Monday, July 20, 2015

$100 Monolight: Godox e300 Preliminary Review

Chinese lighting products have been steadily improving while offering incredible prices, and studio strobes are no exception.  Godox's e300 is a monolight that has pretty good specifications on paper, including 300 watt seconds of power.  The kicker is that it's available at under $100 - comparable to the cost of an inexpensive speedlight, making it attractive to hobbyists and casual shooters, especially first-time strobe buyers.

I just got a Godox e300 and in this post, I provide my first impressions.
Most people are familiar with speedlights - the external flashes that are attached to a camera's hot shoe.  They are convenient and versatile, and ever since David Hobby started the Strobist revolution, speedlights have been used for an increasing range of lighting tasks.  However, speedlights have limits -- most notably, limited power.  For big jobs, strobes are more capable tools.

There are several types of studio strobes:
- battery-powered strobes (e.g. Quantum T-series) are similar to speedlights, but they use an external battery pack to provide more power and capacity than typical speedlights.
- pack and head systems (e.g. Elinchrom Ranger) are powerful strobes that have flash heads connected to an external power pack.  The power pack controls the flash heads, provides them power, and stores the battery.
- monolights (e.g. Alien Bees) are studio strobes that have the flash and capacitor in the body of the flash.  Almost all of them don't have batteries, and instead they are plugged into an AC power source.  You can use them on-location if you have a portable power source.

Compared to speedlights, monolights have several advantages (+) and disadvantages (-):
+ much more powerful
+ faster recycling time
+ modeling light
+ resists overheating
+ bare bulb allows light to fill a modifier more evenly
+ most have a built-in umbrella mount and light stand mount
- larger and heavier
- needs AC power or a portable inverter
- most monolights are manual-only, not TTL
- many monolights have slower flash durations when used at lower power levels.
- reflector is bulkier

I was looking for a monolight because I wanted a modeling light which I plan to use as a video light.  I also plan to use it with large modifiers.  Because I don't plan to use a monolight often, I looked at more inexpensive options. 
I looked at Godox because they seem to have a somewhat decent reputation among cheap Chinese strobes.  They produce so many types of monolights that it can be confusing to choose between them.  The main differences between them are: power, type of modifier mount (e.g. Bowens or something else), power adjustment range, and size/weight.  Here is a comparison table.  

The Godox e300 is the newest monolight in Godox's line, and is designed to be an entry-level monolight.  I chose the e300 for its low price and smaller size compared to other monolights.  

Here are its basic specifications:
- Power: 300ws
- Recycle Time 0.4~2.5s
- Power Output Control 1.0~3.0 (1/8~1/1) 
- Flash Duration 1/2000~1/800s
- Color Temperature 5600±200K
- Operating Voltage 100-120v or 200-240v.  You need to specify this when you order it.
- Modeling Lamp: 150 watts
- Modeling lamp control: 9 Levels (L1 to L9)
- LCD display.
- Triggering options: sync port (3.5mm jack), slave triggering, wireless control port (compatible with Godox FT16).
- Dimensions: 11.8cm x 20cm x 20.3cm (with modeling lamp)
- Weight: Approx.1.5 kg

It has several advantages over the Smart 300SDI, Godox's previous entry-level light: the e300's modeling light is 150w (instead of 75w), its power can be adjusted in 21 steps instead of 8 steps, and the e300 can use the FT16 wireless system whereas the 300SDI apparently can't.

The plain-looking box contains the e300 itself, a sync cable (PC sync to 3.5mm), 3-prong AC power cable, manual, and warranty.  The e300 I received had the modeling lamp not fully pushed into place.  Moreover, the modeling lamp was 75 watts only, instead of the 150 watts specified.  I requested the seller to send a 150 watt lamp bulb to me.  The seller offered me a discount instead, so I ordered a 150-watt bulb separately.

The e300 is quite compact.  It is less than the width of a letter-size paper, and only slightly longer than the fully extended length of a Yongnuo YN-560.  It is of course heavier than a speedlight (3.2 lbs. vs. ~1 lb.) but it is still light for a studio strobe.

The e300's length is slightly less than the width of a letter-size paper.

The e300 seems to be all-plastic, except for the inner part of its lightstand mount.  Fortunately, the plastic appears very dense, similar to the bodies of lenses.

The fit and finish looks pretty good.  It looks well made and I didn't see anything that looked like it was sloppily manufactured or would fall apart easily.  There was also the issue about the modeling light that I mentioned above, but I think that is more of an issue with the final assembly rather than the manufacturing itself.

Like other monolights, the e300 has a built-in lightstand mount.  The built-in 5/8-inch light stand mount is tiltable, and has grooves inside to help lock it into place.  The lightstand mount is plastic, but it has an interior that is metal.

You can mount some types of modifiers to the e300.  Unlike most monolights, the e300's reflector is built-in.  On one hand, this makes it convenient and more compact.  However, it also means that it does not have a true bare bulb, which would otherwise be one of the chief advantages of strobes over speedlights.  

In any case, it is possible to attach modifiers to the e300 by using modifiers for "universal mount" (which look like Profoto to me, although I can't confirm this without a Profoto light).  I have also seen adapters for universal mount to Bowens S-mount or Elinchrom mount.

Alternatively, you can use the e300 with umbrellas.  Above the lightstand mount is an umbrella mount with a thumbscrew for securing the umbrella.  One criticism is that the knob for the umbrella mount feels too tight. 

Notably, the e300 has no cover, leaving the flash tube and modeling light exposed.  However there are some ways to add a cover:
- it seems that the Profoto D1 cover would fit the e300.  I haven't tried it though, so I can't confirm.
- Godox has a universal mount honeycomb grid with barn doors.  With the barn doors closed, it can function as a cover for the e300, besides being a useful light modifier.  This is the option I chose.
- You can get a universal mount to bowens adapter, then add a bowens cover (a plastic cover with bowens mount).
- You can get a universal mount to bowens adapter, and attach a bowens reflector with a honeycomb grid.

with barn doors (separate accessory) in closed position


The e300's LED display (optional barndoors seen in the background).

The e300's control panel has a simple design.  There's a small LED display with arrows to adjust power up or down.  There are buttons for activating the slave, the modeling lamp, and the beep, and a test/dump button. There's a power switch, a 3.5mm audio jack sync port, and a USB port for Godox's wireless system.

When you turn on the e300, you can hear its internal fan, similar to the sound of an Alien Bee.  You use the arrows to adjust the power to the desired level.  The power is labeled from 3.0 to 1.0 in 0.1 increments.  It would seem that the 0.1 increments should refer to 0.1 stop increments, in which case 3.0 would be full power, and 1.0 would be 1/4th power.  However, the specifications say it goes down to 1/8th.

When I tested, I found out that the power does go down to almost 1/8th.  I also found that the increments were nonlinear.  Here are the approximate f-numbers that I got, and the power equivalents:

3.0:   f/22  (full power)
2.5:   f/20  (1/2 + 0.7EV)
2.2:   f/18  (1/2 + 0.3EV)
1.9:   f/16  (1/2)
1.6 or 1.7: f/14  (1/4 + 0.7EV)
1.5: f/13  (1/4 + 0.3EV)
1.3: f/11  (1/4)
1.2: f/10  (1/8 + 0.7EV)
1.0: f/9    (1/8 + 0.3EV)

As with other monolights, when decreasing the power, you need to press the test button before your actual shot in order to dump the excess energy (it does not have auto-dump).

Pressing the buzz button toggles the beeping sound on and off.

Pressing the modeling lamp button toggles it on and off.  When I first turned it on, the modeling light looked anemic, with about as much light as an LED keychain light.  I was very disappointed because I had an Alien Bee with a 150w modeling lamp, so I was expecting a similar amount of light.  I found out that you had to hold the modeling lamp button for a couple of seconds in order to adjust it.  At its highest setting, it is reasonably bright.  I ordered a 150w lamp bulb so that it will be even brighter.

The e300 has several options for wireless operation: slave tripping, sync port, and Godox's wireless system.

Slave sensor.  The e300 has a built-in sensor, sensibly located at the top of the e300, enabling it to receive a signal from nearly all directions.  Pressing the slave button toggles between simple slave (triggers immediately upon detecting another flash, aka "S1"), digital slave (ignores a TTL pre-flash, aka "S2"), and off.  The slave sensor S1 and S2 modes work as advertised, triggering correctly with a manual flash or TTL flash.  However, there were times when they would not detect a flash, which gives me the impression that the sensor is not very sensitive.

Sync port.  You can connect the sync port to a flash trigger.  I connected the e300 to a Yongnuo RF603 using a 3.5mm to 2.5mm cable.  I used an RF603II as the trigger and pressing the RF603II shutter triggers the e300.  However, when I mounted the RF603II to a camera, the RF603 receiver wouldn't detect the signal.  I tried several triggers: an RF603, RF603II, YN-560TX (it can function as a receiver as well), and a YN560IV.  None of them worked as a wireless receiver for the e300.  Because pressing the shutter on a transmitter does work, I suspect that the failure to trigger could be due to the Yongnuo's idiosyncrasies rather than an issue with the E300.

Godox FT16 wireless system.  This is where the party's at.  Godox's wireless system is quite capable.  It has 16 channels and while many systems have 3 or 4 groups, Godox has 16 groups (in that regard, equaled only by the Paul Buff Cybercommander wireless system).  Godox's wireless system can not only remotely adjust their monolights but also Godox's speedlights, battery-powered strobes, and pack-and-head systems.

I like the simple design and controls of the transmitter.  It has dip switches to set the channel, and a dial to set the assigned group (mislabeled "power").  I like that the dip switches can be changed with your fingers instead of requiring a pen or other sharp object.  There are buttons to change the settings (see below), toggling the sound, toggling the model lamp, and for adjusting the power.  There's no need to dive into any menus.

The receiver has a USB port that can be folded flat for storage.  The receiver is powered by the flash, therefore it doesn't need its own battery.

One quirk is that by default, the FT16 uses fractional power settings.  Those power settings don't work on the e300, and with that setting, the e300 can be triggered but cannot be adjusted.  Instead, when the FT16 receiver is attached to the e300, you have to hold down the "Set" button on the transmitter to switch the FT16 switches from a displaying fractional power levels to Godox's decimal system starting with 1.0, to a decimal system starting with 5.0 (used by some of Godox's monolights).  Strangely, the transmitter can only use one type of setting at a time (fractional or decimal), which makes it harder to mix-and-match different types of strobes from Godox's system.

Once the wireless system is linked up, adjusting the power on the transmitter changes the power level on the e300 in real time.

The system seems to perform well most of the time, although it can miss occasionally, when sometimes the e300 doesn't receive the power adjustment or the trigger signal.  I would say the failure rate is higher than the RF603 or Cybercommander.

Combination with Yongnuo or Other Systems
It is possible to use the e300 together with other wireless systems.  I was able to combine the e300 with a Yongnuo YN560IV by attaching the FT16 transmitter to an RF603.  I used a YN560TX to trigger the YN560IV and RF603, which in turn triggered the FT16.  With this combination, I was able to sync at up to 1/800 shutter speed (on the Olympus Stylus 1).


Power output
I don't have a flashmeter anymore, so to test the power, I put it in an octagon softbox and compared the output against a YN560IV speedlight to estimate their relative strengths. With the octagon softbox above the camera, 6 feet from the subject, I got the following results:

The e300 got f/22 at ISO 100.
The YN560IV, with zoom set to 24mm, got f/14 at ISO 100.

This implies that the e300 is 1.3EV more powerful than a YN560IV.  This result appears consistent with tests that I have done previously with a 400ws Quantum X2 and a 640ws Alien Bee B1600, which measured 1.5EV and 2.7EV more than an SB800 respectively.  Since the e300 has about half of the power of the B1600, a result of 1.3EV is pretty much what I expected, implying that the 300ws rating of the e300 is reasonably credible.

Light quality
One of the weaknesses of the e300 is that the reflector is built-in, so the flash coverage is wide, but not like a true bare bulb.

In my limited testing, the coverage of the e300 with its built-in reflector appears to be somewhat similar to that of a speedlight on 24mm zoom.


Nikon SB-800 speedlight @ 24mm zoom

Nikon SB-800 speedlight @ 14mm zoom

Nikon SB-800 speedlight @ 24mm zoom with diffuser

Nikon SB-800 speedlight @ 14mm zoom with diffuser
Here is a test shot selfie with a 60x90cm softbox (reviewed here), with a YN560IV as backlight.

Flash Duration
To test flash duration, I used an Olympus Stylus 1 (which can sync at any speed) and took a shot in a dim room at the highest shutter speed, then gradually reduced the shutter speed.  If the shot appears brighter when the shutter speed is reduced, that means that the flash is being clipped/truncated at the previous speed.  If the shot appears just as bright even with shutter speed reduced, then that means the flash is not being clipped at the previous speed.

Full power (3.0) or 1/2 power (1.9): 1/320
1/4 power (1.3): 1/200
Minimum power (1.0): 1/250. Strangely enough, the minimum power flash duration seems faster than the duration at 1/4th power.

These times are pretty slow even for a monolight but for some uses they are usable.

Color Consistency
Some monolights have color variation at various power levels.  To test color consistency, I took a shot of a color chart at full power and at minimum power.  At full power, the light appears more bluish (both shots were set at an identical white balance of 5500 Kelvin).

minimum power

maximum power
If I use the white balance dropper on the same gray square of the color chart on each shot, I get a discrepancy of 400 degrees Kelvin between maximum and minimum power.

Video light
The e300's modeling light is bright enough to be able to use it with a modifier, at usable ISOs.  With an octagon softbox, at around 6 feet from the subject, I got an exposure of f/2, 1/125, ISO 2000.  Note that this was with a 75w bulb.  I will update this post with the result from the 150w bulb.

As mentioned earlier, there were some misses when using the Godox wireless system.  In addition, I experienced an "E1" error on each of the first two days I used the e300.  On those occasions, I had just turned on the e300, and after a second or so, there was an E1 displayed on the LCD, and the flash wouldn't fire (although the modeling light could still be activated or deactivated).  To "fix" the error, I had to turn off the flash and turn it on again several times, then finally the e300 worked normally.

The second E1 error I experienced.

Based on the [few] failures I experienced (E1 and wireless), I would not recommend the e300 for professional use, unless you can have redundant strobes in case of failure.  As for hobbyists who don't plan to use a monolight often, the e300 seems to be a reasonable and cost-effective option.  It is definitely better than the 300SDI.  

The e300 may or may not be better than the Godox SK300, depending on your needs.  The SK300 has the advantage of having a removable reflector (and therefore a true bare bulb), native compatibility with Bowens modifiers, and a plastic protective cover.  The SK300 is a little more expensive than the e300 but when you factor in the cost of a cover (or alternative) for the e300, the SK300 price becomes more reasonable.  The bigger issue is the size of the e300, which is its main advantage.  The SK300 is almost 50% longer than the e300, although they both have a similar weight.
Meanwhile, I plan to use the e300 for a real project and will update this post with anything else that I find out about the e300.

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