Product Review: Vagabond Extreme Lithium and Omni 18-inch Reflector

September 22, 2014

By Scott Neumyer

Paul C. Buff, Inc., maker of Alienbees, White Lightning, and Einstein flash units and accessories, has long had fans in the photography community. While their lighting gear may not be among the most high-end, Paul C. Buff’s offerings have found the sweet spot between great performance and affordability. Amateurs and semi-pros love their products for the simple, intuitive learning curve, while professionals dig their reliability, durable design, and world-renowned customer service.
So we couldn’t wait to get a hold of the company’s two newest products when they were announced earlier this year. In addition to a brand new 18-inch reflector that goes by the name of Omni, there’s also an “extreme” upgrade to Paul C. Buff’s tried-and-true Vagabond series of portable battery units. The Vagabond Lithium Extreme might not carry the same sheer size as the Omni (and that’s a good thing), but it’s clearly the star of the show here.
If you’ve ever owned a Vagabond battery unit from Paul C. Buff, then you already know that they are reliable, powerful, and can take quite a beating. They’ve become an essential part of many location photographers’ gear when taking clients to that remote field or anywhere power outlets come at a premium. Able to power flash units often long enough to get the job done, they became the gold standard for portable power, especially for Alienbees users.
With the release of the Vagabond Lithium Extreme, Paul C. Buff has improved on almost everything that photographers loved about the original Vagabonds. The new portable battery is stronger, sturdier, more convenient, and more reliable than ever. In fact, it’s a no-brainer if you’re looking to upgrade from the old model, and an excellent option for those looking to sample their first taste of portable power.
Paul C. Buff is positioning the Vagabond Lithium Extreme as the choice for “power users” and its smaller sister, the Vagabond Mini Lithium, as the better choice for occasional shooters, but make no mistake: The VLX is the one you want.
Its LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate) battery and 400-watt 120VAC inverter is rated for about 1000-1500 charge cycles and more than 10 years of typical battery life. The unit has two AC power inputs capable of handling multiple flash units (up to 3200 watt-seconds, or w/s) as well as a handy 2A USB port that can charge your smartphone or tablet while you’re shooting. The VLX package includes a rapid three-hour charger, but our unit actually went from dead to fully charged in slightly less than that. It’s also rated at around 500 shots-per-charge at 640w/s and 2000 shots at 160w/s, but our experience proved that to be a bit of a low estimate as well. We actually got closer to 600 shots out of the Vagabond Lithium Extreme while testing the unit. Now, with repeated use and charge cycles, that number may decrease, but it’s certainly a good first impression.
At 6 pounds total weight, the VLX system is lighter than most other high-end portable battery units, but it’s still slightly on the heavy side and carrying it is awkward without the optional bag. If the company ever decides to include the $24.95 carry bag in the package, that problem goes away immediately. That said, the Vagabond Lithium Extreme is easily the best Vagabond battery Paul C. Buff has ever released and can stand proudly beside some of the elite portable units on the market.
Switching gears from portable power to light modifiers, Paul C. Buff’s new Omni 18-inch reflector doesn’t sport the same eye-catching color scheme or “extreme” moniker, but it’s no slouch. The solid, shiny aluminum reflector is big—really big—and will throw light from one of the company’s branded flash units far and wide enough to light a very large group of people effectively. Created to easily fit all Paul C. Buff flash units in the same way as their stock 7-inch reflector, the Omni is being touted as a “multi-purpose modifier system for all shooting styles” that is an optimal solution for sports shooting up to 80 feet.
While shooting portraits and groups outdoors on location, I found the light coming from the reflector to be extremely strong and crisp, providing excellent contrast. The included triple-layer diffusion sock kills the output a bit but also provides a much softer, more softbox-like feel to the resulting light. It’s a trade-off worth making for whatever your specific needs might be. The Omni could certainly be used indoors in a smaller studio setup, but it seems much more suited for outdoor, location use and to provide lighting assistance when shooting sports where the available light often leaves a lot to be desired.
Without the diffusion sock in place, the Omni has a coverage angle of 30 degrees, but with the included sock on, that coverage angle goes up to a whopping 120 degrees of very even, soft light. With the right flash unit attached, the Omni will easily overpower the sun and have no trouble hitting faraway subjects. The company says a 20-degree honeycomb grid attachment is on the way (sold separately for $79.95) and, while it wasn’t available for testing at this time, we have a feeling that could make for some very cool, moody light setups.
Now, like we said, this reflector is big. Its size is both its greatest asset and its biggest downfall because, unlike a foldable softbox or strip, you can’t fold up the solid aluminum reflector and stuff it in a bag. This is a modifier that you’re going to need to haul around (or, more likely, have your assistant haul around). It feels durable and strong in construction as well, but could be susceptible to dings and dents if you’re not careful. Thankfully, none of that will make the light coming from the Omni any less effective, so these are small quibbles.
If you’re an outdoor sports shooter or you often work with large spaces where you need to photograph large groups of people, the Omni 18-inch reflector is a worthwhile addition to your bag of tricks.
Paul C. Buff’s new products might not have the same sex appeal as a new strobe or fancy new camera with all the bells and whistles, but both the Vagabond Lithium Extreme and the Omni 18-inch reflector are well worth their prices and will deservedly find their way into plenty of photographers’ bags, from amateurs all the way up the line to professionals.
Vagabond Lithium Extreme: Works flawlessly; charges quickly; feels sturdy and durable; reliable output; included light stand bracket is a welcome addition as is the handy 2A USB port for charging smartphones and tablets; quick-change battery design is great as is having a replaceable battery. 
Omni 18” Reflector: Excellent distance and throw of light; crisp, strong light that can handle large spaces and groups; included triple-layer diffusion sock is a necessary accessory; easily attaches to existing lights (especially Alienbees); solid one-piece design. 
Vagabond Lithium Extreme: Heavy and awkward to carry without the carry bag, which must be purchased separately ($24.95); light stand mounting bracket doesn’t feel as durable as the rest of the unit; some photographers may be turned off by color scheme (which is unchangeable). 
Omni 18” Reflector: Big and bulky without the ability to fold or pack away. 
Vagabond Lithium Extreme: $399.95
Omni 18” Reflector: $79.95