Head-to-Head: Monolights vs Speedlights

Today’s Post by Joe Farace’

At one of our past Coffee and Cameras—I know, we need to have another one soon—we talked about lighting and the disparity in cost between speedlights and monolights. A Canon 600EX II-RT speedlite costs $479, a Nikon SB-5000 AF speedlight costs $596.95 and while it might be argued that both speedlights are capable shoe-mount flashes, it can be equally argued that a monolight kit, like Elinchrom’s D-Lite RX 4/4 Softbox To Go Kit—that includes two monolights, two softboxes, lightstands and cases only costs $749.99 and is easier to use and get started making portraits.

Here are a few features that you might like to have and might want to keep in mind when considering a monolight for your portrait lighting needs. As in all photography there are always trade-offs between functionality, ease-of-use, and cost.

Continuously variable output: Some monolights have power settings of ¼, ½, ¾, and full but sometimes you need more control. Others offer continuously variable output to fine-tune the exposure to get precisely the aperture and depth-of-field you want.

Proportional modeling light: Some monolights provide a simple on or off light that gives an idea of the final lighting effect but may not show the true effect. Monolights with proportional settings allow light output to vary with flash output.

Fan cooling: Placing the modeling light, power supply, and flash tube inside a housing creates heat. A fan-cooled monolight may be better than an air-cooled model but this sometimes makes the monolight bigger, heavier, noisier and more expensive. That noise may not be the case with some newer monolights where the fan only comes on when needed.

Portability: The ability to have power supply and light head in a single package makes for simple set up and greater portability. That’s why lots of companies offer packages consisting of monolights, umbrellas, light stands and a case for a ready-to-go package. But speedlights’ smaller size and greater portability is also why some people prefer using them even though they can be more expensive. This debate will continue in a future post…

How I made this shot: Lighting was set up as shown in the photo above right. Background was a  5×7-foot Savage Photo Gray Infinity vinyl background suspended on my falling-apart JTL background stand. Camera was a Canon EOS 60D with EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens and an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/16 and ISO 200.


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My book Joe Farace’s Glamour Photography is full of tips, tools and techniques for glamour and boudoir photography and includes information on all of the cameras used as well as the complete exposure data for each image. New books are available from Amazon for $27.43 with used copies starting at $5.95 as I write this, which seems like a bargain. Kindle version is $11.99 for those preferring a digital format.