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Revealed: Why Gary Fong's Lightsphere Costs So Much!
Written: Mar 31, 2007 (Updated Dec 2, 2007)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Versatile Diffusion Effects, Softer than many Rivals, Useful Indoors and Outdoors, Durable Soft Plastic
Cons:$99 is Overpriced, Somewhat Bulky, Advantages over other Diffusers May Not Justify Expense
The Bottom Line: Delivers soft lighting like an expensive studio setup in a flash. Clearly a bit better and more consistent for studio portraits. Requires a tilt and swivel strobe flash.
The Lightsphere II Diffusion System from Gary Fong is like the favorite horse in the 5th race at Santa Anita Park.
It's the pick of players who didn't really come to the track to gamble.
Professionals, especially wedding photographers, seem to pop up everywhere with rave reviews. Photography magazines concede it diffuses harsh light from flash strobes better than whatever else they've been using.
Prowl the discussion forums and the biggest fear among photographers is that attaching the conspicuous Lightsphere II to their Speedlight will make them look like geeks!
Here are some samples:
"A groomsman asked me why a lampshade was on my flash."
"One Person asked if it was a Salad Spinner!"
From the same online patter, the admonition to turn ridicule around and put paid to doubts.
"Do you want to look cool or take pictures that look cool?"
Traditionally, the wedding snappers get "dissed" (disrespected) by "purist" photojournalists and photography
"artistes." (that's French for snappers.)
But a fundamental truth lurks in the depths of their arrogant memories: No bearded Hezbollah militant ever came
after one of them with a kitchen knife when his "me with the hostage" Kodak moment left him with "raccoon eyes." Many wedding photographers can tell you tales of blushing brides from hell.
╔▓░ LIGHTSPHERE PHILOSOPHY 101 ░▓╗
It has been called "Tupperware" and described as an inverted "margarine cup." The Lightsphere II is undoubtedly a bit of both. But what it's really designed to do is soften the light coming from flash strobes so that harsh shadows are erased and soft skin tones emerge triumphant.
The goal isn't just to produce portraits that reveal true beauty; the aim is to make them look better than they really are.
Gary Fong himself says that all the flash strobes and Speedlites (Canon-speak for Speedlights) essentially offer
photographers the possibility their subject will come out looking like what the late poet Richard Brautigan
immortalized as "A 48-year-old burglar from San Diego." (The entire poem is the title.)
Fong makes a good point: all those elaborate and expensive flash strobes are really very bright $300 flashlights. Shine one on someone in the dark and they suddenly resemble a burglar caught outside the window.
For years, photographers have tried to overcome "that look" with all kinds of devices and techniques.
Nick Nolte sported "that look" in his mugshot. The Hawaiian shirt and his hair didn't help. But everyone knew it was a photo taken in a small room where they order you to stand on a line marked by a piece of gaffer's tape and look straight into the flash strobe.
What if you took pictures like that trying to make someone look nice?
Remember the runaway bride? A purported "friend" of Jennifer Wilbanks snapped a flash photo of her at a gathering that became the definition of an entire life in ruin. AP owns the rights, but here's a reminder of how disasterous a single flash photo can be:
Gary Fong uses that very image to promote his Lightsphere II flash diffusion system. Photographers may not know what "look" they want to achieve with a portrait, but they know what "look" they don't want to get!
╔▓░ WHAT COMES WITH THE LIGHTSPHERE ░▓╗
The Lightsphere II flash diffusion system ships in a 5-inch X 5-inch X 5-inch brown cardboard box. Folks, it
probably cost as much to ship this system as it did to manufacture it. We will reveal later in this review, for
the first time anywhere, the reason why Gary Fong's Lightsphere system costs so much.
We bought the "Basic" package of the "Money Saving Combo Deals!" which comes with the "Cloud" version of the product. We were very worried after reading the warning on Gary Fong's website:
Available for a Limited Time Only! ACT NOW!!
Here's what we got for our $99...
1 Vinyl Lightsphere
1 plastic dome lid (white)
1 plastic dome lid (orange-ish)
1 "Chrome Dome" silver plastic insert
1 Gary Fong User Guide and Promotional Video on DVD
The Lightsphere II itself is made from soft vinyl, about 1/8th inch thick. It is custom tapered at the
bottom with ridges to fit over the head of your Speedlight. That bottom end is shaped into a rectangle so friction
will hold it firmly in place.
The rectangular bottom end gives way to an open-topped cylindrical shape that can quite accurately be described as
"a margarine cup" about 5 inches in diameter. The interior of the cylindrical area is textured with dozens of narrow vertical ridges.
The idea is to reflect all of the light that come bouncing out of the flash strobe when electricity "excites" the Xenon gas. It takes 1/1050th of a second normally, but can be as short as 1/41,600th of a second on our Nikon SB800 Speedlight.
The Lightsphere II "Cloud" version is less translucent than the "Clear" model. It will further soften the flash.
Left open, the top will allow the strobe light to go upwards and reflect off a ceiling. That further diffuses light around the room.
The Lightsphere II system comes in four sizes to fit Speedlights from Canon, Nikon, Metz, Olympus, Minolta,
Pentax, Sony, Sunpack, Vivitar and half-a-dozen other manufacturers. Gary Fong's website can help you choose the
right model for your flash.
The Lightsphere II sells separately for $49.00
The translucent white plastic "inverted dome" fits atop the Lightsphere II like the lid on a margarine
bucket with one important difference: it is concave, thus placing a spherical shape above the flash that will further bend light outwards through the Lightsphere. More diffuse light on the subject.
It will also diffuse any light headed toward a ceiling bounce, further softening the scene.
While the Lightsphere is usually pointed upwards or at a wall, when used in conjunction with the white plastic dome it can be aimed directly at a subject already in bright light. Outdoors in midday sun, when distinct shadows are being cast would be a perfect reason to use it in this manner.
The inverted dome sells separately for $9.95 (plus about $9 shipping.)
We lost one of these on the first road trip it took. They are very light and fall off the Lightsphere easily. It makes little or no sound when it hits the ground. We've replaced it but are trying to keep a small bag with drawstrings handy to store this on the move. Pockets aren't enough.
The translucent "Amber Dome" is identical to its pale twin. When inserted in the Lightsphere II Cloud
version (it doesn't work with the Clear model,) it will alter the color balance of the flash from daylight to
incandescent. This is particularly useful when foreground subjects will appear white in daylight flash and strong incandescent lighting bathes the background in an orange glow.
The "Amber Dome" is only used to point upwards, achieving a combination of diffused direct lighting through the Lightsphere and bounce lighting on a ceiling.
Attach the "Amber Dome" and reset your camera's white balance to incandescent and the well-lit subjects in the
foreground will have the same color cast as the background. Nice.
Obviously, the dyes used in the manufacturing process are precious.
The "Amber Dome" sells separately for $19.95, a whole 5 bucks more than the plain white version.
The "Chrome Dome" is a different animal. Made of rigid plastic and featuring a reflective silver finish, it has a round opening about 2 1/2 inches in diameter in the center of its spherical shape. There is a rounded plastic tab about 2 1/2 inches tall and 4 inches across that is meant to "aim" more reflected light through the Lightsphere in the direction of your subject.
Unlike Gary Fong's other products, which are meant to decrease and diffuse the flash, this one is meant to increase the amount of flash travelling through the Lightsphere or aimed at getting a bounce off a ceiling or wall.
Like Gary's other products, the "Chrome Dome" is expensive.
It sells separately for $49.00
╔▓░ OFF TO THE RACES: HOW DOES GARY FONG'S LIGHTSPHERE II PERFORM? ░▓╗
We sincerely tried to avoid any use of racetrack jargon. We couldn't.
Coming out of the gate, Lightsphere II hurtles into the race big and bold. Fans in the stands can't help but
turn their eyes toward this albino giant. His rivals on the track are thin white plastic sheets or dainty and light
translucent boxes. They look like they were built for speed. Lightsphere II looks like he was meant to be
pulling the Budweiser beer wagon.
Coming into the turn, Lightsphere II drinks deeper than the others, pulling the power out of his rider,
Speedlight Flash, draining his batteries. It's going to be a tough ride as Flash struggles to make up what must be
a full stop or more of lost light. Better make that 2 stops.
But wait! In the final stretch, Lightsphere II manages to keep up the pace and the photo finish shows he's
won this one by more than a length. Forget how Lightsphere II may have looked out there, he charges home to bring his owners what they paid for.
Softer, velvety skin tones
No "Raccoon Eyes"
No "shadow beards" under chins
Forces "Redeye" out of the running
Allows you to get "up close and personal" without burning out your subject
It must be noted that the Lightsphere system significantly reduces the range of your flash. Well, we expected that because the whole purpose is to diffuse the harsh light of the strobe and achieve "softer" effects.
There's more good news. The "Amber Dome" actually works. We had our doubts about that color but somehow it does
manage to hit the mark for incandescent lighting. We've used it on a few occasions and been pleased with the
"Chrome Dome" stumbles badly. This $49.00 device meant to increase diffused lighting aimed at a subject and
bounced off a ceiling simply DOES NOT WORK AS EXPECTED.
We noted with interest that while all of the products listed on Gary Fong's site included "before and after" shots
to prove the effectiveness of the Lightsphere system, similar photos were absent from "Chrome Dome's" page.
There are no statistics or evidence offered either to back up claims that "Chrome Dome" will increase the amount of
light coming out of your strobe. While light on the subject may be increased by "a nose," it's nothing to write home about. It actually appears to re-introduce a few shadows we were trying to eliminate.
Clearly, Lightsphere outperforms many others as they try to transform strobe flash into soft light, but the reality is Gary Fong's big, expensive system doesn't do all that much more than the diffusion dome that came free with our Nikon SB800 flash. Using that Nikon diffuser and bouncing light off a white ceiling, the difference between the two products is clearly there, but it just isn't huge.
One of the things Lightsphere II does achieve is consistency. Fewer test shots are needed. The photographer can be confident and predict the results. This goes back to the basic notion that photographers can buy this system and be guaranteed a good result every time. We're in an area where even a little bit of difference, if it shows up in the photo finish, makes one product the winner.
There's a price: space in your gear bag. Similar products used for the same purpose commonly use a foldable soft light box or simply a card that can be adjusted to bounce flash toward the subject. All of these products fold up neatly and take up almost no room in your gear bag. The Lightsphere II system is going to take up a whole lot more space...a hundred cubic inches more.
Speaking of price, Sto-Fen's "Omni-Bounce costs $20. LumiQuests "Pro Max Softbox" costs $30. Joe Demb's "Flip-it!" costs $15-30 dollars. All of these products work. Some may require a little more adjusting to get it right.
╔▓░ EXCLUSIVE: WHY GARY FONG'S LIGHTSPHERE SYSTEM COSTS SO MUCH -- THE EVIDENCE! ░▓╗
I went into the local camera store and somehow the topic of flash diffusion and Gary Fong came up. One of the clerks rolled her eyes talking about him and another quickly joined in the headshaking. The banter wasn't ugly, it just didn't cast Gary Fong in a very pleasing light, given his fame. Fong is a relentless self-promoter, as evidenced by his double DVD titled "Step by Step Guide to Getting Rich as a Photographer." ($189.00)
There are a lot of people in the photography business who apparently resent Fong's success. The Lightsphere concept is simple enough, I'm sure most are kicking themselves and asking "Why didn't I think of that?
But where does the money go?
Folks, the answer is in Chapter 11 of the DVD that comes with your Lightsphere II system. While another photographer is seen showing off the performance of the Lightsphere in the video, Gary is shown captaining the huge, white powerboat through the waves! Well, he certainly looked like he was enjoying it.
In fact, if you visit Gary's Xanga site, you will find links to photos of his new ranch, a subdivision he's developing, photos of the speedboat and his other homes.
He's also previewing two new models of flash diffuser -- the Whaletail.
The DVD itself is nothing more than a collection of videos you can mostly view on Fong's website. The poor quality of the production, especially the audio of Gary's explanations, is spectacular. My 8-year-old daughter and her classmate put together a video on their pet cats for a science fair that was almost as good.
Good for Gary Fong. He's in a business where pros and would-be pros are willing to pay exhorbitant amounts to make their work or hobby come out better. Is he to blame for overcharging, or are we to blame for overpaying?
One thing you will notice is that no one is selling this system at a discount. The prices listed here are the same everywhere, including eBay.
I just hope that with my $100 dollars he takes the blond swimsuit model on the powerboat out for a decent meal. She could use it.
As for me, I'm so happy with my Lightsphere II I'm trying to locate Jennifer Wilbanks and offer the "runaway bride" a free portrait shoot. I'll sell it to Gary Fong to complete a "before and after" sequence. (Yes, I'll overcharge him, I promise!)
4 Stars. Works consistently.
1 Star deducted for the questionable "Chrome Dome." 1 Star off for being so overpriced. 1 Star added back on for Gary Fong having to put up with so much grief from me and everyone else.
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