
fingers without damage. Also included in every box is a very nice long
U.S.A. power cord, a long sync cord, and a very nice gray powder-coated,
multifaceted 7" silver reflector. It's a very robust and professional
package, and certainly surprising given the pricing. An 800 ws unit sells
for about $550, roughly half of the closest digitally-controlled competitor
and as much as $1000 less than some on the market.
confuse this software with high-end offerings from Broncolor
and Hensel--this is basic stuff here. However, everything
you need is here: the light head numbers, their position,
their accessories. You can adjust "everything"
from your easy chair--strobe output, modeling lamp
output, and even switch a head to "Idle" to
temporarily disable it. This kind of functionality used
to cost thousands of dollars.
In The Studio
Once we had all of the boxes unpacked, it was time to integrate them into
my studio for some paying customer shoots. One of the big surprises when
I checked out the great AlienBees monolight units last year was the remarkable
value of the accessories. The Bees' Chinese-sourced light stands,
reflectors, and monolights were hundreds of dollars cheaper than the pro-oriented
American and European units I had been using.
While I do prefer the good stuff for my main units and certainly for travel,
it never hurts to have more light stands and softboxes than you need.
JTL takes it one step farther by offering copies of nearly every item
offered by Chimera, Photoflex, Manfrotto, and Matthews, made in China,
at fire-sale prices. (Even the huge Matthews cine-style "Silks"!)
Zero points for originality, but a solid "10" for value.
JTL sent along a couple of very large silver-lined softboxes, and a pair
of egg-crate grids to keep light from spilling into the lens. These are
super quality units at ridiculous prices. The nice 36" square unit
sells for a starling $69, and the normally pricey egg crate is only $100.
Even better, these softboxes are designed to handle JTL's hot light
series as well, so they're heat-resistant and feature a pair of
touch-fastener flaps to release heat. A similar unit from a name brand
will set you back about $360, plus another $200 for the egg crate.
Now it was time to put everything together and do some shooting. Assembling
a studio full of this stuff is a breeze. Each JTL light unit has a small
IR receiver unit that also doubles as a large LED read-out panel. While
the unit itself is a wonderful size--and the way it attaches to the
monolight is brilliant--the fiddly bracket itself is a bit flimsy,
but that's what gaffer tape is for! I set up a main light with the
32x48" main light bank, a fill light with the nice 36" square
unit, and a backlight with a 7" reflector with a 40Þ grid
Once we got the camera out it was time to figure out our lighting ratios.
There are three ways to control these lights. First of all, you have the
very well laid out back panel with oversized LED read-outs. You can control
the main strobe output in either 1/10 or 1/3 EV steps. You can have the
modeling lamps track the strobe output, remain on full, or turn off. There's
an audible beep when the strobe is recycled, as well as a full-sized 1/4"
strobe connector. It's the full pro-oriented complement of controls,
and everything feels really sturdy, including the oversized backlit power
One of the drags of using monolights has always been the tedious process
of setting each light head to the desired power output, and then doing
a lot of walking to tweak each head as you shoot. The JTL remote control
solves this problem nicely. Once you assign each light head its own number,
you can access each head from anywhere in the studio, adjust power, and
change settings--even set a head to "idle" to disable
its flash output for that shot. It's one of the really fun things
to stand dozens of feet away from the set, making all of those lights
change from the little TV remote in your hand!
As sexy as the remote is, the real power here is in the ability to store
an infinite number of "Scenes" on your computer, recalling
them instantly. The JTL software is terribly simple, but totally effective.
While the handheld remote control is pretty directional--you need
to aim accurately to change power levels--the police-car style red
IR transmitter is nearly omnidirectional. I bolted it to a 6-foot high
light stand over near my Windows XP computer (no Mac version is available),
a full 30 ft from the shooting area, yet all three heads saw the transmitter
and functioned flawlessly. In fact, even when I dumped the unit on my
desk it still worked flawlessly.
A neat feature of the software is the ability to not only set your power
levels, but to customize each light head "Block" with its
position in the studio, the model of flash unit and the accessory bolted
to the front. For commercial shooters like me it's very handy to
have a quickly recallable "scene" that includes softboxes,
light stands, position, etc. This system isn't perfect though, since
there is no provision to link photos of the setup, and you must use the
decidedly old-school serial port on your Windows-based computer. After
a few days of storing scenes and instantly recalling them I can tell you
that it's pretty addictive.
For example, "F8_Product" lets me know that I'm at f/8
on the tabletop setup, while "F11_Head" is my headshot setup,
of course at f/11. It's pretty neat. The TV remote and IR transmitter
computer package are inexpensively priced--and an even better deal
when you realize that the IR receivers come free with each head!
Once I had three of these bolted to light stands I began to appreciate
some of the little things. First of all, the sliding rail clamp system,
popularized by White Lightning monolights, allows you to instantly balance
even the heaviest softboxes on your light stand. The JTL bayonet reflector
mounting system is very smart--it provides a solid fool-proof engagement
of the reflector or speed ring, and then a solid screw-down lock. Hang
a big heavy softbox with no worries. For the big stuff clamps and springs
won't do it--you need a solid locking system.
For this image I used a 36" square softbox with an
egg-crate grid on the left, a 32x48" softbox on the
right (also with egg crate), and a D-1000 head with 7"
reflector and 10Þ grid spot.
I used these Versalights for two solid weeks on a number of assignments.
While I found the JTL lights about 200Þ Kelvin warmer than my Balcar
studio strobes they were consistent from head to head and it's very
easy to dial in a custom white balance. These units look and feel like
big time pro units. The internal cooling fans are dead quiet and supremely
effective. I ran my strobes all day with softboxes mounted, yet the JTL
units stayed cool to the touch, and even the front surface of the softboxes
stayed cool. The Versalights auto dump power as you go up and down the
ws range, so you'll never get that one bogus frame as you dial power
down and forget to pre-trigger your strobes. Even the built-in slave eye
is on top of the unit, rather than the back. This makes it easier to "see"
the other monolights--a nice feature. Power should not be a problem.
I typically ran the 1000 ws units dialed way down, so I'd guess
that the 800 ws units would be plenty for anyone.
I receive a number of queries every week from pros, amateurs, and hobbyists
looking to break into studio photography. Everyone seems interested in
good, inexpensive lighting equipment. I have to admit that I really, really
like these new JTL units. They combine a well thought-out design, a rugged
and durable build quality, and a remarkable feature set for a reasonable
price. While the non-digital Versalights offer all of the same lighting
features and run roughly $100 less per unit, the digital controls, included
IR receiver and optional PC link software really make the "D"
series Versalights a tremendous value.
During my several weeks of using the Versalight D's I made them
my main strobes, first for a product catalog shoot, then for a series
of people shoots. They powered up in the morning, stayed on all day, worked
flawlessly, and remained cool to the touch. While the extraordinarily
low price for units with this feature set may raise a few eyebrows, in
my studio these JTL strobes proved that they are the real deal.
For more information on the Versalight D series, visit JTL's website