The Paul C. Buff Link monobloc studio strobe ($895.95) delivers 800ws of portable power, and deserves consideration from anyone in the United States who is considering a big gun for use on location.
Please note: This is not a full review.
There have been several thorough examples already published — most notably this one by Mike McGee. There are many others, from the usual suspects, a Google search away.
Rather, this is a quick write-up of some first-hand impressions, thoughts and features I have not seen much mention of elsewhere.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Link when you pull it out of the box is that it’s a bit of a beast. At 7 lbs. 8 oz. (without the optional lithium battery — 8 lbs, 11 oz. with) it’s not a lightweight. But as it turns out, there are some very good reasons for the heft.
At 800ws, the Link is more powerful than my longtime workhorse 640ws Einstein e640s, but not tremendously so. That said, it is sporting an extra capacitor which accounts for almost half of a pound of the extra weight.
The bigger differences come into play from the case itself, which is made of metal and designed to be a heat sink for the LED modeling/video light. Because the LED is bright enough to act as a video light source, it can draw up to 75 watts of power. This is the equivalent of a 650w conventional bulb, which is pretty nuts when you consider that it can be powered by a modest-sized attached battery for an hour at full blast.
Without good thermal handling, you’d need a pretty loud fan to dissipate that heat. Internally, the Link makes use of copper heat pipes to shunt the heat generated by the modeling light out to the metal case. These pipes add to the thermal efficiency, but like the metal case, also to the weight. It’s a completely different design than the Einstein, and as a result gives you a very bright continuous light that can run without a loud fan. (The Link does employ a fan, but it maxes out at a very quiet 35dBA.)
The folks at Paul Buff also made the decision to maximize battery life while shooting on location. And in doing so, they opted for a switching power supply as opposed to a voltage multiplier power supply. Switching power supplies use inductors and/or transformers, which include a significant amount of copper and iron.
But that switching power supply is also 90% efficient, meaning you’ll get a lot more flashes out of your battery as compared to the lighter, voltage multiplier power supplies.
Long story short, in addition to very solid overall build quality, you’re getting some carefully considered benefits in exchange for the added weight.
If you are going to be using the Link up high as a key light (and you probably will be) you should consider getting a beefy light stand to give you the confidence to do it safely. PCB makes a 13-foot stand that will do the job nicely.
When used with the Hub Remote (sold separately, and brand-specific, with models for Nikon, Canon and Sony) the Link gives you TTL and high-speed sync. Longtime readers will know that I tend to not use those techniques when lighting. So I’ll leave it to others to talk about that.
But another benefit of using the Hub Remote is that it also enables the Paul C. Buff app, which lets you control the flash’s settings remotely with your smartphone as well as the remote itself.
Paul Buff doesn’t release new flashes very often, and the lengthy product cycles are justified in both the thoughtfulness of their design and the expected long service life of their gear. I have a collection of half a dozen Einsteins that are now a decade old, and show no signs of slowing down even after a ton of use.
The Link has several nice design touches that are worth mentioning. First, the silicone modeling light unifier ensures that the flat LED modeling light and the bare-bulb tube will present themselves to the modifiers in the same way. The unifier attaches and detaches quickly by the use of strong little magnets.
This “bare-bulbification” of the LED modeling light comes at an efficiency cost, for both the LED and the flash output. So, while it is nice to have the modeling light and the flash tube presenting to the modifiers in the same way, if you are not using both features it is smart to remove the unifier.
This is especially true when you are shooting flash outside (and likely not using a modeling light.) Think about it. There’s no reason to have the unifier attached if there is no modeling light to unify. So why knock down your flash output level unnecessarily?
The result of removing the soft dome means that you can work at a lower power setting for the same light output. This gives you both faster recycling times and (by my best estimates) about 40% more equivalent light output flashes per charge.
There are other thoughtful little design touches, too. I love the fact that the light stand mount is positioned so close to the front of the unit. This makes use of the leverage from the Link’s weight to offset the weight of some of your heavier light modifiers — like a large octa, for instance.
And another: the AC power cord plugs in on the bottom, under where the battery slides on. This means there is never any bending strain on either the jack or the cord.
This is a flash built to be relied upon. It’s a heavy duty, top quality piece of gear made by a domestic (for the US market) company who both warranties it for two years and has a great reputation for service after the warranty period as well.
Small flashes (at least the 3rd party ones) are inexpensive enough to have an extra or two as spares. Big flashes? Not so much. For most photographers, every big light we have is likely an essential piece of gear. So, repair availablility and turnaround are much more meaningful things to consider.
That, to me, is enough reason to justify (for instance) using Godox flashes for my small lights and Paul Buff lights for my big ones. (When you live in manual mode, everything works with everything.)
To be fair, if you do live outside of the US the value proposition for Paul Buff gear gets much tougher. They are a very US-centric company. So for for the US folks, the Link (and their other lights, as well) offer after-sale support that China cannot hope to match from 10,000 miles away.
One Last Thing
This may seem a little trivial. But it is something you could easily overlook, so I’m gonna point it out. The Link comes packed in a high-density, closed-cell, top-bottom thick foam shipping surround.
Don’t toss this away! This is a great thing to have for two reasons.
One, it’s obviously useful if you ever need to ship the flash back to Nashville for service. And two, you can wedge this into whatever case you are using to cart your Link around and turn it into a custom-fit flash nest that is damn-near bulletproof for safe transport.
(Why doesn’t everyone do this?)
The Link is the next evolution in a long line of solid Paul C. Buff flashes. It’s a world-class, powerful monobloc that deserves a look from anyone in the US who needs high output irrespective of the shooting location, and the reliability + after-sale service to keep it up and running for a long time.