The JTL Versalight D Digital Monolights
Power, Control, And Versatility Priced Right

"Digital" is 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.

Don't 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 spot.

Lighting Ratios
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 switch.

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.

Computer Control
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.

On Assignment
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 at www.jtlcorp.com.

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