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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