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Alien bees or more sb800/sb900's?

John Rauch , Nov 20, 2008; 01:22 p.m.

I hope this will shed some light on my question (no pun intended!). I have been getting some request to do some small (not to profesional) wedding and portrait work. I own a Nikon D80 and a SB800 and two lenses. I do want to expand my lighting options. Like most newbes, dont have an unlimited budget. So my question is should i try to talk the wife into letting me get another sb800/sb900, 2 lightstands, 2 umbrellas, speedlight clamps, or go with the Alien Bees kit that has 2 AB400/AB800, 2 stands, 2 umbrellas, and so on. I do like the portabillity of the speedlights, but it seems that the Bees would be easier to set up and adjust for exposure. With the price of both options fairly close, it is a decision i would like to ask photogs with some experience with both.

Thanx ~JR

Responses

Matt Laur , Nov 20, 2008; 02:31 p.m.

It comes down to:

1) Horsepower. An AB800 will give you a couple stops of light that the SB800's can't. And they can recover from a full exposure over and over again, and quickly... and with less wear and tear than such use would cause to the speedlights. You'd also be able to use larger light modifiiers with the ABs... but that brings up the issue of what you're shooting (say, a bride and groom, vs a group of 30 people in a big dark room).

2) Flexibility. Presuming that your shooting circumstances will allow the D80's pop-up flash to control two remote SB800's using Nikon's CLS, it is sure handy to be able to control the speedlights from the camera. With the AB's, you'd be walking over to each of them to adjust power (unless you use the wired remote widget). With Nikon's CLS, you can adjust the remote strobe power from the menu on the back of your camera - quite cool.

But, about the CLS... there is always the lag time introduced by the pre-flash necessary to communicate with and fire the strobes. You can get around that by using Nikon's infrared controller, but that's almost as expensive as yet another strobe... or even some decent radio controllers.

The speedlights would actually be the easier of the two to set up, under many circumstances. No power cables to secure, no power outlets to find, no synch cords or radios. But you're only as good as the batteries, and the reliability of the optical triggering. Of course, you can use radio controllers with the SB800s, too... but you lose the CLS/iTTL brains.

Or, consider that these things are not mutually exclusive. You can make immediate use of a second SB800, and later - if you get into beefier monolights - still integrate those SB800s into a more standard lighting configuration. If you put an SB800 into SU-4 remote mode, it becomes a simple optical slave, and can be triggered by one of your later ABs going off.

Regardless... if you're starting to do events, you really should have two speedlights no matter what. What if your first SB800 were to fail? For bounced on-camera light right off your D80, an SB800 is hard to beat... unless it dies. So, just like you should have a backup camera body, you should have a backup speedlight anyway. And when everything's working right, you've got two light sources for mobile use. But you've got to be realistic about how much light two SB800's can actually generate when you get into larger scenes/groups... at which point even two AB800s may not do the job, either.

Benjamin Smith , Nov 20, 2008; 04:08 p.m.

Go for the bees!! SB 800s are for wieners.

Wayne F , Nov 20, 2008; 05:11 p.m.

I have both, two SB-800 and four Alienbees. They are simply "different", not easy to compare. I prefer using the bees, but the setup is NOT easier or faster. The full opposite. You have to use a handlheld flashmeter to set the power of each manual light at the subject. Which is a huge plus of course, absolute full control, but it is not quick. Conversely, the SB-800 commander system (using TTL) is instant setup, the commander equalizes the lights to be equal at the subject at the press of a button (FV Lock or shutter). But automation is not the same thing as control, and there is compensation of course, but you still take what you get. :)

I agree with all of Matt Laurs post. It comes down to:

There is a power difference, SB-800 in umbrella is one stop down from B400, two stops from B800. So you will run one at near maximum, and one down a stop or two more. And much faster recycle time on the bees, which is really important right at that one moment when your subject gets it all perfect.

Portability and, no power cords, but lots of batteries to always be recharging.

Automatic TTL operation vs manual control (but which includes actual control)

Can use softboxes and grid and whatever on bees, and umbrellas is all that is feasible on SB. Umbrellas are great however, nothing wrong with umbrellas.

Camera commander only controls two groups, and SU-800 controls three. What if you want 4 or 5 lights? Bees is no issue regarding expansion.

The optical triggering of the bees is done at full flash power, and is much more reliable than the Commander, but which still should be OK in a regular size room.

The Commander shutter lag delay is not really an issue, since we really have to use FV Lock anyway (to prevent pictures of subject blinking). After doing FV Lock, then the shutter is instant again. You meter the bees once, and the same once should be all you need to meter the SB too. But .. with the commander, you can do it again with the simple press of a button. But... you get automation results then, and some variability, not the careful honing that you spend 20 minutes setting up. :)

They are just different. Preference will be a huge factor.

The SB-800 will work with the bees (but NOT viceversa). The SB-800 SU-4 mode becomes just another optically triggered manual light, just like the bees. Makes a good background light.

So, you can start with a couple of SB-800 for now, and add the bees later. They can also use the same umbrellas and light stands.

Matt Laur , Nov 20, 2008; 08:30 p.m.

Just thought I'd add to something Wayne said about light modifiers for speedlights. Certainly the umbrellas are the easiest to use with a hotshoe-style strobe... but remember that umbrellas really tend to throw light everywhere. That means that you're losing some of it in directions that aren't necessarily helping with the exposure (this is especially true when you use shoot-through umbrellas). For more control over the light, and less loss, consider a softbox meant for this purpose. The problem, of course, is that most softboxes set up for hotshoe strobes don't get much bigger than 24 inches... and unless you're using them very close to your subject, that doesn't always soften the light as much as you might want.

There was a discussion along these lines a while back... give it a read right here.

Kent Staubus , Nov 21, 2008; 07:48 p.m.

The Alien Bees will be compatible with the new Buff Cyber Commander. That will give you the ability to control power levels from the camera, and also includes flash metering. Sounds pretty nifty. As others have said, the different lights do different jobs. The SB flash can be used during a wedding or at the reception for on the fly shots. The monolights are great for shooting the formal shots. It is lighting that generally provides the "pro" look, not the camera. BTW,you would also benefit from having fast f2.8 zoom lenses. The typical kit lenses aren't up to the job.

Kent in SD

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