Photek SoftLigher II – A Product Review

JimLately I’ve been finding myself wanting more out of my all around umbrella. I’ve been using the Westcott double fold umbrella for a long time now as my main on location modifier. While I am generally happy with it as a softening device, I wanted to have some more options in my bag without giving up on portability.

The Softlighter II by Photek provides an interesting option for that sake. I’ve been using it for a few days and in general I am pretty happy.

The images on this review are from a recent shoot for Jim Ridolfo profile pic. Jim Ridolfo is an Assistant Professor of Composition and Rhetoric at The University of Cincinnati.

The Idea Behind The Softlighter

The concept of the Softlighter is that it provides you with tree different lighting modifiers in one package. A shoot through umbrella, a silver reflective umbrella and an octabank/softbox.

It is one of those ideas that make you smack yourself on the head and say, why didn’t I think of something like this. The “bare” Softlighter is a shoot through umbrella. The tips are then used to mount different attachments.

The first attachment is a black fabric that goes over the umbrella making it a bounce umbrella. The second, more sophisticated attachment is a cover that goes on the front (what you’ll call bottom on rain umbrellas) and converts the umbrella into a softbox.

Light Thoughts

As this is a light modifier, I thought I’d hit this one first. The umbrella is slightly bigger than my usual umbrella – a 43″ Westcott – it goes to 46″,  so it gives softer light. This is a great choice for your casual on location portrait. If you want the small umbrella back, no problem, just slide the speedlight down the shaft till it hits a smaller portion of the surface.

While I usually shoot through my westcott, I found that with this umbrella I enjoy shooting bounce. This provided better spill control.

Jim with Fence

However nothing comes for free. And the double use back does take a toll in terms of power compared to a “standard” silver umbrella. You can see on the setup image below that the back is not 100% light tight and there is some light escaping. The added size takes a toll as well. However, in the shade the bounce umbrella bounced an SB800 gelled with 1/2 CTO pretty well.

Softlighter II setup

While bigger umbrella is nice, The real fun starts as you pull the front cover on the umbrella pins to get a softbox-like device.

Since you are using an umbrella as a base for this construction you are getting a light shaper more octabank-looking than rectangular-softbox-looking. This is pretty neat considering the cost of an octabank.

I love how the light wraps with this modifier and here is the bonus, the shaft can be removed so you can get pretty close to your subject. Actually, you can get pretty close, which is great thing with this sized modifier, you will get very soft, very wrapping light.

Jim sitting down

[small rant: If you have an old profoto, like me,  you may need to get the 7mm shaft version which does not feature a removable shaft. But the basic model can have its shaft removed. Oh Photek, why must we choose? I'd love to see a 7mm removable shaft version]

For On Location

The Softlighter is a great addition to my on location kit. While it does not fold as small as the 43″ umbrella for a bazooka mode carry, it is still small enough to be bunjeed with a lightstand, and for 3 modifiers it is well worth the extra length.

It builds and tears down pretty fast. I mean the umbrella is up just like any other umbrella, but the softbox mechanism is way faster and less prone to swearing than the regular tension based speedring.

If you’re planning on using it on location note that big modifiers come with big traction. All the 46″ combine powers to catch every little bit of wind. You would have to anchor down your stand or use a VAL if you don’t want to wet yourself with every passing breeze. See that black thing on the bottom of the light stand – it is a sand bag.

Softlighter II reflective setup + sand bag

One thing that I was having a little bit of an issue with is the way that speedlights are mounted inside the softbox. Since the distance between the flash and front panel is so short, the flash actually fires into the back of the umbrella, gets some diffusion, and then it hits the panel gets ever more diffusion and being shot out towards your subject. For this the flash is hidden in a white fabric sleeve. If you want access to the flash control panel you need to find a creative way of mounting the flash (like this one). I used a NastyClamp, a bungee cord will do in a pinch as you can see in the 2nd photo.

Softlighter II softbox mode + nasty clamp

Banjeeballing an SB to a Softlighter

The other option is to place the flash inside the softbox and control it with CLS / eTTL / radio popper or one of the new PocketWizards. If you are regular shooter with those this will not be an issue for you.

Lastly, I find that the Softlighter really likes working with VALs. Here is why When you mount the flash and the Softlighter on a lightstand, you are taking away most of the swivel functionality that you usually have. This is happening because the lightstand actually goes inside the Softlighter. if you want tilt, you will now have to tilt the stand. The easy way to solve this is by asking a VAL for some assistance. The other way is using a boom arm. Your pick.

Conclusion

The Softlighter is a great addition to a lighting bag. It’s nice that you can carry one item to get three different modifiers, and for me it is worth the extra length compared to the double fold. It costs triple (~$60 where the Westcott costs ~$20) but then it gives you triple the control.

If you have a Softlighter I’d love to hear how you find it. Share with us in the comments so other can benefit too.

Just before the links to get one, I’m leaving you off with a great behind the scenes of Annie Leibovitz shooting Keith Richards with a Softlighter.

Links