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AlienBees AB400 or AB800: which is better for newborn photography?

Which light is best for newborn photography?

First of all, there are many strobes which are wonderful for newborn photography. This entry only explores the differences between the AlienBees AB400 and AB800 by Paul C. Buff. These are both wonderful, sturdy lights available at low cost, which makes them a great starter for a new newborn photographer. Einsteins, also by Paul C. Buff, are also popular choices, but more expensive as they have greater range.

How is light output is measured in strobes?

We are used to measuring lightbulbs in terms of watts, but watts are truly a measurement of power. This is why LED and CF bulbs are measured as being the “equivalent of” a standard watt bulb. Strobes are measured in terms of watt-seconds: the energy equivalent to the power of one watt sustained for one second. This is still a measure of energy, however, and the actual output of the strobe is dependent on the efficiency of the unit, as well as the modifier used on the strobe. Adorama has an excellent video comparing a number of different strobes showing how their output affects the images you can take. Their recommendation for a small space is a range of 300-500W. Fortunately, in compared the AB400 and AB800, we are dealing with the same design and the same modifier, so it simplifies out question.

What is the light output of the AB400 and AB800?

The AB400 has a range of 5W to 120W, and the AB800 has a range of 10W to 320W. A common myth is that the highest output of the AB400 is equivalent to lowest setting on the AB800, but that clearly isn’t the case. In fact, only 4% of the range of the AB400 is not duplicated in the AB800, while the AB800 has twice the output capability of the AB400 on the high end of the range!

So what does that actually look like?

I’m so glad you asked! Please give a warm welcome to my favorite little model, my Stand In Baby, currently in the persona of Sibastian! These are all SOOC images, with no adjustments.

SIS - Stand in Baby on white flokati rug on back

AlienBees AB400 at f 5.6 and just over 1/2 power


SIS - Stand in Baby on white flokati rug on back underexposed

AlienBees AB400 at 2.8 and minimum power


SIS - Stand in Baby on white flokati rug on back

AlienBees AB400 at f2.8 and 1/3 power


SIS - Stand in Baby on white flokati rug on back

AlienBees AB400 at f10 and full power


SIS - Stand in Baby on white flokati rug on back

AlienBees AB800 at f2.8 and minimum power

For all of these images, I used my Westcott Shallow Softbox 54 x 72″, which is almost touching the edge of my beanbag stand to my right. Because of the tripod I was using for my camera, my light was a little further over than I would usually have it, so you can see a bit more shadow in the eyes than usual. I also felt that that helped with being able see the shadows on the subtle-featured SIB. Also note the changes in white balance from image to image as the power of the light changes, primarily in the green/magenta tint. That’s an important thing to watch for and correct for in your own images if you’re changing power during the session.

As you can see, the AB 400 has a range from about f10 down to somewhere below 2.8. I didn’t want to complicate the results by switching lenses, but you can see the 2.8 is underexposed by about 1.5 stops, so about 1.8. I shot all of these images with my Canon 24-70 at a focal length of 30mm and ISO of 50.

So which strobe is better for newborn photography??

Well, that depends! The AB400 will do just fine for newborns, but may feel underpowered at times. This will be most noticeable if you photograph older babies, toddlers, maternity, or families (even newborns with families). This is because your light will usually be farther away from your subject in other kinds of photography. You may find you need to go below f10 to f5 or 6, or to increase your ISO to compensate.

The AB800 is much more versatile, with more than twice the range of the AB400. At it’s lowest setting it accommodates shooting wide open with a large modifier close to a newborn. At the high end can accommodate much greater depth of field at more distance. It is well worth the extra $50!


Heather Glude is an award-winning newborn photographer who offers newborn, baby and maternity photography in her studio in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle.