Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lastolite Brolly Grip Review: Soft Directional Light Anywhere


This is a preliminary review of the Lastolite Brolly Grip.  This unique lighting accessory allows you or an assistant to hold an umbrella, making it possible to get soft, directional light almost anywhere, without setting up.

In this review, I wanted to focus on using it by myself, without an assistant or light stand.  I also wanted to have a lot of sample shots to show the real-world potential of the Brolly Grip.

When there is no feasible surface to bounce from, one of my favorite light modifiers is a handheld umbrella, a technique that I read about from Bob Krist.  I put together my own version here and later found a rare handheld umbrella made by Propet (reviewed here).  The Propet handheld umbrella worked well, but it had two significant weaknesses: First, the coldshoe does not hold a flash securely (on one occasion, my YN560 fell into the water).  Second, the screws on some of the parts tend to come loose and are not easily replaced.  Plus, the Propet handheld umbrella itself is very hard to find.  In the last couple of years I've only seen it listed on eBay three times.

When Lastolite announced the Brolly Grip I was intrigued even though I already had the Propet bracket.  I thought it was somewhat pricey but not ridiculously so.  I finally took the leap and was surprised that it was actually out of stock.  After a few weeks of waiting, my order came a couple of days ago.

The Lastolite Brolly Grip with Nikon SB-800 and a Creative Light 25" Shoot-Through Umbrella
The Brolly Grip is made of a light but very durable plastic with a matte finish.  The top part of the handle has a removable cold shoe.  The cold shoe can be rotated if you loosen the thumbscrew that holds it in place.  The cold shoe can also be faced backwards if you prefer the grip to be tilted the other way.  The cold shoe doesn't have a receptacle for a locking pin and instead holds the flash through friction and pressure.
The grip holds the flash horizontally, placing it close to the axis of the umbrella, maximizing the use of the umbrella surface.  However, this leads to other problems with optical triggering as discussed below.  It also requires a flash that has a head that can be raised 90 degrees.  The grip has a downward angle of around 30 degrees.  I find this useful for holding the umbrella above the subject or as far off to the side as possible.  If you have a light stand or boom, this could also help you add short light or possibly even a back light (see here).

Just above the grip are two holes for an umbrella to accommodate an 8mm and 10mm shaft.  The bottom of the grip has a hollow receptacle for a 5/8 studs commonly used in light stands.


Strangely, there is no thumbscrew to hold the umbrella.  Instead, you just slide the umbrella shaft in and it is held with friction by an o-ring inside the shaft.  This leads to a few problems as discussed below.

Lastolite has a video demonstrating how the product is used:



SOFT DIRECTIONAL LIGHT ANYWHERE
Lastolite's demo shows good results but the photographer had the benefit of an assistant.  What about the rest of us who don't have VALs?  One of the key benefits of the Brolly Grip after all is the possibility of using it by yourself.  Is it really feasible to use it alone and does it really provide soft directional light in real world conditions?

I took my son to a playground and had the chance to use the Brolly Grip in sunny outdoors with no bounce surfaces available.  I used a Creative Light 25-inch Translucent Umbrella.  For my flash, I used a Nikon SB-800 triggered optically via CLS Advanced Wireless Lighting, using my Nikon D300's popup flash as a commander.  I held the Brolly Grip with one hand and the camera with the other.  When I was holding the Brolly Grip with my right hand, I would cradle the camera below the lens and press the shutter with my ring finger (it helps that I don't use a battery grip and my Tamron 17-50 VC isn't a huge lens).  An alternative to this finger stretching method is to use a remote shutter.

Anyway, here are some of the shots:

Here are some shots where the flash use is more overt:

For testing purposes, I also made some comparison shots showing the difference between ambient only versus the shot with flash (note: in the first and third comparison, the flash shot was already edited in Lightroom; the second set of comparison shots are straight-out-of-the-camera):

Even though I was using a small umbrella and I could only reach so far to the side with my arm, the light does look reasonably soft and directional.  Certainly not always as soft as bounce flash but a huge improvement over direct flash.  Plus, unlike bounce flash, I didn't have to worry about the color of the bounce surface.

CRITICISMS
I have some issues with the design.  First of all, the umbrella holder doesn't have any kind of thumbscrew or clamp to hold an umbrella securely.  Instead, there is a thin rubber o-ring inside each slot to hold an umbrella with friction.  On one hand, it is easy to insert an umbrella.  On the other hand, there is a risk that the umbrella might slide off.  I'm especially worried about the inevitable wear on the o-ring, which may make the grip more loose in the future.  Another disadvantage is that your umbrella shaft must be exactly 8mm or 10mm.  That worked for two of my umbrellas but my 19" reflective umbrella was tapered so it's too loose for the 8mm.  I also don't know how well the slots can hold umbrellas with hexagonal (as opposed to round) shafts.  My workaround for this issue is to wrap a little tape around the shaft to make the shaft thicker and allow it to be held more tightly.

The second biggest issue I have with the design is the cold shoe.  The cold shoe does not use a 1/4-20 hole.  Instead, it uses a non-standard size.  This makes it hard to use a third party cold shoe such as Nikon's AS-19 Flash Stand or a Frio Cold Shoe.  If you have a thumbscrew that is long enough, it is possible to use a Frio.  However, I haven't found a thumbscrew long enough to use with my Nikon SC-29 TTL Cord.

I have a few other minor gripes such as:
  • the grip angle is non-adjustable, making it less useful when paired with a light stand;
  • I wish they included a 1/4 and 3/8 spigot so that the grip can be used with a tripod.  Might as well include a hole in that spigot too so that the lower thumbscrew can securely hold the spigot and prevent the grip from rotating.

TRIGGERING OPTIONS
One of the challenges with the Brolly Grip is the need for reliable triggering.  If you're using the grip handheld, then the simplest solution is a TTL cord.  Triggering would be very reliable and simple - just like using the flash on-camera.  Plus, you can position the flash in any direction without having to worry about whether the flash will receive the signal.  Unfortunately, because of the non-standard screw size for the cold shoe, you'll need either a long enough screw to attach the TTL cord to the Brolly Grip or you'll need a shoe-to-1/4 adapter.

Using a radio trigger is another alternative.  There are many reliable radio triggering solutions such as a Radiopopper.  On the other hand, radio triggers with TTL capability are quite expensive.

The remaining alternative is optical triggering.  Optical triggering is not ideal with the Brolly Grip for at least a few reasons.  First, the Brolly Grip places the flash horizontally.  On most flashes, the sensor for optical triggering faces the front or the side of the flash (on the SB-800, the sensor faces mostly to the side but slightly to the front).  When the flash is placed horizontally, the sensor can only face one side of the flash.  With the Brolly Grip that means that if you use switch the grip from one hand to the other, the sensor will face away from the popup flash. My workaround for this is to hold the grip upside down if I switch hands.  If I will use that side for a while, then I rotate the cold shoe so that the flash sensor will again face the popup flash.

Second, if the Brolly Grip is used outdoors in bright sunlight, then a popup flash as commander may have difficulty putting out enough light to be detected by the remote flash.

Despite these limitations, optical triggering isn't so bad in the real world.  Most of the time I was able to trigger the SB-800 successfully with my popup flash.  Sometimes, when the SB-800 wasn't triggered, all I would need to do is to move the flash a bit forward to bring it within the scope of the popup flash.  Considering that I was shooting mostly in bright sunlight (i.e. almost the worst case scenario), I would say that optical triggering is a realistic alternative, even if it isn't ideal.
Picking flowers for mommy
USABILITY
We've already seen that it is possible to get soft directional light with the Brolly Grip.  However, how practical is it for real world use?

In my view, if I have the option to use bounce flash, I would prefer to bounce for simplicity, softness and directional control.  If bouncing is not an option but the ambient light is good, I might use a ring flash instead as fill for simplicity and ease of use.  For other situations when bouncing is not an option and the ambient light is not favorable, a handheld umbrella would probably be my preferred solution.  In that regard, the Brolly Grip is the best handheld umbrella I have right now.


UMBRELLA OPTIONS
The Brolly Grip can be ordered by itself or as a kit with a 19.7 inch (50cm) shoot-through umbrella (also available separately).  I already have a couple of small umbrellas (a 19 inch reflective and a 25 inch shoot-through) so I just ordered the grip.  I later found out that Lastolite also makes a 36 inch (90cm) TriFold Umbrella that folds down to just 10 inches.  I've ordered the TriFold Umbrella and will post about it shortly.  If you want to see a list of other small umbrellas, check out this post.

RELATED POSTS:
  1. Handheld Umbrella - An Excellent Light Modifier
  2. Handheld Umbrella Indoors
  3. Small Umbrellas
  4. Ultimate Handheld Umbrella - Propet Umbrella Bracket
  5. Creative Light Shoot-Through Umbrella
  6. Do Small Modifiers Work? 
  7. 12 Alternatives to Bouncing from Ceilings and Walls

DISCLOSURE: I'm not affiliated with Amazon or Lastolite nor am I sponsored by them.  I bought the Brolly Grip for my own use and am providing this review for informational purposes.  I do have an Amazon Associates account and in this article I've linked to Amazon pages for the products mentioned, which means if you purchase the product I will get an approximately 4% commission (without any additional cost to you and which is a welcome way of supporting this blog).

MORE SAMPLE SHOTS