When setting up a photo studio, you get to choose: Monolights, Power Pack kits, or Hot Lights. Letís look at what a monolight is and if itís right for you.
A monolight is a self-contained studio flash, typically but not always powered by an AC power source, which allows the fitting of light modification attachments such as umbrellas. It consists of a power source and a light head, all contained within a single compact housing.
Monolights usually have variable output settings for full, half, quarter power; some go down to 1/32 power. One of the monolightís most valuable features is a modeling light that allows you to preview the effect of the flash and whose output can be varied to match the flash setting output.
Monolights have input for a PC (Prontor-Computer, not a computer) cable, allowing it to be directly triggered when connected to your cameraís corresponding PC outlet. Alas, not all digital SLRs have a PC connection (especially starter DSLRs), and so most monolights also have an optical ďslave,Ē which can be set to trip the flash when it sees another flash go off.
These days, radio-controlled slaves are a popular option that allows a monolight to be wirelessly triggered without a flash or cable.
A Monolight Shopping List
Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering a monolight. As in all photography, this involves a series of trade-offs between functionality, ease-of-use, and cost. Youíll need to carefully juggle your budget with your want list.
Continuously variable output: Most monolights have individual power settings of 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and full, which is good because sometimes when working with a single-portrait subject you donít want to blast them with enough light for an exposure of f/64Öbut sometimes you need more control. Continuously variable output allows you to fine-tune the exposure to get precisely the aperture and depth-of-field that you want.
The Flashpoint II Monolights, such as the Model 1220A.
Proportional modeling light: Less expensive monolights simply provide an on-off modeling light to give you some idea of what the final lighting effect will be. Those with proportional settings allow the modeling light to vary with flash output.
Keep in mind that although the modeling light may be bright it is not as bright as the flash and when you set a low power setting the effect of the modeling light may be difficult to see if the ambient light is high. So, when possible, dim ambient light while working with modeling lights.
The Norman ML-600 600 Watt Second Monolight ($636.95, right) has a 250-watt modeling lamp with Full, (Proportional) Ratio and Off settings. (Itís also available with a built-in radio slave for approx. $860.95.)
Fan cooling: Placing the modeling light, power supply, and flash tube (thatís the glass tube that produces the flash from a capacitor filled with energy from the power supply) inside a single housing creates heat. A fan-cooled monolight is better than an air-cooled model but will make the monolight bigger, heavier, noisier, and more expensive. Is it worth it? Thatís up to you and your bank account.
Portability: To many photographers the ability to have the power supply and light head in a single package makes for simple setup and greater portability. Thatís why lots of companies offer packages consisting of monolights, umbrellas, light stands, and even a case for a single ready-to-go package.
Light modifiers: Raw light from monolights is seldom useable as-is. To make a portrait or shoot a product, youíre going to have to modify the quality of that light. Does the monolight have a shaft to allow attachment of an umbrella? If so what size is it? Umbrellas come in various sizes with the shafts of European models different than others. What about attachments such as reflectors, light banks, or accessories such as snoots? Are any available or will third-party accessories fit?
The entire Bowens monolight system, is compatible with one of the worlds most diverse selections of reflector (S-Type Bayonet) systems and light control accessories.
Youíre also going to need a handheld light meter that can read flash output. Since most meters these days include a flash function thatís not as bad as you might think, but because most cameras have built-in meters you may not own a separate meter. Welcome to the world of studio lighting! The meter is just the beginning of the other accessories youíre going to need.