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Alien Bees ABR800 ringlight review

Ellis Vener , Mar 19, 2007; 01:20 p.m.

Review: The Alien Bees ABR800 Ring Light System ?2007, Ellis Vener

Is ?The Ring King? as Paul C. Buff?s claims for the ABR800? Ignore the price for a few minutes: the ABR800 is a unique product: It?s a self contained, reasonably high powered AC powered ring flash with several ways of modifying the light to make it more than just a fancy on camera, on axis light source. And it comes from a company that is aggressive about listening to and taking care of their customers But even if you are a fan of the fashionable ring light look but weren?t looking forward to spending a few thousand dollars for a ring light head and the necessary external flash generator, or don?t have ready access to renting that gear, the price is reason enough to be excited.

But there are several other reasons to take a look at the ABR800 beyond price and beyond the stereotypical ?ring-light? look?. For starters, the light quality produced is first rate and the design and accessories make is a very versatile lighting tool. It is also relatively compact and travels well. The ring-flash look has come and gone as a trend since it was first seen in fashion photography in the early 1970s. Most often fashion and portrait photographers use them as key lights, with the camera lens poking through the center of the ring. This surround axis lighting creates an edgy, high contrast feel and less often gets used as a subtle near invisible fill light. A signature of this look is the elimination of shadowing in the subject itself which is sometimes accompanied by a distinct halo of shadow surrounding the subject is the subject is close to a backdrop. (see example #1) The smaller the light source the harder the light and with a diameter of 10 inches or less (depending on whether you use the detachable standard reflector) and working distances greater than a few feet the ABR certainly qualifies in that category. The closer to the background the subject is placed the more distinct the halo like umbra (deep shadow) is. Another part of the distinctive ring-flash look is the circular catchlight in the subject?s eyes or glasses if they are looking at the camera; as ring-flashes are most often used with the camera and light quite close to the subject the larger this catch-light is. With the light coming from 360? around the lens axis, micro-shadows are eliminated, specular micro highlights are created and this effect can either be painfully revealing of skin flaws or quite flattering, depending on the subject and makeup. Combine these qualities and ring-flash lit images ?pop? with an energy you can?t get from other light sources. Because the standard hard edged shadow halo look is easily accomplished, this distinctive look quickly goes from being cool, to being a crutch, to being a worn out gimmick and cliche. And that is where the versatility of the ABR800 and the accessory modifiers come into play.

As we know from using umbrellas , softboxes and scrims with more conventional , the larger the light source relative to the subject the wider the softer the shadow is so using the accessory softbox modifiers (the 31 inch diameter octagonal Moon Unit and there is a 54 inch model on its way) can either soften the standard ring-flash look, or allow it to be used as a conventional off camera light. The umbrella adapter (included with the ABR800 is likewise for off camera use. There is also a 10 inch diameter 20? grid spot that fits into the standard reflector for on and off camera use. Other optional accessories include a filter kit (4 strengths of CTO (warming) gels and two strengths of heat resistant Rosco Toughspun? diffusion materials to smooth the light). You can mix and match these components to really tune your light to create exactly the light you want: this is the kind of versatility that has always been the benefit of using modular designed lighting tools.

One real concern with any electronic flash equipment is the color of the light. This is more complex than just knowing the Kelvin temperature of the light --which is basically a measure of color bias on the blue / red axis -- as you also want to know the magenta/green bias as well. Technically perfect photographic daylight is 5500? Kelvin with no green or magenta bias as well, but with virtually all but the highest end flash gear (Broncolor Grafit, and Profoto D4 and Pro 7 gear come to mind) changing the output level will change the color of the light so one degree or another. Ideally you want a light with a narrow range of variation. To test the ABR800 a Minolta Color Meter IIIF was used. The off the shelf ABR800 that I tested was first warmed up by turning it on and after five minutes test firing it at full power several times at full power. The meter was set for ISO 100 with a sync speed of 1/125th of a second and set to read out in Kelvin and also color balance and CC filtration recommendations. At each power setting tested, the ABR800 tested was fired a dozen times with 5 seconds between flashes.

At full power : 5760?K ( meter recommended Wratten 81+ cc03Green to correct to daylight neutral)

1/2 power: 5700?K ( meter recommended Wratten 81+ cc03Green to correct to daylight neutral)

1/32nd power: 5350?K ( meter recommended only cc05Green to correct to daylight neutral)

In short, the color of ABR800 produced light at all power settings that is very close to a nominal photographic daylight. It?s close enough that for all but the very most critical transparency film based photographic uses there isn?t a real world concern here, and even in that situation the differences are well within tolerance. More importantly, at all power settings , these measurements were consistent between the first and last flashes. Adding the standard diffusion dome lowered the color temperature by 100?K at all settings with no effect on the magenta/green axis. In those rare cases where absolute color control is necessary, no matter what light you are using you?ll need to use X-rite?s Eye One Photo or Profile Maker 5 and X-rite?s Photo-spectrometer to generate a custom profiles for specific lighting set ups, as your choice of light modifiers, fill cards, etc., all strongly influence the color characteristics of the light.

Light intensity:

The studio used for the following tests had relatively low (10 foot) white ceilings, and dark wood floors and walls, all with a matte finish. A Sekonic L-558R meter (set to 1/250th @ ISO 100) was used in incident mode with the diffusion dome retracted to minimize the effect of bounced light . Flash to meter distance was five feet. A Pocketwizard MultiMAX wireless triggering system was used so that the flash was fired at 1.2 second intervals for a sequence of ten flashes per configuration. All readings were with the ABR800 set to full power and the readings were consistent within 1/10th of an f-stop.

Bare tube: ?/16.5 (G.N. 95)

Diffusion dome only: ?/16.6 (G.N = 95)

Diffusion dome + standard reflector: ?/22.7 (G.N. = 145)

Standard reflector only; ?/22.6 (G.N. = 145)

Standard reflector + Diffusion dome + 20? Grid spot: ?/16.8 (G.N. = 100)

31? Moon Unit + inner deflector ring: ?/16.6 (G.N = 95)

Alien Bees claims that the t/0.5 flash duration at full power for the ABR800 is 1/2,000 of a second. Without access to the necessary testing equipment I was not able to confirm this.

The multipurpose mounting platform makes it easy to mount a camera on the ABR or the camera +ABR rig on a tripod, or use the ABR800 as a free standing light on a standard light stand. When you do choose to use it as a standard ring light the camera mount allows use of cameras that have up to a 4.5? height difference between the center of the lens and the bottom of the camera. I have been using it with a Canon EOS 1Ds mark 2 fitted with a Really Right Stuff "L" bracket with no problems (see below for more details.) with a 70-200mm f/2.8L, the 24-105 f/4L , the 24-70mm f/2.8L and an 85mm f/1.8 (all Canon EF) The camera position can be adjusted back and forth, accommodating different size camera bodies and lenses. Once you determine the right height and fore and aft position you lock them down securely with large friction locks. As a safety measure the camera platform has a built in safety catch preventing the camera from sliding out if you forget to use the lock. I?ve modified the mounting platform by adding a Really Right Stuff Arca-Swiss quick release clamp so that I can easily change camera orientation from horizontal to vertical (possible with a Really Right Stuff or Kirk ?L? QR plate for your camera, and put a RRS QR plate on the tripod mount side of the platform to speed up the process of mounting the ABR on a camera tripod. The swivel mount for light stands allows for just about 115? degrees of fore and aft tilting, mostly upwards.

After working with the first iteration (which was quickly replaced by a second version with some much needed updates to how a camera , tripod or light stand attach to the ABR800, and better flare control), my conclusion is that this is one very nifty light. The ABR800 is so nifty that if I was forced to only take one moderately powered AC or battery driven light (via the Aline Bees Vagabond Battery systems) with me on an assignment this would be the one. No it isn?t the sleekest looking piece of lighting equipment gear ever made, the no nonsense controls and locks are everything but sophisticated in looks and feel, and I?m constantly tempted to hide the large DayGlo pink and yellow logo under a piece of black gaffer?s tape, but after a few month?s regular use those are the worse faults I?ve found. Buff?s companies have made their reputations for making solidly engineered if not particularly sexy looking electronic flash equipment at very reasonable prices and the ABR800 continues in this tradition. One aspect I haven?t touched on is that this monolight is fan cooled, and the fans are very quiet, even when working with the light as a standard ring-flash the sound was barely audible. The ABR800 may not be ?the king of lighting? but it certainly is a prince and Alien Bees and Paul Buff deserve a lot of credit for coming up with a very sophisticated lighting tool at a very competitive price.

The goods:

Alien Bees ABR 800 Ringlight; $399.95 (includes 10-inch Ring Reflector; Set of Eight 10-Watt, 24- Volt Modeling Lamps; Two Half-Circle Flashtubes; 15-foot Power Cord; 12-inch Sync Cord; Front Cover / Diffuser / Gel Holder; Universal Camera Mounting Bracket with adjustable camera platform, tripod and light stand mounting hardware; Umbrella Adaptor; Owner's Manual; 60-day Satisfaction Guarantee and a 2-Year Factory Warranty.)

Watt-Second (joules) range: 320 w-s (max) to 10 w-s (at 1/32 power)

Recycle time (max power): 1 second (tested and confirmed)

Flash duration (t.5): 1/2,000th second at full power

The two semi circular flash tubes have a claimed life of 250,000 to 1,000,000 discharges. Obviously this will vary based on your handling of the unit and power settings.

Sync voltage; 5.6 volts.

Accepts lenses up to 4 in diameter, and camera lens combinations with anywhere from 1? to 4.75?? inch distance from lens center (axis) to ?camera base?.

Optional Accessories include:

31? diameter Moon Unit softbox ($59.95 or $89.95 as a kit with Mask Set (see "http:// www.alienbees.com/moonunit.html" http://www.alienbees.com/moonunit.html for details)

Set of Six Warming and Diffusion Filters, $29.95

20? ringflash honeycomb grid, $59.95

ABRBAG Alien Bees Ringflash Carrying Bag, $14.95


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Ellis Vener , Mar 19, 2007; 01:25 p.m.

The question marks in weird places were added by photo.net's inability to read grammatical marks and symbols

Andy Heffernan , Mar 19, 2007; 01:49 p.m.

...inability to read grammatical marks and symbols from Microsoft Word (probably)

The original symbols are either not ASCII or not printable ASCII, and neither your browser nor photo.net know what program you are pasting from, and what the strange characters mean. So they show up as question marks. Maybe there is a "save-as" option in Word to make this not a problem?

Frank Skomial , Mar 19, 2007; 01:55 p.m.

Thanks Ellis,

Very helpful!

Doug Axford , Mar 19, 2007; 02:21 p.m.

This is certainly a timely review since I was looking at the site a few days a go and called to see what has happened to the White Lightning version. This, apparently, is now sometime in the summer.

I'd appreciate a few comments if you could. How bulky/obtusive is the ring flash in every day work? I like to focus, move my eye just over the viewfinder to see the person 'face to face', then shoot. If it means an extra inch or so, that's OK, but further might be an issue for me.

Secondly, how easily/quickly can filters be added onto the ring? Is it click-on? I like to add some strange filters that would have to be home-made and I like to switch many times during shoots. Would this be possible?

Lastly, is the ring posing any problems for an average portrait zoom lens in the ability to easily reach the focus or zoom ring on the lens. Yes, I know lenses are different, but just on average?

Thanks, Doug

Mike Ferris - Omaha, NE , Mar 19, 2007; 02:22 p.m.

Very nice review...Well Done. I've been riding the fence on this product, but will purchase one soon. Thanks.

Bob Atkins , Mar 19, 2007; 02:28 p.m.

Nice review Ellis, but this is probably not the best place for it to be posted.

Let me see if I can get it posted somwehere better on the site. If you want to email the original version to me, I can do editing to correct the missing non-standard characters.

Luca Foto , Mar 19, 2007; 03:42 p.m.

Thanks for the great review! I have been looking at that ring light...

Alien Bees should be linking to your review!

Ellis Vener , Mar 19, 2007; 04:56 p.m.

How bulky/obtusive is the ring flash in every day work? I like to focus, move my eye just over the viewfinder to see the person 'face to face', then shoot. If it means an extra inch or so, that's OK, but further might be an issue for me.

I'd say it's about 5 to 6 inches for your eyes to clear the outside of the ring with standard reflector. I generally work with the rig mounted on a tripod (but you can handhold it) so it isn't an issue for me.

Secondly, how easily/quickly can filters be added onto the ring? Is it click-on?

You'll have to custom cut them --there's a template in the filter set-- they sort of just get placed across the standard reflector. Honestly I haven't messed with them.

Lastly, is the ring posing any problems for an average portrait zoom lens in the ability to easily reach the focus or zoom ring on the lens. Yes, I know lenses are different, but just on average?"

With the lenses I used not really but that will depend on whether the zoom ring is fore or aft of the focus ring, etc.

Ellis Vener , Mar 19, 2007; 05:22 p.m.

Response to Alien Bees ABR800 ringlight review: Heat Precautions when using the AlienBees ABR800 Ringflash Unit

Just received this (literally i nthe past minute) from Alien Bees:


Heat Precautions when using the AlienBees ABR800 Ringflash Unit

Most cars are capable of traveling 120 MPH on a winding gravel road and do not place limits on your ability to do this. But common sense indicates that if you drive this way you are probably going to ruin your car and perhaps your life. Even if you don?t have a wreck, if you do this for a long period of time you will surely overheat the engine and burn it up. That said, the ABR800 units (as well as our other products) have safe operating parameters that are difficult to place limits or user controls upon and it is up to the user to exercise reasonable caution in heavy-use situations and in unusual shooting configurations.

Heat Considerations:

The ABR800 Ringflash has high intensity modeling lamps that produce considerable heat, as well as a flashtube and internal electronics that must dissipate 320 Ws for each flash. An internal fan removes the heat from these sources in most configurations in normal use. However, if the unit is flashed each time it recycles and the modeling lamps are left continuously on at full brightness, operating under these conditions requires the dissipation of about 500 watts of heat. While the ABR800 unit can tolerate this for short periods of time, it cannot do this indefinitely without overheating and being damaged. This is aggravated when accessories such as the honeycomb grids, gels, diffusers and softboxes restrict the airflow. In order to guide the user, we conducted a series of tests on an ABR800 unit fitted with the cover / diffuser / gel holder, the honeycomb grid and a gel.

TEST 1 ? Long Term Shooting:

The modeling lamps were set to the Model = Ready Mode to reduce the heat load during firing. The ABR800 unit was fired continuously at Full Power once every 20 seconds. Under these conditions, the temperature of the grid and diffuser eventually stabilized at 200?F. The unit is designed to allow for temperatures up to 250?. Beyond this, there is concern for user-burns and damage to components.

Conclusion 1: This configuration is generally acceptable. Shooting rates could likely be increased to about one shot per 10 seconds on a long term basis without damage. However, additional care should be taken if the unit is facing downward as this will increase the amount of heat flowing back into the electronics. Common sense suggests feeling the outside of the ABR800 housing occasionally during shooting. If it feels extremely hot to the touch you should let the unit rest for a while. You can reduce the amount of heat build up by setting the Modeling Lamps to Proportional (Tracking Mode) and by setting the lamps to Model = Ready Mode.

TEST 2 ? Burst Shooting:

We next fired the ABR800 unit once per second in Model = Ready mode. The unit was already at 200?F at the beginning of this test. After 100 shots at this rate, the temperatures reached the 270?F point. The unit was allowed to rest for five minutes with the modeling lamps still on Full brightness and the temperatures returned to 200?F.

Conclusion 2: Burst shooting should be limited to about 50 consecutive shots in 50 seconds, followed by a three-minute rest period.

TEST 3 ? Destruction Testing:

In this test, we turned the model lamps on (Model = Ready = Off) and fired at Full Power once per second. After 150 flashes in 150 seconds, the diffuser reached over 300?F and began to soften and melt. In this test, the electronics continued to function, but this sort of overuse is obviously not acceptable and can result to serious damage to the unit.

General Recommendation:

Based on these results, a prudent operating routine would be to limit Full Power operation with modeling lamps (preferably in Model = Ready Mode) at a long term rate of no more than 20 flashes per minute, or to a burst rate of no more than 50 flashes followed by a rest period. If the unit is used at less than Full Power, particularly with the modeling lamps OFF or in Proportional (Tracking) mode, proportional higher usage rates can be tolerated. If the unit feels very hot to the touch, a rest period with the modeling lamps off is indicated.

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