White Lightning 1600X Strobe

white light portrait
Lighting: (1) White Lightning X1600 in Photoflex 293 Medium (24 x 32″)
softbox for main light, (1) X1600 background light with 40 degree grid

A great thing about the clamp lights used in the DIY videos is that they’re an inexpensive way to learn the principles of lighting. Plus they should last forever and I still use them without hesitation for tabletop shots. At some point, though, if you’re serious about photography you’ll begin to fully explore strobe lighting. The shoe-mounted flash for your camera is a great way to start. When it’s time to move up to a more professional flash unit, I really like the White Lightning units made by Paul C. Buff.

Buff currently has five models available, three in the monolight (power source and flash head combined) X series (X800, X1600 and X3200) and two in the Zeus series of power packs with seperate heads (UZ800 and UZ1600). Our studio uses four of the middle-of-the-line X1600 units so that’s what we’ll concentrate on.

Photographers often debate about which is preferable: monolights or power packs with separate heads. This older post on photo.net provides a variety opinions on buying monolights versus packs and heads.

A little background

I remember first seeing the White Lightning units fifteen or so years ago, when they resembled a white coffee can. They were designed as inexpensive, entry level units for portrait photographers and were manufactured with cost savings in mind. As a photographer shooting mainly large format or large sets with people, the White Lightnings couldn’t provide the power needed for f64 so I never gave them much consideration.

Fast forward to 2003 and it was time to outfit our studio with strobes. We already had three Norman power packs (1-2000 watt second and 2-4000 watt second) and heads. These are big, heavy units capable of putting out big power. But with the proliferation of digital photography and smaller cameras we couldn’t turn the power down low enough with these! Something more portable and lightweight made sense. I had worked on a catalog crew that used the White Lightnings and was impressed…mainly with the fact that they’d been beaten up by a number of photographers and were still flashing. We decided to give them a go by buying four of the X1600 units.

white lightning strobe units

The practical benefits

The Paul C. Buff website has a ton of tech info on these units so I’ll refer you there if you want to dig into the tech details. To be honest, the way companies rate the power of strobes is all over the place and Buff gives a good explanation. I’d like to just give you my practical observations on the strobes (and the company) as an investment.

Currently selling for $479 / each with standard reflector, sync cord and power cord, the X1600 units aren’t cheap but they are more than reasonable, compared to the competition. Hmmm, and how much does a shoe-mounted flash cost these days? Buff does have multi-unit packages available with accessories that create considerable savings. This is a smart way to go if you want more than one unit.

What I really like:

  • The power can be turned seamlessly all the way from full to 1/128 power output using a slider. Good stuff for those tiny littleprophotolife photo lighting books pops for fill light or for using large apertures.
  • They don’t draw much AC power so shooting in an older home or business won’t kick off circuit breakers. We feel comfortable plugging three of these units into a shared wall outlet, something we wouldn’t imagine doing with older strobe units.
  • Durable and well made in all respects, something not seen in cheaper strobe units.
  • The units are fan cooled. This is an important feature, I feel, (and again) not something you see in cheaper flash units. Heat leads to wear and the White Lightning fans kick on to cool when need.
  • Color balance is pretty consistent across the power range, no major changes. With some strobe units there are slight (but visible) changes in color balance as power output and flash duration change. The vast majority of photographers wouldn’t notice this but we do a lot of color critical product work and consistency among our strobes (at all power settings) is essential.
  • Affordable, well priced set of accessories. The flash tubes and model lamps are inexpensive compared to the competition.
  • Great customer support. All repairs and tech questions have been handled immediately. They stand behind what they sell.

white light portrait 2Any downsides?

  • Over the course of five years and literally thousands of flashes, we’ve had two units fail and need repair. That’s a great track record and not something I consider a downside. Throw in the fact that they were repaired at n/c and returned within a week and we couldn’t be happier.
  • The model lamps aren’t as accurate or bright as the power pack / head units I once used. I’m no longer even aware of this, it was just a concern when doing really finicky tabletop lighting back in the film and Polaroid days. Now, with digital capture, we instantly see results and fine tune lighting quickly and easily on the computer screen.
  • The flash tubes are easily replaced but make sure they are seated properly in the unit. Early on I heard a slight cracking noise on one of the strobes at exposure. The flash tube had been knocked slightly ajar and the crackling was an arc where it made electrical contact. We pressed on using the flash (it appeared to operate okay) but the electrical contact on the tube eventually burnt and wore from this use. All was fine after replacing the relatively inexpensive flash tube ($35) but live and learn from this experience.

In conclusion, I have no affiliation with White Lightning other than being a very satisfied customer. For another opinion you can also check out the Shutterbug White Lightning X-series review. If you have an opinion on these units (or another particular strobe system) I hope you’ll share your thoughts.