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A Ring(ing) Endorsement! Part I, Part II, and at last, Part III!
Old 03-28-2007, 12:18 AM   1 links from elsewhere to this Post. Click to view. #1 (permalink)
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Alien Bees has introduced their new ring light to the market place as many have mentioned recently. I was fortunate to have one sent to me in time to use on an important editorial assignment, and once I had an opportunity to play with the light, it delivered the results I'd hoped to see.

First, a ring light is a strobe which is fashioned in such a way to wrap itself around the lens of your camera. Originally, these lights were small and designed for macro and medical photography. A standard flash extending up from the camera body would often be positioned in such a way that it would be impossible to properly illuminate a subject located very close to the lens. These original ring lights were small, fit only a few lenses (usually a macro 50mm), and were very lightly powered. Eventually a fashion photographer would take a picture of a model using one of these things and we would be inundated with the distinctive lighting of the ring light.


So, what is that distinctive lighting effect? First, using a ring light to do head shots creates an almost perfect beauty light. The reason for this is that the flat light going straight into the face produces virtually no shadows. Remembering that a print (or a picture on a printed page) is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object, you notice that we can't see depth. What we see is perspective and shadow. Eliminate shadows and you eliminate almost all common blemishes on the face, particularly lines around the mouth and eyes and creases in the forehead which disappear like magic. No shadow, no lines.

Another unusual characteristic of the ring light is that it reflects most strongly the surfaces which are flat to the lens. Take the legs and arms, the center line of the arm (or leg) is flat to the lens (and therefore brighter), and as the arm curves away from the center line, it reflects less light to the camera. This gives the effect of creating a harder edge, an effect we would normally use black reflectors to create in the studio.


My thanks to Kaila Rainey who agreed to allow me to do
this simple picture to demonstrate the ring light effect.

Another (and frequently observed) effect created by a ring light is that any object placed close to a wall or backdrop will display a shadow on both sides! The closer the object is to the backdrop, the tighter (and harder) the shadow will appear. The further away the object is from the backdrop, the wider and less distinct the shadow will be. The resulting shadow will be similar in many ways to the drop shadow we use in type setting to highlight text and to give it depth.


Hand holding is possible.
(Assuming you can leap tall buildings at a single bound!)

Modern ring lights used in fashion and glamour have been around for a while, but as the power has gone up, so has the cost and the weight. The pack and head systems we normally associate with the larger ring lights frequently cost many thousands of dollars, and are difficult to use outside of a studio setting. Alien Bees are famous for their relatively inexpensive monolights which have proven to be both durable and reliable. (They may look weird, the controls a bit cheesy, but they work!) The ABR800 (the designation for Alien Bees ring light) is a mono light (no separate pack required to drive the strobe), it is relatively light (relative is a relative term as the pictures will show), and can be driven effectively in the field using the portable Vagabond power source. The Vagabond has been around for a number of years, it uses a rechargeable battery to produce 110 volts to drive the AB monolights when a wall plug is not available.


The ABR800, EOS 20D, and the 70-200L 2.8 mounted on a tripod with the Vagabond power source.

Okay, now to actually using the ABR800. The first thing you notice is that assembling the light and attaching it to the camera is not something you want to do in the field until you have done it several times with different lenses on your dinner table. This becomes even more obvious when you want to put the camera on a tripod. Certain lenses (like my 70-200L 2.8 zoom) represent a real challenge, but once you have done it several times it's still a pain but the results are clearly worth the effort. I ran into a problem with certain lenses which wouldn't allow the hood to remain on the lens and still fit into the ring light. In it's current configuration, the diffuser which fits over the flash bulbs is translucent (as you would expect), but the portion which extends into the throat of the ring light is also translucent (it appears to be silver, but it is not opaque). This can (and often does) cause a problem with flare. The solution is simple, black duct tape placed on the portion of the diffuser which extends into the throat of the ring light will eliminate the flare (or jamming the hood for my 70-200 into the throat works as well!).

The original mounting post on the ABR800 wasn't long enough to allow you to center lenses in the ring light if your camera had a grip attached (as both my EOS 20D and EOS 5D normally do). No biggie, just remove the grip, which has the additional advantage of reducing the over all weight of the light and camera assembly. A bigger problem is if you have an EOS 1 series camera which has a built in grip which is not removable. Alien Bees does have a mounting post extender available, and is now shipping all units with the extender as part of the initial package.

The last problem I ran into is that the basic mounting assembly is designed in such a way that it can be used for hand holding the camera and light (which I prefer), or to mount the camera and light on a tripod, and finally to mount the light off camera on a separate light stand (where it works much like a beauty dish!). The problem is that you have to add or remove a lot of parts as you move from one configuration to another. In particular, the mounting hardware for the light stand consists of a number of small parts (including a number of different sized washers) which can easily be dropped and lost. The answer is to have at least two mounting brackets, one for the light stand which can be left fully assembled and a separate one for hand holding or using a tripod. I believe this will become part of the final package as AB sorts out all the reports from the field trials of this new unit.

Given the complexity of producing a powerful, light weight, and reasonably inexpensive ring light, with the legendary reliability of the Alien Bees monolight system, I believe AB has hit a home run with this new product. Currently the light is available for $399(!), or a fraction of the cost of similar units from other vendors. The product is not advertised on their website when I checked last, but if you are interested (and have an adventurous side!) contact them by phone and they should be able to put you on the list to receive one as they are assembled.


The model has appeared on the cover of virtually every major
fashion magazine, and has done many of the big collections.

I paid for overnight shipping just to make sure I had the ABR800 in time to take this shot.

As a disclaimer, I have been pushing AB for two a years to produce this light. However, I am not part of Alien Bees and pay full retail for all their equipment I use. (I'm not particularly proud of this fact. As all who know me will attest, I invented cheap and prefer free.)

John
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Last edited by Fish; 03-30-2007 at 04:17 PM..
 
The new and improved ABR800 (including the Moon Unit!)
Old 03-28-2007, 01:30 AM   #2 (permalink)
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The original Alien Bee ABR800 ring flash was an amazing piece of kit for the price, but the units as shipped to the (lets face it) Beta Testers had a few obvious issues. The main problem was the mounting bracket for the camera was not well thought out, and made the whole unit feel a little unsteady in your hand. Also the power cord came in at an odd place and was hard to attach once the camera was mounted to the flash head. Finally, there was a problem with flair and the original reflector did not smoothly defuse the light as it came off the head.


The new improved mounting bracket, the stalk attached to the light
is sturdy and now locks the camera bracket firmly in place.

The good news is that Alien Bee quickly solved the flair and reflector problem, and recently sent every original purchaser an upgrade kit (for free!!) which provided us with a much better and far more sturdy camera mounting bracket. They also provided a new power cord which was specifically designed to make attaching the cord a snap. The end result is the kind of ring flash which (in my experience) is something you will use with confidence on a regular basis for many general applications.


The Moon Unit attached to the ABR800 being used as a standard
monolight powered by the Vagabond power source.

One new piece of kit is the "Moon Unit" (dumb name, but a terrific addition to the ABR800 ring light). This is a diffuser similar to a soft box, but lighter and more appropriate for the flash system than a standard soft box. As those who have seen me on the street here in South Beach shooting some commercial assignments will attest, I'm rarely shooting with out it! The pictures I have posted show the Moon Unit with the silver reflector surface in use, with gold surface to the outside. Obviously you can reverse the reflector material and have a much warmer light source if you desire it. I haven't shot with the gold reflector as I prefer to use the camera settings (such as color temperature) to obtain the color I want while shooting, but it is something I will undoubtedly experiment with in the future. The ring flash with the Moon Unit LOOKS like a big deal, but in practice I have had no problem shooting for long periods hand holding the unit. And you know what a delicate flower I am these days! It's also possible to take the diffuser cloth off the front of the Moon Unit which would give you a harder and brighter light for any given power setting (although still more diffused than using the ring flash with no Moon Unit).


Shooting an advertising assignment on Collins Avenue.

Finally, using the Moon Unit on the ring light while it is mounted on a light stand and used as a standard mono light gives you a light weight soft box with a smaller wind profile. This is particularly important to me since I use a mono light for fill flash all the time shooting outside on location. I also recently purchased the carry bag for the ABR800 and found it to be well designed, Alien Bee does a good job providing carry bags for all their lights for a very reasonable price.


Here the ABR800 Ring Light has the Moon Unit attached
and is being used as a stand mounted monolight.


As you can see, the Moon Unit offers a much smaller "wind profile"
than softboxes mounted on my regular AB800 monolights.

Is the Alien Bee ABR800 the perfect light? No light is, but for the price it is a terrific solution for me for probably 95% of my location assignment work. The ABR800 is both a standard mono light mounted on a stand with a soft box, and when needed, a very effective ring light. And there is one more thing, when you pick up your camera with the ABR800 ring flash and the Moon Unit attached, the client is impressed. When you charge the day rate I do, making an impression on the client is an important part of the show!

For those who are interested, the ABR800 ring flash retails for $399, the Moon Unit is $60, the carry bag is $15, and finally the Vagabond portable power source (110 volt output) is $350 and can be purchased directly from Alien Bee at http://www.alienbees.com

Fish

PS: The pictures of me shooting on location using the ABR800 here in South Beach were taken by Bill Cooke (http://www.miamiphotojournalist.com).
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Last edited by Fish; 03-29-2007 at 08:51 AM..
 
Re: A Ring(ing) Endorsement! Part I AND Part II
Old 03-28-2007, 03:08 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Looks interesting...even affordable. But a couple of questions/comments?

- You talk about the original mounting post not being useable on a 20D with grip and then you have a photo of the 20D with a grip and a mounting post? What gives

- That handsome photo of you shows you wearing your glasses on the tip of your nose while squinting into the viewfinder. Curious to your reason for shooting this way (I've got my diopter adjustment set up so I can keep the glasses on...but it's a bugger to view the image and buttons without slipping them to the nose or on the top of the head).

Richard W.
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Re: The new and improved ABR800 (including the Moon Unit!)
Old 03-28-2007, 07:35 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Ohhhh you not towing the company line. Lets see if you get the speech.

Bad Fish Bad Fish Bad Fish.

Go John Go.
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Re: A Ring(ing) Endorsement! Part I AND Part II
Old 03-28-2007, 11:49 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Not to take away from the thread..but ....

GLEN!!! BABY!!! I've missed you! It's been way too long...hope all is well my friend! Keep in touch...

kellyg
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Re: The new and improved ABR800 (including the Moon Unit!)
Old 03-28-2007, 01:34 PM   #6 (permalink)
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It don't smell like fish so i don't think its bad yet..hehe...

Quote:
Originally Posted by glennusdin View Post
Ohhhh you not towing the company line. Lets see if you get the speech.

Bad Fish Bad Fish Bad Fish.

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Re: A Ring(ing) Endorsement! Part I AND Part II
Old 03-29-2007, 10:13 AM   #7 (permalink)
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The mounting improvement makes this unit usable (it wasn't with the original design). I still have to send my unit back to get the improved power cord attachment as it now has vignetting when using the 35mm with a 1Ds (new unit is supposed to improve position of the camera by app. 7/10 of an inch). A lot of flexibility for a reasonable price..
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Re: The new and improved ABR800 (including the Moon Unit!)
Old 03-29-2007, 04:27 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Great review. I've had great luck over the years with the Buff products and am anxious to play with this ring light. The price is certainly right.

Cheers,
rfs
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Re: A Ring(ing) Endorsement! Part I AND Part II
Old 03-29-2007, 05:00 PM   #9 (permalink)
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The Zeus ( more powerful ring light from the same people ) is getting tested this week and Paul says that they are expecting a launch in mid may. Then again, he said they expected mid december launch back in October.

Similar construction but one inch shallower, half the weight and textured black finsih. Same reflectors and accessories, modeling lamps twice as bright, two fans (still quiet).

*edit*
btw - the zeus brand of lights form paul c buff ( alienbeens and white lightning ) is gonna be -gulp- power pack based. So the Zeus ringlight will come with a powerpack that will also give u the option of buying a 2500 ws head for when u want to use the pack and not the ringlight.
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Re: The new and improved ABR800 (including the Moon Unit!)
Old 03-29-2007, 05:29 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Quote:
Via PM: Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post. Please feel free to express those feelings directly on the forum as it only encourages me to write more often! I actually have quite a bit more to say about the ABR800 as I do think it is now matured into an extremely valuable piece of kit.

John
Thanks again, Fish! Great review!

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