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Einstein E640 Flash from Paul C. Buff: A Review

Note: This is more a set of impressions than a scientific review. You won't find any specs or technical comparisons, but instead general observations and feelings about this product.

Having owned three Alien Bees for nearly a decade, I finally decided to upgrade to a new flash system. The Alien Bees have served me well - one of them fell from nearly ten feet, slamming onto hard concrete, and although the plastic casing was cracked, the flash itself worked fine after that. I've put the Bees through hundreds of photo shoots and thousands of exposures, and they've never let me down. So, why did I decide to upgrade?

One reason was simply the length of time I had used the flashes - almost ten years. Although they worked OK, I was becoming increasingly concerned about 'pushing them too far.' They were still working fine, but starting to exhibit signs of wear - crackling electrical sounds now and then, plus a broken fan in one of them. I had heard horror stories of the capacitors in flashes breaking down, and making a loud sound like a gunshot. Another concern was color inconsistency. After reading about the poor color consistency of Alien Bees, I finally tested it for myself, and sure enough, the lights are pretty inconsistent, especially when shooting at a lower power.

Having decided to purchase a new set of flashes, the next question was, which brand? It seems that Broncolor is the best of the best - most consistent, reliable, powerful, not to mention they have the prettiest design. But the price is quite high, unless you need the action-stopping capability of a flash like the Scoro. Profoto is another great brand - the universal standard for flashes. A flash like the D1 Air is quite reasonably priced, although you must factor in the cost of accessories - simple things like honeycomb grids or electrical cords are very expensive in the world of Profoto. Also, although I admire the D1 Air's austere and elegant industrial design, I couldn't see any other advantages over the Einstein. There are many other flashes available - Elinchrom, Comet, and many smaller brands, but none of these inspire much of an emotional response on my part - they seem to simply 'getthe job done,' and little more.

I chose the Einstein for several reasons. One was obviously the price; since Paul C. Buff sells directly, without any retail middleman, he can keep prices incredibly low. Another reason was the ability of the Einstein to switch between 'color mode' and 'speed mode' - you can choose whether you want extremely accurate colors, or very short flash durations. And finally, although the Alien Bees weren't perfect, they had served me quite well over the years, and I wanted to continue using products from the same company.

So, how do I like them so far? I've only had them for several months, but here are a few observations:

-The build quality is surprisingly good, a huge step up from the Alien Bees. High quality plastic, and a rugged feeling to them.

-I am also surprised by the design. After looking at pictures of the Profoto D1 Air, which looks like the flash James Bond would use if he were a photographer, I was worried that the Einsteins would look too much like toys. However, I'm pleasantly surprised that in real life, they look cooler and sleeker than I had imagined.

-The electronic menu, although a little confusing at first, gives you a great deal of valuable information, and is very well thought-out.

-As expected, when in 'color mode' the colors are indeed extremely consistent, regardless of the power setting of the flash.

-Photographers are always concerned about how powerful a flash is, but what about how weak it can be? One of the greatest characteristics of the Einstein is that you can shoot at 1/64 of full power. This way, I can shoot wide open, the flash very close to the subject, without having to use neutral density filters.

-The Commander system works fabulously. Until now, I've been using only Pocket Wizards, and one of the nice differences is that the PCB system is so tiny and light, compared to the relatively bulky Pocket Wizards.

-The customer service at PCB is outstanding. When I first started using these Einsteins, I had an issue where the slave eye (little white thing on top of the flash) was picking up signals from an overhead fluorescent light, and causing the flash to fire rapidly. I inquired about this to PCB, and got immediate responses from staff who seemed genuinely concerned. This is always a good reason to go with 'the underdog.' (By the way, if you should encounter this slave eye problem, the solution is simple: turn off the slave eye in the menu.)

-Anything negative to be said? Well, the recycle time for full power still leaves something to be desired - it takes 1.7 seconds. Not exactly the same as the Broncolor Scoro, which can produce ten flashes per second at full power! Then again, most photographers simply won't need the capability of a Scoro flash.

Altogether I'm very happy with this flash - very logically designed, from the ability to choose 'color mode' or 'speed mode,' to the LCD interface, which is a unique item for flashes, to the Cyber Commander system, which works great and is incredibly compact. And don't forget, PCB accessories like softboxes, beauty dishes, etc. are reasonably priced, well-designed and durable.

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