Monday, October 26, 2009

Ray Flash vs. Orbis vs. AlienBees ABR800 Review, Pt. 1

Ring light has, for me, gone from a curiosity to what I consider to be an essential part of my lighting kit. I do not always use it when lighting people, but I always bring it. And I frequently end up using it -- but rarely as a main or only light.

In this first of a two-part series comparing ring flashes, we'll be taking a look at the two direct competitors in the bunch: The Ray Flash and Orbis ring flash adapters. The ABR-800, in all of its different iterations, will get its own post next week.

As most of you already know, the Ray Flash and Orbis are not actually ring flashes but rather are passive light modifiers that convert your existing speedlight into a ring flash. This process has advantages and disadvantages, and there are also relative strengths and weaknesses between the two.

The straight dope, inside.
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A Little Background

I have been planning this post for awhile, as one of a pile of "evergreen" type posts that I keep tucked away for a rainy day. In the interim, Dave Honl and Bert Hanashiro over at SportsShooter came up with a video of their own comparing the three.

It's fantastic in that it shows the relative size and ergonomics of each. It sucked (yeah, bros, I'm calling you out) in that it did not really get very deeply into the most important facet: What does the light look from each like in an apples-to-apples comparison?

I kid -- mostly.

But long story short, Dave and Bert's video is a good 4-minute primer on seeing how they each work. So if you have not seen that video yet, I would suggest watching that first. You know, to save me some typin'. (Note: They used a Zeus, which is the ABR800 equivalent in a pack-and-head configuration. Same difference.)

It is here. I'll wait.
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Leading Off: The Ray Flash

The Ray Flash mounts to your camera with the flash attached on the hot shoe. The camera, flash and Ray Flash all become one unit.

At first, you'll worry that it puts too much pressure on your shoe-mount flash foot. That has never been a real issue, tho. And it does flex a little and takes some getting used to in general. But the latter is true for any ring flash.



Here is how it mounts, which should be pretty self explanatory.

And if you have trouble holding these guys, the studio versions will only feel clunkier and heavier. This is as light as it gets. There is a physical learning curve to dealing with these, but it is worth the effort.

The Ray Flash is available here (or at many other camera stores around the world) for $199.95.


…followed by: The Orbis

The Orbis Ring Flash Adapter, which also sells for $199.00, is similar to the Ray Flash in that it channels your speedlight's output into a ring of light. But the similarities end there.

The Orbis mounts from under your lens, with the flash stuck up inside it. Normally you would connect it to your camera with an off-camera TTL cord (not included, but something many DSLR shooters already own.)

Your choices until now have been to hand-hold it or to use a light stand, both of which have advantages. But it could not fuse with the camera to make a single unit like the Ray Flash.

That changes with the upcoming release of the Orbis Arm, shown below:


I have played with a production model and have found it to be built like a tank -- a very lightweight tank, thankfully.

It is thick, rigid, powder-coated aluminum. And the two, double-screwed L-brackets are solid as a rock. I would note that, like the Ray Flash, there is some flex involved in the end. But that comes from the Orbis' connection to the flash head, and is in no way related to the Orbis Arm.

I have found it to be adjustable to any camera/lens combo. (I marked mine w/Sharpie to assemble it exactly to the right distance every time.) And it folds into a "spooned L" shape that fits into your bag without taking up any appreciable room. Nice design.


Stepping into The Ring

So, there are the basics for each one. From here on, it is Orbis against Ray Flash -- and may the best ring light win.

Which one will you like best? That depends. Because as similar as they are, they stack up totally differently depending on how you prioritize their features and qualities. So let's get to Round One.


Light Efficiency

Winner: Ray Flash

Here is an apples-to-apples comparison. Everything is the same except for the adapter used to mod the light.

On the left is Orbis. On the right, Ray Flash. Neither are optimal because I left them flat and split the difference on the exposure.

Some tests were, IMO, subjective. This one wasn't. If you are working with closed down apertures, low ISO, or outside, give the Ray Flash a good look.

But even with the increased efficiency, neither of these are overpower-the-sun machines. For that, you'll want an ABR800. You can fill with the speedlight models, but you cannot dominate the sun outdoors in full daylight.

That said, the vast majority of the time you will be working with these kinds of lights in moderate and/or controlled ambient light levels. And they both are more than sufficient for indoor use.

Exposure-wise, it is also worth noting here that both will pass through the TTL information -- it is just your normal flash after all -- and can be used with high-speed focal plane sync for wide aperture work. Gels are also a breeze to use with either. Just gel the flash as you normally would.


Universal Fit

Winner: Orbis

Again, no contest. The Orbis fits most every camera/speedlight combo (except for big honkers like Vivitar 285's.)

The Ray Flash is camera and flash specific. You need a different model number for variances in camera depth (prosumer or pro-sized body) and flash. And brand.

If you shoot with the same model camera(s) and flash(es) all of the time, this is a non-issue. Otherwise it is something to consider.

As a small consolation, I have found that I can mount an SB-800 on a D3 with the Ray Flash model meant for the SB-800 and D300. But it is a little off center on the vertical axis.


Run and Gun

Winner: Ray Flash

First, it comes ready to rock without the added bracket. And even considering the bracket on the Orbis, the Ray Flash is a more compact, self-contained setup.

If you are working in a pack of photogs, the Ray Flash is going to be a little tighter and more compact. This follows through to packability, too. The Ray Flash is thinner and smaller, but inherently "L-shaped". And FWIW, I have found that I can usually work that "L" around a corner somehow in a bag.

But that size efficiency comes back to bite you when it comes to …


Quality of Light

Winner: Orbis

Okay, this is one of those "IMO" types of things, as quality of light is subjective.

But the physics add up. The Orbis, being bigger and less efficient, also appears to be softer and more even in it's light distribution. This is a design point, and Ray Flash just went for more compactness and efficiency.

But being subjective, let's go to the example pics so you can judge for yourself.


Here is the Ray Flash pic. And these are both as apples-to-apples as I could make them. Just one ring light and a gray wall. And Dasha, of course.

It makes since that, since the Ray Flash is smaller it is going to produce a little harder light quality. Just physics. But, you get efficiency and compactness back in return.

It is my opinion that there is also some "lensing" going on in the Ray Flash, which means that you are going to get a bit of vignetting if you shoot wide with it. It is more efficient, in part, because it is somewhat of a "zoomed" ring flash.

This is something that is not very apparent in these two comparison photos, which were shot with a portrait length lens. But you can see it in a wide-angle lens shot, as in this example.


And here's the Orbis, in the same conditions as the shot above.

Right off of the bat I get a little softer shadow on the wall, which is obviously the result of a bigger lighting surface area. But in addition, the light is less "lensed" in the design of the Orbis, so it is also more evenly distributed around the circle. (Again, this will mostly come into play with shorter focal length shots.)

The Orbis is a softer, more even light. And thus, a little more flattering. And as I said, that comes back to bite you on the butt when it comes to lighting efficiency. You choose the factors that are more important to you.


Both are Better as Fill

Actually, let me be more clear: Any ring light is better at fill. So while the Orbis may win out on single-light quality, I do have to say that I rarely use ring lights this way.


Take this picture of Dasha, done at the same time with the Orbis.

In this setup, the Orbis is acting as a fill to a gridded SB-800 coming in from camera right high. This is where I think the Orbis, the Ray Flash and just about any other ring light (or adapter) shines.

Using a ring for what is essentially contrast control is where the fun is, because the ring actually allows you to be more edgy with the design of your key light and take more chances. I see it as being sorta like "layer blending" in Photoshop. Except for you do it in camera.


Because some will ask, here is the setup shot for the photo above. I just popped out of the ring (it was on a stand) and shot from above.

You can see how simple this is, but the result looks very sharp. And, depending on the fill level of the ring and the angle of the key, can give you a thousand different final looks.

The splash of light on the background also hides the effect of the ring light back there if the key light doesn't reach that far back. Which would be the case in this setup, probably.
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So there you have my best effort at a comparison between the two main, speedlight ring adapter contenders. It should be noted that there are some others, too, which are essentially cheap knockoffs of one of the above designs.

But a warning to those who would save a few bucks: Just because someone's ring light platic mold might have "fallen off of the truck" does not mean they went out and coughed up the bucks for the best internal optics materials.

In fact, if they were going for low price, they almost certainly did not spend that money. I have had reports of several tests of the various cheaper "Ebay ringflash adapters," and have heard stories so varied on color consistency (um, not) and hideous efficiency (including one report of a six-stop light loss) that I am not even gonna go there.

Look, if you want a super cheap ring light, just DIY your own from one of many different designs here and elsewhere. Save your marginal dollars for another flash.

Next week, get ready to go into full retina burning mode with the 320 watt-second AlienBees ABR 800 monobloc ring flash. We'll be doing comparisons there too -- same conditions as above, so you can compare all three. And with its various included and a la carte attachments, the ABR is a pretty variable light source in its own right.

Comments? Questions? Hit us below.


Next: Ray Flash vs. Orbis vs. ABR800 Pt. 2


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46 Comments:

Blogger Aharon said...

Great article. Coming out of Photo Plus this weekend, I've been giving these options a lots of though. This article has helped me make a well informed choice.

Thanks again, Great Job

October 26, 2009 1:05 AM  
Blogger Tri-City Photography Club said...

Great review David, thank you for sharing that. I have the Ray Flash myself, and have been wondering about the Orbis since one of my SB800's died, and I can only get SB900's to replace them now.

October 26, 2009 1:42 AM  
Blogger Tom Meyer said...

since your greatest contributions have been to us location working photographers, and in the interest of a level playing field with Orbis and Ray units, please review the AB ring light in conjunction with the Vagabond... as a portable flash unit. Thanks, your research and review work is greatly appreciated... t

October 26, 2009 1:51 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

This is awesome, perfect timing! Have just been trying to figure out who is getting my hard earned so I will sit and wait for part two as I ponder all the info in part one.Thanks

October 26, 2009 2:06 AM  
Blogger TC said...

What? No mention of the DIY bracket for the Orbis that can be made for a few bucks?

Flickr search for orbis bracket. The first one from kangster is a bit wobbly, I extended on his design and he made a version two.

The good part is that we attach to both the camera house, the orbis and the flash, taking out the flex. Okay, you lose the focus assist light, but I've never missed it...

October 26, 2009 2:24 AM  
Blogger Balls said...

Is it next week yet?

Thanks for the awesome review. Although I have to saw WTF for the orbis bracket system.

October 26, 2009 2:47 AM  
Blogger Raul Kling said...

Very helpful post, excellent comparison. It shed lots of light on the issue, at least for a guy like me, who is considering to purchase a ring flash (adapter). I look forward, tho, for the second part of the post.

October 26, 2009 3:23 AM  
Blogger Tony said...

I assume the Ray Flash would not be usable at all, if you plan on using the new PW's to trigger any secondary flashes, as the extra height of the PW will not allow the Ray Flash to align properly.

October 26, 2009 3:57 AM  
OpenID trazomfreak said...

Thank you.Very informative!

October 26, 2009 4:21 AM  
Blogger 7 P said...

Thanks for the good examples and the discussion of efficiency and quality. Never having really warmed to the classic 'startled rabbit' school of ring flashes my interest is limited to contrast control. I wonder how different the effect would have been had you merely used a strobe through a softbox/umbrella or diffusion panel to provide some on-axis fill. No doubting that your ring is providing some very good fill, but how much of that is uniquely ring flash. Thanks again and looking forward to next week. What a cliff hanger.

Ian

October 26, 2009 4:50 AM  
Blogger Nicolaj said...

So ... who's the winner? :)

October 26, 2009 6:39 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Thanks for taking the time to do an indepth eval. I've been torn as to which way to go. Once I see next week's piece on the ABR I should have all the data I need to make the choice. Price will be a factor and I'm thiking the ABR isn't going to come in anywhere near the $199 of the other two. Bright sunlit shots will probably be pretty few, but possible, so cost/benefit will be interesting.

October 26, 2009 7:41 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Dave,

I looked in your FAQs on how to contact you on a possible idea and it stated to leave a comment. I hope this is correct. I am learning so much on this site and would like to see something in regards to shooting kids on Halloween. I imagine a good share of your readers will be undergoing this Holiday this coming weekend. I know it isn't a standard CEO or book writer, but wondered if you could shed some LIGHT on this subject, since it will be dark (most likely) possibly an excited kid that won't sit for a "photo shoot". Thanks in advance.

October 26, 2009 7:52 AM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

When talking about the new Orbis bracket you mentioned you 'marked' it to assemble it the same distance every time. Where did you mark it? I'm not quite getting that part.

I have the ABR800 and I love it. I do feel the plastic housing may break easily and I use it on a stand always.
Great post!
Thx,
Debbi

October 26, 2009 8:30 AM  
Blogger Justin Cline said...

Looking forward to the second part... I actually ordered the Alienbees ring this weekend. I can't wait to play with it, but love your reviews.

October 26, 2009 9:02 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Great write-up as always. Just wanted to say how much I agree with you regarding this. I bought an Orbis a few months ago after reading about it here and it's been one of the best additions to my kit.

I went with the Orbis because I couldn't imagine being tied down to a specific body and flash model (I use 600s-800s and 900s). And although I'm waiting anxiously for the Arm, I've had great results using it handheld off-axis as main light. Did an article about it - with examples - on my blog at http://diode.tv/blog/2009/07/27/ring-light-ring-bright/.

Btw, I'm a longtime reader of the Strobist and I can't express how grateful I am for your work. You, Zack Arias and Joe McNally have made me a better photographer. Thank you.

October 26, 2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

hey, i am building a home-made photo booth for me and my friends and i wanted it to be a bit more advanced than your average photo booth and more professional in terms of lighting. I was thinking of using a ring flash for that purpose but i was wondering what other lighting setups are there that could give me different effects for my photos. I was wondering if you would be so kind maybe give me some setup ideas with a quick sketch and maybe an example of what that setup looks like. (or maybe you can give me the technical name of it and I'll just google it and see what I can find)

thank you very much, i love your stuff and learn a lot from your blog.
keep up the good work.

October 26, 2009 12:30 PM  
Blogger bmillios said...

Here's a question for you: Why don't ring flashes cause red-eye?

October 26, 2009 12:39 PM  
Blogger Dabeed said...

Out of curiosity, how does using the ring flash as fill differ from say having an umbrella on-axis with the camera as fill? What advantage (besides portability) would the ring flash have over the umbrella in this case?

October 26, 2009 1:28 PM  
Blogger Steve Kalman said...

With the orbis bracket in place, how easy or difficult is it to access and modify the flash's controls?

October 26, 2009 1:45 PM  
Blogger Rogier said...

Orbis unit currently available at B&H for $169, this week only. Just placed my order.

October 26, 2009 1:48 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Nice information here, David, but I have one question. You mention light efficiency and "overpowering the sun" in the review and I got to thinking when would I need to overpower the sun with the fill? I understand the need to overpower the sun, but with the ring being a fill it would be 1-3 stops lower than my key lights, so why would I want my ring to be the strongest light in my kit? What I am getting at is that is the Orbis/Rayflash enough even for outdoor portraits? Why would I need 320ws of ring flash if I want 2-3 stops under the keys anyway? I'm thinking that your ring should be less than or equal to your other lights power in your kit. So if I have only speed lights it would seem silly to buy an abr800 as your first studio head.

October 26, 2009 3:00 PM  
Blogger chris said...

I having debated getting one of these things for awhile now, but have yet to see the comparison image I really need to see the clinch the deal for me.

I want to see a simple comparison shot between the ring-flash as fill (either the orbis or ray flash, or both) versus just using that same speedlight right on the hot shoe as fill. I really want to see what the quality difference is between those two scenarios before I take the plunge.

October 26, 2009 3:28 PM  
Blogger captaindash said...

Ray Flash construction: IMO = minimum quality. From day one the bottom part where the clear meets black would collapse in on itself because it wasn't sealed, and the sb800's mount broke off. Upon inspection, there was only 2 tiny bands of glue holding it on so I'm not surprised it broke off. It broke off when placing the flash (fitted with an sb800) gently on a car seat. I got an early one though. Hopefully their QC dep't has fixed the prob by now. Useful, but I paid the $300 it started at so I expected something far more solid. All company contact info is overseas, and outlets here in Canada were no help so I just glued it back together myself.

October 26, 2009 4:03 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

The ABR800 isn't strong enough to overpower noon sunlight...you'd need a Zeus ringflash/pack to do that, so you might as well test that ;-)

October 26, 2009 6:34 PM  
Blogger Tim B said...

David, I bought the Orbis after watching you use it at Syl's workshop earlier this year.

Then I saw the Flickr link that TC mentioned and made a bracket of my own design which will allow the use the PW Flex5 to trigger it.

I'm curious about one aspect of the Orbis Arm. As shown in your photo, doesn't the piece of the arm that sticks out behind the camera get in the way when you have your eye up to the viewfinder? Maybe it is not an issue if your camera has a battery grip or is a Nikon D-3 or Canon 1D series? Or you have a longer lens on the body?

October 26, 2009 7:25 PM  
Blogger Vince Hemingson said...

http://vimeo.com/3375959

A more in-depth review of the Ray Ring Flash.

October 26, 2009 9:21 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I wonder if you could rig up some Really Right Stuff bracket(s) [$$$] to hold the Orbis?

I am thinking an MPR-CL with a B85-B or B-87B, holding the flash above the lens so the back is facing up, parallel to the lens axis. With the flash head at 90° (now at a right angle to the lens) the Orbis would fit around the lens on the end of the flash.

October 26, 2009 9:43 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Did you mean camera left? Or did I miss something?

October 26, 2009 11:19 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

nevermind, I'm too sleepy to see the other flash...

October 26, 2009 11:20 PM  
Blogger Varun said...

Hey! why not put a DIY to the test too. Atleast we can know how much worse a DIY adapter is in front of these big bucks. (after all they are more expensive than many flash guns units)

October 27, 2009 1:40 AM  
Blogger Sean said...

David -

Don't forget to mark that Orbis Arm: "Hobby, Personal" while you have that sharpie out. :-)

I also have to second the DIY orbis bracket. I am sure you have tried one, no? Could they compare if done right??

Thanks,
Sean

October 27, 2009 2:57 AM  
Blogger David said...

Couple of people have left pointers to some of the cheap, knock-offs of the Ray Flash. FYI, I am have always been unsupportive of those guys for several reasons, not the least of which is their dubious and variable quality as noted in the post.

But there is also the idea that they are knock-offs, too. In some cases, very expensive molds (of patented designs) in Chinese factories actually get "borrowed" for shady production purposes.

Not that it means they will use the same quality of materials, of course. Hence the discrepancies in final products.

But in the end, this kind of knock off also reduces the likelihood that others will take the risk to innovate. So my response is to not support them. And that includes not moderating into publication comments which point to the companies.

Thanks for understanding,
DH

October 27, 2009 9:00 AM  
Blogger Felipe said...

Very interesting post! Can't wait for the next one :)

October 27, 2009 1:49 PM  
Blogger scooter said...

I keep looking at the Orbis, but I have the RayFlash. As an events shooter, let me tell you, this thing rocks I shoot in Hawaii, so outdoors, we've got Golden Hour at both ends of the day, and then the equivalent of noon all day. Bright, harsh light. Enter the RayFlash. First, it just gets conversations going. Everyone wants to know what it is, why it works. This usually is followed by the business card request, because they are impressed. Then you go use it. Amazing fill flash in bright situations. Can't top it for outdoor weddings and events. This thing revolutionized my business.

October 27, 2009 3:04 PM  
Blogger sandcarver said...

Would one of the round-the-lens systems used for close-ups (such as the Nikon R1 system, with SB R200 speedlights) produce the same effect as a ringlight? I haven't used either, but after reading this post and looking at a number of portraits taken with ringlights I noticed the distinctive o-shaped catchlight in the models' eyes, which reminded me of the segmented- o-shaped catchlights I've seen in portraits lit with an R1 and 3 or 4 or 5 SB R200s. Do people find the o-shaped catchlight troublesome? After noticing it, I find myself looking for it rather than looking at the photograph. Or is it something you Photoshop out?

October 27, 2009 4:36 PM  
Blogger John Hildebrand Photography said...

wow that light is pretty cool i may have to get one and test it out. way cheaper than a profoto light

October 27, 2009 10:46 PM  
Blogger Matt Wynne said...

Thank for the comprehensive review. I look forward to the post about the Alien Bee.

Boston Photographer | MWynne

October 28, 2009 12:09 PM  
Blogger jeffrey said...

I'm from your local law enforcement desk. We are sending over a car to pick up the donut in the lead photo. You may keep the flash. Have a nice day.

October 28, 2009 3:55 PM  
Blogger jeffrey said...

seriously good review. ever since I started reading Strobist, I have saved a lot of cash on potential flash duds, as well as improved my strobe skills immensely! thanks!

October 28, 2009 3:59 PM  
Blogger f.57 said...

Very useful review, thanks David.

October 29, 2009 7:03 AM  
Blogger Ben Chen said...

Hi, David, I read your reviews of the ring flashes with interest.

You and I have reached the same conclusion independently regarding using ring flash (in my case the Ray Flash) as a fill light.

In my case, I only have a Ray Flash. I do not care the flat lighting any ring flash produces and I don’t really like to hook-up PW via PC port, so I use the sun as my main light and Ray Flash as my fill. Please check out some photos from a recent “Advanced Guerrilla Lighting Workshop” I have posted at http://www.socalpixels.com/blog/?p=5191. Where photos 5-11 is shot with the Ray Flash as a fill. Great job on your review. Thanks, Ben

October 29, 2009 8:10 PM  
Blogger josean said...

I can't see why you wouldn't be able to use the Ray upside down (or more precisely, downside up), place the strobe inversed and use a DIY bracket and a TTL cable to place it below the lens. That setup would allow you to use it on any camera - lens combination, and the hot shoe to strobe head distance would not be important. Also the weight would be lower, and you could use the bracket as a handle.

October 30, 2009 8:12 PM  
Blogger MedPed said...

Have come back to this post as I am again considering a ring flash. I do like TTL, and am waiting for the Nikon TTL compatible PW to come out. It seems to me that if I go with the Ray flash, it is made camera and flash specific (in may case D90 and SB900), and it seems that putting a PW between the camera and flash will alter the vertical distance; therefore alter the position of the ring. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

March 21, 2010 3:57 PM  
OpenID framefilms said...

thanks for this review, can you provide your ISO, f stop and shutter speed?


cheers
bobby k

October 11, 2010 5:41 AM  
Blogger rickp1 said...

that attachment arm is a "RIG" give me a break. Why can't they come up with a good mounting system for a flash. It's cheap!!!

R.

February 09, 2011 1:24 PM  

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