Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Step Closer to Strobes: Cowboystudio Speedlight Bracket T

Using speedlights with modifiers that were originally designed for strobes sometimes entails compromises.  The ingenious Speedlight Bracket T from CowboyStudio mitigates those disadvantages and helps your modifiers perform at their best by positioning your speedlight for optimum performance.  This bracket also enables you to use a wider variety of modifiers.

Note: This post is part of a series that will cover equipment reviews for committed enthusiasts.  Read more about Toys for the Big Kids here.

Speedlights have a different light pattern compared to strobes because a speedlight's flashtube is inside the flash head whereas strobes have flashtubes that are exposed (i.e. bare bulb), allowing you the option of sending the light out in almost all directions instead of a cone.

When speedlights are used for modifiers that were originally designed for strobes, modifiers' performance can suffer:
Umbrellas.  Many strobes have built-in holes for umbrellas that allow the flashtube to sit close to the umbrella's axis.  On the other hand, the typical umbrella bracket for speedlights places the speedlight head a significant distance from the axis of an umbrella,  resulting in less even lighting of the umbrella.
Speedlight on typical umbrella bracket.  25-inch umbrella shown.
Softbox.  When the bare bulb of a studio light is placed in the softbox, the light is scattered everywhere within the box -- some to the front, where it is diffused by the front panel, but much of the light also illuminates the reflective sides of the softbox, from which it is further diffused by the front panel, spreading the light more evenly across the face of the softbox.

When a speedlight is used with a softbox, most of the light is sent forward, and less so on the sides of the box.  A hotspot becomes more likely, which arguably reduces the effective size of the softbox.  It is possible to use a dome diffuser to simulate a bare bulb but with some softbox brackets for speedlights, the flash head is partly outside the softbox wasting a significant portion of the light.

Beauty Dish.
Each beauty dish has a different focal point depending on the curvature and design of the dish, and the size and position of the deflector.  A speedlight that is not at the focal point produces different light patterns.  See the heading "Fine-Tuning the Beauty Dish Output" here.  Using a speedlight with a beauty dish that was designed for a  specific strobe often means that the speedlight won't be positioned at the focal point.

The CowboyStudio Speedlight Bracket T addresses the foregoing issues to some extent, and adds other benefits.  With this bracket, the speedlight is mounted horizontally.  It has a ring that fits modifiers compatible with the Bowens S-mount.  The bracket also has a tiltable lightstand mount with umbrella hole.

The bracket includes several parts, with some thoughtful design features:
1 - the Bowens mount
2 - a coldshoe.  Similar in design to the Stroboframe cold shoe, except that it has a protrusion at the bottom that fits in the groove of the L-bracket (#4) so that the cold shoe will not rotate.  It also has a screw to prevent a flash from sliding off one end.
3 - a second cold shoe plus a washer.  This cold shoe allows the flash to be rotated.  It has a hole for flashes with locking pins.
4 - L-bracket.  Supports the flash.  The groove allows the flash to be adjusted vertically (within a 2-inch range). The L-bracket can slide along the length of the rail (#7). Reversible.
5 - 1/4-20 screw.  Secures the cold shoe or a flash with female 1/4-20 insert to the L-bracket (#4).  Includes a metal washer and a rubber washer.  The rubber washer has a notch to accommodate the protrusion of the coldshoe (#2).
6 - thumbscrews to attach the mount (#1) to the rail (#7).  Tools not required.
7 - Rail. Around 8 inches long.  The bottom of the rail includes an umbrella holder and a tiltable lightstand mount.  The lightstand mount includes grooves to resist movement once tightened.
8 - thumbscrew.  This is attached at the opposite end of the rail to prevent the L-bracket (#4) from sliding off the rail.
9 - spigot - can be inserted in the lightstand mount to accommodate either a 1/4-20 or 3/8-16 insert.

This bracket has a simple design but offers several benefits:
1.  The flash is on-axis.  By placing the flash much closer to the axis of an umbrella, the bracket allows a flash to illuminate an umbrella more evenly.

2.  The flash can be adjusted in 3 axes (vertically, horizontally, plus rotation).  Unlike other speedlight bracket designs, this bracket design has tremendous range of travel along the horizontal axis of the bracket -- a range of around 8 inches.  In the shot above, you can see that even though the flash is horizontally positioned in the bracket, it may be moved further away from the umbrella than with a typical umbrella bracket.

The range of horizontal travel is a critical feature because it allows the flash to be moved inside the modifier to the modifier's focal point.  Together with a dome diffuser, this addresses at least part of the softbox problem and beauty dish positioning problem.

3.  Compatible with both speedlights and large flash (e.g. Quantum, Sunpak 120J, Vivitar, Armatar, etc.).
Some bracket designs are compatible with large flashes but the position of the flash is far from ideal.
This bracket allows a large flash to be perfectly positioned.

4.  Allows a wide variety of modifiers that are available for Bowens/Calumet.  Speedlights are still playing catch up to studio strobes when it comes to availability of modifiers.  With this bracket, you can use the myriad of modifiers compatible with Bowens/Calumet.

5.  Replaces both an umbrella bracket and speedlight softbox bracket.   You won't need to carry separate brackets for an umbrella or speedlight softbox.

6.  Sturdier than the generic speedlight softbox bracket.  
Some speedlight brackets have a thin speedring that is supported with only one screw.
The Speedlight Bracket T has a mount that is very sturdy and is attached to the rail with two thumbscrews.
7.  About half the cost of the almost identical Cheetah Speed Pro Bracket Mk I. has a very similar bracket that costs around $68 at the time of this writing.  I got my Speedlight Bracket T from Amazon for around $30 with free shipping.

8.  Good quality construction.  The fit and finish on this is not perfect but most of the parts are metal and should last several years.

1.  No support for the front of the flash. The flash is supported only by the L-bracket.  The front end of the flash is not at all supported, which places a lot of strain on the hot shoe.  By comparison, the Cheetah Speed Pro Bracket Mark II has an adjustable vertical support.
2.  The Bowens mount has to be removed to pack it.  It takes a couple of minutes to attach the mount.  With repeated packing and unpacking, I'm also concerned about losing the thumbscrews.

The Speedlight Bracket T is the perfect complement for your flash and will bring it one step closer to strobes.  It is sturdily built and well designed, with many thoughtful features.  At $30, this is a must-buy accessory for your lights if you want to get the most from your modifiers (and your lights).  Highly recommended.

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