I recently submitted a review of a Speedotron 11.5 inch snap-on diffuser to the Adorama web page,and there's a link to that mini-review at the end of this blog entry.
I want to go over some experiences I've had using Speedotron 400,600,800,1600,and 2400 watt-second power packs in both the Brown Line and Black Line product lines. This year I bought some of Speedotron's smaller, lighter-weight power packs, as well as some used Speedotron light units in three models which I had never before tried nor owned (Brown Line M90, and Black Line models 103 and 202 VF). For many years, the only Speedotron equipment I had used was the higher-end "professional" stuff. But thanks to the low prices of eBay auctions, I was lured into trying some very inexpensive "lower-level" Speedotron lights and power supplies. In addition to my multiple pieces of e-Bay acquired equipment, I bought a brand new 3-outlet Black Line 405 power supply new from Helix Camera.com's eBay store for around $469.
I want to emphasize that some of my preconceptions about the various pieces of Speedotron equipment were wrong. I had anticipated that Brown Line M90 light units would be kind of cheesy, but they're pretty useful. And I was surprised at how great the small D402 Brown Line power supply is when paired with M90 lights. Modern d-slr's have SUCH good image quality at their base ISO settings that it's no longer necessary to have a 2400 watt-second power supply to have control. In fact the opposite is true,and I'd prefer to have a much,much smaller,lighter,and lower-powered power supply than a 2400 or 1600 for most d-slr uses.
I bought into the Speedotron system in September of 1987 with the D1602 power supply which weighs 27 pounds, one M11-Q and two M11 light heads and some grip equipment and modifiers. The power supply and all the original light heads still work flawlessly. Durability is a hallmark of Speedotron lighting equipment,even with the lower-priced Brown Line equipment.
In January of this year I decided I wanted to make a charitable contribution to a youth photography program, in the form of some studio lights and light modifiers, a background support system, and light stands. Enlisting the aid of my friendly photo equipment dealer,with whom I really like to do business face-to-face, he sold me a used Speedotron 805 Black Line power supply, "That has something wrong with it", but which was paired with two 202 VF heads, each with 7 inch umbrella reflectors, and an approximately 9"x30" umbrella-style collapsible striplight that used a heavy,solid steel shaft for mounting through the umbrella receptacle. Testing of the 805 Black Line pack caused the circuit breakers in my house to trip so frequently that I bought a brand new three-outlet Black Line 405 power pack, to use in my testing of the 202 VF heads.
I test-shot and worked with the 202 VF heads...which when fitted with 11.5 inch grid reflectors are very nice and controllable for getting a little bit more or a little bit less spread of light when using a pair of lights to evenly light backdrops. I also found the 202 VF head fitted with Speedo's "standard" 7 inch grid reflector worked pretty well for ceiling bounce lighting, and the ability to focus or widen the spread of light on longer 10-15 foot bounce throws was kind of interesting. The 202 VF light heads are completely modular: the cords come off the heads; the mounting system comes off for more compact storage, and the flashtube cover is long and slender and space-saving. The detachable power cords on 202 VF heads make it possible to store the cords separately, in a vinyl or canvas bag, and to carry flash heads in a relatively SMALL bag or case, compared with 102 or M11 heads, which have permanently attached 20-foot long cables.
Compared with the straightforward design of the M11 and 102 lights, the 202VF light unit with its rotating red focusing collar and accompanying flood/normal light coverage with 35 degrees to 90 degrees or so of light spread makes the light a bit "less-predictable" than the aforementioned heads which offer no focusing or spreading out of the light beam. The M11 and 100-series heads have more-positive lock-on of speedrings and reflectors, due to their rigid nature, but then only the 202VF's have variable beam control,so...the 202 VF's have more adjustability, which means less predictable output,since output is dependent on how wide or narrow you have the focusing collar set to with each light modifier. VF stands for Variable Focusing, with a rotating red polycarbonate plastic ring giving wider or narrower angles of coverage,and widely varying guide numbers.
What was most distressing was the top-heavy nature of the five pound 405 Black Line power supply when used with three Black Line light heads,which have very heavy,weighty power cords. The 405 power supply is SO light that when three heads are attached to it, if the cables are hanging at some point in their run,such as to the back of the set for an elevated hair light, the pack becomes quite top heavy. And it can even tip over if a cable is pulled a bit. Until I had a 405 to test, I'd never dreamed a power pack could actually be TOO lightweight!
The fan-cooled Black LIne 102 head is available widely on e-Bay,and I think I've picked up the last one I'll ever need. With used 102's selling in the $70 to $125 range, and new flash tubes retailing for roughly $104, I view a used 102 bought with either a 7 inch or 11.5 inch reflector,and with a flash tube and modelling light as being a hell of a lot better deal than a new $104 flash tube. For those unfamiliar, a few infobits: the 102 head is the "standard professional head" and it uses what Speedotron calls universal mount,which is their standard two-lug style rotating locking reflector mount. 102's have a heavy-duty push on-push off button that controls a bright 250 watt quartz modeling lamp,and use a 2400 watt-second rated vented Pyrex-covered flash tube that encircles and shields the hot modeling light from softbox or umbrella fabrics, which is nice. 95 % of all 102's ever made have a built-in heavy duty 20 foot power cord, but the very-newest models have a removable, plug-in power cord that detaches at the head itself. Sometimes the fans are squeaky. One unit I got had a loose wire or some problem in the wiring,and performs erratically. I suspect it's unsafe, and the seller made a very kind offer of compensation in the form of two nice,solid Avenger light stands:I accepted his offer of recompense,and I really really like the the taller of the two stands. The Avenger A205S is the closest current product to what he shipped me. Thanks for the kindness Pete! I recently bought a 102 head with protective cover, 7 inch and 11.5 inch reflectors for $120,and it worked perfectly in its initial test session right out of the box,using a 20 inch,deep-dish Brown Line reflector and two layers of white nylon mesh as diffusion material over 75% of the reflector's front
****************BROWN LINE POWER SUPPLIES*************************
In the 21 years I've owned my Brown Line D1602 power supply, it has always been reliable. Power levels are switchable: Full (1600 w-s), Half (800 w-s) and LOW (200 w-s) on a 3-level rocker switch. It has four light outlets divided into two power channels: channel A is made up of sockets 1 and 2, while sockets 3 and 4 make up the B channel. Power is divided either symmetrically or asymmetrically using any of the three power level choices. Shooting the D1602 at LOW power level, or 200 watt-seconds, it's a great portrait pack,able to run two or three lights with me dividing up 200 w-s and barely taxing the capabilities of the unit. It's a crying shame the small, light, affordable 600 watt-second Brown Line D604 does not possess a 200 watt-second LOW power setting, but only Full and Half power settings. The D402 power pack has Full and Half power settings of 400 and 200 w-s, and I find having 200 watt-seconds split between three or four heads is very, very useful.
A careful studying of the power distribution tables on the sides of the Brown Line D402 and D604 power supplies will show that the smaller,lower-powered D402 power supply might actually be the handier one for a person who wishes to use only one,or two,or three lights with a d-slr that shoots best at 100 to 200 ISO. My preference is to have between 200 and 400 watt-seconds of power to divide up between three,or four light heads for "most" single person,indoor portrait shoots. Main light, hair and separation light,and background light is pretty standard for me,and my 4th light might be a fill light. For quickie,simulated available light shooting where I bounce a single flash off of the ceiling,corner,or a wall, I find the D604's one-head minimum output of 225 watt-seconds to be too MUCH power. With my 1987-model D1602, I often find myself deliberately using it at LOW power,which is only 200 watt-seconds. My feeling is that the D604 power supply is designed to be used in either three- or four-light setups almost all of the time,and is in fact,optimal for three- and four-light setups,but lacks power output flexibility in 1- or 2-light configurations. The D402 can supply from 150 to 400 watt-seconds with one light,while the D604 can supply 225 to 600 watt-seconds thru one head. For me, the LOWER powered,one-light output of 150 watt-seconds is preferable in real-world locations with a camera that has a 200 ISO base,or even a camera with a 100 ISO base,like the 5D. However, if I were still shooting ISO 25,50,and 64 films or doing work that required a significant amount of lens extension, the slightly greater power of the D604 would make it the preferred power supply over the D402 most of the time.
There's almost no weight difference among the three smallest Brown Line packs: the D402,D604,and D802B power supplies weigh in at 11,11,and 12 pounds respectively, and all have two-channel,four-outlet designs. http://www.speedotron.com/products/category/brown_line
The Brown Line D402 has the old-style cosmetics in case design,and has toggle switches and not plastic switches. With three lights the D402 delivers 133 w-s per head in Symmetrical, while in Asymmetrical mode it outputs 200 w-s in A and 50 and 50 w-s in B, or alternately it delivers 140 and 140 w-s in A and 70 w-s in B. When using a 4-light setup the D402 gives 100 w-s to each head in Symmetrical mode,and in Asymmetrical mode it delivers only a single power output ratio, which is 120-120 w-s in A, and 30 and 30 w-s in B. These are full-power figures. The D402 has a half-power switch,allowing the prior outputs to be cut in half approximately. Flash durations in the 100 w-s range with M90 units is 1/1600 second, while the M11-Q will deliver 1/3000 second at 100 w-s,and even with 400 w-s pumped thru it, the M11-Q will deliver a 1/1500 flash duration.
The Brown Line D604 LV came out back when I was a young man,and has remained in the line for a long time. It weighs 11 pounds,and is low profile and compact. It follows the Speedotron Brown line pattern of four head outlets,with outlets 1 and 2 comprising the A channel, and outlets 3 and 4 being the B channel. When using two lights the D604 gives 300 w-s per head in Symmetrical mode, and it offers three output options in Asymmetrical mode: the first Asymmetrical option is 300 w-s in either outlet 1 or 2, and 150 w-s in outlet 3 or 4. The second option is 300 and 300 in 1 and 2,while the third two-light power option is 150 and 150 w-s when using outlets 3 and 4 concurrently.
When using three lights the D604 delivers 200 watt-seconds per head in Symmetrical mode,and in Asymmetrical it delivers 300 w-s in either outlet 1 or 2, while outlets 3 and 4 will each provide 75 watt-seconds,or you can plug two lights into outlets 1 and 2 and get 210 w-s out of each of those, while a head plugged into 3 or 4 will provide 105 watt-seconds. With four lights in Symmetrical mode the D604 puts out 150 w-s per head, while four lights used in Asymmetrical can deliver 180 and 180 in 1 and 2, and while outlets 3 and 4 will each output 45 watt-seconds. As with other power supplies, all of these power distribution ratings can be cut in half by switching to the Half Power setting.
If there's a problem with the D604,it is that it is SO powerful with only one light attached. Several lower-end standard version Brown Line light units are equipped with only 400 watt-second flash tubes,meaning the full power of the 604 cannot be used with those lights unless they are upgraded to the Q or Quartz-type flashtubes,with higher W-S capacity. With one light, the D604 will deliver 600,450,300,or 225 watt-seconds, and 225 w-s is often more light output than is wanted,as in this test session shot in my small office,using just one 40-inch umbrella--at its lowest ISO, I was forced to set an f/13 aperture on my Nikon D70 http://www.pbase.com/derrel/image/98144791. HOWEVER, as soon as a second light is added, the D604 can deliver very handy amounts of power, such as 150 and 150 at Full Power Assymetrical,or 75 and 75 at low power Asymmetrical,so the 604's main limitation with today's d-slr's is when ONLY ONE light is being used in rather close quarters. The D604 has an Audible Recycle feature that gives a Beep when the unit is recycled; this feature can be turned on and off by pressing the button. The D604 is compact and straightforward,and has a low voltage triggering system safe for d-slr's. This power supply does not seem to be very popular,and it often sells for very low prices on the used market.
The Brown Line D202 is a VERY small power supply, with only two light outlets, and symmetrical and asymmetrical distribution, and a built-in power cord. It uses blade-style synch,and is a very simple unit to operate. It is no longer manufactured. It weighs 6.5 pounds and measures 4.4 x 6.5 inches in footprint,and is 6.2 inches tall. The earlier D200 model had only symmetrical power distribution, but in all other was was identical to the later D202. The D202 works pretty well with the Brown Line Y-cord attachment, which allows an additional light head to be used,and which lowers the power output by splitting the total watt-seconds into two,equal-output connectors. VERY handy! It recycles to 85% in 3.25 seconds
The D202 has only one power level, which is full power. With two lights, in symmetrical mode, each light delivers 100 watt-seconds. In asymmetrical mode, outlet 1 delivers 200 watt-seconds, but outlet 2 delivers 150 watt-seconds. With two lights plugged in, in asymmetrical mode, outlet 1 delivers 150 watt-seconds, and outlet 2 delivers 50 watt-seconds. Guide Numbers are listed as 190, 135, and 95 (in feet) for 200,150,and 50 watt-second power output levels using "Standard Reflectors". At the time the D202 was made, my understanding is that the Standard Reflector was the 11.5 inch, 65 degree coverage model which will NOT accept honeycomb grids. According to Speedotron's specifications the GN of 190 at ISO 100 in feet comes from an M11-Q light head with 11.5 inch reflector and MW9QC flashtube at 10 feet on-axis. Therefore, using the newer, grid-capable 50 degree reflectors, Guide Numbers would be significantly higher than when using the older 65 degree parabolics. Here's a photo of the D202's power distribution chart
I bought a non-functional D402 and two M90 lights for $150 from eBay,and had the power pack restored to full,perfect working order by factory repair personnel at Speedotron Corp in Chicago for the modest price of $70 for parts and labor and $19.95 return shipping. I also bought a fully working D402 for $129 from eBay on a buy-it-now price. I recently saw one sell for $79.99 on eBay,as a non-tested unit without power cord. Auction prices for D402's are very reasonably low; the pack has been made for years now. Brand new, a D402 4-outlet power pack can be bought from Helix Camera for $361,with warranty.
Before I donated the D402 and three M90 lights to the nonprofit photography program, I tested it out over about a 225 frame portrait session with Jenni, using two M90 lights,one in a 40 inch Lastolite Umbrella Box and one to light a black paper seamless roll with either a yellow or a blue gel over the M90's 8.5 inch standard reflector. I found that on low power splitting up only 200 watt second between two heads, the D402 was a very useful little power pack that had just the right amount of power for close-range,quick-setup portraiture. The flashtube in the M90 delivers a VERY short duration flash when 100 watt seconds of power are sent through it; the flash duration is 1/1600 at 100 watt-seconds, which is very short,and the Lastolite Umbrella Box with the M90 head inserted inside and the diffusing face zipped tightly makes for a pretty efficient light. http://www.pbase.com/derrel/m90_light_units_first_look
I note that in 1987, 11.5 inch Brown Line reflectors were specified as 65 degree reflectors, and were NOT grid-style. And I note that on Speedotron's web site, the newest Brown Line M11 light units are listed as having 50 degree,grid-capable reflectors, just like Black Line 102 and 103 heads typically would be fitted with. My older Brown Line pack D402 pack has a factory-painted Guide Number chart on the side and it says "Standard Reflector 65 Degrees",so this appears to have been an area where Speedotron equipment has been changed over the years.
Back in 1987 when I bought into the Brown Line, the lights had thread-on connectors,which made hooking up and switching rather slow; but at some point, Speedotron switched to BLACK-colored connectors, which just snap on and lock with a firm press into the socket--and they come off with no locking collar-- just a good,firm straight-up pull! Hooray! To me the Brown Line's slow,thread-on connectors had been one of the main drawbacks that Black Line was not saddled with. So, when buying used Brown Line flash heads, realize the "new style" black connectors means faster and easier light set-up and changes.
One thing about the Speedotron brand is that the Brown Line's M11 lights use the same "universal" reflector and speedring mounting system used in Speedotron's professional Black Line light heads,so grid reflectors and many other light modifiers and devices will fit Brown Line M11 heads, as well as Black Line flash heads. The Brown Line M11 head is almost identical to the Black Line model 103 flash head, which means it is fan-free,or convection-cooled,and fairly light, and compact. I just bought four 103 heads this month for $40 to $45 each without tubes or lamps. I have not had a chance to do much more than clean them up and test them briefly with the 405 pack and brand new MW9C flashtubes, which are only 1200 w-s rated,and are really not officially recommended by Speedotron for use in 103 heads. I spoke to a tech there by phone,and he assured me that the MW9C tubes will work just fine in a 103 head as long as the flash power levels are kept below the 1200 w-s maximum,and that on the 405 power supply, the tubes would be loafing along at well below their capacity on such a small power supply,and that my off-list use of these particular flash tubes would be safe and functional. One of the things I like most about the M11 and 103 heads is the quiet,fan-free design each shares,and the same compact size. The cords are heavier duty on the 103's, and the connectors differ, but the 103 an the M11 appear to be the same, basic lights. I often do NOT need a fan-cooled light head,so 103's make sense.
The Speedotron Brown Line instruction manual notes that the M90 light unit delivers a pretty high Guide Number per watt-seconds of power used, which was something I was unaware of. As I said, I had preconceived ideas about how the M90 lights would perform compared with Brown Line M11 heads which are ostensibly "better" and "more professional", but I was unaware that the M90's are much more efficient than M11 heads in delivering Guide Number per watt-seconds used,at least with the 7 inch reflectors on the M11's in umbrella configuration. Looking carefully at my 1987 Speedotron Brown Line manual, it specifies that at 400 watt-seconds, an M90 unit will deliver a GN of 210, while the M11 will deliver a GN of 120 with the 7 inch reflector and a GN of 220 using an 11.5 inch reflector which was AT THAT TIME,spec'd as a 65 degree reflector, while the 16 inch deep pan reflector will deliver a GN of 160. So, in an umbrella type configuration, the M90 light unit's 8.5 inch reflector which is silvered all around the flashtube will deliver a pretty potent f/21 light burst at 400 watt-seconds, while an M11 light and its 7 inch reflector will deliver a less-powerful f/12 exposure. At least theoretically,in a Guide Number sense. One aspect of this information might be that when lower flash output is needed, it might be wise to use an M11 light head with a 7 inch reflector and not an M90.
Angle of coverage of the M90 is a pretty wide 55 degrees,according to the manual; the web site list the new M90 at 60 degrees and the M90-Q as being 65 degrees (the Q has a 1200-watt seond capable flashtube). The M11 head with 1980's 65 degree 11.5 inch reflectors has been a mainstay of mine for lighting up backgrounds,but I've found the M90 is actually pretty handy for lighting background paper. I'm anxious to try out the M90 head a bit more,maybe with a grid or two and with diffuser material,and also it looks like a pretty good light to use with diffusion panels aka scrims. I'd like to have a barndoor set for use with an M90,and I am sure I will buy a couple of Speedotron 8.5 inch snap-on diffusers for use with M90 heads.
There were a number of factors that lead me to donate a 3-light M90/D402 lighting kit to the nonprofit group instead of the Black Line 405 pack I had bought,ostensibly to donate along with two or three light heads. Long-term, I thought that considering ease of use, flash tube replacement costs and modeling light costs ,and the cost of a fourth light, the Brown Line wins out over the Black Line in terms of flash-per-dollar spent,either new or used. Used D402's are selling for $79 to $129 on e-Bay these days,and are available brand new for around $361. I personally think the D402 Brown Line power supply makes a LOT of sense these days. It is a bit heavier than the Black Line 405 pack,and it's a bit larger too, but it has some good qualities. I donated an e-Bay acquired D402 and three M90 light units to the photography program after my test session with Jenni showed me that the M90 head and its eight and a half inch reflector makes for a very good background light,as well as functioning well in the 40 inch Lastolite Umbrella Box enclosed umbrella. The lightweight power cords of the Brown Line are easier to coil,and smaller,lighter and less-pretentious than the heavy duty Black Line cables. On some setups that stretched and elevated the 202VF's 20-foot cables, the 405 power pack was very,very top heavy and prone to tipping over,since it only weighs five pounds,and with the very-lightest of all current Speedo packs, the heavy-duty Black Line light cables are,well,kind of overkill. Black Line 150 or 250 watt quartz lamps cost about $22 to $24, while M90's use three much lower-powered bulbs,like the Satco S4721 25-watt 130 Volt brass-base indicator bulb listed as 2,500 hours...these are the modeling lamps,and they sell for $1.99 each at lighting stores. Each M90 uses three of them. Official bulbs are about $6 each; cheap by modeling lamp standards.
Besides the M11 and M90 light units, the Brown Line has two additional small,lightweight,affordable light units, both built on the same chassis. The first type is the MW3U, which stands for Umbrella. It uses a small,affordable 400 watt-second flash tube and has a small quartz modeling lamp positioned right at the bottom front edge of the fixed,non-interchangeable five and a half inch reflector. The second similar light is the MW3R, which is designed as a backgRound or haiR light,and which has NO provision for mounting an umbrella. The MW3R uses a tall, candle-flame type incandescent bulb for a modeling lamp; the incandescent bulb generates a lot less heat than the quartz lamp of the MW3U, and accordingly, the MW3R can be fitted with a small snap-on snoot. The easiest way to differentiate between the two light heads is to look for the umbrella mounting block underneath on the MW3U. Both light heads are convection-cooled, and there is a 1200 watt-second flash tube available for both light models if one needs to use the 600 to 1600 watt-second power packs with only a single head.
Both the MW3U (umbrella-capable) and the MW3R light units have been made for many years--and there is a " very old" style in both lights; these have a rounded, knurled metal locking knob on the light tilt joint, and those must be used with the old-style SMALL mounting stud that is only 3/8 inch in diameter, so this "very old" style will not mount on modern light stands, unless a 3/8 inch diameter mounting stud is threaded on to the top of the light stand. The "newer" style lights have a brown plastic locking knob, and slip right on to today's light stands. The very-newest style MW3U and MW3R lights are fitted with the black, quick-disconnect connector plugs,and those are the most desirable lights to own for quick set-up and quick changes. The MW3U and MW3R and M90 ALL SHARE THE SAME model of flash tube in both 400- and 1200 watt-second varieties. The standard 400 watt-second flash tubes for M90-MW3U-MW3R are available in coated, and non-UV coated designs, and are priced around $26 per tube,which is a very economical price for a flash tube. 1200 watt-second tubes cost about 3x more.
****************BLACK LINE POWER SUPPLIES*************************
The Black Line 405 weighs only 5 pounds,and has two-channel three-outlet design,while the slightly larger Black Line 805 has three-channel,four-outlet design and yet still weighs in at only 7.7 pounds. http://www.speedotron.com/products/category/black_line
The Black Line 405 has a two-stop variable power reduction switch,which allows dialing down the power in 1/3 stop clicks on a rotating switch control,thus allowing the Black Line 405 to more-incrementally control output than is possible with the Brown Line D402 pack. On balance,the Brown Line D402 pack has four light outlets, while the Black Line 405 has only three outlets,so the advantage there goes to the Brown Line pack for the all-important four-light setups. The Black Line 405 power supply has 2 power channels, 6 ratio combinations, and 3 outlets,so think 400,200,133,and 100 watt seconds with nine clicks of adjustment in dial-down. The Black Line 405 is very small,very light,very simple,and has good dial-down capabilities.It can run three light heads very well,and its five pound weight still seems almost incredible to me.
The Black Line 805 pack has significantly more flexibility, with 3 power channels,19 ratio combinations, and 4 outlets. The 405 pack is ultra-small,ultra-light,and not all "that" flexible,while the 805 pack is only slightly larger,only slightly heavier,and has a significantly higher amount of flexibility. If there's a rap against the 805 Black Line,it might be that some packs develop problems tripping breakers,at least according to a cursory search of the web for user reports of problems; I cannot say from personal experience that the 805 pack has a reputation for either reliability or for unreliabilitity--but I do think many of them are used very hard,and there might be some issues due to lack of maintenance or over-use,such as in rental packs,packs from high-volume shooters,etc.
Speedotron 11.5" Gel Filter Holder
Great With Honeycomb Grids for Hairlight
Pros: Attach Securely, Long-Lasting, Durable
Best Uses: Low Light, Indoors
Describe Yourself: Hobbyist/Enthusiast
Use with 100-225 W-S with 10,20,or 35 degree grid at 5-15 feet for superb hairlight effects. Grids are great but using a grid + diffuser gives softer,more easily controlled light in close-quarters portraiture. I love a 20 degree grid with this diffuser added and 2-way barndoors for beautiful,stripbank-like separation or hairlight effects with the added bonus control over spill and the flag effect of the barndoors keeping the lens free of flares.
Also used for for smoothly lighting backdrops,using 2 matched heads with 11.5's + diffusers.These are "essential" accessories for light control within the Speedo system.