Toolbox: big lights

Something that I have wanted to do for a long time is to begin sharing the gear that I use in my photography work/play. Just about every self respecting pro and advanced amateur does this, so it is nothing new, but seeing what other photographers were using really helped me out when I was learning, and especially when purchasing new equipment. Lately the "gear review" blogs have become pretty popular and some of them are even sponsored by various manufacturers or retailers. While I don't really see that practice as bad, in some cases the line starts to blur between review and guerrilla marketing. In the future I may include links to the products that I review, but I will always be upfront about the nature of my reviews and I will only endorse products that I personally use and like. Normally people start with the unimportant stuff like cameras and lens. In my opinion that stuff really doesn't matter. Pick Nikon or Canon, buy the best lenses you can afford. DSLR technology changes so fast that a review of a camera body will only be relevant for a short time. If you are looking for camera reviews PopPhoto would be a good place to start.

So lets get on with it.

I first started lighting with speedlights a few years ago, and almost everything I learned came from the Strobist site, (a wealth of information). The great thing about speedlights is that they are relatively inexpensive, lightweight and portable, and because they are powered by batteries, they are very flexible. The biggest downside about them is that they top out at about 60w/s and that is a little weak. This is only really an issue when working in direct sunlight, lighting large areas, or when using large modifiers that suck up a lot of light. The solution to the power problem is to use A/C powered strobes. After a lot of research I chose the Norman 500 series of pack and head strobes.

The truth is, just about any brand of lights that you choose will be good. The trade off is features/flexibility vs. price. Most of the cheaper monolights are lacking in output consistency, suffer from color shift, have longer flash durations, or long recycle times or a combination of several of these issues.. The expensive units solve some of these problems but the trade off is usually a substantial increase in price. The decision that you have to make is what lights will work for the type of stuff you shoot and what trade offs you can live with. For instance, if you shoot sports fast recycles and quick flash duration will be important, color consistency is somewhat less important. If you shoot fashion, flash duration is not a big deal but repeatability and absolute color accuracy is very important. If you are shooting daytime action sports sequences @ 8fps, well, there are only a few systems that are capable of that, start saving.

For me the biggest factors were 1) consistency and 2) durability.  The Norman p808 packs were designed to be used in high volume studios (think J.C. Penney Photo Studio) and are build like tanks. The ruggedness of the units is perfect for me because I am constantly traveling with them. The trade off here is that only have 2 stops of variability per channel, this is mitigated slightly because Norman smartly included a "combine" feature that allows you to dump multiple channels into one head. Thus the power options jump from 50/100/200ws to 50/100/200/400/800ws. If that still sound limiting, don't worry in practice it has been as much as I have ever needed. Of course, to be able to take advantage of this you will need to purchase multiple packs (I chose to do this for redundancy anyway) but the packs are so well priced that it's not too painful. I picked up 2 p808m packs and 4 LH54 heads for under $1000.

You can see the simplicity of the controls in the next few pictures.  There is an on/off switch and a rocker to control the power output on each channel. Each Channel also has a red LED to show if it is on.

There is an on/off rocker that controls power to the entire pack as well. The modeling lights can be turned on or off (global) separately from the flash, the modeling lights can also be switched on or off individually by a switch on each flash head.  The main switch can set to full (good for focusing) or to follow the output of the flash unit (good for guessing light placement).  There is a standard 1/4 phone style sync port, which is good from a durability standpoint as well.

One thing that I like, is that the pack emits a loud beep if one of the heads misfires (or a channel is turned on without a head attached. Unfortunately this makes it impractical for there to be a recycle beep, and the lights will fire before they are fully charged, leading to inconsistent light levels if you are heavy on the trigger. The good news is that the pack does recycle pretty quickly, so as long as you keep your camera on "s" you should be o.k.

Moving on, I bought 4 LH54A heads to start off with and so far I am pretty happy with them. One of the issues with buying used flash heads is that you can never be sure how much life the flash tubes have left in them, and for some systems that tubes might cost more then what you paid for the head. Fortunately the LH54s use a standard FT-400 tube that can be found cheaply almost anywhere. This tube is also compatible with the Lumedyne battery powered strobes and others like the Quantum Q, Sunpak 120j, and of course, the Norman 200/400b. This is great for my because I also use the Lumedyne system so it is easy and cheap to keep a spare for all of my lights on hand.

The heads themselves are pretty rugged built and are made of metal and glass filled resin. They are very compact in size and light weight.  They use a pretty solid four-point method of attachment to the speed ring which I really like. The attachment points at 12 and 6 are clips and the points at 3 and 9 are a pin & hole system that can be used alone with reflectors or paired with the the clips for heavier modifiers. The friction of the clips keeps the modifier from moving and the pins make it impossible for a speed ring to slip off.

The other feature that I really like about the heads is the design of the clamping mechanism. It uses a friction multiplier to resist slipping even when using the largest/heaviest softboxes.  Even though the clamp is made of plastic, it is very robust and I don't foresee durability being an issue.

There is one thing that I don't like about the head design, it uses an annoying interchangeable mount adapter that is just useless. It is basically an oversize mounting hole with interchangeable plastic inserts to adapt it to the various standards. This allows you to mount the head on 3/8" stud, 5/8"stud (baby cine) and others. The problem is that The inserts are expensive and the ones that came in my heads do not fit any of my existing gear. I really have no idea why you would want to use the 3/8" standard anyway, it is not robust enough to use for other, more heavy duty equipment, and it doesn't save any weight or space over the standard 5/8". Oh well, I will have to deal with it.

Other then the few nit picky things that I mentioned, The Norman 500 system is pretty awesome for the price. The durability is a major plus for me and the simple controls provide enough flexibility for 99% of what I need it to do.

Eventually I might step up to something like THIS or THIS but only if I suddenly have a ton of money that I need to get rid or or my needs drastically change.

Who knows though, I might be happy with the Normans for quite a while.

If you use a Norman lights I would love to hear what you think about them. Or, if you use other lights I would be interested to hear about them as well.

Next up: A walk through the modifiers that I chose to finish out my kit.