Paul C. Buff Vagabond Lithium Extreme Review – by Guy Rhodes

Guy RhodesEmployed as a freelance photojournalist since 2004, Guy Rhodes‘ frequent clients include The New York Times, USA Today, and closer to home, The Chicago Sun-Times and The Post-Tribune. Job highlights include covering the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, as well as flying with aerobatic teams covering numerous air shows. Guy earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater/Lighting Design at Columbia College in Chicago, and splits his lighting disciplines between shows for live audiences and lighting for the camera. As director of photography, Guy has completed numerous independent short and feature films, as well as music videos and industrials.

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Lighting portraits on location is arguably one of the favorite things I get to do as a photographer. Because I’m also a lighting designer in the world of theater and concerts, it’s especially gratifying to meld these two worlds together before the lens (I don’t differentiate light in the theater with that from a strobe – it’s all just light to my eyes at the end of the day).

With today’s digital cameras offering clean high ISO’s, a few small Speedlites usually get the job done pretty well with most of my location lighting needs. There are times, however, where a small flash just isn’t going to cut it (say, trying to overpower direct sunlight outdoors from many feet away through an octabank), and an outlet to power monolights or pack systems is nowhere to be found.

I can remember dreaming up a portrait of some high school football players several years ago in front of a rusty scoreboard I’d planned on lighting in the late afternoon, but being left woefully underpowered by my Vivitar 285HV flashes I’d planned on using. To try and accomplish the shot anyway, I brought an Elinchrom 600 w/s monolight and about 300 feet of extension cords to run to a power inverter plugged into the cigarette lighter of my Ford Escape. I quickly realized that monolight strobes are extremely current-hungry electrical devices, and the measly 700 watt inverter I was using wasn’t going to cut it.

Enter the Paul C. Buff Vagabond line of battery-powered inverters specifically for powering strobes in the field. Their operation is quite simple: you have a battery and an and an inverter in a self-contained unit that provides 120V A/C wherever you need it. I purchased a Vagabond II system shortly after my football portrait disappointment, and I’ve used friends’ Vagabond Mini Lithium systems while assisting on several other shoots since that time. When I was offered the opportunity to review the Vagabond Lithium Extreme system, I questioned how things could get better, since the two aforementioned systems performed quite well.

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My first reaction upon unboxing the Vagabond Lithium Extreme unit was being surprised at the colors. A bright teal inverter case and a lavender battery greeted me, and immediately drew comparisons in my mind to my female cousins’ Caboodles makeup cases from the late 1980’s. The last thing I want to do on location is stand out any more than I already do (if it were up to me, all gear would be black), so I was hoping for something a bit more subdued. Thankfully, Paul C. Buff now offers a version of the Lithium Extreme unit in “Cool Grey,” so gear minimalists such as myself will be satisfied. (I should note that my assistant / fellow photographer Leslie absolutely loved the colors of my review unit, so perhaps the folks at Buff are on to something there for a market other than myself.)

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The unit includes two separate 120V outlets up top, along with a USB port for charging up mobile devices on location. I know plenty of photographers that use the Vagabond Mini Lithium units to charger their phones during flights, so that tradition can continue with this unit sans wall-plug adapters! The unit also includes a clamp to attach it to the riser of a light stand. Not only does this get the unit off the ground and out of the way, but it also gives you some extra ballast outside on windy days when using modifiers on your strobes. A three-LED “gas gauge” lets you know the power status of the battery at a glance.

Operation of the unit is as straightforward as you can get. Plug it in and charge it using the included 3-hour rapid charger. Once charged, turn the unit on, plug in your monolight(s), and go. Strobes powered via the Vagabond Lithium Extreme perform exceptionally well, as if they were plugged into a traditional wall outlet. This goes for both Paul C. Buff strobes (I use the Alien Bee B1600 unit) as well as other brands (I also tested the Elinchrom Style 600).

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My Elinchrom units tend to “choke” when recycling on the older Vagabond II unit (the indicator lights on the back of the strobe flicker, along with an audible buzz coming from the unit), but this isn’t the case with the Vagabond Lithium Extreme. It’s truly as if you’re dealing with the lights plugged into a traditional 120V AC line, which is fantastic. The less stressed I am about my gear potentially malfunctioning / running out of power on location, the more relaxed and creative I can be.

Buff rates the Vagabond Lithium Extreme at 500 full power flashes at 640 watt seconds. I didn’t have enough adult beverages on hand to sit and test this number myself, though I can confirm that I have never drained the unit, even after using it across multiple shoots without recharging it. Of course, forgetting to recharge the battery between shoots was 100% intentional and strictly for the purposes of this review!

At the end of the day, there’s not much I dislike about the Vagabond Lithium Extreme. I’ve already mentioned not digging the loud colors, and I’ve mentioned Buff’s solution to this issue by offering another color choice. If you’re looking at this unit for yourself, I’d say you need to purchase the VLX Carry Bag as a default accessory. The review unit I received didn’t come with a bag, and I found myself always needing to find some crate or bag to cram it in when traveling to my locations (the older Vagabond II as well as the Vagabond Mini Lithium both come with carrying bags and or straps as standard accessories).

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The VLX Carry Bag and its accompanying strap also give assistants a means to hold the battery around their shoulders when doing run-and-gun handheld portraits without light stands. Buff does have a disclaimer against the bag being used to hold the unit while in operation, so don’t say I told you to use it for this purpose. I have, however, used the older Vagabond Mini Lithium in just this scenario when assisting other photographers, and the only way to use the Vagabond Lithium Extreme in this way would be with the VLX Carry Bag (or to stuff the Vagabond Lithium Extreme into a backpack). Either way, plan on the carry bag as a standard accessory in your shopping cart.

If I really had to dig for any other issue with the Vagabond Lithium Extreme, it would be that the power switch on the top of the unit isn’t recessed enough to prevent it from being bumped into the “on” position while being transported in a tightly-fitting bag or case. More than once, when transporting the unit in my Think Tank Airport Security 2.0 roller bag, I found the unit on and running (and quite warm from being enclosed) when I got to my shoot, because the power switch had been bumped. To remedy this, I began detaching the battery from the inverter before packing the unit. Perhaps the VLX Carry Bag does a better job of holding the inverter without hugging the power switch so tightly as to bump it (I didn’t have that bag to review, so I can’t tell you for sure), but this is something to look out for if you’re transporting your Vagabond Lithium Extreme by other means.

To sum things up, the Vagabond Lithium Extreme quickly became a trusted piece of my kit, easily up to the task of powering one or more monolights as effortlessly as if they were plugged into a traditional wall outlet. In every scenario I used it in, from the summer heat and humidity of the Alabama bayou, to shoots in the sub-zero Chicago winter chill, the Vagabond Lithium Extreme didn’t miss a beat, and provided ample power for creative strobe lighting on location.

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