Product: Photek Softlighter II – 46″ model
Product Type: Lighting Modifier, Umbrella/Softbox Hybrid
For: Portrait Photography Lighting
Average Review Rating: 4.5/5 Stars on Adorama
Tested With: Lumopro LP160 Flash, CowboyStudio NPT-04 flash triggers, Canon DSLR
In the Box: Umbrella, black nylon cover, front difusion cloth, gold & silver discs for added specularity, carrying case.
Easy to Set Up/Use?: YES!
Quick summary: The Photek Softlighter is an amazingly versatile lighting modifier that can be used with both studio strobes and shoe-mounted speedlights. It can function as 1) a big softbox/octabox, 2) a shoot-through umbrella, and 3) a bounce umbrella.
It’s a dirt-cheap away to get the same kind of big, soft, even light that comes from those uber-expensive Elinchrom Octas for less than a tenth of the price.
And oh yeah, the Softlighter models with 8mm shafts (there are also models with 7mm shafts for Elinchrom users) actually allow you to remove half the shaft, preventing you from poking your subjects in the eye.
However, keep in mind that the detachable part of the shaft on the 8-mm models is a tiny bit thinner than the part that stays attached. I’m told that this actually allows the 8-mm model to work perfectly with Elinchrom strobes. But to be on the safe side, I’d go with the 7mm model if I used Elinchrom lights.
If you require a celebrity endorsement, Annie Leibowitz has used them to photograph the likes of Keith Richards and Miley Cyrus: (fast forward to 1:04 to see it in action here)
In the words of my father, anything that’s good enough for Annie Leibowitz, Keith Richards, and Miley Cyrus is good enough for me. Annie does not work on a budget, so it’s really saying something that she opts to use a $60 lighting modifier with her five-figure Profoto lighting setups – even in a Profoto promo video!:
So if you’re too lazy to read this entire review, I’ll just say this: you can’t go wrong with the Photek Softlighter. It makes people look really pretty, and it’s really, really, really cheap. The bang-for-the-buck is simply off the charts here.
In fact, the Softlighter is both cheaper and more versatile than made-for-speedlight softboxes like the Lastolite Ezybox and Westcott Apollo product lines. And needless to say, it’s way way way cheaper than any fancy softbox from the likes of Elinchrom, Profoto, and Chimera.
Okay, now for the full review:
Even a total mongoloid could set up a Photek Softlighter with little trouble. The umbrella opens like any other umbrella, and then you attach the white diffusion cloth around the holes on the edges of the umbrella. If you want to add a little more punch and contrast, you can use one of the included gold or silver rings on the inside of the umbrella.
Then, you attach the softlighter to your umbrella adapter or studio strobe just like you would any umbrella, and place your flash inside the sock at the center of the diffusion cloth. If you wish, you can remove half the umbrella shaft by unscrewing it.
Note: if you are using a shoe-mount speedlight like a Nikon SB900 or Canon 580EX II, I highly recommend picking up a cheap ballhead to get your flash horizontal and pointing into the center of the Softlighter. I tested the Softlighter with the flash pointing every which way, and pointing it at the center gives you by far the most even illumination. I use one of these $20 Giottos bad boys to do the job.
Here’s what it looks like:
I screwed the ballhead into the top of my umbrella adapter, put my CowboyStudios NPT-O4 receiver on top, and then attached my Lumopro LP160 flash to the hotshoe on the receiver.
Here’s how everything looks with the Softlighter attached:
This particular setup is especially convenient for me because I can adjust my flash, turn my radio trigger on/off, and replace batteries without having to mess with the Softlighter myself. I can’t however, remove the umbrella shaft, but that’s not a problem with this particular configuration because it’s not sticking that far out anyway.
The Softlighter feels reasonably tough, and is much better built than my usual Adorama umbrella, which has been collecting dust ever since I picked up the Softlighter.
Here’s the picture from the top of the post again:
This was my first try at a portrait with the Softlighter. This hasn’t been retouched beyond a slight exposure boost. Her skin looks pretty smooth and to me, but the shadow transitions would have been even nicer had I added a reflector camera left to bounce some light back on the shadow side of the face. But still – smooth is the operative word here.
Also, I had my flash way too close to the umbrella, which introduced a hot spot on the left cheek, which I corrected with Aperture 3’s Recovery slider. Even then, the light is still really, really soft.
If I had feathered the light across the face, the results would have been even smoother. And of course, you do have the option of a more contrasty and punchy look with the included gold and silver disks, which get placed inside the umbrella and diffusion cloth.
Here’s a self-portrait I took with the black nylon cover off, using a shoot-through + diffusion cloth combination, giving a softbox effect. This is by far my favorite way to use the Softlighter.
And another shot softbox-style. Note that the subject here is standing about a foot from the wall, which is why a shadow was cast:
And finally, here’s a shot of a depressed dog with the Softlighter’s standard configuration:
As I wrote in the quick summary above, the Softlighter gives you a whole lot of soft, diffused light in an incredible versatile and affordable package. In fact, Photek’s line of Softlighters have become so popular that retailers often have trouble keeping them in stock. I even had a hard time finding my 46″ model here in NYC!
Is it the Annie Leibovitz effect? Who knows?
If you’re interested in picking one up, I highly recommend purchasing from Amazon or Adorama, the NYC-based photo gear dealer from whom I buy 90%+ of my stuff. They’ve always treated me like solid gold, even though I’m not a big customer. In fact, I’ve still got a Fuji X100 on order from them.
Now, as far as size goes, if you’re using speedlights, go for the 36″ or 46″ model. A speedlight won’t fill the 60″ model well unless you stick two flashes into it. If you’re using studio strobes, any of the three will fit your needs just fine. Only get the 7mm-shaft models if you’re running Elinchrom lights.
I would not bother with Photek’s hot-shoe diffuser kit, which is fairly pricy at $50+. A cheap ballhead like these Giottos model does the job just fine.