Product Review: Alienbees Photoflash Units

Alienbees Photoflash Units
Sound Buys Product Review By Don Lindich

The tiny flash built into your camera, or even a show-mounted accessory flash can be extremely limiting to photographers working with artificial light. The flash can only produce one style of light and is limited in power, which can limit creativity. The direct light from the flash is also harsher than desirable for portraits and can create strong shadows, which are not always desirable. To get the most out of artificial light, professionals and serious amateurs have long used studio lighting equipment that mounts on lightstands and accept modifiers such as umbrellas, softboxes, shaped allows them to modify and shape the light to their wishes. These flashes used to require a very large investment, but a consumer-oriented line of flashes from a prominent manufacturer makes studio lighting available to anyone who can afford a digital SLR camera. If you have a digital SLR camera and are interested in taking your photography to the next level and opening a whole new world of photographic capabilities, read on.

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Alienbees Photoflashes with softbox and umbrella light modifiers

Paul C. Buff, Inc. of Nashville, Tennessee is the United States’ leading producer of electronic flash units and for years its White Lightning brand held a dominant position in the marketplace. They achieved this position by producing a good product at an attractive price point and backing it up with customer service that has become legendary… few companies have a “fan club” quite the way this one does, as evidenced by the unbridled enthusiasm customers display on web message boards as they discuss their lighting gear and show off their work. The Alienbees line was created by Buff as a separate, entry-level line of flash to attract a new group of users. The Alienbees’ electronics are essentially identical to those in the more professionally oriented White Lightning flashes, but they are housed in lightweight Lexan plastic housings and have somewhat simpler controls. The flashes have a spring loaded mount that holds accessories to modify the light as you wish. There are three Alienbees flash units available, the B400, B800, and B1600, priced at $224.95, $279.95, and $359.95. They are available in five different colors and are identical other than the amount of light produced.

The Alienbees run on AC power. Just put each flash on a stand, plug it in, attach a modifier such as an umbrella or a softbox, and turn it on. Built-in modeling lights can be set to work at full intensity or to mimic the output of the flash to provide a preview of the scene. Just adjust the flashpower on each flash unit to get the effect you want, take a couple of test shots and adjust flashpower and f-stop to set the exposure, and you are ready to start taking pictures. If you want to use your studio flash system on location without AC power, a battery pack, the Vagabond II, is available for $299.95. You connect one flash to your camera via a cord and the other units in the lighting setup will detect when it fires and flash in sync.

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Alienbees B800 with barndoors, used to control light coverage.

To complete an outfit you need modifiers, and fortunately Alienbees has a wide range available at very competitive prices. For the test I used two B800 models, a folding Octagonal softbox, a big white “beauty dish” reflector, and two umbrellas. With stands the outfit would cost under $1,000, about the same price as a mid-range digital SLR body.

Of course, the low price would not mean anything if the lights did not perform well, but I am happy to report that they do. I used two B800 flashes and a range of lighting accessories to do tabletop photographs of products, portraits of friends and my dog, and some large areas of my living room. They performed very well in their intended task- create light that can be bent to the photographer’s will and as I used them I thought of how much fun it would be for someone new to lighting to discover what studio lights can add to the photographic experience. As the acid test I loaned the gear to my friend Bill, an enthusiastic amateur with no studio lighting experience whatsoever… a likely Alienbees customer. I gave him some basic instructions and sent him on his way, wondering if I was going to be getting some frustrated phone calls from him later in the week.

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Bill’s dog, Tesla

Two days later several an email from him showed up in my inbox, complete with several well-lit photographs of his dog against a makeshift red background and a note telling me how much fun he was having.

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Tesla and friends

The next day he took the lights outside with a long extension cord, piled a bunch of dogs in the back of a convertible and lit the entire car with softboxes at dusk. I was pretty much blown away by that one- talk about taking it to the next level, and quickly! I have a feeling I am going to have a hard time getting the gear back from him.

If all of this sounds intriguing but still a little bit intimidating, rest assured that just as Bill’s experience shows, once you get the lights and start playing with them it becomes easy. The staff is extremely helpful and is no doubt one of the keys to the company’s success. You can give them a call, tell them you want to get started and they will walk you through what you need. I visited the company recently and they are as pleasant in person as they are on the phone, and they have tremendous enthusiasm for the company and their products. You can see the line of Alienbees lighting equipment and accessories at www.alienbees.com and read about my tour of the company at http://www.soundadviceblog.com/?p=444.

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