Studio Lights

As Sarah and I get more serious about shooting, we’ve been slowly investing in better gear. This week we got a studio monolight from AlienBees.


At left is an image from a shoot we did for our friend Chris’s current musical project. Clicking the image takes you to my flickr account, where there are more images from this shoot. We used photofloods with 250W bulbs and gel filters for the red light to the left, and the green wash in the background on the right. Primary light was provided by by the AlienBees B400 strobe to the right, with a reflector on the other side for fill and an old Vivitar potato masher with a slave sensor overhead for a hair light.

Here, I’m on full manual with the D70 handheld, keeping the shutter open for a little over a second and setting the aperture for proper exposure with the strobe. That’s how we end up woth the colored trails mixed with the frozen image more-or-less in color balance. It’s evolving into a style, which I like. A big danger when you start working with pro studio gear is that it’s the easiest thing in the world to create very boring, very generic “highschool senior” type portraits, and I’d rather not waste my time with a lot of that.

For a while I’ve been messing with using long exposures with flash on handheld photos for motion effects. I’ve been doing a lot with a Nikon SB-600 speedlight, and that’s a fantastic piece of equipment, but not really designed to light a studio scene. For doing larger-scale shoots we’ve used rented strobes, but the rental process is painful and the equipment frequently shows the wear-and-tear of use by many inexperienced hands.

So the AlienBees B400 is a bit of a revelation. At 400 “effective” watt-seconds, it’s the lowest-powered strobe they make (at 160 actual W/s, it may be one of the lowest-powered monolights you can buy, I’m not sure). A watt-second is a measure of power output, and like all good technical metrics, is completely meaningless as a method for comparing the light output of studio strobes, thus AlienBee’s claim of “effective” watt-seconds. The claim is that this light compares with 400W/s units from other manufacturers.

Whatever. It’s perfect for what we’re doing. One of the problems we had with renting high-end monolights was that, even at their lowest setting, they produced way too much light for the way we wanted to shoot. The B400 allows me to choose a power setting that allows me to control depth-of-field while not blowing out highlights. While I’m writing a mini-review, I’ll mention that the monolight casing is made out of Lexan, which I believe is the same stuff they make Nalgene bottles out of. This means that it should be extremely durable over time. It looks and acts like a high-quality piece of equipment. I definitely plan to continue building a full light kit with gear from AlienBees.

For these shots, we were using a 48″ silver umbrella and a 48″ silver disk reflector on the opposite side of the room. Still not the ultimate control you get with softboxes, but it’s getting much easier to produce studio output suitable for publication.

We’ve also been experimenting with shooting “tethered”. That is, I keep the D70 connected to a Powerbook via USB while I shoot. Nikon’s Camera Control Pro software can listen on the USB port and dump new images to a predefined folder as they come in. A separate utility watches this folder, and moves images from there into Aperture for display and organizing. This allows the photographer, art director and subject to see the shots at a good resolution as they’re being taken, making it easy to make adjustments while you’re still in the studio.

It’s a great way to shoot, and adds a lot of value to the interactive process of making a portrait. It’s a little frustrating with the D70, which is USB1.1 only and therefore takes several seconds to transmit a single image. Since it doesn’t buffer images to the flash memory card, this means that once the internal buffer memory in the camera gets filled (about four frames shooting RAW), you have to wait for an image to spool out before you can shoot another frame. If you have a deliberative shooting style in the studio, this is manageable. If you like to pop off hundreds of frames, this is obviously not a tenable approach (at least not without a high-speed connection and a pretty darn fast computer). For me though, it’s great. I think I’ll stick with it for studio work. Camera Control Pro also offers the capability to shoot frames via remote control from the computer both live and on schedule. This means it could be used for time-lapse photography, a possibility I’ll have to investigate if I can think of anything good to time-lapse photograph.


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