Shopping for Power Pack & Head Lighting Systems

In a recent blog post “Shopping for a Monolight” I provided a check list for what to look for when purchasing of a monolight but what about alternatives such as a power pack and head systems? Something you won’t find in that previous post is any discussion of lighting ratio and that’s important when using multiple flash heads, where asymmetric controls can be set for different outputs. Lighting ratio is the difference in  brightness from the main or key light to that produced by the fill light. For some, a ratio of 3:1 is considered “standard” but photographers can be flexible in applying this rule. I am.

Broncolor Senso/Litos Lighting System

Broncolor Senso/Litos 2-Light System

AC/DC? Most power packs are AC powered but just as DC powered monolights are gaining favor with location photographers, DC power packs are popular too. If you’re thinking about the requirement for DC power, ask yourself the big question: How far away is the nearest AC outlet? If it’s longer than your longest extension cord, it’s time to think DC.

Size: Just as in everything else in lighting, the size of power packs continue to shrink and heads are getting downright tiny. The big deals is that heads in this kind of system are always going to be smaller since the power supply is somewhere else, so that’s less weight on boom arms , where that’s a consideration.


Exposure: 1/100 sec at f/16 and ISO 100

Power output: Many power packs allow you to adjust settings to suit the lighting setup you want. Output can be symmetrical with power pack outlets and evenly divided so  power from one head is the same as the other or unevenly with power packs that offer an asymmetric design. Lighting ratios can also be controlled using a light modifier or by varying the distance from the subject to the lamp head. It’s here we run into one downside of a power pack/head system. In a two light system, if a power pack fails, you can’t shoot. If you have two monolights and one’s power supply fails, you still have one light to finish the shoot. It won’t be perfect but fulfills the old newspaper adage of “f/8 and be there.”

Portability: In addition to the size and weight of the power pack, the option of a DC power pack allows you to take your flash system out into a cornfield to create studio lighting in the “middle of nowhere.” This is also where you will run into the second downside of power pack/heads: cables. You’ll need to run a cable from the power pack to each head to make it all work. With monolights you have to run a power cable so this may be a wash for most of us. The main thing to remember is tape them down or place them safely under cable runs. Knocking over a light stand and flash head almost always results in a disaster and it’s gonna be expensive too.

When making a lighting equipment purchase, the most important question to ask yourself after considering all of the above possibilities is what kind of photography do you do and where do you do it. The next most important question is budget; you should get equipment that you can afford and that will pay for itself in a reasonable time frame from your photography cash flow. The worst thing to do is purchase an expensive system by going into debt without having sufficient income to justify the purchase. Don’t be embarrassed to purchase the least expensive lighting you can afford (believe me your clients don’t care) and upgrade in the future as your photography income permits. Just remember that important advice that a wide photographer once gave me—Light is light.

Joe Farace is the author of “Studio Lighting Anywhere.”

Author: Joe Farace

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