Top 5 Portable Flash Lighting Kits for Photography on Location

Rating: 3.75 based on 4 Ratings
Pia Lopez
August 31, 2017 By Pia Lopez
Top 5 Portable Flash Lighting Kits for Photography on Location www.sleeklens.com

Even just a few years ago, the possibilities for shooting with high-powered studio-strobes on location were somewhat limited, heavy and expensive. Either you bought a generator to power regular studio lights, spent an absolute fortune on expensive Profoto equipment, or suffered the clunky inconvenience and uncertainty offered by most of their rivals. This has all changed in recent years, and below we look at a few of the better portable lighting options on the market for those photographers who’ve outgrown the limitations of working with speed lights and want to up the power of their lighting game.

Before we turn our attention to reviewing specific models, however, it’s extremely important to understand that all the portable flash lighting systems reviewed here will get you to the same destination: i.e. they will all allow you to produce equally high-quality images. Indeed you will struggle to notice much difference in the results produced by one kit or another beyond perhaps some slight color-temperature inconsistencies among the cheaper three brands (and this can anyway be very easily fixed in post). Aside from this, the quality of light will depend entirely upon the modifiers you use, and of course your own skills in employing them, not upon your choice of lighting kit.

Unlike a camera or lens, then, what you pay a premium for with flash lighting equipment is power, ease-of-use, and reliability, not image quality. Nonetheless, if you’re a busy pro or semi-pro photographer for whom artificial lighting is central to your image-making process, then power, ease-of-use and reliability are likely features you’ll be happy to pay good money for – there is nothing more stressful than having to fight with subpar equipment on set, especially if a client is present.

What price peace of mind? Ultimately that’s for you to decide, but here we provide the necessary information to weigh up the pros and cons of some of the better lighting systems currently available at different price points.

Godox EX600Go to Amazon
The Godox EX600 is a Chinese designed and built portable flash kit that is powered by NiMH rechargeable batteries. As with many Chinese products, the same kit can also be found with identical specs marketed under different brand names.
Watch video review
Overall rating:
72
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100
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Pros
  • Highly portable
  • Relatively lightweight
  • Grip-handle and shoulder bag for shooting on the move
  • Comes in a convenient shipping case
  • Price is great
Cons
  • Cheap plastic construction
  • Amateurish looking flash-head design
  • Fiddly head-to-pack power-cable plug
  • Likely limited life-span
  • Poor compatibility with accessories and modifiers
  • Useless radio triggers
Click to read the full Review
With a (manufacturer-claimed) output of 600 Ws, the EX600 is clearly several steps up from a regular flash gun for anyone craving more power without losing mobility. The kit comes in a surprisingly nice hard carry-case (so nice I checked to see if they're available to purchase separately, but apparently not) and permits hand-held, stand-free shooting by means of a handgrip on the flash-head and a neat shoulder bag in which to carry the power-pack.

Although the batteries aren't especially lightweight, you're not going to get too tired carrying a couple of spares around with you in addition to the kit, so the EX600 is definitely a good option for traveling photographers who need to bring their own light source to off-the-grid locations. Recycling speed is acceptable, if not super fast at full power, and output is controlled via buttons on the powerpack, with the 9 increments displayed by a red LCD counter that is sufficiently clear to be read at a glance.

Aside from the rather cheap plastic construction - which is in any case only to be expected at this price point - my number one gripe with the EX600 is the lack of a regular reflector dish that will accept standard modifiers. Instead, the front of the head is covered in clear plastic, which protects the flash tube but looks rather amateurish and (more problematically) doesn't allow, say, the attachment of a honeycomb-grid other than by duct-taping it directly onto the front of the head. Not a particularly elegant solution.

Also, while we're on the subject of unprofessional looking design elements, the plastic molded handgrip may occasionally have it's uses, but it really does make the head look more like some kind of toy than a serious piece of photographic equipment. I should point out, though, that this is purely an aesthetic issue: inside the handgrip is a regular thread for mounting the head onto a lighting stand, so it doesn't in any way compromise utility (in fact, quite the opposite). It sure looks lame though.

I unreservedly recommend throwing away the included radio-slave transmitter right out of the box, as it has a transmission distance that is even shorter than the included PC sync-cable (I'm exaggerating of course, but not by much) and is therefore completely and utterly useless. However, half-decent third-party transmitters are cheap and totally compatible with the EX600s via the mini-jack socket, so it's not really a problem worth worrying about.

Finally, I'm not a huge fan of the proprietary connection between the power-pack and the head either, as, until you've gotten used to the system, it can be a pain to get the pins to line up exactly right. On the plus side however, once the tightening ring is screwed into place, the fit is very secure and it's clear that the cable isn't going to get yanked out by accident at any moment.

The durability of Godox products in the field has been put into question by some photographers (there have been very occasional reports of EX600s inexplicably dying on the job, so make sure you buy from a dealer with a good warranty), consequently they're unlikely to make for a good long-term investment. For the most part though, the EX600s get the job done, are very easy to use, and if you can live with the slight risk of reliability issues, then you can certainly get a good collection of lights together for relatively little money by going the Godox route.
Jinbei: HD 600 II (AKA Flashpoint: RoveLight 600)Go to Amazon
The HD 600s aren't going to win any design awards, but Jinbei definitely get higher marks for trying than Godox. It's another Chinese product, and once again available under at least two different brand names, but the HD 600's (still plastic) construction quality is perhaps a little better than with Godox, and the fact that these are portable, battery-powered monolights, while by no means innovative in itself, is pretty impressive for a product in this price bracket.
Watch video review
Overall rating:
72
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100
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Pros
  • Battery contained in the head, no bulky external generator pack
  • Relatively lightweight
  • Uses Bowens accessory mount system
  • Grip-handle
  • HSS mode
  • Price
Cons
  • Battery is in the head, increasing the risk of the light falling over
  • Inconvenient proprietary stand-mount system (unless purchasing in the US)
  • Relatively slow recycle times
  • Recycle mode resets each time power is turned off
  • Anachronistic radio-trigger
Click to read the full Review
For sure, there are risks associated with putting all the weight of a heavy battery in the flash-head instead of a separate power-pack - so use these with weedy, short-legged $40 lighting stands at your peril - but if you need to get a lot of gear into a small space (i.e. for longhaul travel) then the reduced bulk of the HD 600s is an absolute godsend and will likely render largely irrelevant any concerns about balance.

The HD 600 offers adjustable power of 1/1 to 1/128 in 1/3 increments and when freshly charged will give out 500 full-power flashes before needing a battery change - which is considerably more than even some quiet expensive competitors can manage. The batteries themselves are quick and easy to switch out. Recycle times are somewhat less impressive however: 3.5-4.5 seconds at full power. There is an option to switch between slow and fast recycle modes (with a corresponding increase in battery drain, naturally). This might at first seem like a handy feature, in reality, however, it can be pretty irritating in the field, as the HD 600 automatically resets to the default mode (i.e. slow) each time you turn the monobloc off.

The 5W LED modeling light is a nice touch that reduces battery drain, and the ability to remotely adjust power settings from the trigger is pretty handy. Having said this though, the trigger itself seems a little out-dated and lo-fi when compared to the rest of the set-up and probably should have been given a bit of a makeover before being included in what is otherwise a fairly sophisticated lighting kit. As it happens though, if you want to make use of the HD 600's High-Speed Sync capabilities, then you're going to need to buy another trigger anyway, as HSS mode will only work if you have a transmitter specific to your make of camera.

Another irritant is the inconvenient and unnecessary proprietary system that the Jinbei employs for mounting the light on a stand. Not only does this offer no apparent advantage over a standard, generic mount, but is also a pain to install and has been reported by some users to become loose over time. However, for buyers in the US - where this light is marketed under the name Flashpoint RoveLight 600 - a Bowens-mount version is also available. For everyone else though, it's the rickety Jinbei mount or nothing.

On a more positive note, it's worth stressing that light modifiers attach to the Jinbei by means of a Bowens mount, thus opening up an enormous range of affordable accessories from numerous third-party manufacturers.
Paul C. Buff: Vagabond Mini Lithium with Einstein 6400 flash-headGo to Amazon
While there's something of a jump in price between the previous two products and Paul C. Buff's Einsteins, these US-manufactured lights are clearly also in another league with regards to build quality.
Watch video review
Overall rating:
78
Price:
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100
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Pros
  • 2 Year warranty and great customer service
  • Relatively high output
  • Fast recycle times
  • Power pack accepts regular plugs, so can be used to power anything
  • Convenient LCD display
  • Better build quality than comparably-priced competitors
  • Good price-quality ratio
  • Wide range of accessories/light-modifiers available
Cons
  • Inconsistent color temperature and output levels
  • Build quality vastly inferior to higher-priced competitors
Click to read the full Review
What really makes the Einsteins stand out as a better investment, though, is Paul C. Buff's well known customer service ethic. Sadly Mr. Buff himself passed-away last year, but in his absence the company appears to be continuing to honor its commitment to providing clients with exceptional support, with access to very cheap spares and repairs offered even beyond the two year warranty period (only one year for the Vagabonds). Of course, at this price, we're still very far from top of the range here, and anyone who invariably submits their equipment to a punishing and incessant work regime might want to consider investing a little more money in order to achieve total peace of mind. Nonetheless, the Einsteins are serious tools for serious photographers and there's little else around at this price point that can compete with them, so lets take a look at precisely what these lights have to offer.

First off, these are older style pack-and-head combos, not the now increasingly fashionable compact battery-powered monobloc set ups of the kind that we saw from Jinbei above. However, while this means extra bulk, in the case of the Vagabonds it also means added versatility, as the Einsteins use a regular power cable rather than the unique, proprietary plug systems seen on most other portable flash kits. This means that pretty much any other electrical-powered equipment you can think of can be plugged into the Vagabond packs - making shooting with high powered flash while also tethered to a computer a viable option even in the absolute middle of nowhere. The fact that a Vagabond Mini has two power sockets is also very convenient.

Another point in the Einsteins' favor is that they offer a slightly higher output than most of the other lights we look at here. The jump of 400 Ws might not be enough to warrant purchasing the Einsteins if they aren't meeting your needs on all other fronts, but that little extra bit of juice is certainly a point in their favor once all other aspects have been considered.

Output is controlled by means of buttons on the back of the head and changes in power are visible via a user-friendly LCD display. These controls allow for a 9-stop adjustment between the lowest (2.5 Ws) and highest (640 Ws) settings and the manufacturer claims that the Vagabonds will power 400-500 full-output flashes before the battery must be changed or recharged, which is towards the higher performance end of the five lights we look at here. Unfortunately, several users have reported inconsistent color-temperature and output levels on several Paul C. Buff products, including this particular set-up. Whether this is a major deal-breaker for you or not will no doubt depend on your particularly needs and workflow, but its nonetheless an issue that anyone considering purchasing the Einstein kits should be aware of.

While the mounting system employed on the Einsteins is perhaps not the most convenient in the world, and is also proprietary (therefore narrowing down your options somewhat), Paul C. Buff actually offer a very good choice of quality and convenient modifiers at reasonable prices so this is probably not as serious a problem as it is with some other manufacturers' proprietary mounts. Also, one nice touch with the Vagabond packs is that they come with a clamp so that they can be attached halfway up a light stand, thus resolving the problem of how to get a short-cabled flash-head positioned up high when there's no similarly high vantage point nearby on which to place the power pack.

As we've already mentioned, build quality is superior to that of products lower down the price range, but Einsteins are still made of plastic and are highly unlikely to prove as hard-wearing and sturdy over time as either Profoto or Broncolor products. The control buttons and LCDs on the back of Einstein heads are particularly susceptible to damage whilst in transit, so if you're a pro shooter you might want to bring along a spare kit for safety's sake, or risk potential disaster.

(Photo of Paul C. Buff Vagabond packs and Einstein 6400 heads by Zarien Santiago via flickr)
(Photo shot using Paul C. Buff Vagabond Mini by Kenneth Swoger via flickr)
Profoto B1Go to Amazon
Profoto's designers and technicians evidently begin each new project by taking a step or two back, drawing a few deep breaths...and then throwing out the entire history of photographic lighting. Following tradition is not a priority with this Swedish company, while making well thought out, practical tools that get the job done clearly is.
Watch video review
Overall rating:
72
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100
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Performance:
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Pros
  • TTL control
  • LED modeling lamp
  • Fast recycling times
  • Small batteries, cheap to replace
  • Rugged, durable build quality
  • Ease of use
  • Intuitive, intelligent Swedish design
Cons
  • Price
  • Relatively low output: 500 W/S
  • Can't be trickle-charged from mains while shooting
Click to read the full Review
This often means re-evaluating accepted wisdom and approaching challenges from a new perspective. It also means not doing things purely because that's just how they've always been done, but rather because it's how it works best.

The result is a range of equipment that has set the standard for professional studio and location lighting for decades. As case in point, while portable monobloc kits are increasingly becoming the norm these days, the B1s were the first self-contained, battery-powered flash-heads to come on the market, causing other manufacturers to play catch-up.

For anyone using Profoto products for the first time, it's their intuitive, no-nonsense and hardwearing design that really stands out (or perhaps doesn't stand out: as it's precisely the fact that they almost become invisible that makes them such a pleasure to work with). In this respect, the B1s are no exception.

These are single-unit monobloc kits with tiny, lightweight batteries that slot into the flash-heads. Output can be controlled TTL, recycling times are fast, and they are totally straightforward and intuitive to use. Construction is top quality and, unlike some of their cheaper competitors, you can be confident that the B1s wont develop any nasty, debilitating afflictions in transit.

Due to it's relatively low output (when compared with other Profoto models), the B1 is very far from being the pinnacle of Profoto's achievements in portable flash lighting design. It is however an excellent, sturdy, reliable and well conceived professional tool that you can be certain will excel at its job whenever called upon to do so. The only noticeable omission is the ability to trickle-charge the batteries from the mains whilst in use inside the heads. Although, in Profoto's defense, the logistics of getting the power from a floor-level mains outlet up to the flash-head - without leaving loose wires dangerously hanging in mid-air to snare unsuspecting models and assistants - perhaps presents too much of a design challenge for even the most practically-minded Swede.

(Photo shot using Profoto B1 by Jeffri Jaffar via flickr)
Broncolor Move 1200 L with MobiLED flash headGo to Amazon
There's a lot to like about the combination of a Move 1200 L and MobiLED head. The number one advantage, as far as I'm concerned, is that at 1200 Ws these lights offer almost twice the output level of the next most powerful kit we've looked at here.
Watch video review
Overall rating:
76
Price:
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100
Weight:
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90
100
Performance:
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97
100
Pros
  • Twice the power of other models reviewed here
  • LED modeling lamp can double as video light
  • Can be trickle-charged while in the studio or on location with mains power availability
  • Well built
  • Fast flash sync speed
  • Fast recycle time at full-power
  • Battery life is great and quick to charge
  • Can power two heads simultaneously
  • Lightweight
  • Long battery life rated for 4,000 charges: Easy to set up and control
Cons
  • Price
  • Fussy proprietary light-modifier mounting system
  • Separate power generator adds extra bulk
Click to read the full Review
This permits shooting with a deep depth of field while also illuminating a large area - something weaker lights will of course struggle to achieve. Secondly, like the Vagabonds above, Move packs can power two heads at the same time, thus allowing for some reduction in bulk when on the road. Although Paul C. Buff's lights still have the advantage here: with their proprietary sockets, the Broncolors will not allow you to run anything other than another lighting head in the second outlet. Naturally, running two heads means draining twice the charge, so clearly doing so will not allow you to run two heads at full power. However, outputs on the Move packs are asymmetrical, i.e. they'll let you alter the ratio of power between one output and the other, so you can have one high-powered key-light and a weaker fill-light firing off the same pack if so desired.

As an extra bonus for anyone who also shoots video, a freshly charged battery will apparently power the bright LED modeling light for a full two hours. Just buy a couple of extra batteries and you can save yourself the bother of purchasing a separate, dedicated continuous-lighting set-up for your motion work.

After all that, is there anything negative left for us to say? Well, if we felt like nitpicking (and at this price, nitpicking is totally justified), then we might mention that the proprietary accessory-mount system is fussy and inconvenient and obligates you to use Broncolor's own modifiers or otherwise fork out yet more money for an adapter in order to use third party options. Also, while more of a matter of personal taste than a fault, some people may prefer to reduce the footprint of their gear by opting for one of the portable monobloc options we've seen here, instead of having to drag separate packs and heads halfway around the world with them. Clearly though these are minor irritations that pale into relative insignificance when compared with all the advantages these kits offer to the professional.

These last two features are already enough to have me sold on the Broncolors, and yet there's more. The batteries have an exceedingly long life-span (Broncolor rates them for 4,000 charges) and will hold their charge for over a year (although we haven't tested the manufacturer's claim here). Even better still, in my opinion, the batteries can be trickle-charged within the Move packs themselves when shooting in a location or studio with access to mains power - which can be a total life-saver if running to a highly ambitious shooting-schedule. Finally, recycle times are fast, as is sync-speed; color and level of output is consistent; the lights are easy to set-up and control; and construction quality is highly convincing.

All things taken into account then, if price were not a consideration, then the Broncolors would be by far and away my no.1 recommendation - and that's coming from someone with a career-long appreciation of everything Profoto*. But of course the reality is that, for us mere mortals at least, price is always a consideration, and these lights are very expensive. If you're a hard-working, high-earning professional photographer shooting on location day in and day out then such an expense is totally justifiable (and paying it a realistic possibility).

For the rest of us? Well, one of the cheaper systems will likely do us just fine.

*Profoto do in fact offer an even more impressive line of portable flash kits than the B1s we review here, which perhaps even outdo the Move/ModiLED combination. However these cost several thousand dollars more than even the Broncolors and therefore are likely not a serious option for most readers. If you've got money to burn, then by all means look into Profoto's top-end equipment, as they are of excellent design and build quality and, beyond the price, there's very little reason not to go with them".

(Photo shot using Broncolor MobiLED flash by Matt Harvey via flickr)
To sum up, then, I think I’ve already made it pretty clear that I generally love Profoto’s products, however if you need more power than the fairly weedy 500 Ws the B1 offers (and are very kind to your gear), then some of the cheaper options we look at here might better meet your needs. At least for a while.

On the other hand, if you can live with a weaker output (and a hefty price-tag) but require an easy-to-use, a heavy-duty portable flash kit that will deliver every single time – no matter the conditions – then the B1 has your name on it and, like all Profoto products is well worth the investment.

Conversely, if you think you might have need of more than just the one flash-head at some point, or if the high power output is a top priority, then you might do well to go with the Broncolor. If you can afford it.

Finally, if you consider an array of weaker multi-directional light sources to be a greater asset to your photographic arsenal than a single high-powered ‘slap’ across the subject, then it’s well worth noting that for the price of even a single-head configuration of Broncolor’s Move 1200 kit you could buy ten (!) of the Godox or Jinbei set-ups we review here – opening up all kinds of creative possibilities (and 12 Jinbeis firing at once will have a collective output that far exceeds the power of a single Broncolor head). Just don’t expect the cheaper systems to last indefinitely.

Well, I hope this review of portable flash-lighting kits proves useful in helping you to narrow down the options. Until next time, happy shooting!

Rating: 3.75 based on 4 Ratings

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Pia Lopez

Pia Lopez

Pia Lopez is a self-taught photographer, architecture student and ArchViz artist. As Editor in Chief of Sleeklens.com, technology and art are two of her passions, which take active part in her professional training. Being an authentic Montevidean, travelling is daily routine; enjoying both the green meadows and urban surroundings as well as the beautiful beaches that are so characteristic in Uruguay's landscape.

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