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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.

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.

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.

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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