Unless you’re a professional photographer, having portable battery power packs for your monoblock strobes has usually been a bit out of reach of the budget for the average photog. Even if you could afford to plunk down your hard-earned cash, you probably wouldn’t want to lug those heavy battery packs around anyway. Well, this is no longer an issue. Thanks to Paul C Buff, for about $240 USD (plus shipping), you can have your very own portable battery pack that will power your AC powered monoblock strobes.
Does this sound too good to be true? Well, when things sound too good to be true, you can usually bet that they are. But read on, you may be surprised by this little powerhouse. I know I was.
First let’s get the particulars out of the way. The Vagabond Mini is the latest battery powered inverter produced by Paul C Buff. For those who don’t know, Paul C Buff produces several flavors of monoblock strobe including the very popular Alien Bees Strobes and Einstein strobes. They also supply all manners of light modifiers for their strobes including umbrellas, softboxes and just about everything in between. If you’re in the market for some affordable monoblocks you’ll want to check out the Paul C Buff website. Ok, enough free advertising for Mr Buff…. back to the Vagabond Mini.
The Vagabond Mini is the third generation of battery power supply made by Paul C Buff. This unit features a lithium battery and power inverter in a very small and lightweight package. To get a sense of scale take a look at the photo. Sitting next to the Vagabond Mini is a Sunpak 383 Speed light. On top of the Vagabond is a Pocket Wizard Plus II. This thing is very compact. According to the official specs the unit measures 2.75 x 4.3 x 7.8 inches and weighs in at about 3.5 pounds. In simple terms it’s small and light weight. The Vagabond Mini comes in two versions a 120VAC model and an international 240VAC model. Both have the same specifications and the same price tag. The unit I purchased was the VM120 (the 120VAC version).
When you unpack the VM120 you’ll find the Lithium battery pack already installed on the Vagabond Mini power inverter. A carry strap also comes pre-installed by the factory. Also included is a charger and a spring-loaded clamp for securing the Vagabond Mini to your light stand. I use the term “securing” very loosely in this case as you will see later on in the review. You also get the usual paperwork included with everything you buy (yep, the stuff that no one ever really reads).
On the face of the unit you’ll see two AC sockets that will accept a standard AC plug. Between the two sockets is the on/off switch. Below the left side socket there is a grounding socket. The funny thing is that there is no mention of this grounding socket in the documentation and there is no ground wire/cable shipped with the unit. Directly below the on/off switch are 3 LED lights that indicate the state of the battery charge. Below the right side AC socket is a 30 amp fuse and the charging port. Below the charging port is a handy USB port which will allow you to charge your USB capable devices like your MP3 Player or your cell phone. Next to the USB port is a LED that glows when the power is switched on.
The unit comes with a carry strap attached which is useful if you want to carry the Vagabond Mini over your shoulder, but I think most people will opt for a different method of use. As an alternative, a spring-loaded plastic clamp is included in the kit. This is the only part of the unit that requires any assembly. Assembly is fairly simple. The tension of the spring clamp is adjusted by using the thumb screw. Tightening the screw will increase the spring tension. But as I was using this inverter, I was a bit fearful that the unit would fall off my light stand. There should be a more secure way to attach this to the light stand if you ask me…
Here you see the Unit attached using the supplied clamp. I have the bottom of the Vagabond Mini resting on the base of the light stand. The clamp just doesnt wrap around the stand enough to give you that “secure” feeling.
On the bottom of the unit is the battery lock/release button. This releases the battery from the inverter. The battery slides off the inverter fairly easily and re-installs the same way. A nice feature is that the connection between the battery and the inverter uses the same connectors as the charger. So, you can either charge the battery attached to the unit or detached from the unit. This would come in very handy if you opted to buy an additional battery.
The manual recommended that the battery be charged right away after receiving the unit. I actually followed the directions in this instance because I had a torture test in store for the VM120 and I wanted to be sure the batter was topped off to the max. The charger is an inline block type with a detachable AC power cord. The charging end is fitted with a black and red connector that fits into the face of the Vagabond Mini so you can charge the battery without removing it from the inverter. The nice thing is that the battery has the exact same connector that is found on the front of the unit so you can remove the battery and charge it separately. This would come in handy if you had a spare battery. There is an LED indicator on the charger. The LED is green when it’s plugged in so you can tell it’s working. When you attach the battery and it needs charging, the LED will turn red to indicate that the unit is charging. When the LED turns green again the battery is full.
The battery was partially charged when I received the unit so it really didn’t take long for the battery to reach full charge. Once the unit was charged i dug out some of my gear and decided to put this little battery pack to the test.
For my testing I pulled out a generic light stand, a pair of pocket wizards, a Paul C Buff Alien Bees 800 monoblock strobe and my backup camera, a Pentax K-7. I wanted to use the interval shooting mode built into the K-7 and my K-5 was tied up on another project. After setting up the Alien Bees 800, light stand and pocket wizard, I plugged in the Vagabond Mini and switched the power on. It is recommended that any modeling light be turned off when using the Vagabond Mini so I switched off the modeling light as not to skew the testing. After setting up the light and power source, I set the camera to shoot 99 shots at a 5 second interval. This let me keep track of the progress of the testing and gave the Vagabond Mini more than ample time to recycle the flash. After each set of 99 shots I popped off one more flash to round it out to a neat 100 flashes at full power before starting the next series.
Once the shutter was pressed on the camera the testing was totally automated. While the camera was doing its thing I was timing the recycle time of the flash by watching the “OK” light on the back of the flash. When the flash fires this light goes out and when it recycles it turns green. During the entire duration of the testing I randomly checked the recycle time and for my Alien Bees 800, the recycle time was consistently just about 3 seconds for a full power flash. I thought this was pretty good. But after checking the specs on the Paul C Buff web page I found that the Vagabond Mini wasnt quite living up to the advertised specifications. The Alien Bees 800 unit is advertised as a 320 Ws unit. The specification for the Vagabond Mini claims a recycle time of 1.5 seconds to recycle 320 Ws. Well I can tell you that my Alien Bees 800 was definitely not recycling in 1.5 seconds. But, I really can’t take too many points off for this. A recycle time of 3 seconds at full power is plenty quick enough for just about everything I would ever do. It would be nice, however, if the unit did recycle the flash as advertised. Ok, so the Vagabond Mini had a bit longer than advertised recycle time, but how many full power flashes was it able to produce before going dead as a doornail? When I started the 6th series of 100 flashes I have to say I was impressed. After 500 flashes it was still going strong. I didn’t think this little thing would last as long as it did. When I started the 8th series I have to say I was a bit in awe of this little powerhouse. It just finished up 700 flashes and was looking to go into round 8. But about halfway through round 8, I finally knocked out the lithium battery pack and it was dead. I had to check the camera to see how many frames had an image where the flash fired and I counted 40 so my official count was 740 full power flashes on an Alien Bees 800 unit. I have to say that this little unit really impressed me.
The good news and bad news:
First the bad news. The mounting clip sucks, plain and simple. An adjustable velcro strap would have been much more elegant than the supplied plastic spring-loaded clip. The included clip does work but if you bump or move your stand the wrong way you might wind up dumping your Vagabond Mini onto the deck. There are some work arounds however so this shouldnt be a big issue. Also, I was a bit disappointed that the recycle time is twice as long as advertised. I really don’t have a problem with a 3 second recycle time but with a 1.5 second advertised recycle time, well, I have to say it’s a bit disappointing. But once again, not enough to get worked up about.
Now the good news.
The Vagabond Mini Lithium went seven and a half rounds in my torture test and racked up 740 full power flashes on my Alien Bees 800 unit before running out of gas. That’s pretty darned impressive in my book considering the size and weight of this unit. The weight of the unit is another total win. The VM120 weighs in at only 3.5 pounds so it is really a powerhouse of a unit in a small package. Another plus is that it can power up to 4 Paul C Buff flash units. Your mileage may vary with non Paul C Buff units. Of course using 4 flashes on this will put a pretty big dent in the total number of flashes before you drain the battery but that just brings us to another plus. The battery is removable and spare batteries are inexpensive. You can pick up a spare battery for the Vagabond Mini for $90 USD. With a few spare batteries you should be able to shoot all day with one Vagabond Mini. The USB charging port is a very nice addition to the unit allowing you to charge your cell phone or other device that would normally charge using a USB connector.
As you can see, the positives far outweigh the few negatives of the Vagabond Mini Lithium. My opinion is that this unit is well worth the investment.