Is it possible to spend less than $150 and get a good quality, decent powered studio strobe that has a good feature set, above average build quality and be solid enough for the average amateur to semi pro photographer. I will attempt to answer these questions and more in this hands on review of the “Menik SW-400 Digital Studio Strobe”.
If your here, it is probably because like me you started looking for a set of studio strobes and had heart failure when you found out what they actually cost. Then after some more research you found the Menik Sw-400 and wondered why it is so much cheaper than say an AlienBees® or the Einstein® brands. I wondered the same thing, and after a few weeks of research took the plunge and bought a couple of them to test. The interesting thing was I could not find one single review of these strobes anywhere on the web, so I decided it was times to get one put up.
I am not going to get into the arguments I found everywhere about how much power you need in a studio and the repeatability of strobes etc. What I provide here is real world hands on information about an affordable strobe. Take from it what you will, but be assured, much of the hype about high-end, or even lower high-end strobes, is just that, hype. If I were a professional photographer making a lot of money I wouldn’t be writing these articles trying to save amateur photographers money. Most of us don’t need $500 strobes to get a good family portrait. But you will be amazed at what you CAN get with a $150 strobe unit.
2 Part Review
Because there are a lot of things to cover in the review of a strobe, I am going to break this down into two parts. The first will cover the basic information about the strobe and its controls. The second section will get more in depth about the repeatability and performance of the light.
What is the Menik Sw-400?
The Menik is a ‘400 Watt Photo Lighting Mono Master Strobe Flash Light’, according to the resellers website. The strobe is rated at 400W with a Guild number of 64, which seems comparable to other 400w strobes. These are the specifications right from their website.
- Guild No. 64 (ISO 100)
- Circle flash tube: Color temperature: 5500K, exchangeable, made by PerkinElmer (Heimann).
- Ave. flash bulb life: over 8000 flashing.
- Flash power setting: 1/16 to 1/1 full step less variable with separate switch.
- Recycling time: 0.5~3.7 sec.
- Flash Triggering: Photo cell,Sync cord, and Test button
- Power input: 110 volts, 60 Hz.
- Modeling light: with on/off switch. Bulb included, E27 socket, up to 100 watt.
- Sync.Voltage: DC 12 v.
- Cooling fan: Built-in.
- Audio signal on/off switch. Beep when ready for flash.
- Weight: 3.45kg.
- Power cord, sync cord and an extra fuse are included
After removing the strobe from its packing you notice right away it has some heft to it. It also looks very professional. Many of the units I researched looked like one of those 6 volt flashlights you buy at Walmart with some switches mounted to it. Weighing in at a little under 4 lbs it appears they might have put some decent components inside a pretty compact package. Upon first glance you will notice a protective cap that covers the strobe and modeling light while you store or transport it. This twist locks into place and is made of very sturdy injection molded plastic. The outer housing of the strobe is also plastic, but feels very well built.The blue colored finish almost feels like it has a rubbery texture applied to help make the surface less slippery. User replaceable flash tube
One thing I need to note at this point about the Menik strobe is that the Flash tube itself is user replaceable with no tools. It plugs into the light with two sockets and a spring to hold it in place. If you have never owned a strobe, you have never had to completely disassemble the unit, unsolder the legs of the old flash tube and re-solder in the new one, and hope it works when you get it back together. Or you have shelled out around a $100 to have a shop replace it for you. Having a simple to replace flash tube is a feature usually only found on high end units. I also need to note that it uses a “PerkinElmer (Heimann)” strobe, which are sold at a lot of photography supply warehouses.
Cooling Fan Built In
On the bottom of the unit you will notice a cooling fan that is about 2″ in diameter. When you turn the power on the fan spins up and keeps a decent amount of air flowing over the flash tube and the internal electronics. This is to extend the life of the strobe, the flash tube and allow more flashes in a shorter amount of time. A built in fan is one feature I did not find on any other strobes in this price range. You had to approach the $250 mark to get this option. I will note however that the fans are kind of rough sounding. but they are a standard 2″ fan that should be easy to replace should they fail.
The mount is composed of a molded aluminum piece with a 4 pointed thumbscrew to attach it to your tripod. This is mounted to a Stamped steel bracket that is screwed to the strobe. It is very solid, very comfortable to work with, and sturdy. There is a large Plastic lever that allows you to adjust the horizontal angle of the strobe. The clamping pressure of this seems more than adequate, even with a 16″ x 24″ softbox mounted on the front of the strobe. You will also notice a small thumb screw up under the top of the bracket. This is to allow for the use of an umbrella in the two holes that run horizontally through the bracket.This screw is a little small for larger fingers, and it only accepts 5/16″ umbrella shafts ,but it is still usable.
The rear of the strobe is where all the work is done. The control panel is very attractive compared to other strobes in this price range. It also includes a lot of features that you normally only get in higher end units. The power cord socket on the back is a standard computer power supply style cord socket, with a built in fuse holder that it is located under the power requirement sticker. If you don’t know it’s there you just might miss it. To the left of this you will find a lighted rocker style power switch. To the right of the power cord socket is the “1/4″ Sync Cord Socket”. I think a lot of the other units have started going to an 1/8″ sized connector, but since it comes with the sync cords this isn’t a big deal. But if you try to use a remote unit, you have to make sure you have a 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter plug.
Adjusting the power levels.
Above the Sync socket is the power lever knob that adjusts the power on a 1/2″ red LED readout, from 1.0 to 6.0. This is supposedly a “5-stop aperture, 1/10 energy variable,1/16 to 1/1”, quoting the manual. I will test this in the second part of the review for accuracy. One note is that having a step-less, or completely variable power adjustment level is another feature I didn’t find on any lower end units. The vast majority used either rocker switches or a multiple position rotary switch. Having infinitely variable adjustment really helps a lot when your shooting something like a 2 to 1 power rating for a portrait and want to get it just right.You can use a light meter and tweak to your hearts content until your satisfied.
The Modeling Light
The Modeling light button is located on the top left and allows you to adjust it from off to half and full power. Also by pressing down on the Power level knob for the strobe you can set it to be variably adjustable based on the power level of the strobe. A very nice feature for getting a rough preview of your shot with the modeling lamps. This is where the manual gets tricky. The unit ships with a 75w lamp, the front of the manual says it can have a 150W lamp, and the last page of the manual says 100W. I’ll stick with the 75’s that came with the unit just for piece of mind. No, they aren’t huge modeling lamps like some of the expensive units come with. But I have found them to be more than adequate for the sessions I have been shooting.
Buzz Switch and Test Fire
The Buzz Switch is located right below the modeling light switch. This just turns off the beeping sound that happens when the strobe has reached full charge and is ready to fire again. If your using multiple strobes and taking a lot of pictures, it can get really annoying to hear them all beeping after each shot. But this is a nice feature to have if you need it. Next to the Buzz Switch is the test button. This test fires the strobe manually so you can set your strobe levels with a light meter or using your cameras light meter. Directly above the button is an LED that indicates the status of the strobe charge. Off means it is charging, solid red means it is charged and ready to flash, flashing means it is discharging. That happens when you dial it down from say 6.0 to 1.0, it needs to bleed off the excess charge.
Located on the top right of the panel is the Anti-Red-eye/Photocell Switch. There are also 3 LEDs above it to indicate its status. All light off mean that the internal photo cell will not trigger the strobe when a flash goes off. Pressing the button ones lights up the number 1 LED and this is synchronous flash mode, when the flash on your camera fires, the strobe will flash immediately. Pressing it once more light up indicator 2 that puts the strobe into ‘Protective Anti-Red-eye mode’. This requires the master flash to fire twice before the strobe itself will be triggered. Position three is the same as position 2 but it requires 3 flashes to trigger the strobe.
The last two items are two leds located above the variable power control. These are labeled above the leds with the word Protect. The left one is the “over voltage” indicator, that indicates a problem inside the unit. This is probably a repair shop indicator for most people. The right led is the “over temperature” indicator.This just means you got a little aggressive with your shooting and the unit is too hot. Let the unit cool off and the light will go out, and you may resume shooting at a bit slower pace.
The Top of the Strobe
One of the last two items of interest are the handle on the back of the unit, which makes it very easy to tote around.It is sturdy molded plastic, that I intentionally twisted around, but it didn’t give any indication of breaking. Finally is the red photocell sensor on top of the unit. This is where the strobe picks up on external flashes to remotely fire the strobe. A very nice feature. You can fire unlimited number of strobes using this feature. I use a wireless remote unit to fire one strobe from my camera and it fires my other two strobes and my back light remotely using just the flash of the unit. You need to set up your sync speed on your camera to get this to work just right, but it is worth it to not have cables laying every where to trip on.
This completes the first half of my review of the Menik SW-400. It appears to be a well constructed, solid, feature rich and affordable strobe. Even though it falls into the “Chinese Knockoff” category in a lot of peoples minds, it seems to be a viable contender for some much higher priced name brand models. Only time will tell.
In the second half of the review I will be putting the Menik through its paces. I will be testing the recovery time of the unit. the Lumen level differences between the 3 units I currently own, and anything else anyone may suggest to me. I’ll take some studio shots with them so you can see the actual results of the lights in a production environment.
Till next time keep looking for that perfect shot
Links to the products discussed in this article.
Latest posts by Kevin Woodyard (see all)
- Q-strap (QuickStrap) Double Camera Sling for Digital SLR’s - April 30, 2014
- Merry Christmas From Str8shot Photo - December 20, 2013
- Cowboy Studio 2 channel Remote Trigger - July 30, 2013