By Craig Norris
I read with great interest Mike's recent post about his new Sunpak monoblock flash unit (monolight), and the ensuing enthusiastic references to the excellent Strobist online tutorials. Strobist tutorials are great for low budget on-location flash photography. I operated that way for the first two years of my paid portrait work.
But when working the Strobist way, there are two limits you'll hit very quickly: flash power and flash recycle time. For serious portrait work, and even some product photography, I now find myself needing to shoot routinely at ƒ/16 in order to get enough depth of field (meaning one full head and shoulders completely sharp).
If you want the eyes and hair sharp, and the earrings and the necklace and clothing and the shoulders sharp too (so you can cut the person out and paste them on to a different background—a regular requirement for corporate portraits) then ƒ/5.6 isn't small enough when shooting at typical portrait focal lengths of 70mm and longer (much longer with medium format).
But battery powered strobe units, including the big hammerhead type Metz units, after bouncing off the inside of a large white umbrella, are only good for about ƒ/8 at best, and then only if the person stands very close.
But even if you can get away with ƒ/8, which requires maximum power from the flash unit, you then have a six or seven seconds wait for the flash to be recharged enough for the next shot.
It's liberating when you get "real" strobes, like Mike's Sunpak monolight, and start enjoying the freedom of shooting at very small apertures for depth of field requirements, and the ability to take a shot every second or so.
Another argument for very high power strobes of 1000 watt-seconds or more is not to use them at maximum output power, but to operate them at one quarter power so you can enjoy an almost instant recycle time—an important benefit when you photograph unruly children under strobes and need to shoot almost continuously to catch the "decisive moment" when they smile and look in the right direction.
The studio strobes I use on a daily basis are not very different from Mike's. They cost me about the same as Mike's, and at that price, they solve the economic equation of my business in a very acceptable manner.
Bron is better
But there's no free lunch. When you investigate what you get for the extra thousand bucks spent on a Broncolor or Elinchrom unit, you'll find out some interesting things, like:
- The color temperature doesn't change as you change the output power. Or if the color temperature is different at different output power settings, Bron tells you in the specifications what that altered color temperature will be.
- Operating the flash repeatedly at maximum output power is sometimes necessary, and it can be likened to driving your car at maximum engine RPM for a long time. Things get hot and stressed. If the strobe is going to fail, it'll fail during this high stress, high temperature mode of operation. To prevent damage, good studio strobes have a thermal cutout to protect the unit from catastrophic failure (and in the worst case, fire). But the really good strobes will just keep on working, without cutting out, and without failing.
- There are other nice little touches, like the way the modeling light dims during the recharge period, so you know when the flash is ready again just by looking at your subject.
I'd love to own some Bron strobes, but for now, the economics of my business have only allowed me to buy a Broncolor umbrella for my made-in-China strobes. It's a really good umbrella. It cost about the same as the strobe.
Craig Norris is an Australian freelance photographer based in Hong Kong. He's also a technology consultant for the television broadcast industry.
Mike adds: Just for the record, I really like Strobist too, and recommend it all the time. It's a hugely valuable resource that is teaching an entire generation of photographers about lighting the pj way. But what can I say—we're all the children of our experiences, and after years of lugging monolights around Washington, D.C., and doing many hundreds of headshots, executive portraits, and senior portraits, that's just where I live when it comes to artificial light. I think it's real treat to have today's very cheap and accessible monolights as alternatives both to much more expensive pro lighting as well as to little on-camera "flashes."