Shedding a little light… [EDIT]

[EDIT – changes made and conclusions drawn after real field use]

Lastolite EZBox vs Westcott Apollo:

I’ve written a lot about bags. The other thing that a lot of we photographers spend countless hours and wads of hard-earned on is light modifyers. So if you didn’t read the bag posts, you probably won’t get anything out of this one either… But if you’ve ever wondered about whether a toilet-roll snoot was going to look a little too unprofessional on a shoot, this might be of interest.

I’ve spent money on rather unhelpful items in my time. There was a complete kit of modifiers that came in a lovely set of boxes, and were generally well made (apart from one bit which fell apart within a few days of starting to use it). But although there were snoots and a ‘beauty dish’, and various dome-like attachments, they improvement they offered over direct flash was marginal (while adding significantly to bulk and unwieldiness), and were nothing close to even the simplest umbrella or softbox options. And I’ve bought an array of domes, clip on bits, velcro wraps and bounce cards galore – all leaving me distinctly underwhelmed. It’s all down to size of lightsource – as soon as you’ve got even a small brolly in use, the area of your light source is ten times the area of a direct flash, rather than maybe twice with almost all the kit I’ve0 bought.

So for most of my shoots, I use my Lumedyne or Bowens kits – lots of control, huge umbrellas or softboxes, and very wonderful results. However, as soon as there’s a plane involved, things become trickier, as even pared down, either of those kits is too heavy to be lugging through an airport. This coming weekend, I’ve got a wedding about an hour from Zurich in Switzerland, so the issue of lighting is very much in my mind.

So yesterday I headed off to a photo fair of some kind in Manchester, with a lot of wedding and social photographers, complete with framing companies and album companies and software companies and basically lots of ways to spend your money…

I already own a Lastolite EZBox, which is a softbox that folds down like a Lastolite reflector (sort of), and works reasonably well.  Mine’s an early version, and is a bit of a fiddle to put together (I get the impression the later ones are easier to put together and mount speedlites on), but I’ve travelled a lot with it, and am generally pleased with how it works. The biggest issue is its size – or lack of it – I’ve got the 15″ one, which is basically too small for anything other than a head shot (though very nice for that), and I needed something with a bit more oomph. Or at least a bit more like a normal size softbox.  So digging around the exhibition, I came across the Westcott Apollo Speedlite Kit. Its basically an umbrella based softbox at around 28″ square (ie around 70cm square) – doesn’t sound much, but it’s an awful lot bigger than the Lastolite, and seems about right for a Speedlite.

I ended up buying the whole ‘kit’ because it was cheaper to do that than buy the softbox on its own. So there’s another set of legs and clamp-y thing for the cupboard…  I’m a bit fussy about my light stand legs and brackets, and to be honest these are a bit flimsy – not the poles so much as the fastenings. Nothing really beats my Manfrotto ones (except I’ve just looked and some of mine are Calumet – well they’re good too). Think they’ll work for a bit though… Not too sure about the build quality of the umbrella clamp either, but that’s not what I bought it for anyway.  I’ve come to love my frio cold shoe – very simple, but very very firm connection for the flash.

EDIT

It’s now January 2013, and I’ve been meaning to update this review for a while. I used the Westcott softbox set up in Switzerland as promised, and got great results.  The next shoot I used it on was a series of jobs on location around the UK.  From the start I’d been a little worried about the build quality of the Westcott, and in the slightest of breezes in Edinburgh the whole kit and caboodle blew over, resulting in the death of the softbox – the struts used to support it are simple not strong enough to survive a typical fall. To be clear, I’ve been shooting on location with softboxes for ten years, and my equipment blows over more often than I’d like.  Both my Lumedyne and speedlight-based kits have taken tumbles, and I’ve caused some damage over time, but remarkably little.  For the Westcott to fail so early in its (expensive) life is very disappointing to say the least, and doesn’t speak well of the materials used. I’ve ditched it, and am back to nearly always using my Lumedynes.  I’ll probably get a larger Lastolite EZBox too as an added option for overseas trips. I’ve found a great video review of both softboxes on all-things-photography.com, and if you’re in any doubt about the design failings of the Westcott, they’re clearly visible in this review.

So, to be clear, for location shooting with speedlights, if you’re ever likely to take pictures outdoors, I can’t recommend the Westcott, as it isn’t robust enough for normal professional use.  As you’ll see below, the light output from it is rather lovely, so that’s a real shame.

EDIT ends – on with the original review…

I’ve also ordered a Lastolite TriFlash adaptor, which means I should be able to run at least two Nikon SB800s in there, at reduced power to give the same light but with faster recycling times.  I tried it all out last night with my lucky children which was great. In my back garden. Which wasn’t so much, as it’s a little small for creative portraits…

So here’s a little selection of shots from different set ups – I’ve marked them with a bit of set up information.

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/4 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/4 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard (with apologies to EM)

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/4 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/4 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard (plus Brian the Brain bottom right) – note – almost no rear light loss or spill, plus recessed front to soft box

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/4 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard – internal gubbins using the frio cold shoe

Detail of Frio Cold Shoe in Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box

Lastolite EZbox, SB800 plus pocket wizards

Lastolite EZBox soft box with 1/4 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/8 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard

Hmm, works in b&w too (SilverFX Pro) – Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/8 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/8 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/8 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard – soft box high overhead, not using zippered openings on bottom of box, but pole through front panel instead – I like this lighting setup like this – very moody, for occasional use

Wescott 28″ Apollo soft box with 1/8 power SB800 fired by pocket wizard – soft box high overhead, not using zippered openings on bottom of box, but pole through front panel instead – set up for previous shot

So, I’ll be using this softbox, hopefully with two SB800s, this weekend, with an umbrella as a secondary light, or direct flash from behind the subjects for catch lights – depends a little on what else is happening light-wise.  The thing I like about it is that its the same shape when folded as legs – ie long and thin. One of the problems with the Lastolite and the boxes full of reflectors and tricks that I’ve tried in the past is that they’re not really compact, or that if they are, they’re not really in the same sort of form factor as the rest of my kit, so tend to get left behind.

The light from the Apollo is lovely – nice and even, and obviously significantly larger than the Lastolite box.

I’m still not 100% convinced – mainly by the build quality issues – it doesn’t feel as robust as a standard softbox or even umbrella, but people who’ve used it seem impressed. I’ll see how it goes this weekend…

And for this post – thank you to my very patient children, who have been the subject of much photographic experimentation over the years, and always bear it with good grace!

richard hanson :: photographer :: sheffield

hansonphoto.co.uk