The Buff is gone

BitDepth#983 for April 07, 2015

Paul C Buff, creator of the White Lightning and AlienBees line of strobe units.
Paul C Buff, creator of the White Lightning and AlienBees line of strobe units.

Photography lost one of its best minds last month with the passing of Paul C Buff, the creator of a cost-effective line of strobe units.

The products, most notably the budget, plastic-shelled and vividly coloured Alien Bee units, have become the de facto choice for local photographers ready to start moving up from camera mounted speedlights.

Buff died in Alabama at the age of 78 after a long career that began in a recording studio and ended up engineering a line of studio strobe units that implemented useful features while keeping an eye on the cost of the units.

I’d discovered his strobes in an early issue of Photo District News, the photographer’s trade journal that was then published on newsprint and featured bright, confrontational advertisements for Buff’s first units, the WL 5,000 and 10,000.

Paul Conrad Buff built monolight flash units that sold for US$250 at the top end and offered around 240 wattseconds worth of power, roughly four times the output of a standard speedlight.

The trade offs were clear. The units were ugly, basically a saucepan with a reflector, capacitors and circuitry packed behind it and an ordinary household bulb for a modelling light, the guide lamp that makes studio work an easier proposition.

The first White Lightning units would be laughed out of the business if they showed up for sale today, but compared with the cost of equivalent units from other manufacturers when monolights were rare and the standard for local shooters were expensive Bowens monolights built in the UK, they proved to be the ultimate disruption of the marketplace.

Strobes in 1980 were a dauntingly expensive proposition and monolights, units with all the technology built into a single box, were not the standard they are today.

Most photographers wrestled with powerful but ungainly pack and head units, which offered a small strobe head attached to a octopus trail of wires leading back to a big box that delivered the electronic punch to fire them up.

Buff’s first units were homely, but powerful and affordable, and the company cemented that proposition with an unusual sales and marketing strategy.

Right from the start, Paul C Buff Inc skipped the retail channel in favour of a direct to customer strategy. You bought your gear from them, spoke to them if there was a problem and got your stuff repaired by them if it went wonky.

I bought my first pair of strobes from them in 1984, if I remember correctly, though the official purchaser was my cousin William Aguiton, who travelled regularly on hotel business.

Back then, he had the credit card, the ready suitcase, the interest in photography and the patience with me to organise the process.

I’d eventually end up with four of the units, sparking Bill’s interest and that of my colleague Garth Murrell, who also soon became customers of the company.

Just about the only thing I’ve never bought from the company are their now discontinued Zeus pack and head units or their fancy new digitally managed Einstein strobes, marvellous little units that set a new standard for functionality and efficiency in a small monolight.

Since that first purchase, I’ve had to deal with the company around ten times, most recently last week, and the service has remained exemplary across the three decades that I’ve had to contact them.

Two of those WL 10,000 units are still in occasional service in my studio and when they fail, I can rely on a deep discount on replacement units from the company.

I’ve never met Mr Buff, and I’m only familiar his startlingly red hair and bluntly outspoken writing, but I’ve come to appreciate and depend on the character he infused into his products and his company, with its unflagging dedication to customer satisfaction.

Both have helped me to become a better photographer, the dependable products offering a solid foundation for work and his business approach an inspiration to serve with dignity and dedication.