The AlienBees ABR800 Ringflash
Until recently, I was under the impression that in order to use a ringflash, one would necessarily need to work with a separate ringflash head and power pack—a solution that would be very costly for someone who, like me, is working with monolights. A ringflash provides an interesting creative option for sure, but I didn't see myself investing a few thousand dollars to get one. I was considering accessories to turn Speedlites into ringflashes—some more serious than others—as an affordable (yet compromising) alternative, until I came across the AlienBees ABR800 ringflash.
Ringflash used as fill light
Paul C. Buff is famous for developing innovative lighting products, and the ABR800 is one such product. It is a self-contained ringflash, which does not require a separate power pack—a "mono-ring-light", if you will. What's more, the unit—complete with bracket, diffuser, reflector, umbrella adapter, proportional modeling lights, etc.—can be yours for under $400(1). It immediately caught my attention, so I ordered one—along with a carrying case and a set of pre-cut CTO and diffusion gels.
Ringflash used as single source of light
Does the ABR800 fundamentally deliver on the promise? Sure, it provides a studio ringflash that packs quite a punch, with a good recycling time and all the rest (of which I won't go into details—see the product specs to get the complete picture), at a very accessible price. Unfortunately, it also is a major pain in the butt to work with for a number of reasons I will address.
The ABR800 seen from the side (with a 5D Mark II and 85mm ƒ/1.2 mounted)
As you can see, the unit has a sizable thickness. Naturally, it has to be larger than a simple ringflash head, since it has all the circuitry of a monolight enclosed. But there is no reason for that extra space to be distributed in depth—it could have been taller, or have the circuitry in a separate box linked via a cable. The consequence of this decision is that lenses are much more prone to vignette.
Amazingly, if I push the camera as far into the unit as it possibly can and center it surgically, I am able to shoot my 16-35mm zoom at the wide end without vignetting. Therefore the issue is not so much with the angle of view of a lens as its physical length. My 50mm ƒ/1.4, for example, has a longer focal length, but is so small that I barely manage to use it without vignetting (which is not without its problems, as we will see). So you could be shooting a 24-70mm zoom at the wide end easily, but a 24mm ƒ/1.4 would vignette big time.
The controls behind the ABR800—well, those still visible and accessible, anyway
If you go ahead and push the camera as far as it can go, it becomes increasingly difficult to operate the controls on the unit (especially with a PocketWizard MiniTT1 mounted on the hot shoe, as seen in the picture). Why did the controls have to be located there? Couldn't they have been placed above or on the sides?
The slave (not a transparent peanut like we would have expected, but a white spot on the back), in particular, is poorly located. As you can see in the picture above, it is pretty much located where it is the least likely to work, since it has a good chance of being in the shadow of the camera or photographer. From my brief experience, it simply wasn't going—even in a small room with white walls. It should definitely have been located on top of the unit. This means that to trigger that baby, you'll need to hook up another PocketWizard (and now you understand why I am using one even though it clutters the back of the unit).
Which brings us to the sync port. I cannot understand the decision to put a fragile 3.5mm sync port instead of the more robust 1/4" used in most monolights. This is asking for trouble. Case in point: my unit's sync port is already damaged and will only work if I leave the plug "slightly unplugged". This renders the whole thing unreliable: I cannot waste time tinkering with a connector while I am busy shooting! This is a major oversight.
The mounting bracket provided with the ABR800 is fairly well constructed and allows straightforward enough mechanisms to mount the camera and adjust it so that the lens is inserted in the middle of the ring. You can either mount the bracket on a light stand, or use the standard 1/4-20 thread to mount it to a tripod. That's all good if what you want is to shoot horizontally. If you want to shoot vertically, you're essentially screwed.
Yet, unless I am completely mistaken, if you're using a ringflash, the odds are pretty high that you'll be shooting portraits. And if you're shooting portraits, the odds are also pretty good that you'll often want to shoot with the camera in portrait orientation.
To mount the bracket vertically, you'd have to either use a boom (that you could hypothetically balance vertically not too far from the ground), or a tripod with the head tilted on the side. Either way, the weight of the whole contraption (including the camera) would make the setup unstable (the center of gravity shifted dramatically to the side) and would strain the attachment points, as the thing is front heavy and would tend to tilt down constantly. Clearly, this is not a viable solution.
Two approaches for shooting in portrait orientation
Lucky me, I happen to be using an L-bracket on my camera, which allows me to attach the camera vertically to my tripod and have the ring attached to the camera from the bottom (see the configuration on the left, in the picture above). In this case, the weight is not shifted to the side, but the ringflash unit is still front heavy, and the only thing holding it straight is a screw at the bottom of the camera. It just doesn't work that well, because its weight makes it tilt down—until it rests on the lens, which by then causes vignetting. It kind of works if you tighten the screw hard, but remains a precarious solution. (I have seen a good hack where a quick release plate was solidly attached to the bracket, so this solution would work well.)
The other option is to mount the unit on a light stand normally and mount the camera separately on a tripod (as seen at right, in the picture above). This has the advantage of being a more solid configuration, but has the disadvantage of leaving the two parts of the puzzle independent. It's not so bad if you adjust your position once and never move, but as soon as you need to make an adjustment, you need to remove the camera from the ring, adjust the camera, adjust the ring accordingly, and recouple the two (which is a hassle because the legs of the stand and the tripod are fighting with each other, and the PocketWizard on the unit gets in the way). It is annoyingly tedious, but it works.
There are innumerable ways the unit (or the bracket) could have been designed to afford shooting vertically, which for many photographers will be the default orientation during their shoots. This oversight is so glaringly flamboyant, it strains belief that the product, as it is, made it past the drawing board.
The ring's flash tube protruding from the unit
As you can see, the flash tube is not enclosed within the unit (as it is in pretty much every other ringflash ever designed), but protrudes outside of the unit. This doesn't look like it will matter, but turns out to be a major problem for multiple reasons.
First of all, when the diffuser is not installed (top image, above), the flash tube will blast light right back towards the lens, causing a massive amount of flare. You quickly realize that, unless you are using a lens with a very long barrel (such as a 70-200mm zoom), the diffuser basically has to stay in place to prevent that from happening. Fine, the diffuser doesn't have a significant effect on the quality of the light, so I guess it doesn't really matter, it can just always stay there.
Impossible to filter the ringflash without the reflector in place
If you want to control the spread of the light (or filter it), then having the tube out like this means that raw light will spill in all directions sideways. If you were trying to color correct the light, this obviously won't work, since uncorrected light will bounce everywhere and contaminate the subject/scene. Short of DIYing a gaffer tape flag all around the unit, you'll basically have to use the provided reflector to prevent it. Alright fine, the reflector concentrates the light forward, recollecting all the light otherwise wasted sideways, so I can live with both accessories permanently in place.
As you might expect, it isn't that simple. To use filters, one cannot simply slap a square gel on top of the unit and cut a rough hole in the middle. Because the gels have to be attached to the diffuser (whose lip has a tolerance of about half a millimeter), one has to cut gels with maddeningly meticulous care. The manufacturer will gladly sell you a set of pre-cut CTO filters, but you are out of luck if you need other colors or ND filters—and believe me, you will need to use ND. A lot of ND.
Why couldn't they have added an inch of plastic around the unit, so that the flash tube would have been enclosed? This would have made it easy to both control the spread of light and use filters. Instead, you have to free an afternoon to try and cut perfectly sized gels. But it doesn't stop there, as we will see.
If you think 320Ws isn't a lot, try aiming a raw light in a reflector directly at your subject from camera distance. When the unit is set at minimum power, it'll hit your subject 6 feet away at ƒ/4.5. I have made headshots with my 85mm at minimum focusing distance (about 3 feet), so this would give me a minimum power, as a main light, of ƒ/9. Holy photons, Batman! Since I will be using the ringflash almost exclusively as a fill light, this is ridiculously too much power—I would have to shoot at deep-depth-of-field-and-diffraction-ridden ƒ/18 to have a still quite significant 1:4 ratio, so this absolutely won't do. (At 6 feet, the unit is able to provide you with a whopping ƒ/25. No, an 8x10" camera won't fit inside the unit, so I frankly don't see who could ever need anywhere near that much power.)
Fine, I thought: I'll use my Cokin "P" filter holder and place a few stops of ND in front of the lens, as I have done in the past when shooting portraits at ƒ/1.2. Nope: the holder simply won't fit inside the opening, so I would have to buy screw-on ND filters and step-up rings (or a high-quality vari-ND filter, which costs about as much as the whole ringflash), so I am left with putting ND gels on the lights.
By this time you will have spent some time carefully cutting a stack of ND filters (using the pre-cut CTO you bought as a template) and you will think that you are covered. That's what I did, and as I kept adding more and more ND, I didn't see a significant effect on the light. I stacked 12 stops of ND on the unit until I realized that there was something odd going on.
Above are 9 stops of ND and a full CTO mounted on the diffuser, with the reflector installed. Do you see the problem at left? That's right: raw light spills around the filters. Making the filters slightly larger would make them wrinkle and still let some raw light slip through. What kind of half-assed system is that? It. Doesn't. Even. Work!
Taping the gel to the reflector is such a messy solution, I didn't even want to consider it. I spent some time thinking of a way to reliably block that raw light in a way that would be quick and easy to install and not make me look like MacGyver in front of clients. I ended up cutting myself a piece of foam out of a gray puzzle mat that is just slightly larger than the inside of the reflector so it holds. It's a hack alright, but a fairly clean and efficient one (as seen on the right in the image above).
All the problems that handicap this product are not a function of its low cost, but simply the result of poor design. In fact, if you can put up with all of the ABR800's quirkiness, it does provide you with the unique creative possibilities of a full-blown studio ringflash. I remain impressed with what it can deliver for its price.
One can only wish that a future version of this product will have addressed its shortcomings. If it does, it will really be ... one ring to rule them all(2)!
(1) Be aware that, of course, this is not the price you'll end up paying, since you'll have to include hefty shipping fees. Moreover, since I had to have the unit shipped to Canada, I had to pay duty taxes and massive brokerage fees. All in all, this jacked the price up by an outrageous 46%. This is not an insignificant difference.
(2) C'mon. I had to.