Portable Power On Location
The Vagabond Battery System Page 2
When the package arrived I was really surprised at how small it was. In the ads I've seen the unit looks pretty large, but in reality it's about the size of the lens case for my Canon 200mm f/1.8 lens. Eminently portable.
Weight is not too much of an issue either. The Vagabond CU-300 weighs in at 18.5 lbs complete, a full 2 lbs lighter than my Balcar Concept B3 pack. It's a fairly complete kit as well. You get the whole unit bundled up in a stylish blue case, the AC adapter for home charging, the DC adapter for car charging, and a large metal screw, for grounding the unit whenever possible. (Remember now, you're playing with 110v here, so grounding the unit is a good idea.)
On The Go
Since I have a nice travel kit consisting of AlienBees B800 and B1600 strobes and White Lightning X-Series heads, I was ready to go. The whole thing couldn't be simpler, really. I plugged in the wall charger and the indicator LED on the charger glowed red. Several hours later I had a green light, and the battery was charged. I unzipped the top and plugged a multi-outlet strip into one of the inverters and switched it on. The inverter gives you its own green light when it is getting healthy 12v, and I noticed the power light on the strip was glowing red. Plugging in a pair of X1600 monolights I was ready to fire up the strobes. Since I had inadvertently left the model lights on I was amused to see the lamps glow.
Clearly, shooting with modeling lamps on full-time is not an option, since the lamps come on at a reduced output level and flicker badly. This is fairly standard for inverter power, which pulses power quite noticeably. For a quick preview of what your strobe will do the modeling lamps should be used for brief periods of time, but forget about modeling lamp usage while shooting continuously. (Most location systems that rely on internal battery packs only allow for a 10 second or so modeling lamp output.)
The performance of the Vagabond is a difficult thing to measure. Inverters in general are tough to use with strobes, due to the high instant current draw that strobes impose on a voltage inverter. Buff's choice of undersized inverters both showcase the incredible bulletproof qualities of the Buff-designed light units, and also put a sizable hit on the recycle rate of the strobes. My X-Series X1600 monolights set to full power recycle in a fairly quick 2 seconds when plugged into the wall, yet take a touch over 4 seconds on the Vagabond. Add another unit and the recycle rate takes another hit. If quick shooting on location is your thing, you might find that you'll have to either dial your strobes down to 1/2 or 1/4 power, or look into a Hensel, Elinchrom, or Balcar portable flash unit.
Since the White Lightning and AlienBees units are so efficient, I wind up using them at 1/2 or lower power most of the time, so I found no problem with the strobes keeping up with my shooting style. I used the Vagabond system on a half dozen location shoots, and found that I did not miss a single shot waiting for my lights. In fact, I spent most of the time using the Vagabond in addition to a Balcar Concept B3 system--and I fired every time the Balcar beeped, and never missed a shot due to the White Lightnings not being up to power.
On location, the Vagabond really offers a tremendous amount of flexibility for a photographer. Not only was I able to power my strobes, but I recharged my client's cell phone, powered a PC laptop and a Titanium Apple PowerBook, and then banged off well over 100 shots with two heads firing at about 400 ws each. While extension cords and adapter strips will slightly impact the overall recycle time due to added resistance, using a $12 extension cord sure beats using a $250 dedicated 20 foot head extension cable!
The really cool thing about the Vagabond is the battery life. While I always found that the large inverters I once used could kill a full-sized car battery in 60 shots, the Vagabond seems to go on forever. A pair of AlienBees B1600s set to about 1/2 power fired for almost 300 shots! Even a pair of heads at full power could be relied upon to provide well over 100 shots. It's tough to compare the Vagabond to dedicated battery powered studio systems, but I would say that battery performance is as good if not better than the most expensive, sophisticated unit on the market.
The big problem with the Vagabond is the near total lack of feedback. There is no voltage indicator, no "remaining battery life" meter, no segmented power display--nothing but the red light. Sure it changes colors and beeps when it is getting depleted, but it's a little tough to expect professionals to grab the Vagabond from the car trunk without really knowing the shape of the internal battery.
The sleek Cordura case has its good and bad points. It's very compact and has a pocket to hold the chargers and grounding spike, but everything fits so snugly that in the field battery replacement is really not possible. Buff sold me a very inexpensive spare battery, and I have found it a fairly simple task to plug one of the inverters into the spare battery, and keep shooting all day. Since the whole rig is wired up with quick disconnect plugs, it's pretty simple to get a couple of spare batteries and keep your rig going for extended shooting sessions.
The Vagabond's main selling point is the value. With the basic package selling direct from Buff for $349, photographers now have a very inexpensive way of shooting in any situation, indoors or out. Even if you're the handy type, finding a Pure Sine Wave inverter, battery, charger, carry bag, and all of the cabling is sure to set you back $400 or so, and you've still got to hook everything up without breaking anything. The CU-300 at $499 is also a terrific deal, since it gives location shooters a tremendous amount of flexibility. While I had minor issues with the lack of any sort of user interface or control panel, I have absolutely no issues with the performance or price. It's a well packaged setup at a phenomenal price.
The Vagabond is so slick and affordable that I imagine it will convince many serious photographers and working pros to invest in a kit of either White Lightning or AlienBees lights. A pair of AlienBees B400 strobes and a CU-150 Vagabond system runs about $800, about $1500 cheaper than the closest battery-powered studio strobe system. If you need the control and sophistication of the fancier and more expensive systems then you might find the Vagabond a touch primitive. In my experience of several location shoots I found no problem using the Vagabond in the most demanding pro environments.
For more information about the Vagabond, visit LightGear USA's website at: www.lightgearusa.com.