Alien Bees and the Home Studio

Just this past week I ordered, and received, the DigiBee kit from Alien Bees (Paul C. Buff) with the B800 heads rather than the B400. I've been itching to get something like this for quite a while, especially after having bought a pretty weak "home studio" kit that came with stands (poorly made), two soft boxes, and CFL based continuous lights. That kit, set up in a standard configuration left me with a shutter speed of 1/20 at f/4 and ISO 400. Like I said, weak, but what do you expect for a couple of hundred dollars? In any case, since I was about to do a Christmas shoot of my nieces and nephews, 1/20th of a second shutter speed just wasn't going to cut it, kids just move too much, so hence I ordered the Bees.

On the ordering front, I just place the order online on a Monday night and it went quite smoothly, no fuss. By Tuesday, my order was packed and shipped, and Wednesday they arrived. I did use UPS World Saver for quicker international delivery and so I ended up being quite pleased at the timely delivery of the whole package. Actually, it ships with two packages: the lights in one and the stands and umbrellas in the other. So, I was quite pleased with the whole process and how responsive the folks at Alien Bees were to my one and only emailed question.

Needless to say, once I got everything home, delivery was to the office, I ripped into the packaging and started to set them up. Now, I've never set up studio lighting before, though I've seen set ups, but I was reasonably sure how it worked. The manuals that came with the Bees are pretty thin, but it turned out that they were all that was needed. Unpacking and setup turned out to be a breeze with everything quite well thought out and logically constructed. The stands appear to be well made, operating smoothly, and the heads just fit right on nicely. The design of the heads is excellent, with a slot for the umbrella making it easy to get things correct, a lot less fussy than dealing with with similar rigs for hotshoe strobes. All in all, getting the stuff out of the boxes took longer than setting it up! Anyways, the kit comes with 2 Alien Bees B800 strobes (I upgraded from the base B400), two light stands, a reversible silver/white bounce umbrella, and a convertible white bounce/shoot-through umbrella. A pretty classic setup for key and fill lighting arrangements.

So, once I got the lights setup, I obviously wanted to test them. A while ago, I picked some cheap Cactus 4 radio triggers and while the main transmitter and receiver package contained a mono to mono cable, the additional receivers I had did not. Fortunately, it turns out that I had a couple of 3.5mm mono cables kicking around, enough for all my receivers, and so I could hook up my new Bees and my strobe to the triggers. So, with everything radio wired up, I set out to try 'em...

Okay, I'll spare the drama, they worked like a charm, though the above sample is hardly the best image I've ever taken (the stuffed rabbit was a little too reflective). I didn't have a single misfire, but I did discover the B800 lights are very powerful, especially in the somewhat limited space I was using as studio. So, at ISO 80, f8, and 1/180s shutter I had my key light dialed to 1/4 power, my fill at 1/8, and my strobe at 1/4 for background light. So, I definitely have some light to spare in these babies! I also have a much more comfortable shutter speed for photographing children as a result.

Talking about the photographing of children, I put them to use on the weekend photographing my neices and nephews. I took almost 250 pictures in the course of the day, in various locations, using the Bees. The easy setup and takedown of the Bees made it a snap to move things around, a big win for me there. In addition, I was very pleased with the Cactus triggers, not a single misfire which, in my experience, has not been the case when I've mounted a strobe on a receiver hotshoe. I don't know if there's a greater signal delay when it has to go through the shoe versus the cable or whether the hotshoe strobes are less responsive than the Bees, but either way, no misfires is great. Here's a basic lighting diagram of how I set it up:

n case you're wondering where I made that, you can create your own at Skylights for free. You don't have to sign up for the feature, which I didn't, but your diagram isn't held around for very long so you need to download it after its created. Anyways, to describe it a little, the softbox for the hair light at the back was a continuous light fitted with a 100w equivalent CFL. The key light was an Alien Bee B800 at 1/4 power bounced and the fill light was the other Alien Bee at 1/8th power with a shoot-through umbrella, both umbrellas were 48 inch.

So, final result? Well, I seriously doubt doing child studio photography will become a life calling on my part, I'm pretty happy with the outcome of the shoot. The lights performed great, my neices and nephews had a good time, and I just let things happen naturally as they wanted them to. No time pressure for anybody, especially the kids, made for a very enjoyable shoot I think, something quite hard to do in a professional studio.


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