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Alien Bees and Vagabonds – a quick review

Alien Bees and a Vagabond
Gordon Read on Bournemouth beach, surrounded by Alien Bees

About 3 years ago I shelled out on some lights from Paul C Buff in America called Alien Bees. They seemed too good to be true – smaller, lighter and more powerful than my Bowens Esprits, and I was able to buy a pair of them, a couple of softboxes, and a location battery pack for under £1000. I suspect with the weaker pound, and their new policy on adding a 10% surcharge to all international orders, that such bargains are not to be found again!

I seem to get asked about them continually on Flickr, and in an attempt to stop repeating myself, I’d like to bring together all the various bits I’ve said about them, starting with the Vagabond Power Pack:

I’m going to presume that if you’re reading about these, you’ve already got an idea of what one is, so I’m not going to list specifications and the like. I will instead concentrate on what it’s like in use. The vagabond will effectively power an infinite amount of heads, providing you appreciate that every head is going to drain more power, reduce recycling times etc.

The Charge lasts pretty much as long as they say on the tin, as in 160-odd flashes with 2 b1600 heads at full power. As you power down from this it becomes exponentially more (sorry if I’m stating the bleedin’ obvious!) I’ve used it for a week in Spain, and then a week in Dubai. In both cases I was normally using only 1 head, on 1/4 to 1/2 power, and was shooting anything up to 600-700 shots a day with it. Never had a battery warning come on once, and it recharged every evening in about an hour or so.

As far as general usage goes – I love it. Can’t praise it highly enough. It’s one of those tools whose use is only limited by your imagination. The real limit comes in the fact that it has to be earthed, that there are cables running everywhere, which create a host of their own problems, and that it weighs a bit. By the time you factor in the extra weight of a couple of mains powered heads, stands, and softboxes, you end up with a set of gear that requires an assistant at all times!

Some pointers that you may find useful:

  • Having to keep it grounded/earthed is very important, and gives it a certain degree of immobility. Coupled with the fact that you’ll have wires running about the place you are going to have to keep your wits about you, particularly at a wedding (ah those delightful little children!) One suggestion would be to use radio triggers, as it removes one of the wires, or to appoint a “wire monitor” if there’s a spare body around.
  • Follow their guidelines for earthing/turning it on etc religiously. I went through 3 packs before I got one that settled happily, all of which they replaced for nowt of course. I’m certain I did nothing wrong, but I think some of the early ones were a bit sensitive to being mucked around with.
  • Generally speaking, just think of it as a mobile mains electricity socket, and treat it with the respect it deserves and you won’t go far wrong.

Now, onto the heads themselves. Very odd creatures, to be honest, as I see them as works of flawed genius. The build quality of the heads, the power output, recycling time, the compact and lightweight design are all truly awesome, and I can’t praise them enough. The attachments for accessories (I believe they’re based on Balcar) are utter shite however, as is the build quality of every attachment that goes on the front, from the basic spilkills up to the large softboxes. My 2 spilkills seem to be made of tinfoil, and I’ve had to gaffer tape grids to the front for a long time now, rather than fit them neatly into the recessed lip, which has long since been bent out of shape from daily use. The 2 softboxes I bought are almost unusable now, they’re torn up, and have given way in most of the key places, again from what I would only deem to be normal usage. Getting hold of replacements is pretty tricky too – there are almost no “balcar” fitting accessories here in the UK, and it’s quite a hassle, and an expense to order them in from the States. The attachment system itself – 4 blades that you squeeze together, which then spring out to hold the attachment in place – is fundamentally flawed. It’s far too easy to miss a blade out, particularly if you’re mounting something from a funny angle, such as on a boom arm, and then the entire softbox (or whatever) becomes very unstable.

On balance I’ve cut back on using them a lot. First off, I shoot pretty much all my location stuff with my Nikon Flashguns, as they offer sufficient power, and are a hundred times more portable than a couple of heads, cables and a vagabond. Second, the issues with the softboxes and other attachments have meant that I’m not comfortable using them even in studio situations. Over the past year I’ve reverted back to my 11 year old Bowens Esprits for “studio” shoots – bigger, less power, slower recycling, but with a comprehensive and very effective set of light shaping tools.

If you’re planning on leaving them in situ in the studio, and aren’t likely to be breaking down the softboxes after shoot, and if you can afford an assistant every time you use the Vagabond on location, I say go for it. I’m still using them, but only indoors, and as lights 3 and 4 in a large setup.

Now, hopefully I won’t have to repeat myself every few weeks on Flickr!

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