White Lightning's X-Series Monolights
New, Improved ...And Still A Bargain

The user replaceable flash tubes are a big reason why I like these for really rugged locations--even if you break a tube they're cheap and snap in quickly. The well designed reflector clamp works in two stages: spring loaded to hold the reflector on, then a nice solid lock to really keep the big heavy speed rings bolted on for good.

White Lightning strobes almost single-handedly revolutionized the studio strobe world. With their first coffee-can shaped WL10,000 more than 20 years ago, Paul C. Buff and company brought serious strobe lighting gear to a whole new generation of photographers, with a little bit of fun thrown in as well.

Fancy pros like yours truly often tended to look down our noses at the White Lightnings. The original units were convection cooled units with a big 'ole household bulb screwed into the middle--not really the definition of "European elegance." Well, European elegance or not, good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity prevailed, and the White Lightnings became the hottest monolights ever. Over the years Buff has continued to revise the product, dialing up the quality and power output, dialing down the "cheese factor" and yuk-yuk marketing. One day I stopped by the White Lightning booth at a photo trade show and saw something that stunned me--White Lightning had grown up! No longer a "cheap-and-dirty" solution, White Lightning strobes had developed into powerful, versatile, sophisticated units...maybe even elegant!

A perfect example of White Lightning's maturity is the X-Series strobes. From their sleek extruded aluminum body to their sophisticated rear panel controls, the X-Series are certainly the most fully featured units ever offered by White Lightning. I decided to try out a set of X-Series lights both in my studio and on location to see if they could put up with the punishment that I can dish out.

The White Lightning X-Series uses the now familiar Buff extruded aluminum design. What is very new is the aggressive cooling fan and beefy 250w halogen modeling lamp. (Hooray!)

Monolight Power Definitions
As you probably know by now, White Lightning basically invented the now prevalent method of labeling monolights. Rather than call a 640 ws unit a "640," Buff calls it a "1600." The concept is simple: If a 1600 ws studio strobe generator can generate f/16 at 10 ft through its strobe head, and a White Lightning all-in-one unit can generate the exact same f/stop, why not label it in "effective watt seconds." The theory is that strobe generators must pass their power to the flash tube through a long cable, losing a fair amount of power along the route. Monolights must only pass their high voltage a few inches to get to the flash tube, making them a more efficient lighting device.

In practice it's not so simple. Yes, a White Lightning X1600 does produce about as much light as an old Speedo Brownline 1600 pack and head I have laying about the studio, which is about the same as 800 ws of modern Speedo power. Still, a 640 ws X-Series White Lightning head really does at least equal an 800 ws studio pack, which I think is pretty impressive. In my tests with the pack-and-head systems I own, the White Lightning consistently put out as much light as between 800 and 1200 ws of modern strobe power.

The X-Series has a tremendous amount of control. Besides the very sensitive slave (which is not user switchable, so keep that black gaffer tape handy!), there is a tremendous seven-stop range, broken up into full and 1/4 power ranges, model lamp stepless control, and the connection for the great Buff wired and wireless remotes.

Upgrades Cure Beefs
Over the years I've had the opportunity to shoot with a number of different White Lightning units, and even bought my own set of tiny but powerful AlienBees strobes. Since my studio uses Swiss-made Balcar strobes, all of my reflectors and speed rings are fully compatible with the entire Buff lighting line-up. While I've admired the bang for the buck of the previous White Lightnings, there have been a few things that drove me crazy.

Older units did not offer fan cooling, limiting them to low wattage household bulbs for modeling lamps. The other big beef of mine was the reflector clamp. I need to have that speed ring locked on with the "Clamp of Death," not a flimsy spring-loaded clamp. The new X-Series addresses these issues beautifully. They are the only Buff designed units to finally offer a big, bad 250w halogen modeling lamp with a cooling fan. Now I can mount my softboxes and keep the modeling lamps on all day without worrying about melting stuff or burning out my bulbs.

The reflector clamp is also a thing of beauty. The four gripper fingers are spring loaded, yet the release lever allows for very, very secure locking as well. It's a "best of both worlds" scenario, since the spring loading allows quick and easy positioning of heavy and awkward softboxes, and the secure lockdown keeps them from crashing to the ground during the shoot.

Four units, all hooked up to the Buff remote, allowed me to finely tweak the lighting ratios right from the camera. Fantastic control, and none of the units were set over 1/3 power and I still got f/16 at ISO 100!
© 2004, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved.

Features Of Note
Now that my main objection has been addressed, it's on to the other features of the X-Series. First of all, it does seem that Buff is able to pack more and more stuff into these strobes, all the while trimming both the weight, size, and recycle time. For instance, the X1600 has a true watt second rating of 660, yet clearly produces more light than most 800 ws strobes, and the whole package is only 4.8 lbs! Since most studio light heads weigh in around 3.5-4 lbs, the X1600 hardly puts any burden on a photographer's overworked shoulders; a three head kit will be far lighter than three light heads and a strobe generator pack. Size also matters, and all the X-Series heads share a 4x4.5" basic extrusion. While the X3200 is a fairly large 15.7" long, the X1600 is only 12" long--again roughly the size and weight of an old Norman LH2000 head with blower attached. Progress is amazing.

Another handy feature on the X-Series is the dual-mode power control, so now it's a simple matter to use the unit at either full or 1/4 power, and then use the power slider to adjust the power from that point. This allows for an amazing range--from full pop 660 ws down to a little bitty 6 ws. Wow! Since I use the X-Series in my studio for lots of little fill situations, this is incredibly handy.

These X-Series strobes also seem to be the smartest units yet offered by White Lightning. Not only is the internal cooling fan very quiet and extremely efficient (which it needs to be to handle the 250w halogen modeling lamp), but the units are fully output voltage regulated to ensure consistent pop-to-pop performance. Audible alarms for flash misfire and overheating are also present, and handy to have. There's nothing worse than melting a strobe because you have inadvertently blocked the cooling fan's exhaust port!

In The Studio And The Field
As nice as these units are, the proof's in the pudding. I not only used the X-Series around my studio for several weeks, but dragged them on location. On the road is where these units really shine, since I could pack four of them, power cords, and softboxes into a medium Lightware case. For quick "hit-and-run" corporate headshots I have been throwing a pair of X1600s into a Domke camera bag, and bringing along a pair of light stands with a white and silver umbrella. Now I can throw a lighting kit in the car and go unassisted anywhere.

Systems Approach
Another important feature of the White Lightning system is the full line support offered from the Buff companies. Not only do they offer a complete line of reflectors and softboxes to fit the White Lightning's Balcar-style reflector mount, they also offer both wired and wireless remote systems. Since I have a wired remote for my AlienBees strobes I figured I'd ask if they made a similar inexpensive remote that would work with the White Lighting strobes. "Um...just plug your AlienBees remote in...it should work fine," was the reply from White Lightning.

Sure enough, worked like a champ, and now I had a killer studio system with complete strobe and modeling lamp control. Taped to my tripod, I could plug the camera into the remote's sync socket and fire all four strobes without any additional wires. Even more exciting is the possibility of hooking up the wireless radio remote system. I'm a big fan of the PocketWizard radio units, and having a transmitter, four receivers, all synced together, all firing when the camera fires, and having complete control over individual strobe output, wirelessly, is really amazing. Even better, the entire package only runs a bit more than $500, certainly the cheapest way to
get radio wireless strobe control for four light heads.

It's hard not to like these strobes. Finally, a White Lightning strobe has a decent modeling lamp, a really aggressive quiet fan, and the ability to be remotely controlled. Add to that the nicely understated appearance, consistent performance, and the enviable reputation for bulletproof reliability, and you've got a winner. The baby of the line, the handy X800 sells for a reasonable $399. The popular X1600 is $479, and, the big boy, the X3200 is $669. I would think that a four light kit made up of a pair of 1600s and a pair of 800s, along with some light stands and softboxes, should cover practically every studio or location situation that arises.

If you haven't taken a good look at the White Lightning strobes recently, you might want to check out the X-Series. White Lightning has grown up--a lot--and this mature product remains a terrific value. Whether you're a working pro or just a serious shooter who needs some reasonably priced pro-quality lighting gear, I think you'll be impressed.

For more information about the X-Series, visit the White Lightning website at: www.white-lightning.com.

jimfoto's picture

I own a pair of X1600's. Unfortunately after about 4 years of occasional use one of them has stopped working with my Buff triggers. I've sent it in for repair but it came back still not working. Not only will it not respond to the Buff triggers but the slave isn't working either. I'm waiting for a return call from their tech, which is overdue at this point. My group portrait season has just started and I'm down one of my two 640ws flashes.

I suspect that what you save by buying inexpensive lights, you give up in durability/longevity. If you're a casual shooter these are great but if your livelihood depends on it, you might look elsewhere.