Review: Paul C. Buff AlienBees

I have been using Alien Bees and Paul C. Buff Zeus strobes for several years now and I have plenty of experience with them to offer my opinions. I own several B1600s, a single B800 and a Zeus Ringmaster ZRM1 ringflash head. In addition to my own strobes, I have set up and used Dyna-Lite systems, Elinchrom monolights, White Lightning monolights, and Speedotron packs so I have several points of reference to compare my ABs to.

First and foremost I am a big fan of AlienBees. Paul has engineered and mass produced a durable, lightweight, affordable, powerful monolight that works under all conditions. He is a great innovator who understands that he can invent and sell quality equipment for an affordable price. The flashpower variability slider control is very easy to control and is one of the best available mainly due to it’s simplicity. With the “range” button found on White Lightnings (which effectively cuts strobe power by 75%) the button introduces another level of complexity to using and controlling the strobe. It’s easy for an assistant or primary shooter to have it on an incorrect setting which can be a headache to troubleshoot. That said, my Dyna-Lite pack has three power variators I have to worry about which is pretty much sadistic. The last thing I want to think about on a shoot is doing math to figure out how to get another 2-stops of power.

Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement in the AB line and hopefully he will listen to his customers and make modifications to his products. I don’t think the improvements need to be huge-just a few tweaks here and there to make the AB lights better for professional photographers as well as shutterbugs.

The 1/8″ miniplug sync jack is the Achilles heel of AlienBee monolights. Better connectors have been on the market for years and the 1/4″ sync jack (used in the White Lightning line) is a huge improvement over the 1/8″ minijacks which I often need to fiddle with to get my remotes to function. With one of my ABs (which was under warranty) I had to send it back to Paul C. to repair the jack on the monolight because it completely stopped working. Technicians got my strobe back to me quickly and at no charge, but it’s still a pain sending in a broken unit.

The second improvement should be revising the AB flash tubes. They give off a pinkish tint which is well-documented on the web. It is [for the most part] correctable in post, but I believe a truer color rendition would really boast color-critical work such as that found in flesh tones and product photography. I assume the tint is given off by the flashtube, but it’s entirely possible it is the analog electronics in the AB architecture. Since writing this review I’ve found that a large part of the tint was caused by my foldable softbox. When I use my beauty dish the color tone is much more neutral.  

Finally, I think the flash duration [for lack of a better term] could be faster. My 5D can get 1/200 sync speed on fast strobes (e.g. Elinchrom, Speedo Black Lines), but I only get 1/160 second with my ABs hardwired. I am not sure about where the lag occurs and would have to do further testing to give more information on this issue.

I love my ABs and I think the Einstein v.2 looks very promising. Particularly with the color temperature consistency and high-speed sync capabilities. I just think that continuing refinements in the AlienBee line will increase the photo strobes popularity and usefulness in the field.

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