Monolights 101


We love monolights. They imitate natural illumination beautifully. If you have yet to read our previous features on the Bare Tube Flash Head and Flash Power Packs, now is a good time to do so. Those stories complete the foundational learning about AC flash that you’ll appreciate.

The image below of our model makes our point clearly. Most viewers have no idea that an artificial light source was used.

We often suggest that anyone who is new to AC flash should get started with just one monolight. It’s a great way to explore what flash is all about. The more you shoot with a single light source, the more you become one with the instrument. In a short period of time you'll be able to position the monolight and envision the quality of light it will provide, before you shoot the first photo.

The Integrated Light Source


Before the monolight, flash was dominated by separate power pack and flash head combinations. For that reason, the monolight was referred to as “integrated flash.” In essence, the monolight is something of a power pack and flash head fused together.

Many photographers who have a complete system of packs and heads, augment their lighting tools with at least one monolight. This allows them to dedicate flash heads to the key light plus fill light, and use the monolight as a background light or hair light.

Because the monolight is compact, there is less to set up. For this reason photographers like to use monolights on location. There are fewer cables, and the setup and strike goes quicker. This is especially true for the times when you’re shooting in someone’s office or home. The faster you get in, shoot, and get out, the happier the customer is, and the less disruptive you are to people’s lives.

For that reason (and many others), photographers have been building complete systems of nothing but monolights. A monolight kit easily fits into a soft luggage case and contains all the lighting gear you need for a location session.

The Novatron M150 Digital Monolight


As we discussed in our Flash Power Packs feature, we prefer controlling light output in tenth-stop increments. That makes us a big fan of the Novatron M150 Monolight. At this point, we should confess that Novatron once had a M600 Monolight We tested a pair of the very early prototypes for them, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that a perfected version of the M600 will be in the photographic world’s future.

In the mean time, the M150 is a great entry-level monolight, weighing in at less than 4 pounds. It’s probably the least expensive monolight that’s available from a well-established provider of professional AC flash units.

One of the first things we do when testing a new monolight is to check the recycling time. When photographing people, we tend to see expression after expression that we just have to capture. This often means that we’re shooting faster than the flash unit can keep up. That requires us to throttle back the flash power so we get a faster recycling time. We were impressed that even at maximum power, the M150 is fully ready to shoot the next image in about 2 seconds. When we drop it down 5 stops to its lowest power, the M150 is ready for the next shot in somewhere around 1 second. (Now all we need is to find talent who can give us 60 different expressions per minute).

We have more on monolights posted at the M2 Online Learning Center. We’re also preparing some fabulous new features for the Online Learning section of our website, and are dedicated to bringing the HD video + interactive PDF learning combination we always planned it to be. All of that research and development forced us to take a break from the B&H Insights Blog, but we’re pleased to bring back our “Lighting 101” posts.

Have you used monolights, or do you have questions about them? Let us know in the comments below.

Discussion 6

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I am interested in following a few of the links given in this article but they don't work.  The first 3 and the "Flash Power Packs feature".  It says the page may have moved or is no longer available.

Please check the link I provided, above, and read the August 9th story. It's simple. Basically, you set the shutter speed to as fast as 1/250 of a second, run the sync cable from the camera to the flash, and determine your aperture. When you release the camera's shutter the sync cable triggers the flash.

Please go to and scroll down to May 3. You'll find a feature story there about Light Bank Anatomy. It discusses the light source size and the light source to subject distance. This is not confined to light banks. Other light modifiers such as umbrellas and diffusion frames work well in single light setups.

Do you have info on how to "use" this lighting style?  In college, we learned lighting by using a key light and a fill light.  I have no idea how I would light and make it look good using only one light.  Wouldn't there be harsh shadows? thanks!

We addressed that in our August 9 feature story about slave triggers: In short, if you buy a Novatron monolight or power pack, they include the sync cable.

I have never used any kind of strobe or external flash. How do you sync it with the camera?