Hands-On Review: Dynalite Baja B4 Portable Electronic Monolights
I couldn’t wait to try out Dynalite’s new Baja B4 monolights ever since their announcement in October of 2014, so I was understandably excited when I got word that I would have the opportunity to take them home for a couple of weeks and put them through the ringer. With nothing on the market quite like the B4, I’d been waiting for an affordable, powerful light with a built-in battery for a long time, and my wishes have been fulfilled.
For this review, I decided to get the Baja B4 Battery Powered 2-Monolight Kit with Case, which includes two lights with Bowens mounts, two 7" umbrella/grid reflectors, two wireless receivers and a transmitter, two batteries with chargers, protective covers, and a case to carry everything. This package literally has everything you need except your personal choice of light-shaping tools, although the included reflectors can be used in many instances. The entire lighting system—including the case and everything that came with it—weighs less than 20 lb, which sounds heavier than it feels. The shoulder strap on the case makes carrying the kit a breeze. When I was an assistant, I would have done anything to carry a lighting kit as light as this one.
Before we delve into the ins and outs of the lights, you probably want to know what it was about these lights that made me and so many others so interested in them. For starters, each light weighs just 6.1 lb, which is very close to many lights on the market. The only difference is that the other lights require a battery or wall for power, whereas the B4 is self contained. Attaching the B4s to a light stand and moving them around is simple. Gone is the need to carry a stand in one hand and a heavy pack in the other. As far as power goes, each monolight puts out 400 Ws of power with a 6-stop range that is adjustable in 1/10-stop power increments.
So far, so good, right? But what was it about the Baja B4 that really impressed me? How about the fact the lights have a built-in Lithium-Ion battery, completely removing the need for a power cord or a battery pack? This is invaluable to me as a location photographer who rarely shoots indoors, let alone in a studio where there are wall outlets. With my old lights I had to shoot inside and carry extensions cords and hope that wherever I was shooting had accessible outlets. Having a built-in battery not only makes it easier to set up and break down location shoots, but it also makes changing the lighting setup faster, and removes the chance that someone might trip on a long power cord, a catastrophe I’ve witnessed more than once. The other big feature that really caught my eye was the included (with the kit) wireless transmitter and receivers, which I’ll talk about more below.
As I mentioned, each 400 Ws strobe light is adjustable in 1/10 increments, allowing you to fine-tune the output for your exact needs. At its lowest setting of 1.0, the light emits 6 Ws at a color temperature of 5420K, and at its highest setting of 7.0 at 400 Ws, the color temperature is 5600K, giving the light a relatively consistent color output over its power range. The flash duration goes from a respectable 1/12800 to 1/500 of a second measured at t.5, plenty fast enough to freeze motion for water-droplet shots, or fast-action sports. The Baja B4 has a normal sync speed of up to 1/250 of a second. As this article goes to press, there is a high-speed sync function available for Canon cameras when the lights are used with an optional BRT616c transmitter, allowing most Canon DSLRs to sync up to 1/8000 of a second. Another Nikon-compatible transmitter is in the works, which will add high-speed sync to compatible Nikon cameras, as well. For more information, you can read my colleague Allan Weitz’s article on sync speed and flash duration here. It should be noted that when the Baja B4 is in “Short Duration” mode for short flash durations, the color temperature can vary from 5300K to 6200K depending on power output, which is only a minor inconvenience in post-processing if you’re shooting RAW.
Adjusting the lights couldn’t be simpler, whether you are using the onboard rear controls, or the wireless transmitter. Let’s start with the light’s onboard adjustments. On the back of the Baja B4 is a very user-friendly and intuitive control panel with just two dials and five buttons, plus the On/Off switch. The top dial controls the output of the flash, as well as the flash mode, while the lower dial simply controls the built-in LED modeling light. The five buttons are the RPT, Mode, Cell, Sound, and Test buttons. Also on the rear panel is the display screen to show the current mode and power level, a battery power level indicator that displays Full, Empty, or Charge, a ¼" sync port, and a charging/power socket. On the top of the panel is a spot to plug in the wireless receiver, and above that is an optical slave remote trigger sensor, to allow the Baja B4 to be triggered from the light of another flash unit.
Now on to the wireless transmitter, a feature that I found indispensible and extremely helpful during my time using the lights. The transmitter not only allows you to trigger your flash remotely from up to 590' away, it also enables full manual control of the Baja’s settings. The 2.4GHz bandwidth transmitter can control up to six groups of flashes using 16 different channels. It also lets you set each light or group’s power output using intuitive + and – buttons. I can say that the Dynalite transmitter and receivers are rock solid, and performed flawlessly over the entire course of my time using them, both indoors in close proximity, and outdoors in various locations from a park to a roof, to a rock-climbing area.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about what’s really important—how the lights perform in a variety of situations. The first function of the lights I wanted to test is something that I haven’t mentioned yet: the stroboscopic flash. While this feature might seem gimmicky to some, there was a specific reason I had wanted to shoot a stroboscopic exposure for a long time. When I first started shooting, I was an aspiring live-music photographer. One of my heroes was, and still is, the legendary Bob Gruen, most famous for his photo of John Lennon in a sleeveless t-shirt with the words “New York City” printed on it. Another one of his great photos, however, is a stroboscopic shot of the singer Tina Turner, five flash pops in one exposure. It’s a great image, and as a young photographer I emailed Gruen and asked him about how he took the shot. He was gracious enough to write me back and confirm my guess on how he made the image.
So with that photo in mind, I asked a couple of friends to help me test this feature. The talented Elaina Harper is a dancer and singer, who, with little-to-no instruction (and no music) began dancing in front of the camera while the flash popped away during many 1-second exposures. I experimented with all three stroboscopic modes, which can fire 5, 10, or 15 flashes per second. Each mode proved useful in different situations, depending how fast the model was moving. Next, I asked my friend Tomek to try some simple motions, like just raising his arms in the photo above.
While shooting with this stroboscopic mode was a lot of fun, it was also challenging. To make the images look good, you really need a dark location with no walls or lights in the background—something that isn’t easy to find in New York City, which is why there are some stray street lights in the background of these shots. The other difficulty was that when shooting with this function, the light output is very low, so the flash must be very close to the subject, with the reflector on, as a bare bulb or softbox would lose too much of the light.
I was curious to see how the light performed at its lower power output, indoors, in a more controlled environment. I plated a few snacks and meals, put a softbox on the front of the light, and set the power to its lowest setting of 1.0, or 6 Ws, so that I could shoot around f/1.8 to f/2.5, allowing me to have shallow depth of field. I was pleased to see that the lights performed well at the lowest power setting, and as far as my human eyes could tell, the color temperature was very consistent through every shot.
For my next setup, I hoofed one of the lights up to the Torne Valley rock climbing area, also known as “The Powerlinez,” because of, well, the many power lines running through the valley. It was a very sunny day, so even with one light at full power with a reflector on, the light had to be pretty close to the rock face to fill in shadows and allow me to expose for the sky. This could have been easily remedied if I had the second light with me, but the technical scramble up steep terrain was difficult enough with climbing gear, one light, and a light stand, let alone a second light and stand.
Finally, I needed to test the lights in a regular indoor studio environment. To do this, I simply set up an Impact 5x7' Collapsible Background Kit and one light with a large softbox. This is when changing the light’s output from the transmitter came in especially handy, since I didn’t want to keep walking back and forth to the light as I was adjusting my exposure settings and the light’s settings. I was very pleased with the quality of light, recycle time, and color consistency.
Since the close quarters of the studio limited the output to about half power, I took the whole setup up to the roof during the day to test the light at full power. I added a grid to focus the light on my subjects, and moved the softbox in as close as I could to the models. Even in the middle of the day, at f/11, ISO 200, the light provided plenty of power to overwhelm the ambient light. This was when I realized my only main complaint about the Baja B4s—the recycle time at full power is almost 4 seconds. That sounds pretty fast, but imagine that you have a model in front of you and you snap a frame, now count: 1, 2, 3, 4 seconds before you can shoot again. That’s a long time.
Now, this isn’t a problem if you’re shooting at half power in a studio, or if you’re using two lights at half power outside, but when you’re shooting at full power, this can be quite annoying to both the photographer and the model. You shoot, he or she changes poses, and then you wait another couple of seconds before you can shoot again. This is a gripe only in certain situations, and won’t really affect still life or product photographers, or other shooters who work slowly and methodically. My only other main complaint was the modeling light. It’s a 5 W LED, that basically only serves as an AF-assist light indoors or at night. However, it does not give you a good preview of shadows or direction of the flash head’s light. The reason for the weak light is most certainly to preserve battery power; however, the light can’t be powered off, only turned down, which can be a bit of an annoyance.
Other than these two small things, I really could find nothing else that needed improvement. The construction of the light is solid, it feels and looks like it can take years of heavy work both in the field and in the studio. The Bowens-style mount on the front of the light makes attaching modifiers simple, and the hold is secure. All of the hardware is metal or what seems to be a very strong plastic, and both the light stand mount and angle adjuster lock down tight and stay in place, even with a heavy softbox on.
After six separate shoots over the course of a couple of weeks, and a variety of shooting situations, styles, and locations, I was quite impressed with the lights. Impressed enough that I am probably going to buy the kit for myself. As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t many comparable options out there for a light with a built-in battery, 400 Ws of power output, and good color consistency, especially at such an affordable price. The Baja B4s are made in Korea, which the American photo community has yet to fully embrace as much as other Korean-made products (think Samsung, LG, Kia…). I can tell you from first-hand experience as an owner of a lot of Korean-made photo equipment—this stuff is built to last. So if you’re looking for a new portable light, give the B4 a try, and if you like it, get the kit, as well. Three lights are better than one! If you own the Baja B4s, or if you’re thinking about buying them, I’d love to hear your opinions or questions in the Comments section, below.