Ray Flash vs. Orbis vs. AlienBees ABR800 Review, Pt. 2

Last week, we looked at the Orbis and Ray Flash, which pretty much compete head-to-head in the ring flash adapter arena.

This week, we take a closer look at the AlienBees ABR800. Although it is a ringlight with a self-contained studio monobloc flash, it is priced in the neighbor of the other two units -- especially when you consider a standalone flash is not needed to make it work.

The AlienBees ABR-800

For the sake of (relative) brevity, I am going to assume you have already read both last week's post and seen the comparison video at SportsShooter. (Again, they talk about the "Zeus" ring flash, which is a pack-and-head model. But for quality-of-light purposes, the two are identical.)

The ABR800 ($400, here) is a monobloc housed within a ring flash unit. At 320 watt-seconds, it is powerful enough to blast into the sun at typical portrait distances. And it has enough juice to work as appropriate fill in full sun at much greater distances.

If you are shooting in open sun a lot, this is reason enough alone to consider the ABR over the speedlight modifiers. Sadly, Paul Buff (the ABR manufacturer) does not sell worldwide. But as of a few days ago he has just opened up an Australian/Asian distribution point.

Alas, for people who live outside of the US or AU/Asia, there are not any current choices at this power level in this price range. (Hint, hint, flash manufacturers.)

At $400, it is a screaming bargain compared to its studio flash competition. Like most Paul Buff units, it is not excessively heavy duty. I have used mine for the better part of a year, and have had no build quality issues. But neither will the high-impact plastic housing and mount inspire lots of confidence for some.

The ABR comes with a bracket to allow mounting on a light stand, a tripod or just married to the camera for hand-held use. I generally use it on a light stand, and walk it around as my shooting angle changes. As a single unit, mounted to the camera, it is pretty useable hand-held. But it will take a little getting used to, and will make you pine for the day when you thought the Ray Flash setup was unwieldy. (Wuss.)

The unit is an AC/mains power only unit. But Paul Buff does, for $300, sell a Vagabond II battery pack which is powerful and robust enough for extended shooting without AC power. Before jumping on that, consider the less expensive alternative of a couple hundred feet of extension cord for $30 or so at Home Depot.

If the Vagabond could be considered an optional accessory, the 30-inch "Moon Unit" light modifier is a no-brainer and you should just buy it when you get the ABR800. The $60 Moon Unit, which shares it's name with the daughter of singer Frank Zappa, turns your ABR into a gorgeous ring light/soft box.

This combo is really sweet, as you'll see below. But it also means that the ABR can be used as a particularly nice, self-contained beauty dish-style light on it's own. Just stick it on a stand and go to town.

That said, as much as I love the Moon Unit, it could also be classified as a medieval torture device the first few times you assemble it. So much so, in fact, that I was loathe to let a subject watch me assemble it during a shoot. (There is usually some cursing involved.)

I am reminded of a novice VW Beetle driver who pulls up a little too far in front of the gas pump. Rather than try to wrestle it into reverse, he says, "I'll be right back!" and takes a lap around the block.

Don't let it bug you too much. You'll get it. All of the work is worth it. And it is totally worth the $60.

The ABR's Split Personality

One of my favorite things about the ABR is its versatility right out of the box. It comes with a very efficient, 10-inch reflector and a donut diffuser. (Mmmm-hmm-hmm… donut diffuuuuuuser…)

These combos basically give you four different looks and/or beam spreads to the light -- bare, donut, reflector or both.

(Please note that all of these pictures were done in the same conditions and time as the photos from last week, so if you want to compare apples to apples, that should help.)

Bare ABR

Without any modifiers, the ABR is very harsh. It is classic, in-your-face, garish ring flash. I have yet to use it this way, but if you shoot for one of those weekly CityPaper-type publications, it might be right up your alley.

In addition to being harsh, it is relatively inefficient when compared to use with the 10" reflector, as there is little to push that light forward for you.

I haven't given it much use this way yet (ain't my thang) but I think it could look kinda cool in B&W if you blew out the exposure a little. Very over-the-top, brash paparazzi kind of thing maybe.

ABR w/Donut

Snap on the diffuser donut, and ring diameter stays pretty much the same. The wall shadow intensity and glare lessen slightly, but not much. This will also cost you some power.

The diffuser has the effect of sending the light out more evenly in a 180 degree sphere, though, So if you are shooting wide -- whether using the ABR as main or fill -- this will probably be your best configuration.

ABR w/Reflector

If you are going for sheer sun-nuking power, this is your best bet.

With the reflector, the bare tube's power is all sent forward, giving you the absolute most lumens possible. And the diameter of the light is bigger, which gives you a different background shadow and light quality. This is how I use the ABR when filling outside in full sun. (But usually not nuking the sun with the ring as key -- usually, as fill in combo with a separate key light.)

ABR w/Reflector and Donut

In this setup, the ABR-800 most closely resembles the classic, studio ring flash -- smooth, even small light going into a high-efficiency reflector.

For me, this is most commonly used indoors when I want a standard ring look, for key or fill. Even with the donut, this is a very efficient combo.

And again, more often than not this is going to be used as fill for another lighting scheme.

Outside, the ABR separates itself from speedlight-based models. This shot, a promo still for a short film, was done in the shade.

But we still had power to burn in full daylight if we wanted -- we were powered way down on the ABR. This this cranks.

We used the reflector-with-donut setup mentioned above and found some smooth shade. Then we underexposed the shade by about two stops and brought the ring up to full exposure.

We then took that combo down a further stop-and-a-half and used VAL'd SB-800s as key lights. You can see the setup here, courtesy Rehan, who was helping that day.

ABR w/30" Moon Unit

The combo of an ABR with a 30" Moon Unit is far-and-away my favorite look for ring flash -- especially on those occasions when I use it by itself as an on-axis light.

It is a combination ring flash and soft box, and produces a light like nothing I have seen. It wraps and rings, at the same time.

There are caveats, though. First, you will lose some photog/subject interaction, as you are pretty much gonna be hidden behind the light source. It's big.

Also, you cannot get too close with it, to it gets too soft -- just flattish and blah. And the on-axis highlights in the eyes start getting really big. As in, people start looking like aliens. (Hmm, or AlienBees?) But from a working portrait distance, it is sweet.

It also makes a good modifier for a ring-as-fill, too. It does the job in a smooth way, without leaving its own signature. In the BW example at left, I used a 30" Moon Unit as fill and a gridded SB-800 speedlight as a key, from high camera right.

If you have an ABR and have not gotten a Moon Unit, do yourself a favor. It's cheap and it totally transforms the light. And its secondary usefulness as a beauty dish is a great bonus. Just be ready to feel like an idiot the first dozen times you assemble it.

Bored of the Rings

So, there you have it -- a full, direct comparison of three of the most reasonable ring light solutions around. Had enough yet? I'll bet yes.

Even if you do not go for the up-against-the-wall standard ring stuff (not a big fan, either) I hope you will consider one as a way of filling some of your edgier forms of key lighting. They make a lot of things possible that otherwise would not look very good.

And even if you can't spring for one you can always sit down with a movie, some cardboard and some foil tape and roll your own. That's a whole new variable to add to your lighting kit for less than $5, which is pretty hard to beat.


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Blogger David said...

It would be interesting to know how the ABR800 compares in efficiency to a standard B800 using a standard bounce or shoot-thru umbrella. Would you give up anything buying primarily for use with an umbrella on a stand and for occasional use as a ring flash.

November 02, 2009 12:57 AM  
Blogger Andrea said...

I guess I will have to try a ringflash very soon ;-)

November 02, 2009 4:39 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Really useful stuff! Thank you. Question: is there a way to use the Rayflash with Nikon's CLS? The problem I'm having is the SB900 in Master mode doesn't seem to trigger remote units with the Rayflash attached, which makes using it as fill quite challenging. I'd use SU-4 mode, except there are usually other camera flashes firing in the circumstances I'd like to use it...

November 02, 2009 5:23 AM  
Blogger e.e.nixon said...

Very helpful couple of posts, David, thanks! Musing here: do you have any interest in doing a run-down on the EL Quadra system? I know it's not a VW solution, but technically it does seem to be an interesting attempt at a cross-over solution. I would have thought Elinchrom might be really interested in getting the exposure so getting hands on the gear might not be a challenge.

My personal interests are:
- Skyport synching speed -- I'm hearing 1/200 is max
- the ins and outs of the asynch power levels on the two channels
- the mods adapter -- which seems to have a few blemishes
- overall the idea of lock-in, which seems to be a strategic design feature of this product.

Thanks for considering this idea. Am really a fan.


November 02, 2009 8:20 AM  
Blogger Matt Wynne said...

Thanks again for the apples to apples comparison. One of the guys I work with a lot has been debating the alienbee ring light for while now. I send him a link and maybe this will convince him.

Boston Photographer | MWynne

November 02, 2009 8:30 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Again, great info. Just wanted to mention that Paul Bluff ships to Canada as well as the US.

November 02, 2009 8:39 AM  
Blogger Adrien Rochereau said...

I bought the ABR couple weeks ago with the two moon units, and got it shipped to canada.

They do by the way ship internationnaly now.
Shipping was a bit expensive, around 110$, but that was including canadian duty & taxes, I only had to pay an extra 50 at the door, for a 700$ order so that was not too bad.

On of the moon reflectors was cracked, but as I bought two it doesnt matter, and it would be fixed in two seconds with some glue and eventually duct tape on the non reflective part if I needed to.

As for the light itself one con would be the weight of the whole unit if you want to handheld it, but everything else about it is impressive.

November 02, 2009 8:47 AM  
Blogger Justin Cline said...

Just got mine last weekend actually, moon unit was definitely a good buy. Also just got my first set of pocket wizards too. Had a great time doing head shots for a friend.

November 02, 2009 8:53 AM  
Blogger Tobias Chu said...

Great post...I'd been looking to pull the trigger on one of these for a long time. I currently live in Shanghai and the one thing that always prevented me from purchasing Paul Buff strobes was the voltage...always 120V. Nice to have the 220V option now. =]


November 02, 2009 9:24 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Histed said...

OK: I know this seems cheapskate: but: why not cut a suitable hole in a standard brolly (shoot through or reflective...) and pop the camera through from the other side: OK: Frankenlight I know: but isn't this going to give something approaching the 30" diffuser combo? given the size of a brolly, such a hole although not on the main axis is going to be pretty close.

Worth a go to get the feel of things? Even with this commercial unit; as you observed yourself David: you do get lost behind it as it is so big; so does it really matter if it is a butchered brolly or a comemrcial device from that perspective?

HAs anyone ever butchered a brolly in that way?

Don't worry: I do understand that commercial "pucker" kit always has its place: I am surprised at myself suggestnig this, in that I tend to buy commercial stuff, I dislike my DIY versions: but nontheless they have their place whilst deciding "is this for me".

Following on from yesterday's brain food: as a good reminder of the power of "getting it right in the camera", and havinga good laugh, for those that haven't seen it before:


They are glorious.

Jonathan Histed

November 02, 2009 9:25 AM  
Blogger Paweł said...

Dear David,

There're thousands of companies in USA that will repack Your package and send it to You worldwide ;) So I think it's not a big problem if someone really wants to buy ABR

Thanks for fantastic review, really useful!


November 02, 2009 9:34 AM  
Blogger Loren said...

Thanks for all the work that went into this! Have you played with the ABR800's grid (http://www.alienbees.com/abrgrid.html)? I'm curious to see how this looks an an off-axis main light.

November 02, 2009 10:39 AM  
Blogger Sebastian said...


Thank you for the in depth review of these units. I noticed you were shooting at 85mm (at least for the one exif I checked from your ABR with no diffuser). Did you find certain focal lengths of lenses to work better with glare reduction? Specifically the ABR-800, is it built to completely block incident light on the front lens element?

Thanks again

November 02, 2009 10:46 AM  
Blogger NA_Joey said...

Dave you should add in a Zeus AB ring light and use a dyna-lite power pack. no color shift issues. easier to control. tho alien bees build quality plastic but does the job well.

Dave if you need one ill let you borrow mine ;-) you are local to me so not an issue. so then you can do 25ws-2000ws ;-)

let me know i am serious abut that offer.

November 02, 2009 1:20 PM  
Blogger Bill Giles said...

I have two of the Zeus ring heads. I seldom use them as ring flashes, but use them as standard heads. The ring heads are only $100 more expensive than the standard heads, so I figured that I would buy two of them instead of one ring head and one or two standard heads. The only time that this might be a problem is if I want to use a soft box. I have both of the Moon Units, but they are somewhat time consuming to assemble.

The major shortcoming of the Zeus pack & head ring light over the ABR for location shooting is dragging the power pack around. It's worse if you are using a Vagabond. For on axis fill, I would prefer an ABR with a Vagabond.

November 02, 2009 2:59 PM  
Blogger Marc-Julien said...

Loren: here's a pic I took using the 20 degree grid I got with my ABR800 kit:


November 02, 2009 3:49 PM  
Blogger Big Blogger said...

I've been using Rayflash with Nikon's CLS and I'm not sure if I'm doing it correctly or not but it seems to work great. I have a SB800 with a Nikon D200.

Very Useful post!

Thank you!


Cabbage Soup Diet

November 02, 2009 5:31 PM  
Blogger Matt Rowell said...

I love my ABR800. I've had it for over a year now and I pretty much always end up using it as a key or a single light. I've got the larger 56" moon unit, it's a bit of a hassle to deal with but it works great for group shots. After reading this and seeing the examples I might pick myself up the smaller version for use while on the camera. Thanks for the detailed review. I definitely agree that as a single light it's definitely versatile.

November 02, 2009 5:52 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

Dave, thanks for posting this review. Being in the UK the AB system isn't viable for me which is a shame as the Vagabond and ABR are great selling points!

Just a thought though, if you were using a ring as on-axis fill for a portrait of someone who wears glasses, would that get you glare? I'm interested in the Orbis or Rayflash for on-axis fill but not sure if this would cause a prob?

Just a thought!

November 02, 2009 7:16 PM  
Blogger RA.Sullivan = Sully said...

I have used the ABR800 for well over a while and find that I use it more than any other head and wish I had 3 or 4 of them.
I mostly use them with the 56inch moon unit (did any one else get the dig-able planets reference?)
I have used them to light through an open frosted glass door as a giant soft box. as far as getting that big of a light source in the thinnest of spaces it rocks.
My impression of it is it should be renamed "The Macgyver" it's a ring flash, soft box, and it even holds an umbrella.
The only complaint I have is storage (come on Paul C. B. give us guy photographers a different case that is not pink)

November 02, 2009 9:02 PM  
Blogger Ronnie said...

I've had the ABR800 with a Moon Unit for a couple of years. It saved me from my inexperience at my first wedding shoot. Its soft lighting was very forgiving. Since it has the same output as the B800, I often use the two as a matched set in umbrella shoots. I need to spend more time with it as a ring flash. One problem I've noticed though; when using it as a ring flash on a standard tripod and shooting in the vertical format, it has a bad tendency to droop forward. There is not enough friction between the mount and tripod head to hold the unbalanced weight. I designed a small device to fix this problem and showed it to the AlienBees people when I was in Nashville last year. They were already aware of the problem, but nothing seems to have come of it.

As for the VW Beetle joke, despite the fact that I drove one for years, I didn't get the punch line until my wife explained it to me. The punch line says, ("I'll be right back!" and takes a lap around the block.") It didn't say he DROVE around the block. I couldn't understand why the guy got out of the car and ran around the block. My wife often calls me a "lituralist." I guess she is right.

November 02, 2009 9:32 PM  
Blogger SS Buchanan said...

@Steve: not to turn this into a Canon vs Nikon war, but I regularly use my Rayflash on camera with a second light, and it works fine with the Canon wireless... generally no problems triggering that second flash (and I get full ETTL and ratio control).

November 02, 2009 11:11 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

very nice comparative analysis, thank you, I'm sold... the ABR800 will be my next light (another AB800 was gonna be my next purchase).

November 03, 2009 12:46 AM  
Blogger Lymph Nymph said...

Loren I have the Moon Unit grid...

It is made of the plastic and not of metal so be carefull of not droping it as it will cause some dent in the honey comb grid...

November 03, 2009 1:40 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Can somebody post some pics made with the ABR800 in a studio with an aperture of minus 11 and a cam/model distance at about 8 feet??? I'm very curious. Maybe it's also possible to post a picture outside in the sun (while underexposing the sunlight).

I would thing 320 ws is more than enough for filling in light (even at f 11).


November 03, 2009 6:05 AM  
Blogger David Porter said...

I like the shot you have at the top of the article. I'm really enjoying the series on ring flashes as I have one but haven't had the chance to use it much.

November 03, 2009 11:09 AM  
Blogger Netguy97 said...

News Tip:

Hi David,
I thought you and your visitors might be interested in this:

How to Build a Low-Cost Closet Photography Studio

Keep up the good work!

-Jake Easton

November 03, 2009 11:46 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

NA_Joey: why did you go w/ a dynalite pack instead of a zeus pack?

November 03, 2009 1:15 PM  
Blogger Rogier said...

Tried an ABR last year with a Moon Unit and returned both. Assembling the Moon Unit is an exercise in frustration, and everything about the flash looks/feels cheap and flimsy. I would have kept both if I had a studio (where I could keep both set up and ready to go at a moment's notice), but I travel with my gear and this stuff just doesn't look or feel roadworthy. Bought an Orbis for $169 dollars, HARDLY the final word in pro construction either but a decent price for the quality -- and it doesn't require a power cable or a pack.

November 04, 2009 1:48 AM  
Blogger ephoto said...

I am an avid proponent of the Nikon CLS system. I also have been shooting with the ABR800 since it was first introduced. I use the ABR800 on the camera in conjunction with the CLS system by mounting the SU-800 commander in my hotshoe to fire satelitte strobes and the ringflash at the same time.

November 05, 2009 2:20 PM  
Blogger Kyle Bowman said...

On your outdoor post I was wondering how you synced the AR..chord or chordless(which kind) and if you used the sb800 in CLS did you use the popup flash to sync or another sb on camera to trigger.

November 05, 2009 4:41 PM  
Blogger Darkmans Darkroom said...

Dave, thanks for the heads up on this as I will be making my decision on what I buy by reading the reviews over these three lighting systems. You have saved me alot of time with these reviews and i know I can trust your words.
Thanks again,

November 09, 2009 3:15 AM  
Blogger brookelynn said...

This was so useful. I am a college grad and I bought alienbees as starter gear. I read about you in PDN this month and your advice is awesome. Thanks so much for sharing!

November 11, 2009 12:31 AM  
Blogger jayanth said...

culd any of u guys post a video abt the abr 800.. i havent been able to find anythin yet.

November 29, 2009 9:45 AM  
Blogger Jeets said...

Awesome article.
And heres my query: although the ABR800 is cool (both on the pocket as well as the usage) I find the mount weak and unsecure. It cant hold the ring-light up. How do you manage to make it secure?

May 03, 2010 4:24 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

Unbelievable article about the ABR800. I got the ringflash and it makes me want to end it all!!. WHAT A POS!!! Forget the controls - how pretty the light is... I haven't even had a chance to use it for the simple fact that the mount is soooooo GD cumbersome and awkward and dangerous, I'm afraid to sneeze lest it drop off the mount and crash to the floor. It really peeves me that AB, for the $400 they charge, they couldn't come up with a better system for mounting. Yes I followed the directions to the T and the front bracket allows the light to slip through and right off the bracket onto the ground. If I am able to get my camera onto the mount in time and slide the lens in - the flash slides down, pushing on the lens/camera and making it very precarious with me $4000 worth of camera lens and I have lost faith in them since they are so careless with other peoples equipment. Enough said.... beware of the ABR800 until AB gets enough guff - forcing them to rethink the camera/flash MOUNT.

June 15, 2010 1:34 PM  
Blogger mulling it over said...

Just got the ABR800 today, and unfortunately it's going right back to Alienbees. I don't get the impression that there's rigorous design testing or quality control going on with the Moon Unit and the speedring system. My Moon Unit arrived with a burr in the speedring that prevents it from mounting on the ringflash. The rod pockets on the Moon Unit are also very flimsy, one of them came apart when I was putting it together for the first time, and the others seemed like they could come apart very easily.

It's a shame, because if they designed the parts better it could be a great unit. Hopefully I'll have better luck with their softbox.

June 15, 2010 11:58 PM  
Blogger David said...

To Joe, re the eBay knockoff (unpublished comment)-

So far, the knock-offs have all turned out to be absolute crap. Horrible light losses, color-shifts, etc.

Just because you steal a mold does not mean you are willing to use the more expensive materials it takes to make one of those things work well. In fact, it almost guarantees that you are not.

I do not even publish the links to them. Junk.


October 26, 2010 8:04 PM  
Blogger SISMOE said...

The build quality sucks balls..its plasticky and it cracked as soon as I tipped it over the plastic shade that came with it completely shattred into a million pieces. The tripod mount is weak as shit..the knob was tightened all the way and the unit still slipped off. If you decide to get it...you will have to mod it because its very fragile...I still love it though.

April 26, 2011 1:55 PM  

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