Introduction To Off-Camera Flash: Three Main Choices in Strobe Lighting

I'm often asked about the best way to get started with off-camera flash. The problem is, there's no single answer for everyone. There's a lot of different ways to accomplish the same end goal of getting that flash off the camera. In this video I'll break down the three main choices when choosing your method of strobe lighting.

Why off-camera flash? Illuminating our subject with strobes give us far more control over how a scene is going to look versus relying on ambient light. Having a flash attached to the camera limits the direction of that light, normally to the same direction our camera is facing. Sure, you can bounce a flash off the ceiling, off a wall, or off a piece of foam core, but you're still limited to some extent. And what if you're outside with no walls or ceilings? This is where strobe lighting really shines (rim shot).

Option 1: Speedlight

Small, portable, versatile battery powered units with a very short flash duration that can be adapted to work with various modifiers such as softboxes, umbrellas, and gels, or even ganged together to create larger light sources. Many of the modern units have integrated Through-The-Lens (TTL) technology allowing the camera and flash to communicate and automatically adjust the output power based on the camera's metering. The minimal power output and lack of a modeling light are the most limiting factors of these small flashes, although with today's high ISO capabilities of digital cameras, this is quickly becoming less of an issue.

Option 2: Monoblock

The big brother to speedlights, monoblocks are self contained, high power flash units which are slightly less portable due to the fact they require AC power to operate. This AC power requirement is also what makes them capable of 300ws-1200ws output. Easily adapted to large modifiers with the use of a speedring, the units have integrated stand mounts, modeling lights, and often times come with integrated radio slaves. Monoblocks are great for traveling/location photographers and can be placed across large sets, limited only by available AC power outlets.

Option 3: Power Pack/Head

The most powerful, but least portable option, is the power pack/flash head combo.  With power output typically in the 1200ws-4800ws range, these are most commonly used by studio photographers who want complete control over the light on set. Like monoblocks, these are easily outfitted with softboxes, umbrellas, and other modifiers. Generators (power packs) typically have 2-4 ports for connecting heads, which divide the power either symmetrically or asymmetrically, depending on the model. A 2400ws pack could be connected to 4 heads, distributing 600ws to each of the four heads. Packs generally have integrated radio triggers, optical triggers, modeling lights, and micro adjustments for power output. If a head it attached overhead or in hard to reach places, the power can still be controlled from the pack, whereas monoblocks typically have to be within reach to adjust its settings. Like monoblocks, the packs operate on AC power, but the most limiting factor is that each head must be tethered to the pack. This makes it more difficult to distribute lighting across a set from a single pack. 

Option 3.5: Battery Powered

Many manufacturers have recently introduced monobocks and generators which operate on battery power. While offering more portability, these rechargeable units provide the features and operational likeness of their AC powered counterparts, but are usually limited to 500ws-1200ws of power.

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12 Comments

Bert McLendon's picture

Where do I get a "I'm a fan of Tony Roslund Behind the Scenes Videos" T-shirt at?

Tony Roslund's picture

Thanks Bert. I enjoy making them and rambling on every week. I'm glad you enjoy watching them.

where did you get that filter wallet?

thanks. $46 in shippping from B&H :p have to find it elsewhere.
Hmm. I read that it only fits very small cut gels. does it fit rosco gels?

Ralph Berrett's picture

Nice video with one of the best explanations I have seen.

I still have a bag of 285s and 283s although when I am shooting I tend to use the Nikon CLS system especially when I am on the go or need to pack light. Also I am one of those dinosaurs that still use a hand meter.

In terms of studio and portable I have really gone to the Monoblocks, The ones we use have built in Pocket wizards and are built like tanks. One thing I really like is the digital controls for fine tuning our lighting set ups on location or in the studio.

We have Power Pack/Head that we use mainly as a secondary system if we need to have a second shoot going on. I like them more for a studio environment but the thing I learned a long time ago is if need one power pack you need two because of Murphy being a photographer.

Also our MonoBlocks are easier to fine tune over the Power Pack/Head systems.

BTW what is your favorite carrying system for the Monoblocks on location?

Tony Roslund's picture

Ralph, I'm glad you appreciate the video. We really don't use monoblocks at all anymore. I use several of the Profoto D4 packs (shown in the video) both 2400ws and 4800ws models. The D4 packs have digital dials that allow me to adjust in 1/10 stop increments, along with built-in pocket wizards. The thing I like most as a studio photographer is the color consistency across the entire power range. That's what D4 packs are known/built for. As a medium/large format shooter, the 4800ws packs are nice when we need to stop down (way down) for DOF. Plus we usually have a linear polarizer on the lens to cut glare on bottles and such. In addition to the D4 packs, we also use several of the Nikon speed lights for various location work.

To answer your question, we use Lightware brand cases to haul everything. They're a bit pricey, but we've never had anything damaged yet, and they're a lot lighter than Pelicans.

Wes Jones's picture

Nice video. As a beginner I haven't graduated beyond speedlights but at least now I better understand whats out there. Cheers.

Xavi Galvez's picture

Thanks for the vid Tony. Could you show us some light on the importance of the low output avaiable in a monoblock/head? I bought three Elinchrom BRX500 and i find that sometimes, the lowest power output i can choise give me too much light even if a set mi camera at about F.16 or higher. I'm a little confused on what should have looked when buying them.

Thanks!

Tony Roslund's picture

Xavi, that certainly can be a problem. We experience issues like that sometimes and end up having to put ND gels on the strobes to knock them down to proper output levels. You can also try taking your ISO down to Lo or whatever settings your particular camera has.

Anonymous's picture

Great video and thanks for posting it.