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Photography

Freezing Action With an Einstein Monolight

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Introduced in 2010, the Paul C. Buff Einstein has been rapidly growing in popularity as tales of its capabilities spread via the popular photography blogs. It's a monobloc strobe, a monolight, with some very clever tricks up its sleeve for specific subject uses. In this quick guide, I'm looking at its action-stopping capabilities.


What is an Einstein?

It's a true 640Ws monolight, that is, the capacitors actually dump 640J of energy. It doesn't just "perform like a 640Ws light." It covers a nine stop power range, adjustable in 1/10th stop increments via a digital display. You also get identical control of the modeling light, and displays for current performance and wireless sync information, and other settings. This menu operates just like a computer monitor's display.

The glorious Einstein. $500 of amazing performance.

The glorious Einstein. $500 of amazing performance.

After adjusting a setting, a few seconds later it resets the highlighted option to flash power, so you don't forget and change something later when you didn't want to. This menu is as easy as operating, say, a phone or scientific calculator. If you're technologically inclined and know studio strobes, you won't even need the instructions.


What Makes It so Good for Action

It's internally computer-controlled and can be set to get consistent colour temperature (5600K) or shortest flash duration. Because it uses IGBT (insulated gate bipolar transistor, basically a switch for high-power applications) technology like a speedlight, it is capable of extremely short flash durations. It passes 1/10,000th sec at 1/16th power, and continues down to around 1/13,500th. This is the aspect we're most interested in for this article.

Yep, 1/13514th of a second. You read that right.

Yep, 1/13514th of a second. You read that right.

This show-stopping speed at reasonable light output is equalled only by some Metz and Sunpak speedlights, like the Metz 45CL-4, which costs a little more than the Einstein at $520, and in the studio lighting camp, by Profoto (B4 packs and Pro heads, starting at $8,900 for 1000Ws) and Broncolor (Scoro pack and Unilite head, starting around $7900 for 1600Ws).

$6325 + $1587 = a LOT of money. Are you charging $10k a day yet?

$6325 + $1587 = a LOT of money. Are you charging $10k a day yet? I know I'm not.

Given that you could buy quite a number of Einsteins for these prices and have a full lighting setup, this is another major factor in why it's so good for action. Certainly until you're at the stage where you have to fire off a couple thousand identically colour balanced shots in a day. This is the tradeoff with the Einstein's price. It can't maintain colour temperature while slashing flash duration like the top-tier units can.

The final major reason is recycle time. At full power, recycle time is just 1.7 seconds. This drops proportionally with power setting, so at 1/16th I can easily max out my EOS 40D at 6.3fps without the Einstein missing a beat.


Uses

What constitutes "action" in this scenario? Generally, things that require more power than speedlights can provide, and occur extremely fast. Bird flight, sports, moving water droplets, etc. I'm going to try these three as examples to give an idea of the capabilities of this strobe. First will be attempting to overpower daylight with the Einstein at a lower power setting to freeze a bird's wing beats in the back yard.

Then I'll try a "fruit splash" image, and compare the streaking of the droplets to the same image taken with one of my regular old strobes. Since these two cover what are pretty much the fastest, most demanding action, the results should show that the Einstein is more than adequate for normal demanding tasks, like sports action. Unless perhaps you happen to have a world champion Wushu practitioner in your studio, and even then you're probably ok!


Changing The Settings

Getting set up for shooting fast is easy. First, put the unit into action mode, by hitting Function until "COLOR" is highlighted, then hit the up or down arrow. Then just cycle through back to flash power at the top, and drop the power until you're happy with the flash duration readout.

For some reason, the colours of the Einstein screen make me happy rather than give me design rage.

For some reason, the all-over-the-place bold colours of the Einstein screen make me happy rather than give me design rage.

Example 1: Sparrow

Since small birds flap their wings much faster, shooting small backyard birds should be more of a challenge for the Einstein. Since we have (surprise, surprise) lots of sparrows, this is what I shot.

I actually took advantage of a young sparrow which seems to enjoy our company on the porch. It fairly reliably comes to visit whether it's hungry or not if any of us are out there, and it hasn't yet figured out its footing on the feeders, with lots of (useful) frantic flapping ensuing!

Weeks later, this bird still visits and still can't perch properly. Not sure what's going on.

Weeks later, this bird still visits and still can't perch properly. Not sure what's going on.

Some ghosting is visible, but note that it's only on the light-coloured feathers and tips. This indicates to me that I hadn't quite killed the ambient sufficiently, rather than 1/10500th-ish (at 1/64th power, or -6.0EV) not being enough to freeze the bird. Quite the opposite, in fact, the dull motion blur is the wing's motion over 1/250th sec, but the frozen wings are visibly tack sharp, in that tiny duration.

This is what happens when you shoot manual focus on an 80-200mm f/4.5-5.6!

This is what happens when you shoot manual focus on an 80-200mm f/4.5-5.6!

Even though I blew the focus, it's clearly visible that as the sky dulled as the day went on and the sparrow moved more into shadow (sunset is camera left), this later shot has significantly less visible motion blur because more of the illumination was provided by the Einstein.


Example 2: Fruit Splash

Water droplets being propelled by force move surprisingly quickly, and even a fast speed from a speedlight like, say, 1/2500th may not be enough to properly freeze them in place. While the shot overall will look alright at normal sizes, any large format use will easily show up the smearing and imperfections. Since water splashes see popular use in advertising, which is generally a larger display, let's try to freeze them with the Einstein.

Grids are wonderful things.

Grids are wonderful things.

I'm using a socked beauty dish to illuminate the plum, with a silver bounce from below to help fill the shadows. The beauty dish is to try to concentrate the relatively low levels of light into a more powerful source, reduce spill into the background, and since it's sheet metal, also block the Einstein from any stray water.

Who doesn't love a good water splash?!

Who doesn't love a good water splash?! Not bad for a one-light shot.

If we compare this to the same shot using regular cheap strobes (in this case, Photogenic StudioMax Mk.Is), we get this:

No contest. Not even close.

No contest. Not even close.

The power is identical (1/4 power from 160Ws strobes vs 1/16th power from the 640Ws Einstein) and the increased smearing in the droplets is extremely evident. Clearly, not all flash units are created equal if you're primarily shooting action.


Conclusion

So, the Einstein handily beats all comers in this price bracket. Getting more power seems to be a case of buying more Einsteins, or adding cheap speedlights running at 1/128th power. So, not easy, nor necessarily cheap overall, but certainly more so than trying to save up for the top-tier gear. Reflectors will assist in certain situations where motion is more linear and controlled, too.

What I haven't mentioned here because I don't yet have them is the CyberCommander and the Vagabond Mini. The former is a PocketWizard on steroids, that reports up to 16 lights' names, power levels, modelling light levels, colour temperature, flash duration, and more back to a screen sitting on your hotshoe. It also works with AlienBees and White Lightnings. The Vagabond Mini is a portable lithium battery pack and inverter which gives you complete portability of your "studio" strobes. Together, they form the ideal setup for location action shooting.

I hope you enjoyed this guide to one of the Einstein's personalities, and if you're wondering about getting one, I hope this was helpful to your decision. If you already have one, have you tried out the Action mode yet? How did it work out for you?

Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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