Review: ExpoImaging Ray Flash

When I found out the Ray Flash got a 33% reduction in price, I decided to pull the trigger and buy one. How could I resist – an untethered ring flash that uses TTL metering – I just had to try it. What seemed a ridiculously overpriced niche-y product at $300 became a “gotta have it” gadget at $199. Honestly I half expected I’d play with the Ray Flash for a couple days, then retire it to the photo junk drawer, amidst my Gary Fong diffuser graveyard, but hey it was Christmas money so what the hell.

When I received the RayFlash a week ago, I was immediately struck by how well the thing seemed to be put together. It’s made with very sturdy plastic and you can tell there’s something magical happening in those fiber optic light channels. I wasted no time attaching it to my nikon sb-800 – it fits over the speedlight’s head and slides all the way up to the joint. A half twist of the flush-mounted “screw” with thumb and forefinger makes a remarkably firm grip between the two. I thought to myself, “this definitely isn’t coming off like the fong dong always did…” It’s so secure, in fact, that I’d be more worried about the whole thing damaging the sb-800/hotshoe before anything else.

With the Ray Flash attached to the strobe, you kind of “negotiate” your lens through the ring before attaching the speedlight to the camera. I say negotiate, because depending on the size of the lens attached, it may be a tight squeeze. With my Nikon D3 and 17-35mm lens (with hood on), I could just barely fit the Ray Flash through. I could take the lens hood off but laziness demands otherwise.

Holding the whole kit (D3/17-35/sb-800/RF), it’s immediately noticeable that this is a heavy setup. I’m also an “AF-ON” shooter, so using my thumb for focusing means it’s not helping leverage the weight so much. I could feel the fatigue setting in much quicker than usual. The next thing I noticed was how close the RF ring is to the camera – the knuckles of my right hand are constantly pushing against it, plus when I focus the lens that hand also has to push against the new device. This is annoying, and feels pretty cumbersome, but not terrible enough to reduce my excitement much. Also I should note the ring has a fair amount of give – due to the sb-800′s hinge not being rigid (you can move the flash up and down a few millimeters in its locked 90-degree position, and this translates to greater movement on the RF). So, if you’re envisioning a ringlight that perfectly encircles the lens at all times (like a “real” studio ring flash), you may be disappointed. However, having this “give” can actually be a good thing as you can tweak the direction of the light by pushing the RF out and in with your left hand while also supporting the lens. I have found the extra give to be a minor compromise for what this relatively inexpensive gadget can do. That being said, let’s move on to some samples.

The first thing I did was shoot what was available – my coworkers. I was most interested in the lighting effects of people/faces. I’m showing b&w images because the mixed lighting sucked, and this shows the tonal gradient effects of the RF better.

I was shooting in manual mode (f4.5 1/160s) but since I was so close to the subject the DOF (Depth of Field) is rather shallow, rendering a pleasing bokeh. Because the RF supposedly loses one stop of light, I assumed I was going to have to manually compensate the SB-800 +1, but in fact I found myself actually dialing the flash down 1/3 to a full stop. I suppose the flash is smart enough to compensate.

As you can see, the RF is leaving the telltale circular reflection of a ring light in the eyes, which is pretty neat. I really love the three dimensional sculpting effect this type of light has on the face.

A huge advantage of ring flashes is with closeup and macro photography. When you are physically close to your subject (and with this camera and lens combo I had to be!), the chances are you’re blocking a lot of light that would ordinarily be falling on your subject. Throw a direct flash into the mix and the chances are you’ll have uneven coverage and nasty, harsh shadows. Try to bounce that flash off a wall or ceiling, and again, your body is physically blocking the light from reaching your subject. The ring flash not only keeps that light on the subject, it wraps your subject in light and shadow in a way that no other lighting setup can.

If you put your subject close to a wall you’ll notice the shadow that’s almost like a glow around the edges. More like a photoshop drop shadow I guess, but more organic and pleasing.

One thing I noticed is that because the RF has that give, you have to turn the camera around to look at the front to see if the RF is positioned in the exact center of the lens. This is only an issue if you’re far enough back from your subject that you can see the wall, AND if you’re trying to get that cast shadow even. If the RF is hanging down too much, the direction of the shadow will be offset a tad – which may or may not suit your needs. not a huge deal, but something to pay attention to.

A few days later I took a few chef portraits of Scott Cooper at Le Papillon restaurant in San Jose, Calif. (see blog entry)

I thought the walk-in refrigerator door would make an interesting background texture.

Experimenting further, I took an off-axis shot (so the background was at a 45-degrees angle instead of 90), and really liked how the bokeh and drop shadow blended together.

Of course you can feel free to break the rules, and use the ring flash off-camera. I took it off for this shot below; manually set the sb-800 to 1/128 power, and attached a Pocket Wizard to it. Because of the way the RF attaches to the speedlight, you can conveniently set the flash at an angle to your subject by simply setting it down on a flat surface.

Here’s my Pros/Cons for the ExpoImaging Ray Flash:

Pros:

  1. Recently become “affordable” ($200 instead of $300). For some reason this breaks through the magical barrier of the casual-to-professional photographer’s gadget budget.
  2. Optically efficient. Lets much more light through then DIY alternatives (1-stop as opposed to 4+)
  3. Sturdy construction, exudes quality (no duct tape or velcro needed)
  4. Nearly the same look as a dedicated studio ring flash, but much cheaper, portable, and uses TTL metering (no manual light guessing)

Cons:

  1. Cumbersome, a tad bulky. I like to man-handle my camera, constantly switching between portrait and landscape, and the RF just gets in the way. It is always touching my knuckles so I feel a little restricted. I wouldn’t want to use it for more than 20-30 minutes at a time.
  2. It’s heavy. It adds a full pound to my setup which is probably already about 8lbs. Add the way I hold the camera (using my thumb for AF-ON focusing), and it gets even more difficult to lug around.
  3. Potential for hot-shoe damage. Because the full weight of the RF is hanging off the end of the flash and there’s no other support, the simple matter of setting the camera on a table means the whole setup gets a little, I dunno, tweaked. I think the hot shoe on the camera/flash is getting a little torqued in the process. I’m concerned that extensive usage may eventually damage the hot shoe apparatus – but this is pure speculation at this point.
  4. Doesn’t store well in a camera bag. Perhaps the next version could have a 90-degree hinge built in?

To sum up, the Ray Flash is an amazing, if a little cumbersome, addition to my lighting arsenal. I look forward to using it at my next wedding; especially for the reception candids and as fill in conjunction with off-camera strobes. Does it replace using my sb-800 and bounce-flash technique? Hell no. Every piece of equipment has its place. You have to know when to use each tool; and you need to know when to break the rules, to make personal and creative breakthroughs. The Ray Flash opens up lots of opportunities for out-of-studio macro photography, creative off-the-cuff portraits, and all kinds of other stuff I can’t think of right now. I look forward to using it more, and hope this review has been helpful to anyone considering addng the RF to their arsenal. Oh, and if you call ExpoImaging (they’re based in Watsonville, Calif.), say hi to Lizzy–she’s great!

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