Regular readers will remember my wailing about the death of my trusty old Sunpak monolight (or monoblock), the longstanding abuse of which I chronicled in that post in loving detail. I only recently threw away a belt my father bought in the 1950s; I have a blow-dryer that my son's mother left at my apartment, still going strong, and we haven't seen her since Clinton and Gore were newly elected; and our microwave is just about to turn 20. The old Sunpak ranked among such exalted bargains.
I mentioned then that I would provide an update once I replaced it. Well, I have some stuff to post on Ebay this week, so the time had come. I didn't even buy the cheapest one, the 150, although with today's high-ISO DSLRs it would doubtless have been plenty—B&H had it listed as "Accepting Orders" rather than "In Stock," and I didn't feel like waiting. So I bought the next model up, the Sunpak Platinum 300, which, as the name implies, is a 300 watt-second unit. (There's also at least a 500, an 800, and a 1000, although I think Sunpak also makes a 200 and 250; the importer doesn't have any information about any of these units on its website. Don't ask me—maybe B&H gets these gray?)
The new unit arrived after three days in a neat package containing the monoblock, power and sync cords, and a reflector, and promptly was put to work. I bought the historical unit (a 150) used, and paid $150 for it back in the '80s—and the new one, a 300, cost only $188.50 in today's less beefy dollars (doubtless partially a courtesy of foreign fabrication, although I couldn't find hide nor hair of a "Made in..." mark on the unit, the box, or the instruction leaflet). The new unit is considerably smaller and lighter than the old one, despite its higher power. It seems decently made—for the money, certainly—with a metal chassis, mounting hardware, and reflector, and plastic elsewhere. More control flexibility too—separate on-off switches for the modeling light and flash, and a rheostat-style continuously adjustable knob for output (the old one had a rocker switch with full, 1/2, and 1/4 power, if I remember correctly).
Here's the business end. If you're not familiar with monolights, the bulb in the center is the modeling light and the clear glass ring behind it is the flash tube.
The only thing I don't like about the new unit is that the slot for the umbrella has a spring clip instead of a threaded knob. This is probably a "feature," to save from themselves customers who bore down too tightly on the threaded knob and deformed the umbrella shaft, thus (probably) getting it stuck in the slot. You can't point a 32" umbrella far enough downward that it will slip—it contacts the center pole of the light stand before than happens—but I'd rather have the proper lock-down knob just the same.
The new Sunpak's maiden outing, a quick-and-dirty product shot for Ebay that took all of two minutes to shoot. The background is my son's bathrobe, hanging from a curtain rod. Product shooters will notice instantly that I didn't bother to turn off the room lights! Naturally, having bought a 300 w/s unit, I was on half power at ƒ/10, shooting through a white umbrella. Oh well—the extra power will doubtless come in handy for something, someday.
If you're a nothing-but-the-best-will-do type, try a Broncolor or a Profoto monolight. The Sunpak is definitely a spend-less-and-throw-it-away-when-breaks type option. But if you've never owned an off-camera flash, you should buy one of these just to play around with. The price is certainly right. (You'll need a light stand and an umbrella too.) You can do a zillion different things with a monolight—tabletop product shots and portraits being just the tip of the iceberg. And with your digital camera's histogram serving as your light meter, the need for a flash meter is a thing of the past.
I'll write some more in the future about some cool stuff you can do with one of these.
No telling how long this one will last, but if it does half as well as its predecessor, I'll have gotten my money's worth and then some.
Question from Thiago S.: "Besides the light stand and umbrella, I assume you need a battery pack too? Or has it its own?"
Mike replies: No, the difference between a head-and-pack system and monolights or monoblocks is that monoblocks are self-contained. They're sometimes not the best solution because—traditionally, anyway—they weren't able to deliver as much power, and of course every monolight needs its own power cord reaching to an outlet. If you're doing a shoot far from an outlet, it's easier to run one power cord to the pack and then multiple cables to the heads. But in most situations—certainly with one light, and certainly in one's home—a monoblock is more convenient.