Field Test: The Profoto Acute2 Ring Flash

Introduction: Ring flashes, in their various forms, are a unique way to illuminate a subject and perhaps none more frequently represents the strange breed than the Profoto Acute 2 Ring Flash.  It’s a big, sturdy donut of a light, designed to surround a camera lens, throwing intense and even light on a subject, seemingly from the lens itself.  Ring lighting creates unique effects with shadows and highlights and has been used to great effect by a range of photographers.  The Acute 2 Ring Flash carries roughly the same cost as Profoto’s standard Acute strobe head (just under $1,000) and is designed to work with the same range of packs, including Acute and D4 packs.

As an introduction to this classic, glamorous studio tool, Chris Bjuland spent a few days trying to blow one up (and almost succeeded).  Read on for the full experience!

Profoto Acute Ring Flash

Ring flash?  We don’t need no stinkin’ ring flash… (to paraphrase a popular movie)

Or do we?

The Profoto Acute 2 Ring Flash

We’ve all seen (I would guess) the super awesome ring of light in the eye of the sweaty, breathy girl selling us a pair of jeans we absolutely don’t need.  To some people the unusual catch light it creates is only a gimmick (but a gimmick everyone seems to want based the number of pseudo ring-like attachments everyone seems to be marketing) , but it is really just another tool in your arsenal.  I can’t speak for the knock-offs, but the Profoto Acute 2 Ring Flash is solid, heavy, and with a little patience, very reliable.

The ring flash fell into my possession for only two days and because the rain was possibly going to stop for a few hours, I packed up the station wagon and headed north to Penryn, CA, home of the wonderful charity and animal rescue organization A Chance for Bliss, hoping to find a dry patch of ground and a willing model in the form of Homer Le Porc.

While the weather decided to not agree with me, I did get to set up indoors (with the help of editor-in-chief Matt, who actually drove the car that day and provided much needed roadie gear handling), and scored some indoor time with the puppies, where it was warm and dry.   I brought a Honda generator,  an Acute 2 2400 w/s pack, two Acute heads, the Acute ring flash, two speed rings and two Calumet brand soft boxes.  The generator stayed in the car, but the rest made the journey, and were put through some quick tests.

Profoto Acute 2 - 2400 watt seconds of fun

Matt is good at the super technical, and his review of the Profoto Acute 2R, here (the R stands for built-in radio slave), is spot on.  I approached this day as a chance to try some new equipment that I had never used, putting it in a real-life situation where I had to get an editorial portrait for my editor by the end of the day.  As such, I don’t have accurate ratio charts, distance to subject fall off rates, or exact recycle times.  I did find out was what worked for me and what didn’t.  That’s the important factor.

While I would never recommend taking brand new and unfamiliar equipment on the job with you, sometimes that is what happens.  If you rent a new lighting kit (especially on an out-of-town job) , you have to make the gear work for you.  The Acute 2 did an okay job, but the early troubles were a bit rough.  Once I sailed out of the rough waters (time constraints are a bitch), the pack pulled its weight.  In fact, the very next day I applied the lessons learned from the previous photo shoot (meaning I gave the ring flash it’s own pack), and didn’t have a single problem.

The Acute 2 ring flash mount has a 100 mm center opening for your camera, and the light head is adjustable up and down to accommodate different camera bodies and their various bulkiness.  The camera mount moves back and forth for the same reasons.  It was easy to get my Canon 1D Mark 2 aligned and secure on the Acute ring flash.  The bracket has a standard 5/8″ light stand adapter for those wishing to lighten their load.

Because my subjects were busy running around and away, I knew that the stationary mount wasn’t an option for today, but I was glad it was an option.  The ring flash and camera combination is heavy and bulky, and took a fair bit of getting used to, especially because it takes a  different sort of motor skills to work the focus.  Like everything, practice makes perfect.  It’s easy to get used to the extra weight and the sometimes awkwardness of reaching your camera controls.

Camera and light stand mount

The Acute ring flash has a max rating of 9600 w/s a minute and several optional accessories are available, including an optional PR Softlight Reflector that increases the size of the light source, while softening the shadows.  The optional PR Close-Up Reflector focuses the light source 20″ (50 cm) in front of the camera lens.  This gives a completely shadow free image on small objects.  I did not have the optional accessories, I only had the ring flash with it’s built in protective glass cover that protects the flash tubes.  While I would have loved to try out all the extras, I had to make happy with what I had, and happy is what I ended up being.

Initially we set up a single Acute 2 pack with the ring flash and two bulb heads in soft boxes.  Placing a puppy on a white cloth background, I got close to the ground and gave the set up a try.  I found that my shooting style was faster than the recycle time that day, and had to slow down as I was getting one great image followed by two severely underexposed images, followed by one slightly underexposed image.  Checking the meta data, I was taking images one to two seconds apart (with a slow pack recycle setting) and even though I was hearing the beep, I don’t think the pack was fully charged.  Looking further into the metadata (what did we ever do before metadata?) I could see that it was not a matter of shooting overly fast, as sometimes 35 seconds would pass and I would still get a weak pop from the ring light, which makes me think that I had overtaxed the power distribution on the pack, and wasn’t getting enough consistent current to the ring flash (or the capacitors were bad).

Let me be perfectly honest with you, I am not an auto-drive button masher.  Whatever I was doing this moment was more than the pack wanted to give me.  Slowing down, and giving an extra second or two following the audio cue, helped, but didn’t eliminate the problem.  I was getting some seriously weak flashes, usually two in a row, but sometimes three or four.  Matt and I turned everything off, and started over, but whatever gremlin was present didn’t want to leave.  This was a really annoying problem.  It could be that I had a slightly out-of-whack rental unit.  Or it could be I had seriously asked to much from the three light setup and pushed the ring flash beyond it’s ability to function.

Despite my attempts to overload the pack, I never blew a fuse and the Acute 2 problems were minimized by letting the ring light have the pack to itself without other heads or, alternatively, by using the two Acute heads and no ring light.  It doesn’t seem to make sense, but our rental ring light appeared to only operate consistently when it wasn’t sharing a pack with other heads.  If anyone else has experienced or resolved a similar issue, please let us know on our Facebook page.

There is a convenient chart on the side of the pack that shows your ratios and power distribution across the channels.  If only other manufactures would do this simple bit of convenience (are you listening Dynalite?).  For this simple act alone, I rate Profoto high on my list.

Profoto Acute 2 ratio charts

In the future, given the option, I would put the ring flash on it’s own pack, but we don’t always have the luxury of a second pack.  The next day in the studio, I photographed an orchid and used the ring flash solo, and didn’t experience one bit of problem with recycle times or sub-par flashes.  Was that the wisdom of experience, or did the lighter electric load play a role?  I’d have to answer squarely in the middle.  A second (super)pack would be nice, not to mention I’d like to see (and feel) what 9600 watt seconds of power feels like in one big burst of energy!

Orchid

The Profoto speed rings and Calumet soft boxes were easier to set up than take down.  The pegs on the soft boxes seemed slightly too large for the holes in the speed ring and upon disassemble, they did not want to come out.  Fortunately, the Calumet soft boxes have a front Velcro loop that released the tension in the support rods and then it was simply a matter of brute force to get them loose.  I will have to try a few other brands and compare to the Profoto branded boxes.  Hopefully this was just a matter of quick inattention, and not a proprietary box attachment.

I suppose the bottom line is this:  Would I buy one?

The answer would be a hesitant yes.  Hesitant only because I don’t have much need for a ring flash.  It’s a specialty piece of equipment (for me) and I don’t have much call for one.  That being said, I’ve already reserved a 7B and a 7B compatible ring flash for trial, so maybe it’s not as optional as I’d like to think (or is it that I like new toys???).  I could see specific uses for the ring flash, and with the optional accessories (not optional for me, I must say.  I’m looking forward to a more in-depth technical Matt-style trial with the accessories), this could get a permanent place in my studio.

And with results like this, how could it not?

Baby at "A Chance for Bliss" animal rescue

 

Image Slideshow

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by Chris Bjuland.   Photography by Chris Bjuland, copyright 2011.  See more at www.bjuland.com

 

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