Working with a professional ringflash typically involves a large heavy flash head bolted to your camera and a studio pack at your feet, both being quite expensive requiring a substantial investment for this very specialized gear – until now. Paul C Buff, owner of Alien Bees, has released his latest in the line of buzz worthy products. The Alien Bee ABR800 is a monolight ringflash which aims to bring the ringflash to the masses with reduced weight, integrated power and a low price point. In addition to traditional ringflash use, the ABR800 boasts a line of modifiers and accessories that make it a flexible light source for any studio. The following review was conducted on an early production model of this product.
|Dimensions||8″diam, 4.5″ d|
|Power Range||1/32 to full, continuous|
|Modeling Light||150 watt (8, 10 watt bulbs)|
|Remote Control||optional (RR1)|
|Portable Power||optional (AB Vagabond)|
|Flash Bulb||2, half circle|
|White Balance Setting||5600K|
|Recycle @ full||1s|
|Accessories||30″ Moon unit softbox|
|Flash Bulb Durability (flashes)||250k – 1M|
What’s in the box
The ABR800 ringflash will ship in ready to use condition. The ringflash unit comes standard with the main unit, a 15 ft power cord, camera platform, handle, tripod adapter kit, 12″ sync cord, light stand mount, spare modeling lamps and user’s manual. The ringflash unit is pre-assembled with flash tubes and modeling lamps in place and bulb cover/diffuser and 10″ inch reflector fastened in place. The user’s manual is quite helpful and filled with high quality instructional photos which explain the various methods for mounting the ringflash.
Quality and Ease of Use
As the ABR800 ships with bulbs and lamps in place, preparing the ringflash for service in handheld mode is as simple as attaching the provided camera mount to the main unit and the handle to your camera and platform. The camera mount attaches to the post located on the bottom of the main unit. Once the platform is in place, the handle is attached by placing the handle bolt through the handle and platform slot, then turning the bolt into your camera’s tripod mount. Finally, attach the provided sync cord to your camera and the ABR800, connect the power cable and fire away! Setup is fast and simple.
The ABR800 main unit casing is manufactured from high impact plastic. The bulb cover, reflector, camera platform and handle are also lexan plastic. This contributes to the unit’s light weight. All connectors seem quite durable, tight fitting and manufactured to high standards. In general the ABR800 has a solid feel to it, albeit somewhat less substantial than it’s standard monolight cousins, as expected for a product designed with strict weight restrictions.
Design and Style
The ABR800 ringflash is quite small for a ringflash, being only 6 inches deep with reflector mounted. Nevertheless, it looks and feels substantial in the photographers hands. When powered on, the ringflash glows from the front due to it’s 8 modeling lamps. Models who are not used to ringflash photography may require some orientation as the lamps and large reflector can be intimidating. In addition, the output from a direct flash is quite high and very bright. At full power, your subject may even feel heat from the flash bulb during exposure.
The ABR800 is encased in an all-black shell with a highly reflective silver inner reflector. The back panel is also black and it’s features should be quite familiar to owners of other Alien Bees monolight units (see Operations and Controls).
The ABR800 possesses relatively small dimensions for a ringflash, measuring 8 inches in diameter and 4 1/2 inches deep. Attaching the included 10″ diameter reflector increases overall depth to 6″. Adding the optional moon unit modifier increases the depth only slightly making it a very compact monolight comparatively. Weighing in at just 2.5 lbs, the ABR800 is lighter than most ringflash units despite having an integrated power supply. The unit’s size and weight make it a delight to hand hold during a session.
The unit is hand held by grasping your camera’s grip with your right hand while holding the units included handle with the left hand. The placement of the camera platform is adjustable allowing for various size cameras and lenses (up to 4″ diameter). Care should be taken when choosing a lens focal length as vignetting may occur with shorter focal lengths when shooting trough the ring. Cameras which have battery packs or vertical grip accessories are also mountable but the thickness of the camera platform may make it difficult to comfortably use the vertical grip shutter release (see photos). In general, shooting in the vertical position is comfortable and natural.
The ABR800 can also be mounted on a tripod, using an included tripod adapter. This allows you to mount your camera and the ringflash together on the tripod for hands free shooting. The tripod mount requires the removal of the handle and light stand assembly. During testing, we successfully mounted the tripod adapter to a quick release tripod head making it easy to take off the tripod and switch to a hand hold (without the handle) for a change in perspective.
The third option for mounting the ABR800 is on a standard light stand (studs up to 5/8″). This is done using the provided light stand connector which is the connector commonly found on other Alien Bees monolights. With your ABR800 mounted to a light stand, you can hand-hold your camera and shoot through the ring in the traditional manner. However, you can also treat this unit as a more traditional light source and move it away from the camera axis. This is especially true when the optional moon unit is mounted as a diffuser. Alien Bees has indicated that more modifiers will soon be available for the ABR800 making it a very flexible addition to your studio. It’s light weight also makes it a great candidate for boom mounting and overhead lighting scenarios.
Storage of the ABR800 is straight forward as the reflector protrudes well in front of the bulbs and lamps. Setting the ringflash facing down seems to be a natural way to stow the light during a shoot. In addition, the included bulb protector and diffuser does a great job of guarding the glass from accidental bumps. The camera platform is easily removable for low profile storage or packing for location shoots. It is a nice touch that the reflector and bulb guard are locked into place with a lever on the back panel, eliminating the possibility of accidental dislodging. Replacing bulbs will be straight forward as removing the guard provides direct access to the two half circle tubes and all modeling lamps. The bulb replacement process is well covered in the user’s guide.
The provided (120VAC) power cord is 15 feet long and provides plenty of room for wandering around the studio while plugged in. A short 12 inch sync cable (1/8″ to PC) is provided for firing the ringflash while hand holding. A longer sync cord would be required when using the ringflash off camera, mounted to a light stand. The sync connection is a standard 1/8″ jack, also found on other Alien Bees monolights. The ABR800 is also equipped with a light sensitive slave trigger giving it the ability to be triggered by any other strobe light source. The sync connector and slave sensor are located on the back panel of the unit.
The modeling lights provided with the ABR800 provide a good approximation of the final strobe light quality. The modeling light can track the power of the flash power, showing to be more dim when the flash is set to low power. However, with traditional use being close direct flash, the ringflash appears to the subject to be extremely bright in even the lowest power setting. Therefore, when photographing people it is suggested that the modeling light tracking is left off. This will allow the modeling lamps to be on at full power giving the subject the best appropriation of the flash during exposure. This will also allow the subjects pupils to close down, providing more eye color in the final image. Modeling lamps can also be set to cycle with the flash, turning off after exposure and back on when the ringflash is recharged.
Operations and Controls
All controls for the ABR800 are found on the back panel of the main unit. Users of other Alien Bees monolights will immediately recognize the controls as they are nearly identical. All controls are intuitively located, feel solid and provide positive tactile feedback. The following can be adjusted from the back panel of the ringflash:
Power output is continuously adjustable via a sliding switch for a range of five stops. The power can be set from 1/32 power through full with accuracy of within 1/10th of a stop. The slider is labeled with fractions of full as well as stop increments.
Model Lamp (on, track, cycle):
The behavior of the modeling lamps is controlled via three button. The on button turns the modeling lamps on or off. The track button determines whether the lamp brightness follows the power slider or remain at full power. The cycle button determines if the modeling lamps turn off when the ringflash is charging, or remain steady at all times.
The flash test button allows the flash to be triggered manually. This is useful for metering or checking operation. You can also use it to dump the charge rather than waiting for the ringflash to drain itself when lowering the power setting. An indicator lamp for the flash dump (DUMP) glows amber when too much voltage is stored for the power setting. If the flash is fired while this light is amber, the output will be higher than expected. The indicator lamp turns green when the flash successfully drains itself. There is also a green indicator lamp (OK) which indicates that the flash has recycled and is ready to be discharged.
In addition to the controls for the light, the power connector, main power switch, sync connector, slave sensor, reflector lock, remote control connector and fan outlet are located on the back panel. All connectors are clearly labeled and located in logical order. The main power switch and the power cord adapter become somewhat obscured when the handle is attached. Moving the camera back on the platform provides maximum access to these features.
The ABR800 is a new twist on a great product as it is based on the very popular Alien Bees AB800 monolight. This unit, like it’s traditional cousin, produces 320 actual watt-seconds and 800 effective watt-seconds and is fully compatible with the rest of the Alien Bees system (not including light modifiers). This includes the ability to remotely control the ABR800 with any of the optional wired or wireless Alien Bees remote control units. It can also be taken on location outdoors with the optional Alien Bees Vagabond portable power system.
The Alien Bees ringflash stands out among monolights for several reasons. First, ringflash is unique in the quality of light it produces. It is well known in the fashion and beauty photography industry for creating smooth skin and a trademark shadow which outlines the subject when the background is near. Most ringflash products are based on the pack and head lighting system and therefore require a power pack which is independent of the flash unit. The ABR800 is a stand alone device which contains it’s own power supply, eliminating the need for a separate power pack.
Secondly, the ABR800 is lighter than most other ringflash products on the market. This has obvious benefits for the photographer who uses a ringflash by hand holding it.
Thirdly, the ABR800 goes beyond the standard for ringflash by adding the ability to use modifiers to create more traditional lighting effects. This makes the ABR800 a viable alternative to even a traditional monolight when building a lighting system for the studio. Replacing a standard monolight in your setup with an ABR800 gives the photographer more options for lighting combinations in their sessions. As more modifiers and accessories are developed, the ABR800 with become more useful to the photographer wanting to keep his or her options open.
Finally, the ABR800 stands out because of it’s low street price, costing hundreds less than the other units on the market. This puts the option of using a ringflash within reach for many photographers who otherwise would not have that option. With Alien Bees 60 day unconditional guarantee, it will be a hard opportunity to pass up.
The ABR800 produces a tremendous amount of light. It is rated by the manufacturer to produce 320 actual watt-seconds and 800 effective watt-seconds. We put the ABR800 through our tests to get our heads around what that means in a typical studio setting. Please note that light meter readings can vary due to studio conditions or meter manufacturer differences.
Our test for strobe lights involves placing the light on a stand at a distance of 5 feet from a white seamless background. Meter readings are then taken at the center of the beam and out toward the edge of the 9 foot background at 2 foot intervals. The meter is a Sekonic L-358 set at ISO 100 and using a shutter speed of 1/125 sec. The results of the test for the ABR800 set at full power with the diffuser in place are as follows:
Center of Beam
The results show strong readings in the most important subject zone. They also show a very consistent fall off as you move out of the center.
The ABR800 uses two flash tubes which are rated for 250,000 to 1,000,000 flashes. The ringflash can recycle to 100% in one second at full power and faster at lower power settings.
There are 8 modeling lamps, each rated for 500 to 3000 hours, which together are comparable to a 150 watt halogen bulb. The modeling lamps are wired in two series which means if one bulb burns out, three others will turn off as well. For this reason, spare modeling lamps may be a good thing to have in stock.
The flash is color balanced to approximately 5600K at full power and approximately 5300K at the lowest power setting according to the manufacturer. We recommend the use of a gray card for proper white balance readings.
Cooling of the ringflash is handled by an internal fan which is located at the lower right rear of the main unit. The flash stayed cool and extremely quiet during all of our tests.
There is only one accessory available for the ABR800 at the time of this publication. We have been told, however that there will be a line of accessories and modifiers specifically designed for the ABR800 ringflash. Some universal Alien Bees accessories, such as their line of light stands, remote controls and portable power solutions are fully compatible with this product.
The 30 inch Moon Unit is a completely new type of light modifier which mounts to the front of the ABR800. The Moon Unit is a shallow circular softbox which allows the camera to remain in the center holder and shoot through the camera hole. The Moon Unit was not available at the time of publication, but should be available soon.
Modifiers are attached to the ABR800 using the reflector mounting system.
I am completely fired up about ringflash light. Having used it for a weekend, I have hundreds of ideas for how I would like to use this light. The soft, creamy way it renders models and backgrounds makes it difficult to produce bad images. When you throw in a kicker light you can create really dramatic looking images. I love the way it looks against a solid color background. I also can’t wait to grab the Vagabond and play with it outside of the studio.
Specifically, I thought the ABR800 really meets it’s objective of being an affordable, lightweight alternative to the higher end products on the market. In my opinion, the unit sacrifices nothing in the areas of output or quality. Paul Buff has also gone the extra mile by introducing an entirely new type of light modifier and making the ringflash a useful addition to my studio, not just a special effect light with limited application. I am looking forward to having this light with me for years and using it in all sorts of common and not so common lighting situations.
I have been wanting to use a Ringflash for a while now. I debated heavily on my current light setup because I wanted the option to add this to my kit. When I purchased monolights I thought this route was going dead-end unless I rented one. My initial reactions were a little skeptical whether I really liked it or not. It was hit or miss for me at first.
I think this is one light you will really need to work with to refine how you use it. We got some really nice results out of the box, but I wasn’t getting the FHM/Maxxim/Glamour/Beauty look that I was hoping to see at first. I think I wasn’t keeping in mind that most of those “looks” come mostly from post-processing, but require a light like this to get you in the “ballpark” and create the overall tones.
Like Bill, I’m anxious to work with it outdoors with a Vagabond (which we need to do before the weather turns cold, [cough, cough… Bill]).
I’d wondered why nobody seemed to think of a way to make a “monolight Ringflash”, but I’m glad that someone finally did. I look forward to seeing the different situations I can use this in and the variety of looks that I was unable to achieve before.
Would I reccommend this light? Yes, if you are a fan of experimenting with different looks that you have not been able to achieve before.