Monday, December 07, 2009     

 Category: Art and Photography
I’ve Been Abducted by Alien Bees  Studio Lights December 5, 2009

I have been looking for studio lights that are compact, light weight, fast, powerful and don't cost a fortune?
These fit the bill to a Bee. You might want to give Alien Bees some very serious consideration.

When it was time for me to think about some new studio lights, (mine were 40 yr old Hot Lights with a temperature underneath the umbrellas, of over 100 degrees, a bit warm for the model!) I did what everyone else does, grabbed the latest edition of Shutterbug and Rangefinder, and started looking for information on the net and picked a lot of brains. I knew most of the old names but I kept coming across an odd new name, Alien Bees. My first reaction was to give these lights less than serious consideration due to their goofy name, but after I did a little research and compared prices, I decided to give them a try. What a great choice and I’m glad I went with the “Bees”!

Even though Alien Bees is a fairly young business entity (September of 2001), it's far from a start-up. The reason? Alien Bees is yet another business venture of White Lightning mastermind Paul Buff. In fact, White Lightning and Alien Bees operate from the same building in Melrose Tennessee.

When I spoke with one of the Alien Bees folks, I learned that the design innovations Paul made from his years of White Lightning experience were significant and wanted to offer them in a completely separate product line - so Alien Bees was born (or hatched as the case may bee). These lights are well built, light weight, fast, compact and consistent from shot to shot and the best part they’re affordable! I'm so happy with them, I thought I'd share some information that you can use the next time you're shopping for studio lights. Bee sure to visit the Alien Bees web site for the latest details on pricing, models and package deals.

When the UPS man arrived, this is what I received the 4 lights packed in one large box as - four boxes weighing about 4 pounds each. In my case, they taped the boxes together to make 2 pairs of 2 boxes each - less pieces to ship this way. In addition the light stands, wow are these impressive, very sturdy with very wide leg profile. Light boxes are easily assembled and very sturdy, no problem with stress on the seams, even light with additional diffuser inside. Umbrellas, shoot through/reflect combo and reflect only are outstanding and easy to use. Bags and stand bags were well padded and well made. Shipped in 4 additional boxes all totaling 70 lbs.
Alien Bees lights packaging is excellent. (this is one light) They used heavy cardboard to protect the light, reflector and cords. These boxes could be shipped anywhere with no worry about damage. There was absolutely no damage to anything inside. And so tight I had to take an effort to access them out of the boxes.
I knew I wanted 4 new lights and wanted to be in the $2,000 range if possible. My (3) B800 lights and (1)B1600, (2) heavyweight13ft lightstands (1)10ft lightstand and a backlight stand, set of honeycomb (4) grids, (4) light carrying cases, stand case, Lightgear Remote control, 30-60” softbox, speedring,32 silver/white bounce Umbrella, 48” Umbrella and shipping came in at under $1,700. The bottom line was helped by an Alien Bee policy that discounts accessories when you buy lights. Mine was 20% off accessories. The more lights you buy, the bigger the discount on the accessories. You can change individual items in their packages offerings also as I did exchanging one of the B800’s to a B1600.

A confidence builder before I placed the order was their Satisfaction Guarantee. "If you are not completely satisfied with your purchase of an Alien Bees product, for any reason whatsoever, you may return it within 60 days of your purchase date for a full refund (excluding shipping). We're that certain you'll love these lights" Now that I have the lights, I know how they can make statements like that. And while I'm on the subject of guarantees, all Alien Bees lights are covered by a 2 year factory warranty which they cordially . I did have a small issue with one of the B800 lamps which packing dislodged and the lamp would not power fully or dump. Called them this AM and a new lamp is on it’s way 3 day shipping. Now that’s impressive!
When I removed the reflector and top layer of cardboard, this is what I found. The heavy duty protective dome over the strobe tube and modeling light. More on that in a moment.
The lights come in three models: B1600 at 640 true wattseconds, the B800 at 320 true wattseconds and the B400 at 160 true wattseconds. See the Alien Bees web site for more information about true and effective wattsecond ratings. Alien Bees are available in three power levels and in four colors.
Model True Wattseconds Effective Wattseconds
B1600 640 1600
B800 320 800
B400 160 400
The available colors are Mello Yello, Martian Pink, Alien Green, White and Space Black. When I placed my order I learned that the color options are now available at no extra charge (formerly yellow, pink and green came at a $10 premium). I'm sure a lot of people will take advantage of the color options, but white and black was what I wanted any way so it wasn't a big deal for me.
I purchased three B800s and one B1600 since I have a fairly small studio space but big grouping photo ops.
After I got through all the cardboard, I found the light itself sealed in a plastic bag. The Alien Bees folks are obviously very meticulous about protecting their products.
The lights come with a standard 7 inch reflector, a 15' power cord and a 15' trigger cord.
The quick release mechanism is compatible with reflectors, speed rings, snoops gels and accessories for Alien Bees, White Lightning and Balcar.
In this profile view, you can see the heavy duty plastic dome that is used to cover and protect the modeling light and flash tube when transporting the Bees. This dome can will take quite an impact without damage. To allow for packing and transporting. A modeling lamp is also included and must be installed prior to use.

Here's a quick rundown of the key features.
• Compact design measuring just 9 X 7.5 X 5.5 inches
• Light weight - the B800 is 3 pounds and the B1600 is 4 pounds
• Stepless 5 f-stop power control from FULL to 1/32 power
• Fast cycle times - 1 second on the B800 at full power
• User replacable flash tube rated at 250,000+ flash life
• Standard 15' sync and 15' power cords included
• internal cooling fan
• Standard 150 watt modeling lamp - user upgradable to 150 watt halogen
• Full remote control capability (with optional RC4X)
• Standard 7 inch reflector
• Quick release accessory mount - compatible with White Lightning and Balcar
• High strength Lexan housing
• Built in slave tripper
• Modeling light can track with flash power
• Multi mode modeling light operation
For the modeling light these are supurb! The 800 pumps out plenty of shadowless light and the 1600 is ideal for a bit more umph! Powers up the light box to a tee! In some instances this will be ample lighting for that special effect! You can see the user replaceable flash tube around the base of the modeling light. The light bulb shown is not what is currently shipped. The modeling light is thinner and professional quality.

Borrowing some text right out of the instruction manual: "The large diameter flashtube has a typical flashtube life in the 100,000 to 500,000 flash range, and is user replaceable. Replacement tubes are quite inexpensive compared to other professional flash units, It is worthwhile to note that the flash tubes in cheaper amateur flash units are usually rated at 10,000 flashes and are not user replaceable."
Alien Bees lights will accept 150 watt Phillips Halogena halogen bulbs as modeling lights which were shipped to me as stock items with the lamps. All it took was a trip to Home Depot and less than $4.00 per bulb. A note about white balance. The Alien Bees lights are rated at 5500 degrees K. This is generally considered daylight for film and most digital cameras.
Here is a good look at the control panel. You can see the controls for the continuously variable power, modeling light, charge status and dump, remote control socket, sync socket, power switch and power cord receptacle.
Alien Bees have a 5 f-stop continuously variable power range. A quick check with my Seconic flash meter indicated that the power scale was very accurate. The Seconic also syncs well with the light set.
The modeling light can be turned off completely, turned on at full power or set to TRACK the power setting of the flash. The CYCLE button will cause the modeling light to be turned off while the flash is recharging - this gives the photographer a visual indication that the flash fired.
The OK light indicates the unit is 100% cycled (recharged) and ready for the next photo - at half or quarter power the cycle time on the B800 is just a fraction of a second. The DUMP light comes on when you reduce the power setting - it essentially indicates that there is too much stored energy for the power setting. Pressing the TEST button will fire the flash and clear the DUMP light. Of course you can press the TEST button at any time to check the light or take a meter reading. I generally just plug the trigger cord into my flash meter (Seconic) to take a reading.
The SYNC jack uses a standard 3.5mm phono plug (get them at Radio Shack). Making up a custom sync cord is no trick at all. Placing a plug in the SYNC jack will disable the SLAVE. The photo SLAVE is very sensitive. In my small studio the units always fire - no matter how I have them arranged.
This remote control jack allows the flash to be controlled and triggered by the Alien Bees RC4X wired remote control unit. This unit came with my package and essentially brings the control panel of up to four Alien Bees right to the photographer so you can adjust the power of the lights while your standing at the camera.
The standard 7 inch reflector has a hole in the side wall which allows it to be used with an umbrella.
I purchased 4 lights, I'm not sure how often I'll use these, but they're nice to have to add protection for the lamps.
The case will hold the light, reflector and both cords without a problem.
I also ordered a set of four grids: 10, 20, 30 and 40. I really hadn't used these before, but now that I have them, I think they're great to have around.
With the grids, I can make controlled spots of light - much nicer than a snoot.
10 Grid 20 Grid 30 Grid 40 Grid
I purchased a set of 4 spot grids along with my lights - first ones I've ever owned. These are are great for adding highlights on the subject or background.

If you're just into photography, you might want to stop reading now. Everything from here on is about Bee guts.
Being my typical self, I wanted to know just how they made these little worker bees so fast and lightweight -
Time to Disect an Alien Bee studio strobe. Here is a view of everything but the power switch. So can you see why it's so small and light weight? Electrical Engineers should will know at a glance.
The reason Alien Bees are so small, light weight, fast and cost effective is because there is no transformer or switching power supply. Of course the reaction of most folks at this moment is "so?" So the question back is how do you suppose they get the well over 500 DC volts between the cathode and anode of the flash tube when all they started with was 120 volts AC?
The answer lies in the creative use of diodes and capacitors. The EEs that haven't been totally consumed by 1s and 0s may remember circuits from school known as full wave voltage doublers, half wave voltage tripplers and cascade multipliers. If that's what you've been thinking all along, then give yourself 10 bonus points and go to the head of the class. In the off chance you're actually curious about how these circuits work, you might want to check this page on the General Semiconductor site - warning this is strictly for analog geeks. Personally, I've been a low voltage digital geek since the early days of 74LS and RCA 4000 CMOS - non geeks, don't even try to figure this out.
You'll find two flash capacitors in a B800 and 4 in a B1600.
Okay, so Paul Buff really knows his AC theory and cascade multipliers - that's nice. What really knocks me out is the control precision and functionality he's achieved with just a hand full of op amps and discrete components - maybe it just takes both science and art to make Alien technology!
In the photo above you can see the control board on the left and the capacitor board. Since this unit is a B400, only one capacitor is used. If it were a B800, there would be two and if it were a B1600 there would be four. DON'T EVEN THINK OF ADDING THEM YOURSELF. If you have a B400 and want to upgrade, the factory will do it cheaper and more safely than you can do it yourself. Besides, it would take a couple other components too.

Here is a look at the tube side of the capacitor board. Those four white blocks are ceramic bleeder resisters used to discharge the capacitors when the unit is turned off or the power is reduced.

For perspective, here is a shot of the tube side of the capacitor board with the flash tube plugged in. You can see the bleeder resistors, the back side of the control board sockets and something else - high quality fiberglass. Both circuit boards look to me like .062 (G-10 or FR4) fiberglass with 1 oz copper on the control board and 2 oz copper on the capacitor board. They are solder masked and silk screened with plated through-holes and routed edges. These are top quality circuit boards with excellent construction. Overall, there is some really clever engineering and quality workmanship here.

Questions about Alien Bees? Try the Alien Bees FAQ page.

I'm very happy with my Alien Bees. I feel I got a technically excellent product and terrific value for the dollars. If you're looking for studio lights, don't overlook Alien Bees.

Photos of unpacking my new gear in my very tight basement.. I think a Lea's Toy Box in now in order.. 45'by 36' would work