Guided Tour of a Monolight

This page describes the basics of a monolight. I'll go through one particular model of monolight in detail, to explain the features it has. Most monolights offer fairly similar features, though they vary in their flash output, flash output controllability, modeling light and modeling light controls, sturdiness and construction quality, and perhaps other features.


Here's a monolight. It's a Photogenic 1250, a 500 Watt-second light. As far as price and features go, it's a step or two above the cheapest monolights, but well below the top end equipment available. It sells for about $400.00 by mail order.

You can see the clamp on the bottom of the light, designed to go on a lightstand. The lever on the top end of the clamp loosens and tightens a pivot, allowing you to tip the light to point it upwards or downwards when on a stand.

The flash tube is on the far end, covered by a black plastic "capitol dome" looking protective device. Since the flash tube and modeling light get very hot in use, it's recommended to avoid touching the glass. Skin oils will cause problems with the glass, shortening the life of the modeling light and flash tube. If you DO need to handle the glass, it's recommended to wear gloves and/or use a clean cloth between your hands and the glass. I always keep the plastic dome covering the glass during transport and storage.

You can see a carrying handle on the back of the light, along with a control panel (details below). On the bottom of the light, there's the AC power cord socket, a little round fuse holder, a jack for a digital power level display (the jack looks a bit like a telephone jack), and a cooling fan.

Control Panel

Here's the control panel on the back of the light.

On the right side you see the power switch, the sync jack, and the slave window.


If nothing is plugged into the sync jack, then the slave is active. An electric eye keeps watch and fires the monolight the instant any flash is fired in the vicinity. But if anything is plugged into the sync jack, then whatever is plugged into the sync jack controls the light, and the slave is inactive. The light comes with a cord that has a PC connector at one end and a 1/4 inch plug at the other, so the monolight can be fired directly by any camera that has a PC socket. If you wanted to use a radio slave, a sync cord, or any other flash triggering device, you'd plug it into the sync jack. I usually prefer to let the built-in slave trigger the monolights, and I trigger the slave using a small, fast-recycling flash on my camera's hotshoe, with a #87 infrared filter taped over it. That way no cords are attached to my camera.

In a typical studio, you just need to figure out some way to trigger one flash, and let the others be trigged by their built-in slaves. But in a public situation where other cameras are being used, such as a wedding, you may want to investigate radio slaves or some other more "private" way of triggering your flashes.

Flash and Monolight Power Controls

The two slider controls across the top control the flash power and the modeling light power. They both offer continuous stepless control from full power to 1/32 power. The flash control is the top one, seen here set at 1/16 power. The modeling light control is the bottom slider, set at 1/2 power. There are three buttons below it to select various ways of setting the brightness of the modeling light. When the "manual" button is pressed, the lower slider controls the modeling light. When the "Track" button is pressed, then the lower slider is ignored, and the upper slider controls both the modeling light and the flash power simultaneously (the modeling light "tracks" the flash power). Push the track/set button one more time and you can set the point at which the modeling light goes to full brightness. The "Full on/off" button allows you to turn the light all the way on or all the way off. The LEDs above the buttons tell you how the modeling light is being controlled.

Most cheaper monolights don't offer as much flexibility in setting the power of the flash and modeling light.

Other Controls

The "Flash Indication" is a feature which swings the modeling light up to full brightness and down to full off a couple of times as the flash is recycling after it fires. This feature confirms to you that the flash really did fire, in case you missed seeing it while the picture was being taken.

The "Test" button just fires the flash. Next to it is a readylight that lights up when the flash is ready to fire. Since the recycle time is only about a second and a half (quicker if you're using partial power), you don't end up checking the readylight so often as you would on a battery operated flash.


Here's the monolight firing into an umbrella. Note the protective cover has been removed from the flash tube, and replaced by the metal reflector. The two little levers on top of the light release the reflector or protective cover. The reflector has a small hole in it for the umbrella shaft to go through. The umbrella shaft goes through a clamp at the bottom of the light.

Flash tube

Here's a close-up of the monolight's flash tube. It's covered by a protective glass shell. The modeling light is a long narrow quartz-halogen bulb running up the very middle. The flash tube is the glass tube with a wire spiraled around the outside of it, encircling the modeling light.

The bright white octoganal-shaped thing in the middle of the modeling light is the reflection of the umbrella which was providing light for this picture.

Some monolights use standard household bulbs for their modeling lights. This has the advantage of easy availability, but they usually aren't as high powered as the 250 watt quartz bulb you see here. By the time you bounce a 100 watt bulb into an umbrella, there won't be a lot of light to see, unless you keep your studio very dark. (There's not an excessive amount of light from this 250 watt bulb, either.) The small quartz-halogen bulb allows for a more compact head than a standard household bulb would allow.

Comparison to Battery Operated Flash Units

The main differences betweeen the monolight and a battery operated flash such as a Sunpak 383 flash unit are: Further resources for more sophisticated systems can be found on

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