Sunday, May 4, 2014

gear matters :: westcott 40" 5-in-1 reflector kit

Every so often, I feel it's very important to review, with you, the gear I use or have used, for better or for worse.
I'm at a loss for words for a better intro, so without further ado...


Before I bring out today's star of the show, let me first give you a brief background of how we have arrived here today.

It was maybe five years ago when I swallowed the red pill of photography. I had been shooting casually for some time and the fire inside began to explode with a need for knowledge, skill, technique, style and complete understanding of what it took to create jaw dropping photography. I went all in and had slowly began working professionally as the aforementioned variables had began to exponentially increase. This was a fire that could not be extinguished. Ever hear of Centralia, Pennsylvania? Exactly.

I began, as most do, shooting natural light only. Working the ambient will soon make a photographer, like myself, realize that fast glass is a necessity. I invested in sweet sexy prime lenses. Zooms took a back seat to f/1.4, all day (and night) long.

Soon after I had became comfortable shooting in the ambient environments, I had been noticing these styles of works that I desperately tried to reverse engineer. I could only attribute the styles to an unfathomable level of Photoshop skill. Trying to replicate their styles with minimal degrees of success, I decided to study their works more intensely.

I was blind and then saw the light. . . . literally.

It wasn't post production my friends, it was LIGHT!

I was effing hooked. I bought every book, read every resource, ate, walked, slept and dreamt about lighting. David Hobby became a god to me as he shared his wealth of lighting knowledge on a daily basis on his brilliant educational [blog].

Strobe after strobe made their way into my bag, as did their soul mates, the Pocketwizard radio transceivers.

Light stands and modifiers, speed lights and swivels were all now part of my arsenal and let me tell you, my level of work took off into stratospheric levels. Light, it changed my game dramatically.

Funny thing. Most photographers progress to the strobe level, working first with ambient light, then reflectors and finally the off camera flashes. I kinda skipped that middle part. Oops.

Shooting for years I never had a single professional reflector in my pack. I mean, when I needed to reflect I simply used some white foam core or poster boards, aluminum foil DIY mods or whatever was available. It just didn't make sense for me to buy a reflector when I could simply modify the modifiers I already had to become an entirely new light shaper.

After careful dissection and resection of a recent shoot where I popped a 45 inch brolly, strobe-less, underneath the model to act as a bottom fill, I realized I wasn't getting as much punch as I wanted. Even worse, I was out of foil in the kitchen.

I ended up popping a strobe in that brolly, which is awesome but sometimes I like to work lean and mean. Sleek and sexy. Less is more kinda shit, not always wanting to bring in all the strobes when they aren't always necessary.

It was time bite the big one and buy a legitimate reflector. I know, it sounds funny. You could walk into my studio and see a sea of beautiful equipment and not one single basic reflector. Shhh. Don't tell anyone.


As with all pro photo gear, you have an infinite amount of makes and models to choose from. Just like buying an automobile, you can buy the economical Scion or go balls out for a Beamer. They both get you from point A to point B but how they get you there may differ for each. Furthermore, the sheer number of A to B trips may be significantly less in a Scion as compared to a BMW.

Get the metaphor?

In my years of photography, I have come to learn that you get what you pay for. I've been burned a couple of times with putting my trust in some super low budget companies with super awesome prices. Ok, the no return policies should have been a BIG FLAG but I didn't read the fine print as I was mesmerized by the awesome prices.

With certain gear I go only with the industry standard brands. I shoot Nikon. I use only Pocketwizard triggers. My tripod system? Feisol.

I work with Apple hardware and with Adobe and Apple software.

Now, with some gear (specifically light shapers and grip), I try to find a happy medium. I mean, I would be like a fat kid in a candy store had I owned a $6000.00 (USD) umbrella such as a Bron Para but guess what, I am very happy with my Calumet (Back in business! Hooray!) 60 inch convertible for a C-note. Great construction, quality materials, awesome.

Another favorite of mine? The F.J. Westcott Company. Not sure where I discovered their brand but I quickly bought their 28 inch Apollo Softbox. Great product with ease of assembly, no speedring necessary.

The Westcott Apollo quickly made it's way to becoming my favorite mod and my brand loyalty for Westcott was born.

Today's Guest

It was a no brainer to go with the Westcott 40" 5-in-1 reflector kit. Shit, my other favorite mods are by Calumet (price vs. build comparisons) and at the time of my purchase, Calumet was not operational; bankruptcy (Thank goodness they've been saved!).

I ordered the reflector from B&H only two days before an upcoming shoot. I really wanted to have that mod in time to experiment with on my models. Dangerous to use new gear on a shoot? Not if you are confident in your understanding with the physics of light.

Friday evening I arrived back home and the UPS box was sitting in the hall, like an angel from heaven. I just freaking love when new gear arrives. I just haven't gotten to the video unboxing level of obsession yet, yet. I actually think I would do an unboxing but I get so damn excited to open my gear, there's no time for setting up the set.

After tearing through the air tubed stuffing (sadly not bubble wrap), I find the new piece.

The package is compact and folded up in a convenient carrying case with the newer styled logo blazoned across the front. I notice it is labeled as Westcott Basics. Must be a new branding campaign or something. Their style looked different than when I received the Apollo. Just an observation.

Unzipping the bag I pull the collapsed reflector from its container. I then proceed to unfold and it pops open on its own at an alarming speed. Pretty cool actually.

I quickly inspect the product and explore the 5-in-1 features.

1. (not pictured) The silver reflector for nice punchy light. This is the default position of the mod.

2. The black flag. Simply the backside of the default position of mod. To pull away light and increase shadow contrast. Negative fill if you will.

3. The gold reflector. When unzipped and reversed back onto the inner disk, there is a gold and soft white side of the casing. The gold is for a warm sunlight type of fill.

4. The white brings a soft fill to the subject.

5. The inner disk. Translucent white. this can be used as a fill OR as a soft diffuser to pop a strobe through.

As far as reflectors go, pretty basic stuff. Let's get to some pros and cons.

The Pros

Price. This cannot be ignored. 50 bucks for a large reflector is pretty pimp in my personal opinion.

Versatile and simplistic with the 5-in-1 option. Love having the diversity, while on the go, to choose from a variety of different lighting styles, all from one package.

Sturdy. Not sure what the outer ring is composed of but it is obvious it is an alloy of some type. The material is of the industry standard. Polyester maybe.

As opposed to strobes, when working outdoors with the sun as the reflected light source, you can work really fast shutter speeds as your camera's sync speed does not apply with sunlight.

Basically, for the price, this baby is pretty awesome. I've already worked it in for a clamshell fill, on a corporate headshot session, clamping to a lightstand and bringing the silver side just under the subject's chin. Beautiful.

The Cons

Jeez, I hate to write a cons section, especially when it's a company that I like so much. I suppose there would be no review without pointing out a flaw or two. I mean nothing is perfect right? I'm sure the dude that drops six grand on a Bron Para will certainly find a few things to piss him off.

Luckily, I found only two cons.

On my very first zipping of the outer covering, the zipper slider slid straight off. Basically, there was no barricade as zippers usually have, stopping the slider at either end of the track. Do you know what a giant pain in the ass it is to replace a slider? I had to watch a friggin' YouTube video to figure it out. It took about a week until I finally found the patience to really sit and focus on the delicate task. In fact, I almost gave up and thought about bringing it to the cleaners and pay to have them repair it.

Working in the field, that could have been a real pain in the ass; bearable but annoying.

The other con? The cognitive dissonance that I feel when trying to collapse the light modifier is pretty intense. I mean it seems like such a basic move to fold it down but I quickly develop two left feet when trying to do this.

The remedy for that? I simply leave it open, all the time.


With only a couple of cons, I would totally recommend this mod to any photographer who is looking for a fast an easy light shaper that's big and soft in quality. You can order for a hundred bucks with a stand for it but I simply clamp (as in photo) to one of the light stands I already own. If you are in the field and don't have a stand, be sure to have an assistant to position the reflector so that the light is hitting your subject just right.

Nerd File ::

Photo 1 ::
1 285hv at 1/4 power ratio, bounced off a white reflector from behind/below the frame, working as the key.
1 430ex ii at 1/4 power, directly above the package, perpendicular to the ground, firing into the Westcott Apollo with front diffusion panel removed for a more contrasty fill.

ISO :: 50
Aperture :: f/3.2
Shutter :: 1/250

Photo 2 ::
The same Apollo, without diffusion about 8 feet from the front of the subject with the 430ex ii working as the key.
You can see the kicker in the photo, atop the lightstand. That's the 285hv cranking at 1/4 power ratio, blasting light on the white seamless and reflecting back to give some separation to the 5-in-1.

ISO :: 50
Aperture :: f/3.2
Shutter :: 1/250

The Feisol carbon fiber tripod system for support and Pocketwizard Plus ii transceivers to trigger the strobes.

And that's all she wrote.

Oh, Westcott rocks!

Peace out my homeys.

Until next time...