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Thread: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

  1. #51

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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    I wasn't going to say anything on this thread because you asked what was GOOD.

    But maybe it won't hurt to steer you away from what might not be a good idea even though these things are cheap. Often go for price of shipping.

    I didn't necessarily get burned (not out much money)... but I have my regrets around the system I built around Flashmaster AA 400 watt-seconds system.

    There are three old models that you can tell apart by features:
    ancient (two prong electric - vacuum tube trigger circuit)
    really old (grounded main - solid state trigger but still only 4 outputs)
    old (5 outputs because one of the 4 goes to two sockets one with 12v model light and the other umbrella 110v model light).

    Then there are the new ones like they came out with an 800 Watt seconds version. I am sure they are fine.

    I had been thinking of getting a Norman powerpack and heads but at a flea market an acquaintence had the Flashmaster heads and stands extra dome bulbs (no powerpack) so I gave him $50 and lugged away the giant suitcase. It was kind of funny since I parked my car a half-mile away. But I got it home and picked up one of the really old powerpacks for practically price of shipping. It worked but the two lamps with hard-wired bulbs didn't. Easily replaced and wired in. Worked fine for about a year. Then one day the pack burned up. I think I had left it unattended and powered on. So I figured I'd replace the powerpack and found an ancient one for price of shipping again. I think long term I was out less than $200 but I never leave the unit connected to electricity unattended. I isolated the trigger circuit from camera optically to minimize shock hazard (by wiring the camera to a flash aimed at a slave). But the ungrounded ancient model can't be grounded (or the 12v circuit shorts to the 110v circuit blowing all the modeling lights and smoke comes out of the capacitors - doesn't hurt it though).

  2. #52
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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    Quote Originally Posted by Carterofmars View Post
    Hey, for very basic still life, and maybe some portrait work, what is recommend for under 5 bills?
    For under half a kilobuck, an old Speedotron D1600 (or 1602, or 1604) might be the ticket. It's a four-light power pack, and I paid a little more (many years ago when they were worth more) for that power pack with two M11 heads for main and fill and two M9 heads for background and hair light, in addition to 7 and 11" reflectors, barn doors, and snoots. I fit the head and lights into a big rolling suitcase and the stands and umbrellas in a big roll-up. All still current and supportable.

    I have four umbrellas--a cheapie 4-foot shoot-through, a 3-foot Lastolite with a cover to give a soft-box effect, and a couple of square Reflectasols. All cheap, and all functional. I also have a couple of small Smith-Victor stands (from the old days) for the smaller lights, and a couple of newer Giottos or some other cheapie brand of air-shocked stand for the bigger lights. They work fine, too. I know it's workable on location, because that's the only way I've used the kit. And the cheapie 6-foot folding reflector/scrim is handy, too.

    Yes, it's heavy. But cheap, light, reasonably powerful: Pick two (or one). And it has usable modeling lights--halogen and usable as hot lights if the situation calls for it.

    Rick "realizing everyone wants monolights these days" Denney

  3. #53
    retrogrouchy
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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    Actually if you just want to do still life, you can get by with a couple of hot-shoe battery flashes (speedlights). I have a couple of Minolta 5600HS(D) that have done me well for quite some time and I reckon you could get some secondhand Nikon/Canon equivalents for $150; I think they put out about 80-100Ws each. You can buy chinese crap ones or Sigma new for about $100 but I wouldn't recommend those; the Sigma I had was nasty-plasticky though it did produce light on command. There are people who are fans of the older Vivitar units too.

    Speedlights obviously don't have a lot of power but for still life you can get an extra couple stops by doing multiple pops while moving the flash around; I took this with six pops at full power (about 500Ws total into a really lossy paper bouncing arrangement). I get a bit over f/16 at 1m from a 60x60cm softbox using one of the flashes, so they're kind of OK/borderline for 4x5 headshots or medium-format 3/4 portraits. It's not going to work well for a full-length or group shot on LF unless you want hard direct light.

    I would kill to have something like a Speedotron pack (and it's a far better option than speedlights if you can deal with the weight and need for mains power) but stuff like that just doesn't come on the market here in Australia except with huge pricetags attached. Our only option seems to be overpriced Bowens/Elinchrom gear ($1000 for a 20 year old 500Ws monolight?) or the Chinese stuff. I've just ordered a couple of the better-looking Chinese monolights but don't have them yet so can't comment on their quality or lack thereof.

    Don't forget you will want modifiers. I am a big fan of cheap chinese stuff here, e.g. $50 softbox, $40 stand, etc. It's as good as the Buff stuff if not better and while it's no Profoto, but I can replace it probably 20 times before hitting the Profoto price point. Have a look at the strobist blog.

  4. #54

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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    I have a Speedotron D1602 kit with one MW3U and three MW3R lights that have been very reliable. Rarely use them anymore, shoot me a PM.

  5. #55

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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    Paul,

    If you are cheap and impatient, then your best bets are generic Chinese moonlights for ~$100 each. Maybe pay a little more to get the B&H name brand for a warranty?

    If you have enough cash to do it semi-properly, get the Paul C. Buff stuff. Start with one, get a second when you need it. ~$200 each.

    If you think you'll use strobes regularly and want decent gear for a reasonable amount, be patient and wait for a good Dynalite kit to come along for $500 or so for an older D pack and two heads or $800 for a newer M pack and two heads.

    All of this stuff will break and it is too unreliable for serious professional use (unless you buy multiples). Consider it semi-disposable, you're lucky to get a few years out of it. Again, if you want a long-lasting, trouble-free system, buy a top brand new.

    Most of the older packs will arc and be dangerous if you unplug a cable while the pack is on. All the strobes, including little battery ones, can be dangerous if used improperly. All lights are somewhat dangerous, if my hot light falls on you, you'll get burnt. Or the curtains will catch on fire. Welcome to the Darwin Awards.

    Nobody wants to promise you what is a good used pack from afar, so either do some searching and take a risk - if you want a sure thing with a warranty then pony up to buy new gear. Otherwise it's the same crapshoot as anything else, i.e. don't spend the rent money on it.

  6. #56

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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    I've used Normans every single day for 25 years. They rarely ever had an issue, the only problems coming from, and this is common on all packs, is when people plug in heads crooked and then force them in bending a pin. My current Normans are now as old as 35 years old and after not even plugging them in for a decade I plugged them in last year and all 8 worked perfectly. And these were units that got HEAVY use.

  7. #57
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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Petronio View Post
    Most of the older packs will arc and be dangerous if you unplug a cable while the pack is on.
    Which is explicitly proscribed by the instructions for the packs. If you need to plug or unplug a pack, it's easy enough to turn off the pack, wait five seconds for the safety circuit to drain the flash capacitors (you'll see the ready light go out), and then do the plugging and unplugging. My Speedotron pack charges in less time than it takes me to walk back to the camera. Turning off the power pack before messing with the plugs is no inconvenience.

    The greater danger with older units is that the insulation on the wires to the heads has become brittle and has cracked. It hasn't happened on my Speedotron Brown Line heads, which are easily 30 years old. The voltage carried by those lines is high enough to kick you across the room if you run afoul of it. But if one provides reasonable care of the wires and keeps an eye on them when they are old, it's really a very small risk. Also, many of these systems are still made and replacements are available.

    Sometimes, a power pack will fail because the capacitors will become leaky. That could cause internal arcing--it's not dangerous because the head is in a metal case that will shunt all arcing to the safety ground before it gets to you--but you'll know it when it happens by the aroma of escaped smoke and perhaps a startling bang. This is less likely to happen if a power pack is used at least occasionally. Brian's Normans benefit from his heavy use, but my lights, which have received much less frequent use, have still managed to avoid the problem.

    The connectors on the old systems are MIL-spec-style push-in connectors with twist-lock collars, and Brian is right that the easy mistake here is misalignment. I wiggle the connector while tightening and loosening the collar to prevent having to drive in the pins using the collar threads, and that helps me to feel if there is a problem.

    Some of the older systems have rather high contact voltages on the synch cable. (This is true for older speedlights, too, including the oldest of the Vivitar 283's.) This is not a problem for large-format shutters (or, indeed, for most mechanical shutters). But it can fry some of the switching systems used on modern electronic and digital cameras. Speedotron, for one, sells an adapter for their older powerpacks that isolates the high switching voltage from the synch cable. It plugs into the pack and the cable plugs into it. I use that with my Canon DSLR with no issue.

    These systems with separate power packs were professional systems back in the day, and they were designed for continuous use in professional studios. Yes, some were higher-end than others, but none were consumer junk in the manner of much of what is sold new today. If they are bought in reasonable condition and then subjected to reasonable care, nobody will ever feel the need to describe them as "disposable".

    Rick "who thinks of them the same was as those wonderful all-metal view cameras that also nobody seems to want" Denney
    Last edited by rdenney; 18-May-2012 at 12:02.

  8. #58

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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    You wrote:
    All of this stuff will break and it is too unreliable for serious professional use (unless you buy multiples). Consider it semi-disposable, you're lucky to get a few years out of it. Again, if you want a long-lasting, trouble-free system, buy a top brand new.

    Most of the older packs will arc and be dangerous if you unplug a cable while the pack is on. All the strobes, including little battery ones, can be dangerous if used improperly. All lights are somewhat dangerous, if my hot light falls on you, you'll get burnt. Or the curtains will catch on fire. Welcome to the Darwin Awards. >>

    Just wondering, what kind of issues/malfunctions have you had with old equip? Ever have a capacitor blow?

    I've been tempted to get some monolights for occasional use. I use speedlights quite a bit and think it would be a big improvement to switch to monolights. But since I prob would not be using them daily, I don't want to tie up funds in new gear if old will suffice. My only caveat is I have tinnitus and I don't want to have a capacitor blow on me on a shoot

  9. #59

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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    The two dangers are blowing capacitors and plug arcing. It might happen once in twenty years if you use decent quality equipment, it is not common. But a sloppy assistant or your forgetful self may make a mistake or the pack may be defective. Most of the time the only consequence is the loss of the pack but there is potential for harm if you are the one making the mistake when you are close to the pack and the plugs can arc and fly across the room or into your face. Whipping metal electrical connectors will cause damage and you could also be burnt. Otherwise the arcing and the blowing capacitor sounds like a gunshot, so if you can't handle that, don't risk it.

    Most of the time it isn't that bad but everyone wants to cover their ass, including me, by erring on the side of caution.

    Also, most of the Euro packs, Dynalites, and many other brands are more immune to arcing at the head connectors thanks to the design of their connectors. This greatly reduces the risk and allows the mistake of disconnecting the heads while powered on. I still like the practice of powering down in between changes even with gear that doesn't require that I do.

    I don't know what causes blown capacitors, probably rough treatment or defects. If it doesn't blow up early in it's life and in kept in good order, I wouldn't wait around expecting it to blow up, it probably never will.

  10. #60
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    Re: What's a good buy in used studio lights?

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Petronio View Post
    I don't know what causes blown capacitors, probably rough treatment or defects. If it doesn't blow up early in it's life and in kept in good order, I wouldn't wait around expecting it to blow up, it probably never will.
    The capacitors used are large electrolytic capacitors. They use an applied voltage to form an oxide layer over the surface of a rolled-up sheet of aluminum. The oxide layer acts as a very thin insulator, so you have a large conductor surface area with a very thin insulator separating it from another large conductor surface. The two conductors are rolled up into a cylinder and packaged into a metal can. That large surface area and thin insulator provides a LOT of capacitive reactance with respect to the package size. Capacitors work by charging a conductor on one side of an insulator, and the voltage builds as the pack charges the capacitor (the ready light bleeds a little off, so on these old packs, the ready light acts as an indicator of whether there is a charge on the capacitor--the ready light circuit also bleeds off the charge when you turn off the pack). The capacitor conductors are always wired (through the cables) to the xenon tube in the heads. When the flash is triggered, the capacitor is switched into a transformer that elevates the voltage substantially, and feeds it to a metal flash trigger in the flash head. The large voltage on that metal trigger ionizes the xenon gas in the tube, which makes it conductive, and then the capacitor has a place to dump its whole load. All that happens very quickly, of course.

    (In AC circuits, capacitors act as a delay, allowing voltage changes to create charges that cause voltage changes on the other side of the capacitor, but delayed as a result of the capacitive reactance. But here, we just use the capacitor as a high-voltage static-discharge battery.)

    So, with a 1600WS power pack (like my Speedotron D1600), the capacitor is big enough to hold 1600 joules, or enough energy to move a pound about 1200 feet if you turned it into kinetic energy.

    What makes them fail is that the oxide corrodes away over time when the applied voltage that creates the oxide isn't there. That allows the aluminum sheets to become uninsulated, and charge arcs over across the two conductors in the capacitor. Usually, the arc causes the capacitor case to swell up and sometimes blow out. You can have leakages of voltage where the insulation is weak but not yet sufficient to cause the capacitor to arc. "Reforming" the capacitor is simply applying voltage for a while without building the flash charge so that the oxide layer can be re-established. That's why regular use keeps them in better condition than long periods of non-use. And the most likely defect is that the capacitor will arc as soon as you turn on the power switch on the head after a long period of dormancy.

    In the really old days, rolled, high-reactance capacitors were bigger and used wax paper as an insulator. The wax evaporates and the capacitor can short. This can apply to some really old electronic systems like radio transmitters, but I'm not sure any of the flash power packs under discussion are within decades of being old enough to have those ancient wax-paper caps. The caps in my Speedotron pack are standard (but large) aluminum-oxide electrolytics.

    I've had a flash capacitor dump into my hand. The flash ended up against the wall on the other end of the room, but it wasn't the arc that move it, it was the involuntary jerk of my hand. That was a speedlight--not in the same league as a jolt from a 1600WS power pack. But a little care with the plugs is all it takes to be safe. Being impaired or spraying liquids around a studio flash power pack: not recommended.

    Rick "noting that mil-spec connectors were designed for reliability, not hot-swappability" Denney

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