This past month Advanced Photographer Magazine out of the United Kingdom featured the Westcott Apollo Orb in it’s magazine giving it a rating of 90/100!
Originally written & photos by Dan Pluck for Advanced Photographer Magazine July 2012
Portable softboxes tend to fall into the 40 to 60cm size range, which is perfect for portrait lighting, but is limited for full-length people shots. Examples of larger, more versatile softboxes can be found in Westcott’s Apollo range. Here I have been testing the Apollo Orb kit, which uses a 102cm octagonal softbox. Along with the softbox, the kit includes an 8ft light stand and a flashgun brolly mount. Provided you have at least one flashgun and a method of firing off camera flash, this kit is all you need to get started with studio quality lighting. The Orb works perfectly with studio strobes, but I tested it purely with flashguns.
The softbox is very simple to set up. Rather than fiddling around with metal rods and ring mounts, the softbox opens up in one action, thanks to its umbrella-style design. It is at this stage that you realize just how big this softbox is. Compared with many portable units, this one’s a monster.
The softbox includes a cross-shaped opening in its ‘floor’ to allow the top of a lighting stand to poke through and it’s then closed with a plastic zip to reduce light spill. The light stand has been designed to be compact when collapsed down. This is great for portability, but the span of the three legs is narrow so the stand performs best in a studio where there is no wind and the ground is perfectly level.
The supplied flash mount attaches to the top of the stand, and holds the centre column of the softbox’s umbrella frame. Once all the connections are tightened, you can attach your flashgun and trigger system so it bounces light from the back of the umbrella. Lastly, an octagonal diffuser panel fits neatly inside the rim of the softbox to create a closed unit. The diffuser attaches by Velcro.
I tested output with a flashmeter with the Orb at distances of 1, 2 and 4 meters with the flashgun set to various zoom settings. I also tried altering the position of the flash on the brolly’s stem.
With the flashgun sitting high in the softbox you might think that the light output would be top heavy but that’s not the case. With the front surface of the softbox parallel to the subject, we found that the centre and bottom were about 0.6EV brighter than the top. And this was consistently the case at our three test distances – the difference was least at the furthest distance, as you’d expect. Different zoom settings had no effect on this.
The natural feathering can be used and it’s not a problem once you are aware of this. You just position the Orb to suit the subject. With a close-up portrait, for example, position the centre of the Orb at head height and you get natural fall-off behind. Or angle the Orb back slightly in its mount to balance the output.
The Orb’s large size is excellent as it means you can light a whole person, or even a small group, without moving the diffuser so far from the subject that it no longer provides soft lighting.
The downside is usability. Outdoors the softbox can catch the wind so blows over easily – clearly this applies to other softboxes and lighting brollies too. The solutions are to attach something heavy to the light stand or to use a much bigger and more sturdy lighting stand – of course neither are guaranteed to work when it’s breezy. The only surefire solution is to get someone to hold it.
Once correctly set up, and kept out of the wind, the Orb is a pleasure to use. The light it provides when used close for tight portraits is fantastically diffuse and comfortably outperforms smaller softboxes in terms of softness. But the ability to light full-length shots and maintain soft light is the real strength of the Apollo Orb.
On the other, if you want bright specular highlights in the eyes instead of big round ones you can turn the flashgun around on its mount within the softbox. The means the flashgun fires at the diffuser panel rather than into the back of the softbox. Output in this scenario has a top/centre bias with it being about 0.3EV brighter than the bottom.
The Apollo Orb is a high-end product that comfortable sets itself apart from smaller portable softboxes. Its large size gives nicely diffused light output and you don’t have to move it a great distance from a human subject to light them from head to toe.
Ease of construction (and deconstruction) are major selling points, especially if you are used to piecing together studio softboxes using metal rods and ring mounts. On location this is a massive benefit.
As a complete kit, the Apollo Orb is a good value, but if you are going to use it outdoors often a better stand with a wider leg spread would enhance stability. Or reserve it for calm days.
Overall, a sound piece of kit that gives a good quality of light and that’s how modifiers are best judged.
Want more information?
If you would like more information on the Westcott Apollo Orb featured in this article, you can visit our website on the product. If you would like more information on Advanced Photographer Magazine, click the link..