This week I was saddened to hear that Paul C Buff had passed away. In so many ways Paul was a pioneer in photographic lighting. About six years ago I saw with much delight that he had developed a new monolight, the Einstein strobe. Until then I had been using Photoflex strobes, their 650ws and 300ws units. As my studio work advanced and I began to shoot more and more portraits I was frustrated with the recycle times of those units. Human expressions change in an instant and I found I was missing more and more shots waiting for my strobes to recycle. So I became an early adopter of his new Einsteins and purchased four at his introductory price, which was well below the value I could find in other units of similar performance.
Then about two years ago I had read on his blog that he recommended pairing a Fuji XS-1 unit with a leaf shutter with his Einsteins. So I wrote to his company’s ‘info’ link to ask some simple questions about the camera. Much to my surprise Paul himself wrote to me to answer my questions. We began an email exchange that eventually led to him calling me one night. Both he and his wife Deb were on the phone and simply wanted to get to know me as a person, beyond simply as a photographer.
They told me that they had looked at the work on my site and wanted to know a bit more about me. We must have conversed for about 45 minutes, exchanging stories about our families. Paul had told me then that he was in poor health, but was ‘making due’ with his illness. He then asked me if I’d like to be sponsored to assist his pursuit of work with Fuji about the possibility of partnering with them on future development of their camera line. He was very interested in their new leaf shutter cameras for the consumer market. His wife Deb then chimed in about how many photographers write to them about ‘free stuff’ to evaluate and ‘test.’ She told me that they turn the majority down, but wanted me to have some of their gear.
I explained that I had already purchased so much of their equipment, but Paul kept asking me, Mark, how about one of these or one of those. His wife eventually had to say “Paul, he’s said he already has that and doesn’t need more!” Finally he talked me into accepting a silver modeling dish since I had lamented that in high wind outdoors I could not find a modifier which would stand up to wind. In less than a week, it was at my door.
Satisfied that I accepted something, he went on to explain his business model of direct sales. He felt that he could best maintain his customer service by direct sales as well as maintaining a low price by cutting out the middle man and third party retailers. “If you had to buy one of my Einsteins through a retailer, you’d have to pay over $1,000.” But his most passionate wish was to maintain customer service. I can say without a doubt that PCB service rivals Nordstorm or Costco. His service is beyond reproach in the lighting industry.
Over the years I have heard and read snubs about PCB’s Alienbee line and the wild colors and plastic housings he uses. I have no idea who picks the colors they manufacture but can say without a doubt that Paul’s engineering and innovation in lighting is unsurpassed for his incredible value and performance. During our conversation I asked, “Paul who are you grooming to replace you? You are such an innovator in electronics for our industry if you’re not around what will we do?” He was silent, but Deb said, “And that’s the problem Mark.” Paul changed the subject by asking if I ever come to Tennessee and if I do, to come to their home for a visit.
Through the years I had requested some items from Paul and during one conversation he told me “Mark our work with Fuji is at a dead end. I wanted you to work with me on that project, but it’s not going anywhere. I will send you what you want now, but unless the Fuji deal changes, our sponsorship needs to end.” Always the business person, I fully understood and offered to purchase what I had requested, but he insisted that it was already approved for shipment.
Paul’s passing has affected me more than I realize. I have known several founders and pioneers in their respective fields. Those that survive and flourish all have a very similar personality; honor and an unyielding hunger for improvement and forward movement. Paul had all of those qualities. In so many ways for me Paul is the Steve Jobs of the photographic lighting world. A prolific innovator combined with a no bull shit trail blazer. A man who looked out for the industry over profits. Make no mistake, his company is widely profitable even given his incredible pricing and customer service.
Paul an entire community mourns your passing. But I will miss you for far more than just what you produced. I will miss you for the type of individual you were and represented. Each time I use one of your products, I hope you hear me when I say, “Thank you Paul, I miss you.”
Rest well my friend.