Monolight Shopping Check List
In a podcast that I did with Jason Anderson we talked about lighting and the disparity in cost between a speedlight and a monolight. A Canon 600EX-RT speedlite costs $499, a Nikon SB-910AF speedlight cost $546 and while it might be argued that the Nikon speedlight is a capable shoe-mount flash, it can also be equally argued that a monolight kit, like the Elinchrom D-Lite RX One To Go Kit—that includes two monolight, lightstands umbrellas and cases to carry it in—that I’ve seen for $649 and is easier to use and get started making portraits right away.
If you’re looking for a cost effective way for lighting portraits, here are a few features to keep in mind when considering a monolight for your studio lighting needs. As in all photography this involves a series of trade-offs between functionality, ease-of-use, and cost.
Continuously variable output: Some monolights have power settings of ¼, ½, ¾, and full but sometimes you need more control than fixed power settings can provide. Continuously variable output allows you to fine-tune the exposure to get precisely the aperture and depth-of-field you want.
Proportional modeling light: Some monolights provide a simple on or off light that will give you some idea of the final lighting effect but may not show the true effect of the power setting that you selected. Monolights with proportional settings allow the modeling light output to vary with the flash output. Although the modeling light may be bright it’s not as bright as the flash and when you use a low power setting the effect of the modeling light may be difficult to see under high ambient light.
Fan cooling: Placing the modeling light, power supply, and flash tube inside a single housing creates heat. A fan-cooled monolight is better than an air-cooled model but sometimes makes the monolight bigger, heavier, and noisier, and more expensive. That is not the case with the compact Elinchrom D-Lite RX One (where the fan only comes on when needed) so maybe the trend is swinging the other way.
Portability: To many photographers the ability to have the power supply and light head in a single package makes for simple set up and greater portability. That’s why lots of companies offer packages consisting of monolights, umbrellas, light stands, and even a case for a single ready-to-go package. Portability is also why some people prefer speedlights even though they are much more expensive.
Joe Farace is the author of “Studio Lighting Anywhere” which is available from all the usual suspects.