Friday, June 11, 2010

Right Tools For the Job: Small Flash vs. Monolight

It seems lighting with small flashes, i.e., Speedlites, Speedlights, flashguns, whatever you want to call them, has become a genre of its own. Some well-known and exceptional photographers are making a chunk of their livings hawking the virtues of small flash photography.

What started, I believe, as an alternative, less expensive, and less cumbersome way to location-light your subjects has become a virtual internet, small-flash-pimping industry. Leastwise, in terms of blogs, websites, workshops, and seminars.

But is lighting with small flashes less expansive and less cumbersome?

Lately, the less expensive angle isn't as obviously "less expensive" as you might think. The latest Speedlites from Canon, Speedlights from Nikon, and some other brands, aren't cheap. In fact, the higher-end versions sell for about the same price as a medium-priced monolight. While they deliver plenty of auto-function capabilities, they're sometimes short on power, high-end or not. Personally, I almost never shoot using auto-functions with the exception of auto-focus. When auto-focusing, my camera could care less if it's "talking" to a remote strobe.

Less cumbersome is a matter of opinion. If I were traveling a great distance, for instance overseas or to the East Coast, I might think to myself, "Hmm... I can pack less if I'm only packing small flashes instead of monolights."

But I don't travel great distances too often. In fact, rarely at all. Usually, wherever I'm going is within driving distances. Tossing a Pelican case in my vehicle with three monolights in it isn't any more of a hassle than tossing a Pelican case with small flashes in it. I'll still need to bring stands and modifiers and that stuff. And there's not much hassle-savings when it comes to setting up the gear. Where I'm saving on the "hassle expense" has never been too obvious to me.

When I arrive at my location and, assuming I brought small flashes with me to light my subject, I'm going to be somewhat inhibited in terms of what I can accomplish. That, of course, is because I'll have less power to wield: Lighting power. Depending on where I'm shooting and whether it will be interiors or exteriors, it might not be a detriment. But there's plenty of situations where I might need the power of monolights-- Power that small flashes simply aren't going to deliver... unless, perhaps, I group a few of them together.

Yeah, there's the obvious advantageous of not being dependent on A/C with small flashes. Just bring enough batteries with you and you're A-OK. That's really not a problem for me, however, as I'm lucky enough to have an ExplorerXT portable power system. It provides plenty of location power for my monolights. Still, the power considerations of small flash photography is an advantage for many shooters.

We all know the larger the light source, relative to the subject, the softer the light. Soft light is usually a good thing when shooting glamour. This rule of physics might bite me on the ass if I'm lighting with small flashes. Yeah, I suppose I could rig a Speedlite to a 5' Octo-box but I'm guessing it isn't going to illuminate the inside of that big, octagonal, soft box enough to throw much light as a big source. Plus, I'll need to do some rigging for the small flashes which will require special gear, albeit inexpensive gear.

I'm not down on small flash photography. Not at all. I just think small flashes don't replace bigger flashes in all situations. To think otherwise simply isn't true. It's all a matter of using the right tools for the job. Sometimes, those right tools might be small flash devices. Sometimes not. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.

Faye, the pretty girl at the top with all her clothes on (How'd that happen?) was lit with a single, Vivitar 285, modified with a reflective umbrella. The location is a local train station, near where I live.


Bill Giles said...

I can see advantages and disadvantages either way. If you shoot Nikon and have a bunch of SB900s, you have a huge number of options for semi-automatic shooting and built in wireless control. Olympus has a similar system, but it doesn't work with the E1, just the E3 and new cameras. Canon hasn't had as well integrated flash system. David Hobby uses SB900s, but manually. He also uses studio strobes. Which ever one or both fit the situation. Joe McNally does the most shooting with speedlites in auto or semi auto mode that I know of. He also uses studio strobes. It's as you say, when portability, size, weight and power source are the main concern, speedlites may be the best choice. With portable power supplies for studio strobes, speedlites may not be the best choice. Whatever I use, I have to pack it around, set it up and put it away. I could go either way.

jimmyd said...

@Bill Giles: Thanks for expanding on my post. You're 100% on the money and it all boils down to what's right for the job.

DavidH, when he first started Strobist, seemed to be pimping small flash systems and nothing else. More recently, it seems, he endorses monolights. But in the Strobist's beginning, you'd a thunk monolights were completely unnecessary in almost any situation. Most of his readers embraced that POV.

I have no idea what ratio, speedlights to big strobes, McNally actually uses. Publicly, on his blog and for his workshops, you'd think all he uses are speedlights. I'm thinking, in reality, that's not what he uses for almost everything he shoots. It might not even be what he mostly uses for shoots that he doesn't publicly talk much about. I could, of course, be wrong.

Anonymous said...

Even in a studio system the speedlights come in handy for low power accent lighting.

Just another tool in the toolbox.

Rick D.