Small Box, Big Light: A Review of the Einstein E640 Monolight

Introduction

The Einstein E640 monolight from Paul C. Buff is a rare thing: a piece of gear that actually lives up to its hype (albeit with a few false starts that have since been addressed). In terms of size, performance, price and feature set, few monolights in this class can match this deceptively diminutive strobe.

I suppose it’s not surprising that such an awesome little package comes from Paul C. Buff, whose company has been making affordable, yet quality studio strobes for a long time now. Almost every photographer knows about AlienBees, those little monolights that start at under $300 and are often part of the first studio lighting kit that many beginners buy. Prominent photographers like Kevin Kubota and David Hobby use or have used AlienBees, and the Einstein maintains the spirit of those little blocs in a sharper, more modern and feature-packed package.

Let’s start with the specifications…

Specifications

Paul C. Buff Einstein E640

Paul C. Buff Einstein E640. Image courtesy Paul C. Buff.

From the Einstein E640’s website, here are the specs for the Einstein:

  • 9 f-stop power variability (2.5 Ws to 640 Ws)
  • All-digital control from enormous LCD display
  • Global plug-and-play from 95 to 265 VAC
  • Adjustable in precise 1/10 f-stops
  • Action-stopping up to 1/13,000 second (t.1)
  • Color consistency +/- 50° at any power
  • Bright, voltage-controlled 250 Watt modeling lamp
  • Frosted dome cover reduces UV emission
  • Audible and visual recycle indicator alert options
  • “Easy Set” button for quick return to default settings
  • Complete remote control capability with CyberSync™
  • 60-Day Absolute Satisfaction Guarantee
  • 2-Year Factory Warranty

Initial Impressions

Out of the shipping box, the Einstein is surprisingly small. It’s actually slightly larger than an AlienBees head, but you’d expect it to be much more so, given everything that’s supposedly packed into it. It feels solid and dense and has a good heft to it.

The Einstein's big, bright LCD panel

The Einstein's big, bright LCD panel. Image courtesy Paul C. Buff

A frosted pyrex dome covers the flashtube and the included modeling light. The dome is meant to protect the tube and reduce UV emissions from it. The dome also helps to create a equal relationship between the size and shape of the flashtube and that of the modeling lamp, leading to more accurate previews when using the modeling lamp. This is a nice touch, usually found on much higher-end lights like the Profoto D1 series. A black plastic cover intended to protect that dome and the components under it during shipping and traveling is also included.

Flip the Einstein over and on the rear is the bright, shiny LCD display that’s one of the treats of this light. Big buttons help you navigate around the screen quickly, and the interface, while not beautiful, is simple and very easy to figure out even without the manual. There’s a ton of information displayed on it, from the flash power bar graph, to the modeling lamp settings, to the mode the light is in, and more. An alternate screen showing more information about the light (including the flash duration for the current mode and power setting) is also accessible once you cycle through the options on the main screen.

Performance

I took the Einstein out for a spin and was extremely pleased to find that it completely lived up to its hype. One of the complaints of Paul C. Buff’s more budget lights, the AlienBees, is that color temperature changes over different power settings or over long periods of use at any single power setting. This is typical of most older strobes that use analog technology.

To counteract this, the Einstein was based on completely different technology that enables it to provide a combination of both, a fast flash duration, and excellent color accuracy. Essentially, it uses the same IGBT technology found in small flashes like the Canon 580EX II or the Nikon SB–910.

Einstein comparison data, courtesy Paul C. Buff

Einstein comparison data, courtesy Paul C. Buff

The Einstein can shoot in two different modes, Color and Action. In Color mode, the manufacturer claims that the flash can shoot at a constant color temperature, +/- 50ºK. That is pretty impressive, especially when you consider that there are more expensive strobes from Elinchrom and Profoto that don’t match that spec.

To test that claim, I conducted a quick experiment. Using a grey card as the subject on a plain white background, I fired the unit for 100 pops in Color mode at 1/4 power. I was delighted to find that there were only a few images where the color temperature varied – and that too only by about 15ºK. That’s pretty darn good, and much better than advertised.

In Action mode, the strobe is capable of reaching flash durations of up to 1/13,500 second, an astronomically high number. I didn’t do a speed test, since that’s something that’s been done really well before by Alex Koloskov on his blog. Suffice it to say that Alex, who photographs liquids and specializes in freezing them in mid-splash, uses the Einsteins extensively now.

It should be noted that the fact that we’re actually discussing color accuracy and flash duration in a studio light that comes in at just a little bit more (and sometimes less) than a high-end on-camera flash is remarkable in and of itself. That’s part of the genius of the Einstein – it suddenly puts a lot of the capabilities of the big boys – Profoto, Broncolor and Elinchrom – in the hands of people who don’t have $10,000 to shell out for a lighting kit.

Extending the Einstein

Paul C. Buff Parabolic Light Modifer (PLM). Image courtesy Paul C. Buff.

Paul C. Buff Parabolic Light Modifer (PLM). Image courtesy Paul C. Buff.

Here’s the other part of the genius of the Einstein. Since Paul C. Buff didn’t abandon the old AlienBees/White Lightning accessory mount when he released the Einstein, the E640 benefits from an extensive ecosystem of accessories made for those flashes.

This means that, while you can certainly buy Paul C. Buff’s excellently-made foldable soft boxes and other modifiers direct from the manufacturer, you can also go on eBay and buy a 70″ octabox for less than $80 in the AlienBees mount. Or you can take your really expensive Profoto softbox and mount it to the Einstein with a standard speedring (look for our upcoming article demystifying the world of light modifiers and attachments). Dozens of manufacturers make everything from massive softboxes to small beauty dishes for the AlienBees mount and all of them are compatible with the Einstein.

Paul C. Buff also makes an amazing modifier called the PLM, the Parabolic Light Modifier. This massive umbrella-style reflector is available in sizes from 51“ to 86”, and in finishes from soft white to bright silver. Additional add-ons can convert what might otherwise be “just” a massive and very efficient reflector into a huge circular softbox or a Japanese lantern-style modifier. In keeping with the Paul C. Buff tradition of great products at affordable prices, the PLMs start at $40 and go up to $80.

Mixing lights; an impromptu setup with an Einstein and a Canon 580EX II

Mixing lights; an impromptu setup with an Einstein and a Canon 580EX II

Then there’s the Vagabond Mini-Lithium battery back, available for about $239. This little battery pack is a wonder – and it’s good for more than just powering your Einsteins. It can also charge an iPhone or power a lamp in an emergency. More importantly, however, it can provide over 400 pops of the Einstein at full power in the field, making the combo of an Einstein and a Vagabond Mini Lithium a very competent location lighting rig as well.

One more thing

If you listened to TWiP #234, you’ll know that the PocketWizard ControlTL line of radios was my gear pick for 2011. Well, part of that line is a module made specifically for the Einstein, called the PowerMC2. With that in the Einstein’s accessory port and a FlexTT5 or MiniTT1 on your camera, you can remotely control the output of the Einsteins from your camera. What’s more, while you can control the light’s output manually, you can also use the PocketWizards to communicate exposure information with each other and they will automatically set the power of the light to the appropriate level to give you a correct exposure.

The wine bottle shot. One Einstein, one 580EX II.

The wine bottle shot. One Einstein, one 580EX II.

Conclusion

There’s an old NASA saying pioneered by Daniel Goldin, its longest-serving administrator: “Faster, Better, Cheaper.” Ultimately, most people came to the conclusion that you could really only have two out of three when it came to that motto. The Einstein, however, is proof that you can, in fact, have all three.

At $500, it costs less than a Nikon SB–910 and is a great option for anyone looking to enter the world of studio lighting. Unlike the more budget AlienBees, however, this isn’t a light you’re likely to outgrow soon. PocketWizard ControlTL compatibility means I can – and have – mix these lights with speedlights and other strobes and control everything on-camera. That’s the setup used for the wine bottle product shots you see here.

Speed, color accuracy, extensibility, and a lightweight package with added portability when you toss in a Vagabond battery pack, all combine to make this light one of the best I’ve used recently. Whether you’re a pro looking for color-accurate, fast, motion-stopping strobes, or a beginner looking to step up into the world of studio strobes, the Einstein will more than likely meet your needs for a long time to come.

 

Setup and product photos courtesy of Sohail Mamdani.

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