Band Promos: Options for Location Lighting

DJ and Dave

It's hard to find good help these days.

Q&ASpeedlights? Monolights? Powerpack setups? So many ways to go strobes, so little time. Let's talk about options for flash photography on-location shooting band promos.

Hi Todd,

I really enjoy your website and all the info you provide other photographers. I do have a question though. I was asked recently to do a promo shot for a local band, and have been doing some research on some lighting. I'm trying to decide whether getting a set of Alien Bees or just some hotshoe flashes (Nikon SB-600s) would best suit what I'm trying to achieve.


Hi Julie, thanks for the question. There are a few different options for portable lighting when it comes to location shoots, and each have their own pros and cons. Let's take a look at the main options for on-location lighting for band promos.


Speedlights (or Speedlites) are familiar to most photographers simply as hotshoe flashes, and offer a great entry into multi-light setups with high portability and low-cost.

While small external flashes have been around for decades, what sets the current generation apart is wireless flash triggering by IR, allowing the use of multiple remote flashes set and controlled by a commander unit. Better yet, the output can be controlled via TTL metering in up to three groups, which makes on-the-fly use dead simple.


  • Built-in TTL wireless control from major manufacturers
  • Relatively cheap
  • Small, ultra-portable
  • No cables
  • Powered by AA batteries


  • Powered by AA batteries
  • Relatively low-power
  • Longer recycling times, especially at full power
  • Limited support for specialized light modifiers
  • Limited flexibility/reliability with built-in wireless triggering system
  • Limited number of flash groups via TTL control

Powerpack and Heads Flashes

Pack-and-head flash setups are a system of individual flash heads powered and controlled by a centralized battery unit, called a powerpack. The flash heads themselves are essentially just the flash units and a cooling fan, while flash output for the individual units is controlled manually on the powerpack itself, rather than each head. Elinchrom, Speedotron, and Dynalite are a few examples of common pack-and-head manufacturers.


  • Lots of power
  • Abundant availability of light modifiers
  • Centralized controls for flash output


  • Relatively expensive
  • Lack of TTL support
  • Requires tethered shooting via a sync-cable or wireless triggering
  • Bulky and cabled powerpack system


Monoblocks, or monolights, are similar to a powerpack system, but possess some key differences. Unlike pack-and-head units, monoblocks are decentralized. Each flash unit is self-contained in that it can be plugged directly into AC without the need for an independent power source. Used on location, units are plugged into a battery pack, making them more similar to powerback systems in practice.

In addition, monoblocks feature independent power settings for flash output on the units themselves, rather than on a powerpack. Elinchrom, Alien Bees, White Lightning, and Bowens are popular example of monoblocks.


  • Lots of power
  • Abundant availability of light modifiers
  • Independent unit that can be plugged directly into AC


  • Relatively expensive
  • Decentralized controls for flash output
  • Lack of TTL support
  • Requires tethered shooting via a sync-cable or wireless triggering
  • Bulky and cabled battery system when used on-location

Deciding on a System

For many, the biggest distinction between using speedlights or packs/monoblocks is a tradeoff between power and simplicity.

Speedlights offer a great entry into location lighting due to their high level of portability and easy-to-use wireless controls, all at a relatively low price point. The biggest point against them, in my book, is their lack of power when stacked against dedicated studio strobe models.

Power vs Portability

Ultimately, the issue of power is going to limit the flexibility of your lights. While speedlights offer more than enough power for most indoor and nighttime shoots, while the sun is up, small battery-powered flashes may be underpowered for the job. This point is particularly true with the use of light modifiers; the softer and more diffuse the lighting, the less efficiently you'll be using the flash output.

The relatively low power of speedlights can be overcome in part by using multiple flashes per effective lightsource, but of course this requires multiple units and starts to negate the low cost, simplicity, and portability of small flashes.

For larger strobe units like powerpack systems and monolights, you're going to get a several-stop advantage in terms of being able to stop down and cut daylight over speedlights. This difference is going to mean more creative control over ambient light and/or the ability to stop down. The downside, as stated above, is a more complicated system that requires tethered shooting to the power supplies – one or more battery packs.

Light Modifiers

In addition, a very important distinction between speedlights and the dedicated strobe options is the availability of light modifiers. While this gap is slowly closing, the range of light modifiers for speedlights much more limited than the selection for the larger strobe units. This deficit is particularly true of more specialized accessories that are tailored to the size and power scale of small flashes. Beauty dishes and softboxes

Lighting and Music Photography

So, music photographers: What kind of lights do you use for location lighting, and why? What swayed you to one system or another, or do you mix and match?

In the second part of this Q&A, I'll explain the system of flashes that I use and how they work for me in my portait work.