Hardware Review

October 14, 2002

Photoflex's SilverDome NXT Softbox Kit:
Sensual, Captivating Lighting for Digital Photography
(Plus a Brief Look at Photoflex's On-Camera "News-Gathering" Light)

review by Jerry Jones

Product details:
Medium SilverDome NXT Softbox KIT
Price: $680
(Also available: Basic-extra-small kit-kit: $350; Small Softbox kit: $500; Large Softbox kit: $830)
Starlite 3200 continuous lighting system
Starlite Connector
1000-watt tungsten lamp
#2218 LiteStand
22mm Casters (wheels)
Dome Accessory Kit (Circlemask, Stripmask, Louvers, Grid)
Softbox Size (open: 24x32x17 inches, closed: 26x6x4 inches)
Training Video (with 7 lighting lessons on CD-ROM)

Photoflex, Inc.
97 Hanger Way
Watsonville, CA 95076


An older photographer friend of mine once told me that the original meaning of the word "photography" is "painting with light." I readily admit that when I first began shooting video, I did not realize how vital lighting is to a quality production, how essential it is to give us the ability to "paint" a picture with the mood, feeling or presence we are wanting to communicate.

Over the years I've read several articles about the pleasant, captivating quality of diffused light, how it has a softer, more natural look that enhances the subject. I've read how many major network productions (such as "60 Minutes") often use a Softbox for their interviews. I soon recognized that a Softbox is one way to create brilliant "paintings with light."

Which is where Photoflex enters the picture. They are not the only company who produces a Softbox. But I've been quite impressed with their product line for some time. I've used several of their products and have always been happy with the quality, price and usefulness of what they produce. There are some companies that I just get a good feeling about, and Photoflex is one of them.

So when I first received the Medium SilverDome NXT Softbox Starlite Kit, I was expecting good things. Were my expectations met?

Here's a look at my experiences with this Photoflex product.

First Impressions. After opening the box and laying everything out on the floor, I was first amazed at home many items there were included in the kit. Next, I was impressed with how compact it all was. Although not quite as compact as other lighting kits I've been exposed to (for example, Lowell's Rifa), considering that it includes a nice size Softbox, it is compact enough to be easily transported to on-location shoots. That was a big plus for me, in that I rarely work out of a studio setting, doing most of my productions wherever the project takes me.

Kit Ingredients. The kit includes one Starlite light with a 1000-watt lamp (capable of using lights from 500W to 2000W), a light stand and a Softbox. (The kits come in either small, medium or large. The kit I used for this review was the medium kit.) As a bonus, Photoflex has included a 7-lesson CD to help you improve your basic lighting skills.

THE SOFTBOX. You can get great quality lighting from a wide variety of sources and manufacturers. But what I was most interested in with this kit was the Softbox, possibly the most natural, sensual form of light possible. The medium kit box folds out to 24 x 32 x 17 inches, more than adequate when lighting one person or doing small product shots. The specially designed black hood comes with a collapsible frame. (Four spring-steel rods at each corner are easily flexed/bent and put into position to form the frame and provide stability.) After clumsily doing it once to get the hang of it, it became a snap to put together and take apart.

The box, which is covered by a reflective silver lining inside, comes ready for multiple lighting options. First, it has a two-stage diffusion system: an inner nylon fabric attached about half-way inside the box with removable elastic connectors, plus the white nylon fabric that attaches to the outside front of the box with Velcro. Depending on your lighting needs and preferences, you can use only one or both.

In addition to the two-stage diffusion system, the kit includes both a rectangular "Stripmask" (to create narrow highlights and to make the light more focused), a round "Circlemask" (to help create a "catch-light" in the subjects eyes) plus a grid with plastic louvers (to narrow the angle of the light). All combined, you are presented with various ways to control the light and add additional creativity. These masks are easily attached to the front of the box with the provided Velcro strips.

(Although none are provided with the kit, you could also attach color gels to the front of the box for even greater creative control.)

The Softbox attaches to a connector ring that fits around the light. This ring will rotate 360 degrees, allowing you to position your hood angle as desired.

Finally, since I'm not crazy about a hot work environment, it was important to me to see how this lighting system handled heat. I was pleased to find that this light produced minimal heat, compared to many lighting kits. The box is made of a high temperature "Brimstone" fabric which helps provide safety plus cooler temperatures. In addition, the box is designed for ventilation to help minimize heat build-up or the smell of something burning. Bottom line: I found no noticeable heat negatives with this light -- nor complaints from customers who've been seated in front of it for one or two hours at a time.

Frustrations: I like almost everything about the Softbox ­ except for one thing. (And sorry if this gets a little confusing. This is one of those things that is much easier to show than to tell!) The connector ring on the Softbox is designed for a quick easy fit with the Starlite and lamp. However, I found it terribly frustrating to prevent the connector ring from rotating while securely attaching the light to the Softbox. There is a "finger grip" that is supposed to prevent this rotation from occurring. Maybe I'm just clueless, but I was never able to get this "finger grip" to work as advertised. It took me quite some time to figure out an alternative way to properly attach the light to the Softbox ­ without getting a blister on my finger. Either this is a flawed design, or someone needs to draw me a picture.

THE LAMP. Incandescent light produces a wonderful, warm quality, bathing your subjects in soft light. Which is another reason you will find this lighting system a pleasant addition to your production tool box. But you won't want to touch this bulb until cool-down (although I found cool-down to be quite rapid.) The 3200-degree Kelvin lamp has an estimated life expectancy of 300 hours. And with a little searching on the web, I found replacement bulbs for between $40 and $50 for the 500-watt and $65 - $75 for the 1000-watter.

Frustrations: The instructions suggest that it is best to put the bulb in the Starlite housing prior to attaching it to the Softbox. But in reality, I found it was much easier to put the bulb in after the housing and the Softbox were attached. (Following the instructions seemed to make it much more likely to break the bulb during assembly.)

To give you a place to attach your Softbox, the kit includes a lightweight aluminum stand that extends to 12 feet high. Oversized aluminum tubing, reinforced brace supports, and heavy-duty, riveted joints help ensure maximum stability and security. It comes with casters (rolling wheels) for ease of movement, even on carpeted surfaces. The three reinforced legs spread wide to prevent the stand from getting tipsy. It is easy to set up and tear down for taking on location.

Maybe I'm just all thumbs, but it took me three tries to actually get the casters attached properly to the stand legs. The included instructions, at least on this point, were woefully inadequate for people like me! (Otherwise, the instructions for most areas of this kit seemed to be quite helpful, including several pictures to show how the assembly works.)

LIGHTING LESSONS CD. I wish every manufacturer provided how-to's and skill enhancement with their products. My hat is off to Photoflex for doing so. The seven lessons include:

1. Basic Portrait in Studio
2. Creating Clean Product Shots for the web
3. Using a Telephoto Lens for Outdoor Portraits
4. Transformations with portrait lighting
5. Advanced Product Studio Photography
6. Intermediate Tabletop Photography
7. Photographing Jewelry for Print and web

In addition, the CD includes some helpful info on "Basic Startup with a Digital Camera."

There are several helpful lighting tips and suggestions provided (including how to get great shots using only a single light source plus a reflector; how to use Photoshop to enhance a photo, including how to composite a guy inside a glass bottle). The lessons are easy to follow, with a problem being presented and a solution provided, allowing the viewer to see each step of the process. These lessons are especially helpful for the beginner and intermediate user.

Frustrations: For whatever reason, the first CD I received would not work on a Mac. After contacting the company, they provided a second CD which worked just fine. However, I was curious as to why all the lessons and examples on the CD pertained to still photography in a studio setting. There were no examples specifically for video or on-location shooting. It would seem that since Photoflex has designed this kit for use with both still photography and video, they would provide a CD that includes video too. I also wished that they would have included a demo of setting up the light kit, plus storage, maintenance and transporting tips (including suggestions for how to transport the kit on airlines, etc.).

Overall, I've been very pleased with this lighting system. As indicated above, I've experienced a few frustrations here and there with various aspects of the equipment or set-up. But when it comes to the quality of the light, it has fully met my expectations.

1. WONDERFUL, PROFESSIONAL LIGHT. The light produced is absolutely delightful, and, in many ways, superior to other light. Since it is produced by a broader surface (the full face of the Softbox), it tends to wrap around the subject with a wonderfully warm, friendly and pleasing glow (unlike the harsher light from a more pointed source). In addition, there are no hard edged shadows or hot spots like those often found with smaller point light sources. And the Softbox helps add that desired inner radiance and illumination to the eyes.

2. NEAR-COMPLETE SYSTEM. I've found that I can get very pleasing light with only two lights plus a reflector (the Softbox as the key light; a reflector for fill; a small second light for the hair light). And sometimes, depending on the situation, I can get very pleasing results with just the Softbox and a reflector.

3. ESPECIALLY GOOD FOR ONE-PERSON INTERVIEWS. A Softbox is primarily only useable when shooting one person or with a small product shot. (Unless, of course, you get a whole gaggle of Softboxes!!)

4. PORTABLE. Although not as portable as some light systems, I appreciate the compact, lightweight design and engineering that Photoflex has put into this product to make it easy to set up in minutes, and then to quickly fold down for ease of transportation. (For this kit to become truly portable, it needs a carrying case. Photoflex sells a kit bag, making it easy to include every item from this kit in one easy-to-carry container. However, disappointingly, such a bag was not already included as a part of this kit.)

5. A GOOD INVESTMENT. With proper care, there is no reason why this kit could not last a lifetime. It is durable and well made for many years of use.

A "News-Gathering" Light for Your Camera:
The ActionDome ENG™ Softbox

I'm not one who often uses a light on my camera. First, I tend to primarily use the smaller cameras such as the Sony PDF-150 or the Canon GL-1. And putting a light on them sometimes just gets in the road. I've also not had a great deal of luck with on-camera lights. They often seem to produce that much-too-hot, deer-in-the-headlights glaring look that is not my idea of great looking video. But now that Photoflex has recently introduced ActionDome ENG™, a mini-Softbox for the camera ($179.95), I'm warming up to the idea.

The ActionDome ENG™ was designed to provide professional lighting flexibility in a camera-mounted Softbox, especially for people involved in ENG (electronic news-gathering) or EFP (electronic field-production). And since it actually is a Softbox, it produces a much softer, more natural light than many other on-camera lights. The 5x7-inch (12.7 x 17.8 cm) ActionDome uses Photoflex's standard Softbox diffusion, and the diffusion face can be removed quickly to go from soft light to hard light.

This mini-Softbox's Adjustable Hardware Kit includes everything needed to mount the ActionDome onto most lighting heads (such as Anton Bauer, Frezzolini, and Cool Lux) with 5/8-inch (15.8 cm) and 3/8-inch (9.5 cm) receivers and shoe-mount adapters. The Softbox can be flipped for either horizontal or vertical use, and removed from the hardware in one quick step for carrying separately. Its highly reflective silver interior ensures maximum output from any light, and, just as with the larger Softboxes, Photoflex's proprietary Brimstone™ fabric provides superior heat resistance and durability.

In addition to using this light on my camera when the situation calls for it, I've found that it also provides a handy hair light when using the larger Softbox (see above review). For that reason, plus the fact that it is wonderfully versatile, I take it with me on most of my shoots, getting phenomenal results in a wide variety of settings.

Jerry Jones who lives in the Colorado mountains, is owner of J. David Jones Productions. His video production work is primarily short documentaries for non-profits and humanitarian organizations in various parts of the world. When he can squeeze in the time, he is also writing a historical novel. Jerry has also served as the primary compiler/editor for 2-pop's Best of the Boards. jdavidjones@mindspring.com

Copyright © Jerry Jones, 2002


This article first appeared on lafcpug and is reprinted here with permission.
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