Saturday, February 11, 2012

Westcott Apollo Orb vs. Photek Softlighter II

Just got the new Westcott 43" Apollo Orb octabox for speedlights and I have to say it is one sweet light mod.  Since there are already several good reviews of the Orb out there, instead of doing a review of just of the Orb, I decided to do a comparison of the Orb with its closest competitor, the Photek Softlighter II.  Both are really nice lighting modifiers and while they have many similarities, there are a few noticeable differences as well.  Let's check 'em out...

First off, in looking at the two side by side (please note, the pics are NOT to scale), you'll notice that the Orb is significantly deeper than the Softlighter but the Softlighter is actually an inch or so bigger in diameter.  The Orb's face is 43" while the Softlighter is 46".  The only benefit I can see from having a deeper box is that you might be able to get a better selection of different sized lights inside of it, but since the construction of the two are different, that doesn't appear to be the case because the Softlighter takes the light on the front of the box while the Orb takes it on the inside, thus any light seems to work with both equally well.  I also thought that maybe the quality of light would be different due to the depth of the Orb over the Softlighter, but after shooting with both, I really couldn't see that much of a noticeable difference, however, maybe you can.

In the portraits below, you can see the effect of both mods on the subject.  Both portraits were taken at f/5.6 @ 1/250 sec ISO 200 and the face of each modifier is the same distance from the subject (roughly 36 inches) and angled the same way.  Both modifiers create a really nice, soft wrapping light, but the Orb appears to be much more efficient (uses less light) than the Softlighter.

To my eyes, the Orb seems to create a slightly softer light, judging this by the shadows under the model's chin on the right side, but just marginally.  However, notice the power settings.  To get the exposure with the Orb, I had my speedlight set at 1/8 power and to get a near equivalent exposure with the Softlighter I had to set the power to 1/4.  To get a good exposure of my model with a bare speedlight with the same settings and distance used, I have to set my flash to 1/16 power, so it would appear that the Orb uses roughly one stop of light and the Softlighter uses roughly 2 stops of light, making the Orb the more efficient of the two.

Also note that while I tried my best to keep all of the parameters the same, you might notice different results in your own testing.  There could be a fluctuation of about 1/3 stop either way, but for the purpose of this post, you can get a pretty good idea from the settings I used.

I also tested both modifiers with the diffusion screens on and off.  Having the ability to remove the diffusion screens just make each mod more versatile.  The first two portraits are done using the Orb with the diffusion screen on, then removing it for the next portrait.  As always, you can click on each photo for a larger view!

In the portrait using the Orb without the diffusion screen, the light appears to be a bit more brassy, but also uses about 1 stop less power.  With the diffusion screen the power setting on my flash was at 1/8, but without the diffusion, it was at 1/16 which is the same power needed for using the flash bare, pretty cool!  Also notice the backgrounds.  With the diffusion screen on, more light appears to hit the background while removing it, the fall off of light seems to be a little more dramatic leaving the background a tad darker.

The next pair of portraits are done with the Softlighter II with the diffusion screens first on, then off.  With the diffusion screen on, I had to set the power on the flash to 1/4 to get a relatively decent exposure.

Now the really interesting thing about not using the diffusion screen on the Softlighter is the difference in power levels.  I only had to lower the power of the flash roughly 2/3 of a stop from 1/4 power to 1/6.4 to get a "good" exposure.  Also notice that there is only a slight difference in illumination on the background with the diffusion removed.  The quality of light seems only a little less soft as well.

Now let's check out the differences in build quality and functionality.  Both mods are built on umbrella platforms meaning that they will fold down just like a shoot through umbrella and pack away nicely in almost any light bag.  Both are roughly 36 inches when folded down, but the Softlighter comes with its own carrying bag and the Orb does not (no biggie).  Also, the Softlighter appears to be more rugged and sturdy than the Orb.  The arms of the Softlighter are a bit thicker than the Orb which makes it seem more rigid and less likely to break however, for me the Orb sets up much easier than the Softlighter.  To put the screen on the Softlighter, you have to slide it over your light and stand first, then mount the umbrella section and attach the screen to it.  With the Orb, you just slide the unit over your light and attach the diffusion.  I personally don't like having to fiddle with the "sock" on the diffusion screen of the Softlighter.  If you are using more than one speedlight or a bigger light like a monobloc you have to fiddle with it a little more to get it set up.  The Apollo seems easier to use in that regard... just my opinion though!

Here's where the Apollo Orb loses to the Photek Softlighter though.  Due to the design of the Orb, your light goes inside of the unit through zippered slots in the bottom of the box, see the photo to the right.  The problem with this is that if you are only using one stand without a boom arm or other attachment, the tilting down of the Orb is extremely limited.  Because the Softlighter sets up with the light on the front of the unit instead of inside, it will easily tilt as much as you need it to without the use of a boom arm or other extension device.

A slightly better work around for the Orb is to mount the light and stand through the front of the Orb instead of through the bottom zippered slot, then close the diffusion screen around it.  This gives you a little more tilt, but not much.  You can see the difference with the photo to the right and comparing it the photo at the top of the post.  However, if you do a little research, there are plenty of clever folks out there who have come up with various mods to allow you to tilt this softbox to any angle you want.  Perhaps though the easiest way is to just use a boom arm.

Westcott also has a pretty cool video about how to get the most tilt using the Apollo line of softboxes with just a few extra pieces of gear, check it out below...

So in conclusion, which mod is better?  Well, hopefully you can get enough info from this post to judge for yourself, but both are equally useful mods and are priced right.  However, if I had to pick just one, I believe I would go with the Apollo Orb because of two critical reasons.  Since I use primarily speedlights, the efficiency thing for me is a big deal.  I'll take any extra stops of light I can get so I don't have to maximize the power settings on my flashes and can also get my batteries to last longer.  Secondly, (and this is really just a personal opinion), I feel that the Apollo Orb is a little easier to setup and use than the Softlighter which, when you don't have a lot of time to set up and shoot your subject, every little minute helps!

DISCLAIMER:  I alluded to this earlier, but just to make clear, I didn't use a light meter to do these tests, and that is because I rarely use a light meter these days because I find that relying on my LCD and histograms is almost just as effective and enables me to not have to carry around another piece of equipment.  So the terms I use of "proper" exposure and a "good" exposure are really relative to what you would define as "proper" or "good".  Everyone has a different perception so these tests are really based toward my own personal preferences.

Hope this comparison helps any of you who are trying to decide on which of these mods would better suit your shooting style, but if anyone has any questions about these mods that I didn't address in the post, then please ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.

See you next time!


Tony Sale said...

Great review and very timely for me. I have just been looking for an umbrella style softbox and have been looking at the Orb and the Apollo this has been most helpful - thanks

John said...

Thanks Tony, and you're entirely welcome! I was hoping it would help a few who were on the fence about deciding between the two.

Ozan said...

Thank you so much for the review. Decided to go for the Orb. =)

John said...

You're welcome Ozan, glad it helped out!

Anonymous said...

Hi there...great article! I watched the little clip about tilting the you think this is a good thing to be able to do in general, or is it more for if you wanted to use this for a hairlight?

John said...

Anonymous - One of the key things about having your light look the way you want on your subject is being able to position that light accordingly, so yes I think its a great thing to be able to tilt your light. To me, that was one of the limiting factors about using any of the Westcott softboxes for speedlights because it was hard to angle them how you wanted, but with that tilting method, that seems to solve the problem. Also, using a boom arm will fix that problem as well.