Profoto and Paul C. Buff Einstein – a Real World Lighting Comparison

Published Aug 26, 2011 – It’s now 2013 (!) Stay tuned for an update on my experiences since I posted this review … particularly on ruggedness and a true comparison of light quality with the same modifier.

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Caution: jargon ahead – I really do have some non-photographer friends that read my blog (Hi Mom!) but what follows is written for photographers that know about studio lighting…

I live in a small city that’s blessed with a sizable pro rental facility thanks to Brooks Institute of Photography. Santa Barbara has 88,000 people, rising to 200k if you pull in everything from UCSB in Goleta to Carpinteria.  Most of my work is on location and I’ve rented the Profoto kits as needed from Samy’s; usually the 7B, B2 or AcuteB 600 packs and heads and typically with the 5 foot octa and beauty dish.   I’ve been shooting more in the studio (ie: big garage) lately now that I’ve converted it into a workable space.   The Profoto AcuteB 600 has been on the wish list to satisfy both studio and location work. Although affordable for Profoto it is still the equivalent of thirty $80 rental days for one light in my clients and my future to make the billable investment.

Then I started to hear about “Einstein”. I shoot a lot of action and dynamic portraiture. “People In Motion” is my tag line. And I’m hard on gear.  Don’t ask about my repair bill in August – a body,  24-70 and 70-200 lenses (for both of them the second time in 6 months to the El Segundo Nikon Pro Shop).   I love Profoto gear for its reliability and durability. It just works. And I meter everything with the Sekonic (pocket-wizard-happy L-358) when I light so being presented with simple rugged, weather resistant dials to dial the pack up and down is fine.  All manual, no TTL, most of the time.

Shooting action, it was the Paul Buff Einstein’s ultra-short strobe duration and a favorable review from Rob Galbraith that caught my eye.  Although I seldom shoot with AC powered monolights (I’m not comparing the Profoto ComPact 600 here..) the kick in the pants was Buff’s “Vagabond Mini” ultralight lithium battery pack. Attach the lithium pack to the Einstein monolight, plug in a pocket wizard interface and it sounded too good to be true: lighter, faster, longer lasting, much cheaper. The Einstein kit below on the left: $850. Made in Tennessee.  The Profoto: $2400-$3000. Made in Sweden. What’s the catch?


What I wanted to see was if the Einstein kits could replace my typical Profoto rentals. Would it get close to the quality of light I expect. How well is it built? How easy is it to set up and take down on location. With mud. Sand. etc.

So last month I picked up a pair of Einstein’s along with the lithium packs and pocket-wizard interfaces.  I added a few modifiers that I would likely use: the Paul Buff Silver 64″ PLM (parabolic umbrella) which, with added front diffusion,  could be like the 5 foot Octa.  A 22″ Beauty Dish and the 8.5″ high output reflector which may be closer to Profotos Zoom Reflector than the little “Disc Reflector” on the AcuteB head.  I didn’t test with grids.

I’ve used the Einstein kit now on two location gigs and last weekend I rented the Profoto kit to put them both through their paces.  First here are a few images shot over the past few months with Profoto, then Einstein.

Profoto 5 foot Octa.

Profoto 5 foot Octa.

Profoto 7B 1200 W/S pack / head with standard zoom reflector

Einstein with 22″ white Beauty Dish high and center. Edge from gridded speedlights.

For the shoot-out I enlisted the help of Meg Underwood and Mark Nagle. Both are recent Brooks grads, Meg (first image at the very top) has been a great help on shoots this year and Mark and I just met.  Meg heads North to SF this week while Mark heads South to San Diego; both are launching their careers.   My purpose was not to dissect the details like strobe durations or color temperature; that info is readily available in the specs and from others’ tests.  I wanted to fundamentally see how the light looked, wrapped and felt when I lit the same subject with the different strobes and modifiers. The following day I did do some empirical tests: light output, shots per battery pack at different outputs and per shot cycle time. More on that later.

We started with the Profoto 5 foot Octa and the Paul Buff 64″ PLM (seen in the first shot with Meg at the top). The front of the modifier was 30″ from Mark’s nose and metered for f/11 at ISO 200. The shots of Meg are at f/13. They are positioned up and right a few feet to let shadow fall off to the left. No other lights. No ambient. Minimal processing.

I do like the range of the punch of the Profoto through the diffuse Octa better then the diffusion on the PLM; the image on the right is softer, maybe a bit muddier.  But I was surprised to see how well I liked the PLM without the diffusion on the front of it. Here below is the same image as above and right but now with the diffusion pulled off, all else the same (f/11 at 30″ on his nose which meant dialing down the power 2 stops from the diffuser):  Definitely some falloff! A focused center of nice light – the image below right shows the pattern against white seamless. You can also see the Vagabond lithium pack on the light stand.

And here’s a composite of Mark as he slides from the center of the PLM focus to the edge.  This was to get a sense of the falloff or feathering of the light toward the edge. All at same output. f/13 on the far right .Click for larger.
EDIT:  The PLM shaft from the speedring has two holes: close and far distance.  The 1st hole where the Einstein head is further from the PLM is what I assumed to be the focus point (like the very last photo at the bottom showing the mount and shaft).   I also took a look at the light and falloff pattern when the other hole was used and the Einstein was then positioned very close to the PLM.  That resulted in a halo or donut of light as can be seen in the below photo on the right.

 

Moving on  to the beauty dish – basically the same bowl with the heft of the top of a weber grill.  I have to say there was really not much of a difference – it comes down to the flash tube and quality of light with all else being the same (and flash duration not important here).   The quality of light was good, either strobe.

One difference is the metal center disc can slide in or out on the Buff Dish – it is fixed on the other.  The effect is such that with the center plate closest to the flash tube it will have a tighter beam with more pronounced falloff. As you move that center dish out the light evens out.

Of course you can control falloff and hardness with moving the whole light source. Below is the difference with it slightly up and right at 2 feet and then closer in at 1 foot (f/13 ISO 200 both cases, adjusting power on the strobe to match exposure).

Another difference is the diffusion sock on the Buff Beauty is much thicker than that on the Profoto.  The use of the diffusion seemed to add about a warming 200 degree Kelvin color shift, this was measured by checking white balance in Lightroom with the color checker not with an accurate color meter.

To wrap up this part of the shoot-out, below are a few comparisons of the output of each strobe with the basic reflector on front and then with just the bare bulb. The 8.5″ Buff reflector is closer to the Standard Zoom Reflector from Profoto which I did not have – just the little Acute Disc Reflector which looks almost like a bare bulb itself.

Next Up:

Some empirical tests.

Light output.

Shots per battery pack at different outputs

and per shot cycle time.


Testing battery duration and cycle time:

Batteries were fully charged.  Caveat: the Einstein and Vagabond mini Lithium pack are new. The Profoto is a rental.  This is a real world test.  If I were renting that Profoto kit I would be renting it in the used state it is in and would deal with that.  I fired continuously and each time as soon as I heard the “ready” beep on the strobe. So there was my response time from hearing the beep to firing that is built in – it should be a tenth or two of a second on average.  This was a killer test at full power – these lights are not meant to be fired so rapidly until the battery dies. Typical are bursts of a few to ten shots then a breather. I am guessing (but did not test) that the batteries last longer if they are not hammered so hard.  They certainly did not meet the manufacturers specs which are likely tested with full power pops followed by a delay before the next pop.  The standard Disc reflector was used.

Profoto AcuteB 600R -

FULL power (f/20 @ISO 200 at 12 feet) – 112 shots in 408 seconds (3.64 sec per shot)

-2 Stops power (f/9 @ISO 200 at 12 feet) – 332 shots in 454 seconds (1.37 sec per shot)

-4 Stops power (f/4 @ ISO 200 at 12 feeet) – 1239 shots in 840 sec (0.68 sec per shot)

Power was simply toggle selections of the leftmost “Energy” switch (Max, -2, -4 stops). The fine selection (2/1oth stop per click) rotary knob was left at Max.  I would expect that we were thus getting 600WS, 150 WS and 37 WS.  The measured light was 2 1/3 stops between each (f/20, f/9, f/4).

The mfg specs are

Full  600 WS  – 160 shots (I measured 112)

-2 stops 150WS – 600 shots (measured 332)

-4 stops 37 WS – 2000 shots (measured 1239)

So we were at 55-70% of spec, likely due to the used battery.  And comparing to spec our recycling was 40% longer.  Full power recycle spec is 2.6 seconds, I measured 3.64.

 

And now

Paul C. Buff Einstein 640 – measuring at Full Power, -2 stops, -4 stops

This monolight is a 640WS strobe, a little more power. But light output delivered depends on how efficient the unit gets the light through the flash tube and directed out of the modifier.

At -4 stops (37 WS) Profoto measured f/4 at ISO 200 at 12 feet with the Disc reflector.

Checking here before I test, I see the Einstein at -4 stops (40 WS) measures f/7.1 at ISO 200 at 12 feet with the 8.5″ reflector.

That’s 1 and 2/3rds stops brighter! So what are the variables?  37WS Profoto vs 40 WS Einstein here? No, dialing Einstein down 1 tenth to the same 37WS also reads f/7.1.

The modifier is different – the Buff 8.5″ High Output reflector vs the Profoto Disc reflector (see them in the gear image at top). So I gaffer-taped the 8.5″ reflector to the Profoto head and measured a variety of power outputs. The Profoto with that reflector was consistently 2/3 stop brighter than with the Disc reflector.  So accounting for that still leaves a full stop of light, or put simply: all being the same, distance, modifier etc. the Profoto at 4 stops down puts out f/4 while the Einstein puts out f/5.6.  Or f/11 and f/16.  An extra stop.  Cool.

So what am I to do to record the total # of shots and cycle time? Keep the power output WS constant and compare or keep the measured light f/stop the same and compare?

Well, realistically, in the real world, I define the shot with the aperture.  So give me f/11 on that light, whatever brand or pack it is.  But I will account for the 2/3rds boost from the higher output 8.5″ reflector.

SO Measuring Einstein now: (in Constant color mode, not Action mode)

(600WS Profoto f/20 would be same as Einstein doing plus 2/3rd or f/25 @ISO 200 at 12 feet) – result: 238 shots in 1066 seconds (4.48 sec between shots)  And I note Einstein says 557 WS to do this with a duration of 1/671 sec  .

(Note see EDIT below with new data (Sep) on full power Einstein)

(150WS Profoto f/9 would be same as Einstein doing plus 2/3rd or f/11 @ISO 200 at 12 feet) – result: 1990 shots in 36:52 seconds (1.11 sec between shots). And Einstein says 113WS with a t.1 duration of 1/2648 sec.

(37WS Profoto f/4 would be same as Einstein doing plus 2/3rd or f/5 @ISO 200 at 12 feet) – result: halfway of 1922 shots in 20:562 seconds stopped when battery said half full (0.65 sec between shots). And Einstein says 20WS with a t.1 duration of 1/5000 sec.

 

Here is a summary of the results…

Conclusions – My Impressions.

I said in the beginning:

Shooting action, it was the Paul Buff Einstein’s ultra-short strobe duration and a favorable review from Rob Galbraith that caught my eye.  Although I seldom shoot with AC powered monolights (I’m not comparing the Profoto ComPact 600 here..) the kick in the pants was Buff’s “Vagabond Mini” ultralight lithium battery pack. Attach the lithium pack to the Einstein monolight, plug in a pocket wizard interface and it sounded too good to be true: lighter, faster, longer lasting, much cheaper. …. What’s the catch?
A few catches – as expected Einstein is not as rugged. Profoto is legendary for that.   I have heard good things about Buff’s service, turnaround and value for repairs.  It is likely faster than repairing Profoto or getting spare parts.

The back LCD display of the Einstein can be hard to read in the sunshine.  And you DO need to see the numbers on the screen as opposed to just flipping toggle switches and turning dials.  I prefer the analog knobs and switches but I do geek out seeing the wealth of information on the LCD display.

The PLM light was very very nice.  With the diffuser on it, not so much.  Although a softer more diffuse light source it does not compare to the dynamic light of the soft Octa.  But there is a new version of the PLM called “Soft Silver” which I’ll try soon ($69?) that has softer falloff and wider coverage. It may do the trick.

Beauty Dish. Check.  Grids needed next (pair of grids are $160).

The Speedrings are not as rugged, I prefer Profotos mount to the Balcor mount by far.  Clamping that band down around solid metal profoto tubes just feels bomber.  The Balcor mounts and speedrings on the Einstein make me nervous.  Beyond my fear of misplacing the wingnut on the shaft (photo below) I also have to occasionally tighten the locknuts and hardware on the PLM speedring mount:

I’m taking the Paul C. Buff Einstein’s on another shoot tomorrow. Shooting triathletes in action.  Which is another reason I am stoked about these units: extremely short durations.   I didn’t test durations and in fact all the tests here were done in the “color mode” where color temperature is kept constant to 5600K over the power range (+/- 50K degrees). The other mode is “action mode” where the color may vary with power setting but the IGBT design of the light hardware provides extremely short duration strobes: at 2 stops down from full (80WS) the t.1 duration goes from 1/2174 sec (color mode) to 1/3514 sec (action). And the extreme is 1/13,500 sec at lowest power (2.5WS).

For those shoots where I need a lot of packs and power and things will need to be rugged I’ll continue to rent Profoto. For the rest I’m pretty happy with Einstein.

15 thoughts on “Profoto and Paul C. Buff Einstein – a Real World Lighting Comparison”

  1. is it possible to mount PLM to Profoto head? and how do you do that is there any ring or accessory. Thanks

  2. The PLM comes with a 7mm umbrella shaft pole extension. I know the Profoto heads have a hole on top that accepts 7mm shafts. It won’t be exactly on axis but will work. You could also use a Manfrotto 026 swivel or Photoflex Grip Swivel to add an umbrella (PLM) mount but you would be further off-axis.

  3. HI kevin… thanks for the informative testing. Took a lot of effort and I know a lot of photographers (budding or not) will appreciate these results.

    I am 52 and wanting to start my life-long passion of photography and take it to the next level (portraits, barmitzfas, boats??) and try to make a decent part-time living at it. I am at the stage where I have all the gear except a lighting set-up and have been looking at the Buff site, as well as photoflex and other reasonably-priced setups. I don’t expect to be doing catalogues or anything like that (I have set my bar predictably low) and if a higher-level ($$) job were to fall into my lap I would always have the rental of these industry-accepted-standard pieces of gear to rent (have you seen the deposit amount needed for this stuff?).
    Thanks again, and if you have any specific setup ideas for my anticipated type of gigs–like the wedding warrior from Paul Buff– please let me know

    Thanks

    Ray
    Miami Beach

  4. Something I forgot to mention in my earlier post…

    I was searching the net and came across a 3-year-old discussion on how the more expensive Profoto gave more consistent color output (say, on a shoot where dozens, if not hundreds of images are being looked at) and that the Paul Buff Alienbees and WL products did not measure up.

    I wonder if you found that to be the case, and whether or not it applies to the Einstein 650?

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks again…..

  5. thanks Ray,
    In the constant color mode the Einsteins are very stable as far as color temperature. I think their website has some data. I have not used any of the other Buff lights but I’ve heard that color shift was an issue – now fixed in the Einstein. Since writing this post last year I’ve used the Einsteins on commercial shoots that I would have used the Profotos on before. They’re a great value. For your setup I would think a pair of Einsteins, lithium pack and the wireless cybersyncs would be fine, if you already have speedlights then you can add a cybersync receiver to use the flash (manual mode) for an accent or hair light.

  6. I went the other way. I bought 4 D1 500.
    I have learned a lesson in life, If I can afford it go with the best, so I won’t regret it later.
    I cannot afford the acute or pro 8, but the D1 is different. If I upgrade I can use all the light modifiers with the acute or pro 8

  7. Your surprised by the deposit on that stuff? Would you rent something expensive you owned to random people off the street, but not ask for assurance? Especially if they set their bar low at making a part time living?

    But hey, if photography was easy (at least producing something worth paying for), then rentals would not exist…

    If you have business insurance, you can often use that in lieu of a deposit.

  8. Depends on your needs, I love profoto but find that when I need short flash durations the Einstein is twice as short at half power for example (1/2500 sec vs 1/1200 sec) and if lower light needed can go extremely short 1/10,000th while the D1 500 stops at 1/2500th. Of course the just released profoto B4 generator sets the bar now at 1/25,000 sec, although $8k. And remember the profoto durations are t0.5 in spec, Einstein quotes more realistic t0.1 so the difference is likely greater. I mix and match Einstein and Profoto as needed.

comments?

I shoot active lifestyle, travel and portraiture for advertising. Based in SoCal – shooting Worldwide.