Monday, June 27, 2011

Are You Ready for AlienBees?

In the last several years, speedlights have been roped into tasks that have traditionally been filled by studio strobes.  The underlying premise is that speedlights are much more compact, and easier to bring to and set up for a location shot.  Combined with their TTL and high-speed sync capabilities, plus their lower upfront cost, speedlights do offer practical advantages over studio strobes.

At some point though, we run into barriers that remind us of the natural limits of speedlights.  The most significant limit is of course power.  Another is the speedlight's reflector design, which sends light only forward.

It is possible to engineer solutions around those obstacles.  For example, if we need more power, we can combine two or more speedlights.  However, sometimes those solutions create problems of their own.  If we gang four speedlights, we indeed get more power but then we limit our options for light modifiers (there are only a few softbox designs that can accommodate 4 flashes).

Instead of going to extreme lengths to stretch our speedlights, however, perhaps we could reconsider using a studio strobe instead.  One particular studio strobe stands out for its dependability and very high power-to-cost ratio: AlienBees.   Hit the jump to learn more about AlienBees and whether they are right for you.

After Paul Buff's White Lightning monolights became a runaway success, Paul turned his attention to younger photographers who had limited budgets.  Using the lessons he learned from almost two decades of making White Lightnings, Paul Buff designed and created the more economical and whimsically-named Alien Bees in 2001, with the tagline Bee Abducted.


  • If you find yourself combining two or more speedlights from time to time, you might bee abducted.  The B800 and B1600 have plenty of power, with output the equivalent of about 5 speedlights or 10 speedlights, respectively.  In the shots below, using a B1600 (and a Nikon D70) we were able to underexpose very sunny ambient light while shooting with a 24" umbrella about 10 feet away:

ISO 200, f/8, 1/800
  • If you are becoming particular about your choice of light modifiers, and are using speedlights for modifiers that weren't originally designed for speedlights, you might bee abducted.  Yes it's possible to use speedlights for modifiers that weren't originally designed for them, but it may entail compromises.  For example, if you use a speedlight to light a softbox, the light will tend to illuminate only the front diffuser, and less so the sides of the softbox, in turn making a hotspot more likely.  You could use a sto-fen type diffuser, but that would reduce the efficiency of the speedlight.  On the other hand, AlienBees have a bare bulb design, where the flash tube sticks out from the body of the flash and the reflector can be removed to create omnidirectional light.  That allows lighting a softbox as evenly (and as efficiently) as possible.

There are increasing numbers of modifiers for speedlights but there is a still wider variety of light modifiers for monolights such as the AlienBees, and they tend to perform better than their speedlight counterparts (again, due to the bare bulb design).  Here, for example, I used a B1600 with a 48-inch octagon softbox with grid:

  • If you would love to see the highlight and shadow pattern in realtime as you position the lights, you might bee abducted.  AlienBees have a modeling lamp (up to 150w), which allow you to see the highlight and shadow pattern of the flash in realtime, making it easier to position your lights for your intended effect.  Some speedlights do have a modeling lamp as well but they are too weak and too brief to be very useful.
  • If you are looking for a means to light a large room (such as at a party) while using a separate light for taking photos of subjects, you might bee abducted.  Speedlights will be hard-pressed to light up a large room (unless you use several of them).  Strobes such as the AlienBees are much better suited for the job because they not only have a lot of power but they can recycle quickly and keep firing without overheating.

  • AlienBees need AC power.  If a power outlet is nearby then all you'll need is the power cord or an extension cord.  Otherwise, you'll need a portable AC power source.  Not just any power either -- you'll need one with a pure sine wave inverter.
  • Manual only - no TTL.  In an ideal world, the photographer would always retain full control of flash exposure.  However, when the subject is moving around a lot and constantly changing his or her distance to the flash (e.g. kids) TTL is useful.  Unfortunately, AlienBees and other monolights (or pack-and-heads) don't have TTL.
  • No true high speed sync mode.  Although there are ways of going above sync speed and forcing the flash to fire, the flash burst of an Alien Bee won't burn slow enough to last through the entire shutter movement, resulting in very uneven exposure across the frame.  (This is not an issue when you have an electronic shutter.)
  • Slower flash duration at lower output (except IGBT monolights such as the Einstein).  Unlike speedlights, when you reduce the power, the flash duration increases (becomes slower).  

AlienBees come in three models with varying capacity: the B400 (160ws), the B800 (320ws), and the B1600 (640ws).  (Note: although there is a White Lightning X3200 with 1280ws of power, there is no equivalent of the X3200 for AlienBees.)

Personally, I don't think the B400 offers significantly more power compared to speedlights to warrant their use instead of a speedlight.  I would recommend the B800 or B1600 instead.


Using an AlienBee is very simple:

  • Put the AlienBee on a light stand using its built-in receptacle for light stands.
  • Plug it into an AC power source using the supplied 3-prong (NEMA 5) power cord.  
  • You can trigger the flash either by its built-in optical slave, a sync cord, or a remote control cable into the RJ-11 port.  If you're using the RJ-11 port, insert a dummy plug into the sync port to disable the built-in optical slave.
  • Remove the plastic protective cap over the flash tube by squeezing the two "antenna" at the top of the AlienBee.  You add the flash modifier you want to use (such as a 7-inch reflector or a speedring for a softbox)
  • Turn on the strobe.  Slide the power to the desired output level.  You're ready to shoot.
    • Here's one difference from how you use speedlights: Whenever you increase the power, the Alienbee will be ready to fire in a second or so.  Whenever you decrease the power, however, you have to wait a little bit for the AlienBee to "dump" the excess energy.  The wait time varies with how far you decreased the power and it can be anywhere from a couple of seconds to a full minute.  While you wait, the dump light will turn red.  It will turn green when it's ready to fire.  Alternatively, instead of waiting, you can press the test button to fire a test shot, which will also get rid of the excess energy.

Modeling Light:
There are a few options for controlling the modeling light. First, you can turn it on or off. Second, you can specify whether it will stay at full intensity or will track the power level (dimming in proportion to the power level you set).  Third, you can specify whether the modeling light will temporarily turn off while the strobe is charging, turning back on when the strobe is ready to fire again.

Remote adjustment:
Maybe I'm spoiled by the Radiopopper JrX, but I really need a remote adjustment option like the JrX to make it practical to control the AlienBee.  I sometimes raise the AlienBee very high, and to have to bring the AlienBee down or tilt the stand every time I want to adjust it is too cumbersome.

As previously mentioned in my JrX review, the JrX receivers include an RJ-11 port that can be connected easily to the RJ-11 port on an AlienBee, White Lightning or Zeus strobe.

Although an AlienBee requires AC power, you don't have to be tethered to a power outlet.   Paul Buff produces two portable power options: the Vagabond II and the Vagabond Mini.  The Vagabond II ($299) is based on older technology and uses a sealed lead-acid battery.  It has a little more power than the Vagabond Mini, but because of its battery, it weighs over 20 lbs. and must be kept trickle-charged to maintain the battery's capacity.  On the plus side, its weight allows it to double as a sandbag.

Note: The Vagabond II is being phased out.

Vagabond Mini

The Vagabond Mini ($239) is a new portable power option from Paul Buff, just released January 2011.  It uses a cutting-edge lithium-cobalt-nickel-magnesium battery with no memory effect whatsoever and has a very high amount of energy in a compact package.  It weighs only 3.5 lbs. yet has almost as much capacity as the Vagabond II.

Other than the Vagabond II and Vagabond Mini, there are also portable power sources from 3rd parties such as Innovatronix.

I chose the Vagabond Mini.  Although I considered the Vagabond II (so that it can double as a sandbag), I wanted the option of having a lightweight power source.  Plus it doubles as a way to power a laptop or cell phone during long trips (it even has a USB port to power USB devices).

I've only had my 'bees for a little while but have become quite fond of them.  It has tremendous power - enough for almost any shot you can imagine.  There are also plenty of light modifiers for it that allow me to achieve effects that I would have some difficulty replicating with a speedlight.  No, it is not a do-it-all light and there are many tasks for which a speedlight is a better tool.  But for setup shots, especially outdoors in bright ambient conditions, or when you want to use a large modifier, there are few tools that will serve you better than studio strobes such as AlienBees.


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