Steve's Web Site

A History of my Photography

Studio Lighting Equipment


    A few years ago I decided I could afford to play around with studio lighting, something I had wished to try earlier but never had the space or money to pursue. At one point I had assembled the parts for two power packs and tested my design and was ready to assemble them. But when I looked at the cost of the flash heads I decided not to continue. Two thing are different today. First there is the availability of low cost equipment made overseas and also the presence of eBay which provides a worldwide market place for used equipment.

    The are two main types of studio lighting gear - Continuous and flash. Continuous lighting gear has typically meant high power usage. I used to have a couple of 650 watt tungsten light sources and I  found them limited in the light they put out and they would get hot enough to light a cigarette or start a fire. There are some compact florescent bulbs that put out a great amount of light for the power they use. They work best with digital cameras that can compensate for their uneven spectra. I remember buying some 200 watt equivalent unit and testing them, but I was not that happy with results.

    Studio flash units come in two varieties monolights and power pack units. The basic components of studio flash units are

    1. Power supply - converts the AC line voltage into the needed voltages including the high voltage DC for the capacitor bank
    2. Control circuitry - can be analog or digital and provides the user interface to the light.
    3. Capacitor Bank - stores the energy for the flash tube. It contains a large amount of energy at high voltage.
    4. Trigger Circuit - Generates a very high voltage spike of 20,000 volts or more to fire the flashtube.
    5. Flash Tube - A glass or quartz tube filled with xenon gas that turns the energy in the capacitor bank into a bright white light.
    6. Modeling Light - An incandescent light bulb ranging from 100 to 300 watts that allows viewing the effect of the light.
    7. Cooling Fans - The flash tube, modeling light and power supply all produce heat which needs to be blown away.

    A monolight or monobloc has all the component mounted in a single assembly. This simplifies wiring and cuts costs so some very inexpensive units are available. They are made for power levels from 150 watt/seconds to 1500 watt/seconds. Units with fancy digital controls and remotes are available so a wide range of features and prices can be found.

    Power pack systems are split systems with the power supply, control circuitry and the capacitor bank in the power pack or generator unit and the rest of the components in the flash head. Cooling fans can be located in one or both units depending on the power level. Most power pack can power more than one flash head. Flash heads are generally lighter than monolights since the heavy power supply and capacitor banks are located in the power packs. The controls are also in the power pack providing a central location to control the lights.


Adorama Flashpoint 620 Monolight

This is the vendors picture of the flash unit

    I wanted to experiment with studio lighting. My old house wiring wouldn't handle hot lights, Christmas lights caused overloads. I toyed with idea of using multiple florescent lights using screw in compact florescent bulbs of 50W that claimed to equal a 200w incandescent bulb. They worked okay for digital pics and video but just didn't work right with film no mater what filter I tried. I figured out what the 8 light fixtures I designed using off the shelf components would cost, I realized that I could buy monolights for the same price range.

The entire rear panel of the monolight. The sync connector is at the bottom with the power connector and the fuse holder. the blue button is the power button with the slave sensor next to it. The knob controls the power output between full and 1/8th power and includes automatic charge dumping. The ready light is a red/green LED and the switches are explained below.

    These Adorama lights seemed to provide the best bang for the buck so a purchased a pair of the 300 w/s units. My first impression was how solid and well made they were and how I could not find a country of origin anywhere on the units or on the single page of documentation provided. I tested them with my Sekonic L-558 and found good light consistency at all power levels until they were turned down to the lowest setting where the output could vary by an f stop or more. I opened on of them up to see the insides and found the quality of the work was excellent. The flash power is controlled by varying the output voltage so I suspect that at the lower end the flash tube is firing erratically

Here are the push buttons on the rear of the monolight. The test button is the only momentary button and fires the flash. The left hand button controls power to the modeling light. The next button to the right of it controls whether the modeling light comes on when the flash is ready or a beep sounds. the middle button controls whether the modeling light is on full or varies with the power control. The button labeled remote is used to activate the photo slave cell.

    The units have a 150w modeling light and a plug-in flashtube. The modeling light can be operated in the following manner

The business end of the monolight showing the flashtube, the modeling light and the small built in reflector. The flash tube is user replaceable.

    The units have a switchable slave photocell and a 1/4 inch sync jack. There is a mounting spot for an umbrella but my Reflectasols have too large a diameter shaft to fit it. There is a carrying handle on the back that lets you carry the units nose down. they come with a protective cover that covers the flashtube but requires that the modeling light be removed for use. A new version of the protective cover is now available that covers the modeling light as wall. They also have a 6 in reflector and a 10 ft sync cord. All this for $200 each.

This is the umbrella mount, probably the worst point of the design. It only fits the smallest diameter umbrellas and only has a friction mechanism for holding them in place.



Larson Reflectasol

    The Reflectasol is a square photographic umbrella made by Larson Enterprises to a design by Peter Gowland. They are flat when opened all the way and only have four arms. The fame is mostly white aluminum and a lot stronger than conventional umbrellas. Because they are flat rather than parabolic they tend to give a wider light dispersion than umbrellas and the spider effect in the catch lights is hardly noticeable. These days every photographer wants to use soft boxes and so these are available on eBay very cheaply. Most of the ones I have are silver on one side and white on the other and it is easy to reverse the fabric. The silver gives a more specular light than the white.


Norman P800 Power Pack

View of the top of the P800 power pack showing the controls. At the bottom are the connectors for the power cord and the circuit breaker.

    I had once use some Norman equipment and had been impressed by its ruggedness and durability. While once it had been quite popular the company preferred quality to features and lost out in the marketplace. Originally all the equipment was made here in California, but the company move to the Midwest, probably to avoid the high taxes and silly social experiments that have cost us so much over the years.

    After I had used the Adorama monolights a while I realized I would need two more lights for a complete portrait setup. I could buy more monolights but decided to give a power pack system a try. I purchased the power pack on eBay for a very good price. I had to purchase a flash head also so I could test it. Everything worked great with both units.

The upper portion of the power pack. The four flash head outlets are visible along with the switch for bridging the two capacitor banks. The two red rocker switches reduce each capacitor banks output by 50%.

    The P800 has two 400 watt/second capacitor banks. They can be connected to make one bank of 800 watt/seconds. Also rocker switches on each bank can switch in resistors to cut each banks power in half. There is no voltage control to provide variable power so all flashes are at 900 volts. One flash head can be set for 800, 600, 400 or 200 watt/seconds.

This photo shows the lower controls on the P800. The left hand rocker switch is the power switch for the flash systems. The yellow indicator above it is the power indicator. The two knobs control the modeling lamps for each bank The power outlet is for the sync cord. The Test button fires the unit as well as serving as the ready light. The right hand rocker switch controls power to the modeling lamps and is independent of the main power switch.

    The modeling lamps are controlled by two knobs on top of the unit. One knobs controls the modeling lamps for each capacitor banks independently. It is marked in f stops to allow control of the light level in proportion to the flash head power. The modeling lamp circuits are independent of the flash circuit and the flash circuitry can be switched of and just the modeling lights used. The flash system is voltage regulated and the ready light does not come on until 100% power is reached.

Since the P800 uses and older "Household" type sync connector I made this adapter to allow use of 1/4 inch phone plugs.

    The P800 uses an older "household" sync connector. I made my own adapter to allow using more modern 1/4 in. phone plugs. I have been able to run as many as three flash heads on this unit, two flash heads at 100 watt/seconds each for the background and hair light and the other channel at 400 watt/seconds for the main light.


Norman LH 2000 Flash Head.

Here is an LH2000 flash head with the protective cover attached. The cord is permanently attached to the unit

    I bought a used LH200 flash head with blower on eBay shortly after buying the P800 power pack. These LH 2000's are the original lamp head designed for the 900 volt power packs. They are all metal construction with plastic only used on knob heads. The cord is permanently attached to the lamp head and the previous owner had used the looped cord to store the coiled up cord.

Close up of the front of the lamp head showing the modeling light in the center and the ring shaped flash tube around it.

    Both the flash tube and the modeling light bulb are easily replaceable. The normal modeling light is 250 watts but there is a 150 watt bulb is available. The flash tube is held in place by three banana plugs while the modeling light is a bayonet mount.

    The assembly that mounts the lamp head to a light stand has an umbrella mount with an adjusting screw and can handle a wide variety of umbrella diameters, including my Refectasols. There is a 1/4 socket with a knob mounted on top of the unit as well, though I haven't seen anything that attaches there.

Rear view of the lamp head showing the opening for the cooling air from the fan. The circuit board visible is the trigger circuit for the flashtube.

    Both the front and rear of the flash head have holes for mounting accessories using the two pin or Type A mounting method. This system uses two spring loaded pins in the accessory to latch onto the flash head on either side. The front is used for a wide variety of reflectors, speedrings, and other light modifiers. The rear mount is meant for fans.

This photo shows the fan mounted on the lamp head. It plugs into a jack on the side of the lamp head.

    The fan that came with my first lamp head is a monster! Its twice the size of the lamp head ant several times the weight. It has a squirrel cage blower that moves a lot of air. The fan weighs so much that I could never put it on my light boom arm. I have found that it works great with the background light with the color gels and barn doors.

View of the inside of the fan showing the squirrel cage and the two pin mounting system.

    Since I still only had three lights of the four needed for portraits I bought a second LH 2000 lamp head without the blower off of eBay. It fire a few times than died. The problem turned out to be a broken wire in the connector and it works fine now.


Norman Illuminator IL 2500 Flash Head

Side view of the IL 2500 with the protective cover on. Notice the connector for the removable cord and the adjustment knobs for the umbrella holder and light stand mount.

    After buying the second LH 2000 I noticed that one of my local camera stores had some Norman equipment. They were no longer listed as a Norman dealer and I didn't see any power packs but they did have  a number of flash heads and reflectors around. I negotiated a good price for a new in box IL 2500 lamp head.

    The IL 2500 differ from the LH2000 in a number of ways:
        1. The cord is removable and can function as an extension cord for other lampheads.
        2. It has a built in fan.
        3. It's made from a heat resistant fiber reinforced resin and is much lighter than the LH 2000.
        4. It has a new flashtube design the encloses the modeling lamp and has many air holes in it.
        5. It has a new accessory mount that Norman calls the Type B that has a more positive locking mechanism. It includes an adapter for Type A accessories.

View of the front of the IL 2500 showing the new flashtube with the modeling light inside it. You have to remove the flashtube to replace the modeling light.

    Norman engineers put a lot of thought into the design of this new lamp head. The tilting mechanism is designed for maximum friction to prevent shifting, The new accessory mounting system is move secure with a positive lock.

Rear view of the IL 2500 showing the fan and the connector housing

    After purchasing the P24/24 power pack I bought a second IL 2500 to use with it.

The Flashpoint monolight next to the IL 2500 showing the size advantage of using separate power packs and lamp head. If the LH 2000 with the fan attached were compared to the monolight the difference would hardly be noticeable.



Norman P24/24 Power Pack

Top of the P24/24 power pack. In about 50% more volume than the P800 it packs 3 times the energy and several addition features

    I started getting power craving, what could I do with more flash power? I picked up this unit at a bargain price in as is condition. It turned out to be inoperative but I had paid so little for it that it was worth getting fixed. It has turned out to be a move versatile pack than the P800 and has a number of additional features.

The three sets of lamp head connectors one for each bank. the white switches connect the bans together. The numbers are the watt/seconds for each bank

    This power pack has three capacitor banks of 400, 800 and 1200 watt/seconds each. It also has a voltage adjustment knob providing three f stops of power reduction. This allows this power pack to put out as little as 50 watt/seconds up to 2400 watt/seconds to a single head. Large rocker switches connect the banks together. Each bank has its own modeling lamp control and as on the P800 the modeling lamps are independent of the main power. Besides the variable voltage control the unit features a slave photo cell and an audible alert to tell when the unit has recycled. Each of these two features has its own control switch. and instead of the "household" jack two 1/4 in. phone jacks are provided.

Lower portion of the P24/24 control power. The three knobs control modeling lamp brightness for each channel. The left hand black switch controls the photocell which is in the center between the two black rocker switches. the right hand black switch controls the audible alarm. The left hand red rocker switch is main power with the red LED showing power on. The right hand red rocker switch controls the modeling lamp power. The green LED is the ready light and the black switch between the two 1/4 in phone jacks is the test button. The knob above it is the voltage control.

    The power adjustment on the P24/24 works much better than the one on the Monolights. On the monolights when you reach a certain point when dialing down the power the flash fires to let the capacitor charge up to the new lower voltage. On this unit the ready light will simply go out until the voltage in the capacitor is at the desired level.


YH881-B Remote Flash Trigger

Top view of the receiver on the left and the transmitter on the right. Notice that the receiver is designed to connect to a 1/4 in. phone jack. and draws it power from the power cable for the flash. The transmitter uses a tiny 12v battery.

    When I purchased my Sekonic L558 light meter I paid a little extra for the Pocket Wizard transmitter that fit inside it. I figured that Pocket Wizards would come down in price and I could make use of the module. Well a few months later they renamed the meter to the L-558r and included the transmitter as part of the meter. Meanwhile a couple of year later it still cost near $200 for a Pocket Wizard. Meanwhile for about $100 I picked up four of these little unit on eBay.

    The transmitter runs off of a small 12 volt battery that I use in my doorbell and my wife's car fob. The receiver is powered by the power line and is designed to go between the power plug and the flash. The The receiver has a 1/4 in. phone plug and came with an adapter for 1/8 in. phone plugs. The transmitter has a hot shoe on the bottom and jack on the side that takes a PC sync cord. The transmitter has a test button on top and the receiver has a power indicator and a triggered indicator.

Bottom view or the transmitter on the left and the receiver on the right. Both units have a dual dip switch to select one of four channels. The transmitter has a hot shoe connector for cameras that are so equipped and a jack on the side for a sync cable with a standard PC connector that is included.

    These units are four channel ones and 1, 4, 8, and 16 channel unit are available from various vendor. I bought mine from a vendor based in New York City. Many of the vendors are based in China. There are two dip switches on both the transmitters and receiver to set the channel number desired. I have tested the units at a range of 100 feet without problems and have not had any interference problems.

My Sekonic L-558 with a transmitter mounted to a shoe adapter screwed into the 1/4-20 socket on the bottom. The sync cord was included with the transmitter.

    I usually work with one transmitter on my light meter and one on the camera I am shooting with. The rig for mounting it on the light meter is shown above.

Home brew booster unit that allow the receiver to work with my monolights. The box contains two AA cells.

    The only problem I encountered was when I tried to use them with my monolights. The units would not fire them. I contacted the remote controls vendor but they could not provide any useful information. I figured the receiver was using an SCR to trigger the flash and the low sync voltage on the monolights was too low to fire the SCR. I inserted a nine volt battery in series with the flash and the receiver and it would fire once. This indicated the the SCR was latching up so I lowered the voltage to 1.5 volts and the unit fired every time. I tried 3 volts and that worked also. I the built the booster unit pictured above to use the units with the monolights. And to think I bought the unit because the receiver did not require batteries.