Monday, March 22, 2010

Alien Bees : A Review (kind of)

I decided I will do a few (very few, I'd rather be making a picture right now than editing this!) review-style posts.  These will be done for equipment I use quite a bit.  They will be written from my perspective as a user.  If you are looking for specs, comparisons, and things of that nature these are probably not for you.  If you are interested in how a hobbyist feels about gear that he uses often, then these reviews will probably be a good fit.

The first bit of kit I will be discussing is my Alien Bee lighting setup.  Currently it consists of 2 Alien Bee 800 (AB800) strobes, and 1 Alien Bee 1600 (AB1600) strobe.  The modifiers I have are some Westcott umbrellas, the Buff medium octabox, large softbox, grids, and high output beauty dish.  Chances are high that I will add a Vagabond to the mix.  It may even arrive before I finish writing this.

I built this kit slowly over time.  I started with just the AB800s a medium octabox, and some umbrellas.  The octabox I picked up for my own use.  However, the purpose of strobes was to photograph a school banquet that I have been doing for a very long while now.  It greatly simplified what I was doing for them.

My initial experience was good, and so the collection of stuff grew.

The lights are easy to use.  They plug into the wall with standard cables.  Power is controlled by a continuous slider marked off by the fraction of power used.  It is accurate, I've never had any trouble moving up or down any number of stops from my initial reading.   Installing modifiers is pretty straightforward.  The only real trick to that is making sure all the "grabby-bits" are seated inside the ring you are using.

The strobe can be sync'd in two ways.  It has a mono audio-style jack input.  A cable with a PC connector and audio jack is supplied with the unit.  To connect my Skyports to it I use a short audio/audio cable.  The units also have an optical slave built in.  The optical trigger is sensitive.  My  lights have fired, even when I am working in another room with the main light.

Here are things I like about the Alien Bee setup.
  • Price.  Lets be clear, there are few other "real" studio type light setups that are this inexpensive.  Fewer still that are this inexpensive and this usable.  It is cheaper for me to add another Bee to my setup, than it is to buy Nikon's flagship shoe-mount flash.  If I were to ever get the "upgrade" bug, moving to Elinchrom or Profoto or another big-name light would cost me more than a nice used car.  Its unlikely I will ever find a reason to do that!
  • Weight and Size.  Since I bought these to lug about, its nice that they are not monster big.
  • Power.  Even the AB800s put out at least a stop, and probably more, than my shoe flashes.  This is useful.
  • Rugged.  Mine have taken some hard knocks, and are still acting perfectly.
  • Modifiers. The Bees can use almost any softbox, provided I use a speedring from Paul C. Buff.  I like the Beauty Dish.
  • Color.  I admit, being able to buy these in BRIGHT FREAKING YELLOW was cool.  Maybe a professional would stick with boring black or white.  But, I don't have to worry about that.
Here are the things I don't like about the setup.
  • Sync. When used with my Skyport system my sync speed on my full frame camera is only 1/200 of a second.  If I am firing my shoe flashes via Skyports I can sync at the camera's specc'd sync speed of of 1/250.
  • Color Temp. Color of the light seems to change depending on power.  This has never been an overriding concern for me, but I can notice it.  It also sticks in the back of my mind.  Practically, its probably a non-issue for what I do, but it is there.
  • Flash Duration. Flash duration also seems a bit longish.  Its the reason the pictures here have some motion blur I think, but I'm not 100% sure about that.
Overall, I think they are a good compromise for us hobbyists.  They will not completely kill the credit card, and they are good tools that are fun to work with.  The advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages to me.

Examples of what I've done with them can be found throughout the blog.  I tagged the posts that have pics I made with them as "alien bees".   I feel pretty odd posts pictures by gear used.

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