Portable Power On Location
The Vagabond Battery System

All Photos © 2004, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Complete freedom is the dream of every photographer. We want to go where we want, when we want, with completely portable gear. Cameras have shrunk over the years, from huge Mathew Brady-era view cameras to teeny-tiny pocket digicams. Lighting has gotten portable as well, with in camera and on-camera flash a part of our lives whether we like it or not. But for those of us who believe that the really challenging part of being a pro photographer is creating great light anywhere, anytime, regardless of the conditions, things get a little
more complicated.

In general, small and light flash units rarely produce really great light. For the big, beautiful stuff you need some beefy strobe gear, a big soft umbrella, softbox, or light modifier, and usually a healthy AC power source. Several of the top-shelf European strobe manufacturers offer portable battery-powered studio lighting gear, but in all cases, except for the new Balcar AQ system, you need dedicated light heads and several thousand dollars.

Here's the complete CU-300 kit. You get the Cordura bag with a gel cell battery like the one pictured, two inverters, AC and DC chargers, and the big metal grounding spike. A must-have kit for under $500.

The Inverter Approach...
Years ago, before I shelled out the dough for my own Balcar Concept B3 battery system, I stumbled upon the idea of using a voltage inverter. An inverter basically takes the 12v DC current from your car (or a car battery) and transforms it into an AC wall current. On location in Florida in the mid-1990s, I found a nice big inverter at a mobile home dealer, clipped it to the battery of my rental car, and powered my Dyna-Lite 804 packs all day with no wall socket in sight. Nice.

The Inverter Approach...
A Lesson Learned

Once the Dyna-Lites finally got replaced with some sleek new Balcar digitally-controlled studio strobes, I learned an expensive lesson. The garden-variety voltage inverters produce a form of AC power called "Modified Sine Wave." What these inverters produce is "noisy" power. Sure, this is fine to power a small AC adapter to power a laptop computer or an in-car DVD player, but for a heavy-duty, electronically-controlled device like a modern studio strobe unit the dirty power tends to fry circuit boards. (The sophisticated voltage regulators in these units try to "clean up" the power, overheat and burn out, or they have a very hard time with the pulsing nature of the AC power produced by all inverters.) Around $1400 worth of repairs later, I chucked the voltage inverter. Sure, I could have found a huge "Pure Sine Wave" inverter to power the Balcars, but since they cost about $2500 for a suitable unit and weighed more than the power pack it was powering, I ponied up the money for the Concept system and never looked back.

The Vagabond Approach
Recently I've been hearing a lot of buzz about the new voltage inverter package available from the White Lightning folks called the Vagabond. You all know about White Lightning; the world champs of fun, lightweight, powerful monolights. Their sister company, AlienBees, took the "fun" and "lightweight" and brought it to a whole new price point, and now their new offshoot, "LightGear USA," handles the studio fittings and the new "Vagabond" inverter system. (Though you can order the Vagabond from any of the three sister companies.)

For this shot of Anna I would normally have needed two of my Balcar Concept B3 packs and four Concept Z2 heads. Nice gear, but about $6000 worth! The Vagabond and four White Lightning heads get the job done for less than 1/3 of that!

The Vagabond consists of a moderately sized 12v battery, one or two Pure Sine Wave inverters, and a convenient carry bag. Rather than mess around with a pricey dedicated location system, photographers can now just plug their White Lightnings or AlienBees into the Vagabond and they're ready to roll. Paul C. Buff states quite clearly that the Vagabond is intended for use only with Buff-designed units, since the smallish inverters take advantage of the White Lightning and AlienBees' cavalier attitude to input voltage. A studio strobe that really requires a steady 110v might have a hard time with the Vagabond, though in my own casual tests all of my studio packs worked just fine. (But just so we understand each other, you'll surely void the warranty of your existing strobes by using them with the Vagabond.)

Once I knew what a Vagabond system was, it was merely a matter of calling the friendly folks at White Lightning and ordering one. Since I own White Lightning and AlienBees gear in addition to my more sophisticated studio gear, I'm always pleasantly surprised at how friendly and helpful the Buff folks are when ordering. For my commercial usage, I chose the dual inverter model, the CU-300, which sells for $499. (The single inverter system, the CU-150 sells for a ridiculously reasonable $349.) The dual inverter system allows me to power four White Lightning heads without a big hit to recycle time, or even better, power two heads and run my laptop, without the voltage sag of the strobe recycle interfering with the laptop's performance. Don't confuse the issue--you're still only working with a single battery, but each inverter does its own job independent of the other. Recycle times can be a bit shorter this way, but overall battery life is unaffected.