Alien Bees ABR800 ringlight review

Discussion in 'News' started by ellis_vener_photography, Mar 19, 2007.

  1. Review: The Alien Bees ABR800 Ring Light System
    ?2007, Ellis Vener

    Is ?The Ring King? as Paul C. Buff?s claims for the ABR800? Ignore the price for a few minutes:
    the ABR800 is a unique product: It?s a self contained, reasonably high powered AC powered ring flash
    with several ways of modifying the light to make it more than just a fancy on camera, on axis light
    source. And it comes from a company that is aggressive about listening to and taking care of their
    customers But even if you are a fan of the fashionable ring light look but weren?t looking forward to
    spending a few thousand dollars for a ring light head and the necessary external flash generator, or
    don?t have ready access to renting that gear, the price is reason enough to be excited.

    But there are several other reasons to take a look at the ABR800 beyond price and beyond the
    stereotypical ?ring-light? look?. For starters, the light quality produced is first rate and the design and
    accessories make is a very versatile lighting tool. It is also relatively compact and travels well.

    The ring-flash look has come and gone as a trend since it was first seen in fashion photography in
    the early 1970s. Most often fashion and portrait photographers use them as key lights, with the camera
    lens poking through the center of the ring. This surround axis lighting creates an edgy, high contrast
    feel and less often gets used as a subtle near invisible fill light. A signature of this look is the
    elimination of shadowing in the subject itself which is sometimes accompanied by a distinct halo of
    shadow surrounding the subject is the subject is close to a backdrop. (see example #1) The smaller the
    light source the harder the light and with a diameter of 10 inches or less (depending on whether you
    use the detachable standard reflector) and working distances greater than a few feet the ABR certainly
    qualifies in that category. The closer to the background the subject is placed the more distinct the halo
    like umbra (deep shadow) is. Another part of the distinctive ring-flash look is the circular catchlight in
    the subject?s eyes or glasses if they are looking at the camera; as ring-flashes are most often used with
    the camera and light quite close to the subject the larger this catch-light is. With the light coming from
    360? around the lens axis, micro-shadows are eliminated, specular micro highlights are created and
    this effect can either be painfully revealing of skin flaws or quite flattering, depending on the subject
    and makeup. Combine these qualities and ring-flash lit images ?pop? with an energy you can?t get
    from other light sources. Because the standard hard edged shadow halo look is easily accomplished,
    this distinctive look quickly goes from being cool, to being a crutch, to being a worn out gimmick and
    cliche. And that is where the versatility of the ABR800 and the accessory modifiers come into play.

    As we know from using umbrellas , softboxes and scrims with more conventional , the larger the
    light source relative to the subject the wider the softer the shadow is so using the accessory softbox
    modifiers (the 31 inch diameter octagonal Moon Unit and there is a 54 inch model on its way) can
    either soften the standard ring-flash look, or allow it to be used as a conventional off camera light. The
    umbrella adapter (included with the ABR800 is likewise for off camera use. There is also a 10 inch
    diameter 20? grid spot that fits into the standard reflector for on and off camera use. Other optional
    accessories include a filter kit (4 strengths of CTO (warming) gels and two strengths of heat resistant
    Rosco Toughspun? diffusion materials to smooth the light). You can mix and match these components
    to really tune your light to create exactly the light you want: this is the kind of versatility that has
    always been the benefit of using modular designed lighting tools.

    One real concern with any electronic flash equipment is the color of the light. This is more
    complex than just knowing the Kelvin temperature of the light --which is basically a measure of color
    bias on the blue / red axis -- as you also want to know the magenta/green bias as well. Technically
    perfect photographic daylight is 5500? Kelvin with no green or magenta bias as well, but with virtually
    all but the highest end flash gear (Broncolor Grafit, and Profoto D4 and Pro 7 gear come to mind)
    changing the output level will change the color of the light so one degree or another. Ideally you want a
    light with a narrow range of variation. To test the ABR800 a Minolta Color Meter IIIF was used. The off
    the shelf ABR800 that I tested was first warmed up by turning it on and after five minutes test firing it
    at full power several times at full power. The meter was set for ISO 100 with a sync speed of 1/125th of
    a second and set to read out in Kelvin and also color balance and CC filtration recommendations. At
    each power setting tested, the ABR800 tested was fired a dozen times with 5 seconds between flashes.

    At full power : 5760?K ( meter recommended Wratten 81+ cc03Green to correct to daylight

    1/2 power: 5700?K ( meter recommended Wratten 81+ cc03Green to correct to daylight neutral)

    1/32nd power: 5350?K ( meter recommended only cc05Green to correct to daylight neutral)

    In short, the color of ABR800 produced light at all power settings that is very close to a nominal
    photographic daylight. It?s close enough that for all but the very most critical transparency film based
    photographic uses there isn?t a real world concern here, and even in that situation the differences are
    well within tolerance. More importantly, at all power settings , these measurements were consistent
    between the first and last flashes. Adding the standard diffusion dome lowered the color temperature
    by 100?K at all settings with no effect on the magenta/green axis. In those rare cases where absolute
    color control is necessary, no matter what light you are using you?ll need to use X-rite?s Eye One Photo
    or Profile Maker 5 and X-rite?s Photo-spectrometer to generate a custom profiles for specific lighting
    set ups, as your choice of light modifiers, fill cards, etc., all strongly influence the color characteristics
    of the light.

    Light intensity:

    The studio used for the following tests had relatively low (10 foot) white ceilings, and dark wood floors
    and walls, all with a matte finish. A Sekonic L-558R meter (set to 1/250th @ ISO 100) was used in
    incident mode with the diffusion dome retracted to minimize the effect of bounced light . Flash to
    meter distance was five feet. A Pocketwizard MultiMAX wireless triggering system was used so that the
    flash was fired at 1.2 second intervals for a sequence of ten flashes per configuration. All readings were
    with the ABR800 set to full power and the readings were consistent within 1/10th of an f-stop.

    Bare tube: ?/16.5 (G.N. 95)

    Diffusion dome only: ?/16.6 (G.N = 95)

    Diffusion dome + standard reflector: ?/22.7 (G.N. = 145)

    Standard reflector only; ?/22.6 (G.N. = 145)

    Standard reflector + Diffusion dome + 20? Grid spot: ?/16.8 (G.N. = 100)

    31? Moon Unit + inner deflector ring: ?/16.6 (G.N = 95)

    Alien Bees claims that the t/0.5 flash duration at full power for the ABR800 is 1/2,000 of a
    second. Without access to the necessary testing equipment I was not able to confirm this.

    The multipurpose mounting platform makes it easy to mount a camera on the ABR or the camera
    +ABR rig on a tripod, or use the ABR800 as a free standing light on a standard light stand. When you
    do choose to use it as a standard ring light the camera mount allows use of cameras that have up to a
    4.5? height difference between the center of the lens and the bottom of the camera. I have been using
    it with a Canon EOS 1Ds mark 2 fitted with a Really Right Stuff "L" bracket with no problems (see below
    for more details.) with a 70-200mm f/2.8L, the 24-105 f/4L , the 24-70mm f/2.8L and an 85mm f/1.8
    (all Canon EF) The camera position can be adjusted back and forth, accommodating different size
    camera bodies and lenses. Once you determine the right height and fore and aft position you lock them
    down securely with large friction locks. As a safety measure the camera platform has a built in safety
    catch preventing the camera from sliding out if you forget to use the lock. I?ve modified the mounting
    platform by adding a Really Right Stuff Arca-Swiss quick release clamp so that I can easily change
    camera orientation from horizontal to vertical (possible with a Really Right Stuff or Kirk ?L? QR plate for
    your camera, and put a RRS QR plate on the tripod mount side of the platform to speed up the process
    of mounting the ABR on a camera tripod. The swivel mount for light stands allows for just about 115?
    degrees of fore and aft tilting, mostly upwards.

    After working with the first iteration (which was quickly replaced by a second version with some
    much needed updates to how a camera , tripod or light stand attach to the ABR800, and better flare
    control), my conclusion is that this is one very nifty light. The ABR800 is so nifty that if I was forced to
    only take one moderately powered AC or battery driven light (via the Aline Bees Vagabond Battery
    systems) with me on an assignment this would be the one. No it isn?t the sleekest looking piece of
    lighting equipment gear ever made, the no nonsense controls and locks are everything but
    sophisticated in looks and feel, and I?m constantly tempted to hide the large DayGlo pink and yellow
    logo under a piece of black gaffer?s tape, but after a few month?s regular use those are the worse
    faults I?ve found. Buff?s companies have made their reputations for making solidly engineered if not
    particularly sexy looking electronic flash equipment at very reasonable prices and the ABR800
    continues in this tradition. One aspect I haven?t touched on is that this monolight is fan cooled, and the
    fans are very quiet, even when working with the light as a standard ring-flash the sound was barely
    audible. The ABR800 may not be ?the king of lighting? but it certainly is a prince and Alien Bees and
    Paul Buff deserve a lot of credit for coming up with a very sophisticated lighting tool at a very
    competitive price.

    The goods:

    Alien Bees ABR 800 Ringlight; $399.95 (includes 10-inch Ring Reflector; Set of Eight 10-Watt, 24- Volt
    Modeling Lamps; Two Half-Circle Flashtubes; 15-foot Power Cord; 12-inch Sync Cord; Front Cover /
    Diffuser / Gel Holder; Universal Camera Mounting Bracket with adjustable camera platform, tripod and
    light stand mounting hardware; Umbrella Adaptor; Owner's Manual; 60-day Satisfaction Guarantee and
    a 2-Year Factory Warranty.)

    Watt-Second (joules) range: 320 w-s (max) to 10 w-s (at 1/32 power)

    Recycle time (max power): 1 second (tested and confirmed)

    Flash duration (t.5): 1/2,000th second at full power

    The two semi circular flash tubes have a claimed life of 250,000 to 1,000,000 discharges. Obviously
    this will vary based on your handling of the unit and power settings.

    Sync voltage; 5.6 volts.

    Accepts lenses up to 4 in diameter, and camera lens combinations with anywhere from 1? to 4.75?? inch
    distance from lens center (axis) to ?camera base?.

    Optional Accessories include:

    31? diameter Moon Unit softbox ($59.95 or $89.95 as a kit with Mask Set (see "http://" for details)

    Set of Six Warming and Diffusion Filters, $29.95

    20? ringflash honeycomb grid, $59.95

    ABRBAG Alien Bees Ringflash Carrying Bag, $14.95
  2. The question marks in weird places were added by's inability to read grammatical
    marks and symbols
  3. ...inability to read grammatical marks and symbols from Microsoft Word (probably)
    The original symbols are either not ASCII or not printable ASCII, and neither your browser nor know what program you are pasting from, and what the strange characters mean. So they show up as question marks. Maybe there is a "save-as" option in Word to make this not a problem?
  4. Thanks Ellis,

    Very helpful!
  5. This is certainly a timely review since I was looking at the site a few days a go and called to see what has happened to the White Lightning version. This, apparently, is now sometime in the summer.

    I'd appreciate a few comments if you could. How bulky/obtusive is the ring flash in every day work? I like to focus, move my eye just over the viewfinder to see the person 'face to face', then shoot. If it means an extra inch or so, that's OK, but further might be an issue for me.

    Secondly, how easily/quickly can filters be added onto the ring? Is it click-on? I like to add some strange filters that would have to be home-made and I like to switch many times during shoots. Would this be possible?

    Lastly, is the ring posing any problems for an average portrait zoom lens in the ability to easily reach the focus or zoom ring on the lens. Yes, I know lenses are different, but just on average?

    Thanks, Doug
  6. Very nice review...Well Done. I've been riding the fence on this product, but will purchase one soon. Thanks.
  7. Nice review Ellis, but this is probably not the best place for it to be posted.

    Let me see if I can get it posted somwehere better on the site. If you want to email the original version to me, I can do editing to correct the missing non-standard characters.
  8. Thanks for the great review! I have been looking at that ring light...

    Alien Bees should be linking to your review!
  9. How bulky/obtusive is the ring flash in every day work? I like to focus, move my eye just over the viewfinder to see the person 'face to face', then shoot. If it means an extra inch or so, that's OK, but further might be an issue for me.
    I'd say it's about 5 to 6 inches for your eyes to clear the outside of the ring with standard reflector. I generally work with the rig mounted on a tripod (but you can handhold it) so it isn't an issue for me.
    Secondly, how easily/quickly can filters be added onto the ring? Is it click-on?
    You'll have to custom cut them --there's a template in the filter set-- they sort of just get placed across the standard reflector. Honestly I haven't messed with them.
    Lastly, is the ring posing any problems for an average portrait zoom lens in the ability to easily reach the focus or zoom ring on the lens. Yes, I know lenses are different, but just on average?"
    With the lenses I used not really but that will depend on whether the zoom ring is fore or aft of the focus ring, etc.
  10. Just received this (literally i nthe past minute) from Alien Bees:

    ABR800 UPDATE:

    Heat Precautions when using the AlienBees ABR800 Ringflash Unit

    Most cars are capable of traveling 120 MPH on a winding gravel road and do not place
    limits on your ability to do this. But common sense indicates that if you drive this way you
    are probably going to ruin your car and perhaps your life. Even if you don?t have a wreck,
    if you do this for a long period of time you will surely overheat the engine and burn it up.
    That said, the ABR800 units (as well as our other products) have safe operating parameters
    that are difficult to place limits or user controls upon and it is up to the user to exercise
    reasonable caution in heavy-use situations and in unusual shooting configurations.

    Heat Considerations:

    The ABR800 Ringflash has high intensity modeling lamps that produce considerable heat,
    as well as a flashtube and internal electronics that must dissipate 320 Ws for each flash.
    An internal fan removes the heat from these sources in most configurations in normal use.
    However, if the unit is flashed each time it recycles and the modeling lamps are left
    continuously on at full brightness, operating under these conditions requires the
    dissipation of about 500 watts of heat. While the ABR800 unit can tolerate this for short
    periods of time, it cannot do this indefinitely without overheating and being damaged.
    This is aggravated when accessories such as the honeycomb grids, gels, diffusers and
    softboxes restrict the airflow. In order to guide the user, we conducted a series of tests on
    an ABR800 unit fitted with the cover / diffuser / gel holder, the honeycomb grid and a gel.

    TEST 1 ? Long Term Shooting:

    The modeling lamps were set to the Model = Ready Mode to reduce the heat load during
    firing. The ABR800 unit was fired continuously at Full Power once every 20 seconds. Under
    these conditions, the temperature of the grid and diffuser eventually stabilized at 200?F.
    The unit is designed to allow for temperatures up to 250?. Beyond this, there is concern
    for user-burns and damage to components.

    Conclusion 1: This configuration is generally acceptable. Shooting rates could likely be
    increased to about one shot per 10 seconds on a long term basis without damage.
    However, additional care should be taken if the unit is facing downward as this will
    increase the amount of heat flowing back into the electronics. Common sense suggests
    feeling the outside of the ABR800 housing occasionally during shooting. If it feels
    extremely hot to the touch you should let the unit rest for a while. You can reduce the
    amount of heat build up by setting the Modeling Lamps to Proportional (Tracking Mode)
    and by setting the lamps to Model = Ready Mode.

    TEST 2 ? Burst Shooting:

    We next fired the ABR800 unit once per second in Model = Ready mode. The unit was
    already at 200?F at the beginning of this test. After 100 shots at this rate, the
    temperatures reached the 270?F point. The unit was allowed to rest for five minutes with
    the modeling lamps still on Full brightness and the temperatures returned to 200?F.

    Conclusion 2: Burst shooting should be limited to about 50 consecutive shots in 50
    seconds, followed by a three-minute rest period.

    TEST 3 ? Destruction Testing:

    In this test, we turned the model lamps on (Model = Ready = Off) and fired at Full Power
    once per second. After 150 flashes in 150 seconds, the diffuser reached over 300?F and
    began to soften and melt. In this test, the electronics continued to function, but this sort
    of overuse is obviously not acceptable and can result to serious damage to the unit.

    General Recommendation:

    Based on these results, a prudent operating routine would be to limit Full Power operation
    with modeling lamps (preferably in Model = Ready Mode) at a long term rate of no more
    than 20 flashes per minute, or to a burst rate of no more than 50 flashes followed by a
    rest period. If the unit is used at less than Full Power, particularly with the modeling lamps
    OFF or in Proportional (Tracking) mode, proportional higher usage rates can be tolerated.
    If the unit feels very hot to the touch, a rest period with the modeling lamps off is
  11. Nice ringlite,easy to use,not that heavy.Also VERY powerfull.The only problem so far is very strong vigneting with ultra wides,caused by the depth of the assembly.W
  12. Hi Ellis! Nicely done! I've had mine over a month now. I have a small gripe or two with it and I suspect that AB's may have left some of the tripod mount gizmos out of my box. (I wrote them but got no reply... I'll try again)

    When I first got the light I tried it mounted on a light stand. It worked well and was much easier than the tripod mount - which again, I may not even have been sent all the pieces to. But I could only shoot in landscape mode with it mounted on my light stand.

    Anyway, I was fumbling around, trying to adjust my camera's lens to be in the exact center of the ring. The way to do that is this plastic tab gizmo that, when loosened, allows you to slide the ring up or down along a vertical, plastic shaft to get the lens centered in the middle of the ring - in other words the camera/lens stays put and you raise or lower the ring to get the lens centered inside it. Once it's centered, you lock down that plastic tab. That's cool; so far, so good.

    BUT... If you're not careful and you undo that plastic tab that holds the shaft in place inadvertently and/or without support, the whole thing will fall and slam on the floor. I found this out the hard way! I was amazed that absolutely no damage was done.

    Now before you think I'm just a complete klutz (and I admit to being a *partial* klutz! :) the adjustment that allows you to push your camera's lens into and out of the ring on the horizontal axis (as opposed to up and down on the vertical) has a "safety catch" on it - or at least mine does - so you don't inadvertently slide your camera out of the guide and drop it on the floor. In fact you have to use two hands to get around this and get your camera out of the mount - which is good - again, so you don't inadvertently drop your camera.

    But no such mechanism is in place for pretty much the same thing, in the vertical (up/down) direction, to hold the light up, even though the mechanism is similar. If you loosen that tab all the way, there is no corresponding, vertical "catch" and the light falls and crashes on the floor. IMHO it needs a similar plastic "stop" to it that is in place horizontally on the unit but not vertically. (I hope you know what I mean!)

    So far, that's one of my few "complaints" - well, that and I don't think I received what I was supposed to in order to properly mount it on a tripod. I took photos of what I received and sent AB's tech support links to photos of what I think I *should* have received. I never got a reply at all. Usually they're very good about support.

    Like I said, I guess I'll try again.

    At any rate, great job on the review and despite the extra caution one must take I really love the effect as long as it's not over-done. It's great for subjects with bags under their eyes and/or bad skin because it can really light up a face and give a great, high-key effect that can minimize facial imperfections. (It's also easy to get red-eye!)

    A few shots I took with mine:

    Oh yeah, I found I pretty much had to learn to hand-hold it because of my tripod mount "issue". And while it's entirely "doable" it sure can make a difference on one's comfort level depending on the camera and lens. For example I would NOT want to be lugging around this thing on a 1Ds Mark II with a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens on it! That would weigh a ton.

    On the other hand, I've used it with my 20D and the EF 85mm f/1.8 and it was great; it wasn't too heavy at all.

    Which brings up my last "issue", which again, isn't a big one. When mounting a zoom lens like the 24-105mm f/4L IS, you must take care to put the lens far enough into the ring so that it doesn't vignette from the ring itself. When you do put the lens in the ring that far it's pretty darn difficult to then operate the zoom ring on the lens while holding all of this stuff up. I ended up setting the zoom to around 50mm and "zooming with my feet" because I could barely reach, grip and/or turn the zoom ring on that particular lens while it's inserted into the ringlight. If I slid the whole thing back so that I could easily turn the zoom ring, the lens would vignette badly, picking up the inside of the ring itself at the corners of the image. So there are a few "gotchas" with this thing but all in all it's very cool - particularly for the price. Just my .02 cent's.
  13. Thanks for the answers Ellis. I think Beau added a lot with his experiences also, thanks Beau.

    I have a feeling that this unit is a little heavier and clunkier than I could live with. I guess I'll have to get to a show where Buff has a booth and see for myself.
  14. "If I slid the whole thing back so that I could easily turn the zoom ring, the lens would
    vignette badly, picking up the inside of the ring itself at the corners of the image."

    At what point did it start to vignette?
  15. At what point did it start to vignette?
    I really didn't note that, unfortunately because I was sort of busy just trying to get it all together while my subject(s) waited. I think though that some lenses will do better and worse than others. If I had to guess, I'd say, for that lens, (24-105mm f/4L) probably around 30-35mm. And it also depended on how deeply I put the lens into the ring itself. If I left enough poking out on the camera side to turn the AF ring, it was pretty easy to get a nasty ring around the image. If I shoved it in the ring pretty deep, no problems with vignetting, but no access to the AF ring either.
    It also hit me that some lenses - like the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 "Macro" lens get *wider* as the lens gets longer (extends) and the focal length gets longer as the lens retracts back into the lens's body - which is sort of opposite from what you'd expect.
    So again, it might be wise to think about the lens(es) one uses with this thing prior to buying one. In my admittedly little experience I found that a prime works great because you don't have to fool with autofocus and they're usually pretty light, making hand-holding much easier.
  16. Of course I should've said "With a prime you don't have to fool with the zoom..." Sorry!
  17. In fact, substitute "zoom ring" for "AF ring" in everything I said in response to Ellis' question. Jeez... Not enough coffee this a.m!! (I still wish we could edit posts!) ;-)
  18. Well, yours is the first person review that I've read on the web who actually likes it. I've read many more, even from "amatuers" who said it was the cheapest constructed photo item they've ever seen or purchased.

    It will be interesting to hear if the ringlight holds up to heavy use.
  19. Hello...

    I was surprised at the low guide number. Their web site says it produces 14,000 Lumen seconds. 14,000 Lumen seconds should produce a guide number of about 250 at 100 ISO. Plus 320 "real" watt seconds should do a 180-220 guide number. If it had a guide number of 200+ I'd buy one. I need F:16 at 10 feet (160gn) or better for stereo slides. 145gn just won't do it.

  20. Ive had my abr800 about 6 days now, and ive taken about 1000 shots with it, including a bicycle ad, a rave party, product shots, and a magazine fashion editoral. It is definitely short on durability, but at that price you can buy a new one every 6 months. hehe. It is light enough to carry for extended periods, even with a vagabond battery thrown over your shoulder.. i was sore after a few hours of this, but definitely do-able. You can dial it down to 1/32 of 320w, which means big aperture effects and ambient background lighting (i.e. nightclub) are possible, where they might not be with a bigtime ringflash. it generates a pretty decent amount of heat after a while... something to consider when using wide angle lenses, close to your subject. The plastic might even start to warp if you used it for several hours on full power. the moonunit box is little ungainly, and is tough to secure onto the frame. i experienced some timing problems with my pocketwizard. no problem if the exposure time is 1/100 or slower, but at 1/200th, i consistently got a little dark bar along the bottom of the frame. I posted a few samples on my flickr... overall im pretty happy with it. Obviously its not as good as a profoto ringflash, but its a fraction of the cost. And believe it or not, in certain situations, its actually more useful than a 2500w ringflash.
  21. I had to find some reviews of the ringlight before purchasing it, and i don't have any 2 cents because I just ordered it about 10 minutes ago, but I just want to say wow, David Barker, you're an awesome photographer! :)

  22. I was leaning heavily toward purchasing one of these units for a long time. Reading this review, and seeing some more sample shots that were taken with it, pushed me over the edge. I ordered my ABR800 on Tuesday, received it on Friday, shot with it on Saturday. This thing gives great light!
    Two minor gripes, or maybe one and a half. First, I like to shoot wide. And with the short lens I use the most, there isn't so much as a vignette effect as a Lincoln Tunnel effect. :D But I knew that going into the purchase so I can't hold that against the ABR. My other, more legitimate gripe is the same one Beau Hooker mentioned two years ago -- the vertical adjustment mechanism is very sketchy! It adjusts easily enough, perhaps too easy. I had trouble keeping the thing in one spot and almost came close to dropping the ABR entirely on several occasions. There is still no safety catch built onto the vertical adjust the way there is on the horizontal. Not sure why that was left out of the design. After a half day of shooting with it, I am already trying to think of ways to create my own, and to just generally firm up the vertical grip. Unlike David Barker up there, I can't afford to buy a new one every 6 months! heh.
  23. Sorry you've had a bad experience. Been using mine for not quite 7 years with no problems.

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