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Where electrical outlets don't roam, what are my options?

Peter Yang , Aug 19, 1998; 06:40 p.m.

I have a simple question concerning location shooting away from electrical outlets. I currently have a set of Zap 1000's and am trying to find ways to power them when I have nowhere to plug in the lights. I have heard about generators though I now little to nothing about them. Are they self powered, powered by car battery...etc? Idealy, it would be great if there were some jumper cable-like device where I could hook one end up to my car battery and the other up to the monolight, but I don't know if something like that exists. Any info would be helpful. Thanks.

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Ellis Vener , Aug 19, 1998; 08:32 p.m.

Try to find a copy of "Adventures in Location Lighting" by Jon Falk. Check Dynalite(the strobe manufacturer), Flash Clinic or Strobesmith in NYC, or Light tec in Houston or Dallas. All of your answers are there. If you buy a generator to power your strobes only buy Honda as they are voltage regulated to the point where they won't damage your flash units.

Whitney Wyatt , Aug 20, 1998; 12:29 a.m.

Hi, I must tell you, I don't know what the heck Zap 1000's are, but I do know something about electricity. There are two possibilities: 1. you are trying to power the lights off direct AC current. (This is the stuff that you get out of the outlet at your house.) 2. You are trying to recharge batteries that power the lights, in which case you are using DC current, which is the same as your car battery, your camera batteries,, etc.

Generators, except in extremely rare cases (read not-available) produce AC current, the same as in your house. This would work fine if you are directly powering the lights. As in the lights have a plug on them that plugs into the wall of your house.

If this is the case, then you could not hook them up to your car through a jumper cable type thing, because that is DC current. BUT!

Instead of a generator, which is expensive, you could buy (and since you mentioned your car, I am assuming that your car is nearby) an Inverter. This is a device which usually has a plug which fits into cigarette lighter and which changes the DC power of your battery into AC power, which it outputs through a regular House-type outlet located on the device itself.

I use one of these regularly to power lights, radios, pumps, computers, etc. off my truck during extended stays in the desert.

Be forwarned: The AC power from your house is about 120 volts, the DC power from your car is 12 volts. Most electrical equipment is rated in Watts.

Volts times Amps = Watts

if your lights are 1200 Watts (and there is probably a little plate on your lights which will give you the watts, or the amps, etc.) then from your house volts (120) it takes 10 amps to make the light work. But from your car (12 volts) it would take 100 Amps! A Huge amount! This would be a Big inverter (read expensive) and would drain your car battery fairly quickly.

If you have a boat store, like a West Marine, somewhere close by, or an RV Center, call them and ask about inverters, they should be able to help. Good Luck, Whitney

Ellis Vener , Aug 20, 1998; 01:03 a.m.

As Wyatt points out, you could get one of those adapters that plugs into your cigarette lighter. But as soon as you get one or two of the peak voltage x amperage surges that happens when your strobes recharge go through through that cigarette lighter, say goodbye to your car's electrics. Falk recommends an inverter caled a Mighty Mite that runs directly off of your engine, (not through your battery & electrical system) Not having seen one I gather that is about the size of an automotive alternator. Expensive and expensive to install.

James R Babb , Aug 20, 1998; 06:39 a.m.

I use a 1200-watt inverter with a 100 aH gel-eletrolyte battery. This lives in a Rubbermaid utility box and has a set of 0000 battery cables with Andersen clamps (used to hook forklifts to chargers) to connect it to the charging system on my truck, and an auxiliary solar panel which will charge the battery from half-flat to full in about 12-16 hours. (I also power the Teevee and the computer during our annual New England ice storms.)I can drag this unit (about 60-70 pounds) through the woods, using a long-handled pulp hook, for a few hundred yards to a location setup before my arms give out.

The inverter I use has a modified-sine-wave AC output, which, according to Jon Falk's Adventures in Location Lighting (which you should definitely buy; B&H has it), and also according to the White Lightning tech people, the White Lightning unit's don't like. Higher-price inverters, like a Trace (check marine stores or WEST Marine's mail-order catalog; figure about $1200)have a pure sine-wave output, as in your home.

Another option is to find an AC/DC version of Bowen's Travelite (exactly the same as the Calumet Travelite monolight, only with an auxliary 12-volt power supply that alligator-clamps to a 12-volt battery). I bought one from the Photo.net classifieds, and it works slicker than a cuppa custard. I've seen them advertised occasionally in Shutterbug.

Glen Johnson , Aug 20, 1998; 08:35 a.m.

The Zap 1000's are fairly powerful monolights. I don't personally own any Paul Buff products, but I've been in the "factory" in Nashville, and I was impressed. If the Zaps are like similarly powered monolights, they probably have a pretty big current draw when they begin to recycle. You can get the specific details from Paul Buff in Nashville.

If I were you (using the Zaps), I would call Buff and ask for their advice. You will probably get a decent suggestion for "the best way" to power the Zaps on location. Buff has a heck of a lot of experience, and they really know their products. You won't talk to someone who sells 10 different lighting systems - you'll talk to someone who knows the Buff gear inside and out. I'm sure they've seen this question before.

Nelson Tan , Aug 20, 1998; 09:26 a.m.

Hi Peter,

The White Lightning website has some Q&A about running their lights with generators and AC/DC converters. But I've heard something about generators not being safe to use with studio flashes. It seems the generators are not stable in their output. It is okay for things like radio and such, but not so suitable for sensitive equipment like studio flash. Maybe you could rent the flash units that run on batteries. I've heard many good comments on Lumedyne flash units.

David B. Miller, Pharm. D. -- , Oct 11, 1998; 07:35 p.m.

You probably have already spoken with the Buff people. I called wanting a strictly portable outfit by them because I TRUST them. However their only suggestion was the inverter or generator. I suggested that I could unscrew the modeling light to reduce the peak draw on the inverter and they said that would be okay. (I was under the impression my Ultra 1800's had to have the modeling light working or there would be damage to the unit.)

I had been considering purchase of the WL 5000 or 10,000 with a power pack for portable use. But just to bulky, considering what options are available today. David

Glen Johnson , Oct 12, 1998; 09:59 p.m.

At the local Sam's Club they recently added a line of generators. There is one model for right at $500 that can do 120 and 240, at up to 40 amps. This ought to be enough to handle a pair of Zaps. It wasn't billed as portable, but it was light enough for one strong person to manhandle into a pickup truck or van. Two people could handle it easily.

Ellis Vener , Oct 12, 1998; 10:35 p.m.

Be extremely careful with choosing a generator to power studio flash equipment in the field. Honda makes the only ones that I know of that won't fry your strobes with fluctuating voltage and amperage levels.


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