See July 2010 Update at bottom of review I don't do much in the way of equipment reviews, but I thought I'd share some thoughts on the new Einstein lights from Paul Buff. I've been using the same four AlienBee B800 lights for almost ten years. The lights have been across the country many times and survived being dropped, blown over in the wind and just plain kicked around.
My only issues with them have come from my own bad judgment. In one case, I used the lights in the rain and one of them started smoking (and smelling remarkably like Chinese food). I shipped the light back to Paul Buff and had it back in two weeks for less than $75. I've also broken the flash tubes a couple of times and now take a few extra with me whenever I go on a shoot.
In short, these lights have worked flawlessly for me, and it's only recently as I've attempted to exert a little more control over my lighting setups that I've noticed the slight variations in color temperature from picture to picture. I've also been wanting a little more power than I currently have, especially when shooting outside. Two Einstein lights arrived at my door last week, just in time for a few shoots where I got to try them out.
A few quick observations
Out of the box, the Einstein feels more solid and are clearly heavier (specs say at least 1 lb. more than AB800s, or similar weight to AB1600s). There's definitely a more professional feel to these lights overall. I'm sure I'm not the only professional who gaffer taped over the fluorescent logos on the AlienBees in an attempt to make them a bit more understated.
In my hand, the Einsteins are very front heavy. A few times I've held them in the middle of the light to mount on a light stand and felt them nearly slip out of my hands. On the plus side, the light stand mount is set farther back on the light. This allows you to tilt a beauty dish farther forward without it hitting the light stand, which had been an ongoing issue for me.
I was in New York last week and spent some time playing with the different lighting systems at B&H. The user interface on these lights is like nothing I've seen on any other system. The flash actually takes a couple of seconds to boot up when you turn it on and you're rewarded for this short wait with a rather sophisticated menu system that gives you complete control over the modeling light, recycling indicator and slave tripper (regardless of whether a sync cord is plugged in). All in all, a welcome technological advance from the tiny plastic buttons I'd become used to.
The 9-stop output range is great, giving me more (and less, if needed) power than the B800 and allowing me to light portraits while still using wider apertures (and not having to break out the ND filters).
The umbrella mounts are much improved, keeping the umbrella at a better angle for even light distribution.
The modeling light is bright (250W) and I could easily see using this for video as well as making it easy to shoot portraits with the lens wide open at any shutter speed.
I put together a quick video here showing how to use the basic features of the light.
Color Temperature Test
While this test is by no means scientific, I thought it might be interesting to compare the consistency of the output between these two lights. I set up some white seamless, put a reflector head on each light, and made sure they metered the same (AB800 was about 1/2 power) so that no detail would be blown out. Then I plugged in my intervalometer and took a photo every five seconds (with the camera white balance set to 5600K) for thirty minutes.
Here's a short time lapse, at six frames per second of the full set of images.
After running this test, I debated whether it was even worth posting the time lapse. In looking through these images, I honestly can't see much of a different between the two lights. Obviously, there's a little spill-over from the two lights that might affect the results, but aside from some very minor light output variation (of which the AlienBees exhibits a bit more), these lights seem pretty similar with the AlienBee being perhaps a touch warmer overall. The color temperature consistency is one of the big selling points and it is kind of interesting that there's little difference here, at least to my eye.
To see if what I saw was actually accurate, I randomly pulled twenty or so of the images into Photoshop, and used the Eyedropper tool to compare RGB values in a given spot for each light. Here there was some evidence of the Einstein's consistency, with the values consistently within 2-3 of each other. The AlienBees wasn't far off, but mostly showed values with 4-5 units of each other.
It was always a pain to mount a softbox on to the AlienBees. Between squeezing the two release levers together (mine have gotten progressively stickier over the years) and trying to make sure that all four "holding fingers" (their words, not mine) were inside the speed ring before releasing, this was one of my least favorite things about my lights. After a lot of headaches, I discovered the best way to mount a softbox was to put it facedown on the floor and mount the light to it, rather than putting the light on a stand first.
The Einstein has a quick-release lever that smoothly slides the holding fingers in and out. In theory this seems like a much more refined mechanism but in using it during four shoots over the past few days, I found it at least as frustrating as the old mount system.
There are now four screws holding the clips that hold the frosted glass dome onto the light. When your light modifier is exactly lined up, the speed ring fits neatly around these four screws. But when you're mounting a large softbox and don't have a great visual on where the holding fingers are, the screws often get in the way, catching on the speed ring and making a good fit difficult.
Twice on recent shoots I've had a softbox fall off as I was trying to mount it and I've learned to be much more careful about ensuring a good softbox mount before letting go of it. By moving the screws, or having them sit flush with the face of the strobe, I think this mounting solution would be much improved as the holding fingers would essentially force the speed ring into place as you moved the lever.
Wrapping up, these lights are a clear upgrade for me and have kept me away (for now at least) from investing in a Profoto setup or something similar. The lights already feel intuitive and are just plain more precise pieces of equipment, allowing me to control my lighting to a much higher degree than before.
I'm excited about possible firmware upgrades and am glad one of the best customer service experiences available anywhere is there in case something does go wrong. I'll be updating this review in six months or so once I've had a chance to use the lights on an ongoing basis for awhile.
July 2010 Update
Having now used the Einsteins for a couple of months, I have a few updates to share. First off, having full adopted the practice of attached the light to the softbox sitting on the ground, I no longer have any issue with that screw getting in the way.
The bigger issue is that I'm just not getting reliable triggering with the PocketWizards when using the lights outside. Paul Buff has addressed this issue and a fix will be out in August, but until then, I've shelved these lights for any outside work as they only seem to fire about 50% of the time working at distances much closer than the 50 feet that they're supposed to function. Personally, August can't come quick enough as I really do miss the extra power of these lights, especially outdoors.