AB-800 Versus Photoflex SF300 Comparison


I’ve used a variety of lights for photography and video applications, and recently I saw that Adorama was offering the Photoflex Starflash 300 Gemini kit for less than I could get a couple of Alien Bees.  Currently I’ve been using the AB800s and have been a little unimpressed by their inconsistency, but knowing that people have spoken so highly of Alien Bees, I’ve just figured that it was something to live with. We’ll see what we can learn by stacking it against a similar, though typically a little more costly, light.

Well the Starflash 300’s arrived, and it’s time to stack them up against each other.  I’ve chosen to test Raw output, Colour Variation, Power Variation and Flash duration, as well as assessing the overall build of the lights. Let’s start with an overview of each light.

Paul C Buff, Alien Bee 800 monolight

b800_black_front_0710

The AB800 is labelled as having an effective 320watt/s power.  It is encased in a polycarbonate shell, with a 7″ reflector.  The power is adjusted with a 5 stop slider on the back, and weighs about 3 lbs. There is an optical slave, standard light bulb fitting for modelling light and options for it to track, on or off.

Photoflex Starflash 300 monolight

PFSF300

The Starflash 300 Is also considered a 300w/s monolight, encased in a rubberized aluminum body, with a 6″ umbrella type reflector and an adjustable rail mount for counterbalancing light modifiers, and weighs about 6.5 lbs.  The SF300 has an infrared and optical slave, which can be turned on or off and a modelling light that can track or be on or off. It also has an audio signal to inform you when it’s ready.

Build

I think it’s best to start with what you see and feel in your hands, so lets have a look at these lights.  The Photoflex stands out immediately as the larger of the two at 15″ long with the reflector.  The AB800 is 9″ long and half the weight.  The buttons and adjustments are all functional on the AB800, but the Photoflex has a sturdiness to its adjustments and switches that you just can’t compare.  My experiences with the AB800’s have always left me feeling unsure if the power cord is flimsy and prone to breaking, or just feels that way.  The SF300 is rock solid.  The AB800 uses the Paul C Buff mount, which is a 4 way spring loaded sustem that pull modifiers tight to the monolight.  The Starflash uses what I believe is the S-type mount, compatible with Bowens modifiers.  With a correct speedring, pretty well any light can be fitted with the appropriate modifiers. The S-type is common, although it isn’t as tight fitting as the PCB style.  Also of note is the adjustable rail on the bottom of the Starflash that allows you to counterbalance the modifier by sliding the mount stand mount along the base of the monolight.

Power Output

This is an area that according to the numbers, the AB800 should have a clear advantage being 20watt/s higher in its rating.  This number however is commonly known to be a bit of a useless number in considering the true power of a light.  The Alien Bees website says this about Guide Numbers and Watt Seconds “Neither of these methods, however, may be considered accurate. Accuracy requires published Lumensecond ratings.”*1

ab_yellow_back_0710

The AB800 starts at 1/32nd power, while the SF 300 starts at 1/16th.  I setup the lights with just their reflectors and the flash tubes exactly 6′ from a target light meter and took the following readings at iso 100, 1/125 s. It should be noted that the SF300’s dial clicks nicely into place for exact measurement, while the AB800’s slider is not as accurate.

1156872059_250x250_test_button

This is a little different in colour from mine, but otherwise the same controls

Power    AB800                         SF 300

1/32        3.2  (+/- 1/3rd)          NA

1/16        4.5  (+/- 1/3rd)          6+

1/2          13                                   20

full          18                                  22+2/3

As the above table illustrates, for raw power, the Starflash 300 puts out more than 8 times as much light at full power (assuming my math is right on 3 stops difference), making it unsurprising that its 2 second recycle time is a little longer than the AB800’s.  The AB800 also showed its variance at lower power settings, fluctuating as much as 1/3 of a stop between flashes at its worst.  The SF300 was consistent at every power level, accurate to 1/9th of a stop.

Colour

To test the colour variance, I took a series of images with each flash at the metered settings, and used the WB tool in Aperture to establish a difference in colour temperatures, realizing of course that this is not precise, but enough to give me a ballpark.  The AB800 showed a variance on average of ~+125k over its full range.  The SF300 had a variance of ~+170k.  Both of these are within tolerance of the manufacturer’s claims, and wouldn’t show remarkable inconsistency in my photos.

Flash Duration

One of those aspects that are overlooked by some is the flash duration.  When stopping motion, if you’re not using High Speed Sync, you will use the flash itself to stop the motion;  The shorter the duration, the faster the motion you can stop.  Now I have no way of really accurately testing this, and Photoflex has not published this information in their accompanied manual.  However they have informed me that the SF300’s flash duration is 1/600 at minimum power and 1/800 at full power. There are high speed strobes like the Einstein and Triton flashes that are specifically designed for high speed action, but it’s nice to know what these can do since I have no plans of picking either up at this time.

According the the website, the AB800 has a T.1 flash duration of 1/1100 at full and 1/550 at 1/32nd power making them slightly faster.  Now, I’ve shot sprinters at 1/16th with the AB800 and had a little ghosting, but knowing that at full power I’d get a better speed would have helped with that and been acceptable.

Final Thoughts

Based on build quality and raw power, it would seem that the SF300 would win hands down.  It’s output is consistent, and they’re built like a tank.  But therein lies the Caueat, if you’re looking for something to be setup and taken down repeatedly, the AB800 is half the weight, and almost half the size, making it significantly more portable.  The AB800’s also come with a handy carrying case.  The majority of the SF300 is made of sturdy metal, so I’m confident it can take a beating, and I’m also pleased at how much power I’ll be able to pump out of these things.  And the power inconsistencies I’ve been having with the AB800’s? Turns out it’s at the lower power settings I’ve been using them on.  Can it really be said that more power is always better?  I guess in this case, it is.

*1 http://www.paulcbuff.com/sfe-unitsofmeasure.php

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