OK so you have your strobe and your ready to unpack it from your box. Here are a few things you should know as a new strobe owner to ensure that you don’t unintentionally damage your new strobe before your get to use it for the first time.
Paying attention to these few tips will enable you to get many years of use out of your strobes and avoid self inflicted pain to yourself, others or your wallet.
Now I know we all flip past that section at the front of every electrical device manual that has the little lightning bolt at the front of it. But, when dealing with any electrical device it is a good idea to be aware of the affects of electricity on you the user. Especially if your using your strobes outside or in damp locations. If your standing in water, and touching your strobe, there is a good chance you could electrocute yourself. So be aware of your surroundings anytime your using your strobes. These units store a lot of voltage in them that is ramped up from the 120v source to several hundred volts. If your in contact with the unit, and a good ground source (ie. wet floor or ground) it could definitely cause a lot of pain or even death to the user. Enough on electrical safety for now, lets discuss preventing failure.
Warm Up and Cool Down
When you get your strobes all set up and are ready to take your first shots, you walk over, flip all the strobes on and start shooting. But something isn’t quite working right, and you can’t figure out why. It is probably because you didn’t let your strobes warm up correctly. Strobes are basically an electronic device and as such, they need to be turned on and allowed to equalized for a while. I turn mine on and let them set for about 10 minutes prior to shooting. This allows the electronics to warm up and insure that the capacitors have had a chance to reach their full capacity prior to the first shot. Then right before I start shooting, I manually fire the strobes 3 or 4 times to make sure they are working and to get the tubes warmed up a bit so they all fire evenly.When you are done shooting you should let your strobes cool down prior to switching the power off. A lot of heat is created during a photo session and if you just turn off your strobes you will risk damaging your unit and shortening the life of your flash tube. Most of the larger units (200w and above) have fans in them that have two purposes. The first is to keep the unit cool during continuous shooting sessions. The second is to cool the lights down when your done to prevent premature failure of the electronics inside the light and prevent premature flash tube failure.
If you have a variable power level strobe, like the Menik, then prior to flipping off that power switch, make sure you reduce the power to its lowest setting during cool down and discharge the flash. Even when powered off the capacitors inside store some energy. So turning them down minimizes the chances of damage to the internal electronics when powered off. This also helps prevent capacitor failure if stored for a long period of time.
Flash Tube Precautions
Flash tubes work by dumping the voltage stored in a capacitor very quickly and creating a power flash of light. This power is contained inside the glass tube part of the flash, giving you the desired burst of light. Though rare, flash tubes have been known to fracture and explode, sending shards of glass flying everywhere. Keeping this in mind, while using them around models, will keep you from injuring yourself or someone else.
The first strobe I received had somehow fractured the flash tube right where the spring clip holds the tube in place during shipping. Being unfamiliar with strobes I didn’t notice it. The first time I fired this unit, instead of the normal flash of light I got a a miniature explosion that sizzled and popped and sent a cloud of smoke into the air. So make sure you check your tubes prior to every shoot to make sure they are intact and properly seated into the socket, especially if you have a quick replacement flash tube like on the Menik strobes.
Heat and Burns and Premature Failure
Another result of flash strobes be fired repeatedly is heat. Aside from the tubes being HOT, you should never touch the flash tube with your bare hands. The obvious result is that you will received an extremely nasty burn. The less obvious result is that when the human hand touches the flash tubes, it transfers your bodies natural protective oils to the surface of the tube. When the tube heats up to extreme temperatures this can create a weak point in the glass and cause tube failure. So at the very least you will dramatically reduce your flash tube life, and at $40-50 a pop this hurts the wallet. At the worst end you have a tube failure described above and risk personal injury to you or others. So make sure you wear gloves or use the tissue paper that most strobe tubes come wrapped in to install or adjust your flash tube.
Weight, Balance and Falling.
Anytime you take a heavy object and place it on top of a small spindly device such at a light stand, you introduce the risk of it falling. Cords laying in the walking areas create a trip hazard that can pull a light over in a split second. Since most of your lights will be connected in some way, you risk knocking everything over in a big expensive, photo op ending mess. One easy way to prevent this is to carry a plain old roll of ‘Duct’ tape with you. Tape those cords down before your let anyone into the photo area. Yes, it’s a pain, but it’s worth it not to have a million dollar lawsuit because your hot strobe fell onto the model you were shooting and scarred her for life. Another alternative is to use rugs that you can roll out over the cords once your setup.
Making sure that the light stands or tripods you are using have enough capacity to reliably support the lights your are mounting on them is critical to light safety. Modifiers like booms and extenders ca greatly reduce the load capacity of your stands as well. If you have a stand capable supporting 20 pounds of equipment on its mount, and you add a boom stand you can reduce its weight holding ability by more than half. Usign counter balance weights or bags are supposed to help, but there is still a stability issue that you as the photographer need to be aware of. Get the right equipment for the job, and make sure you understand its proper operation prior to using it around anyone else.A fairly recent development in lighting systems have been the modular surface mounted units that allow you to mount lights on walls and ceilings. These utilize either tracks or articulated arms that give the photographer a large range of motion when setting up your studio. The major thing to pay attention to here is the way you anchor these devices to the walls or ceilings. Just screwing them into the drywall is not enough you must have anchors that are rated to hold the capacity of the fixures and any devices you will be mounting on them, and they must be screwed into the wall studs. I fyour not sure, hire someone to do it for you.
Transporting Your Lights
If your like me you occasionally pack up your studio and take it on location to shoot. The Menik Sw-400 has a very nice transport cover that twists into the reflector bayonet mount onto the front of the unit. But as I can attest, when I received that first light the strobe tube was damaged even with this in place during shipping. Now you and I are probably not going to be tossing our equipment around as haphazardly as the local UPS guy, but it is still good to take precautions.I have a nice big bag that I can throw my stands, backdrops and lights into to take them where ever I go. It has enough capacity to hold a basic 3 light studio kit with the backdrops, softboxes and several modifiers. I have posted a link at the bottom to one very similair to mine. The most important thing to note is that you want to protect your lights from any hard knocks or damage from being dropped. What I do is place all my hardware, light stands, tripods etc in the bottom of the bag. Them I lay a backdrop across the top of those. I wrap my lights in either bubble wrap or an old backdrop and lay them on top. I then place another backdrop across the top of them and place the lighter items on top. This places the most expensive items in my kit, shot of my camera gear, in the middle of the pack. A pretty safe place for me.
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