Photogenic’s StudioMax III Soft Box Portrait Kit: An All-In-One Lighting Solution

Photogenic Professional Lighting (www.photogenic.com) is one of the classic names in portrait lighting and has been making studio equipment for more than 100 years. A lot has changed in technology since 1903 but one thing that hasn’t is Photogenic’s manufacturing their lighting gear for studio or location portrait photography here in the USA. I chose the AKC55K 640 WS Soft Box Portrait kit for this review because it was a 2-light system that includes a soft box on a boom, something beginning portrait photographers sometimes overlook because they think this particular lighting tool is too expensive and too complex to use. My experience with this kit demonstrated otherwise.

Product image courtesy of Photogenic Professional Lighting.

The 640 WS Soft Box Portrait kit contains 2 AKC320 StudioMax III monolights, each rated at 320 Watt-Seconds output. Like all StudioMax III monolights, the AKC320’s have what Photogenic calls “constant color” technology that prevents shifts in output color temperature regardless of the selected flash power; my experience proved this to be true.

Tip: Since visible shifts can also be produced by your camera, picky shooters might want do a custom White Balance. (I didn’t and shot all the images you see at the camera’s Auto White Balance, AWB, setting.)

She’s the resident lightbank assembly expert, so I turned assembly of the 36x36” soft box over to Mary, but stretching it to fit was a challenge because of the soft box’s thick fabric and tight tolerances. I expect as the lightbank’s fabric “learns” its shape the assembly process will go faster. Surprisingly the 12x36” strip light took less time than I expected.

Twisting a knob on the monolight’s back adjusts output power over a 6-stop range. At 3 pounds, each AKC320 is lightweight and compact, making them ideal for location work or for hanging from the included boom arm. Each monolight comes with its own 7½” reflector, flash tube, flash tube protector for travel, 100-Watt modeling lamp, 15-foot removable power cord and 10-foot sync cord. The circular flash tube and modeling lamp are user replaceable.

Light modifiers in the kit include a 36x36” AK36 soft box for use as the main or key light and a 12x36” AK1236 soft box for use as a background or hair light. Also in the kit are 2 air-cushioned 8-foot lightstands and a boom arm with locking swivel. The kit is delivered in a 12x12x32” (handle not extended) wheeled carrying case that holds all of the components. Fully loaded, the case weighs a hefty 44 pounds, but it’s compact enough to fit in most cars, including my MINI Cooper. Photogenic tells me that they expect the kit’s retail price to be around $1009.95.

Left: After Mary and I assembled the 640 WS Soft Box Portrait kit I made a few test shots of her using a Canon EOS 5D and EF 135mm f/2.8 SF lens. For this photograph, the 36x36” soft box was placed near the subject at camera right. The 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III main light was set at 1/4 power that produced an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/16 and ISO 100. Right: For the second shot I simply turned on the other 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III monolight that was attached to the industrial strength lightstand and boom placed at camera left and slightly above Mary’s head. This set-up produced the identical exposure of 1/125 sec at f/16 and ISO 100 but there are obvious changes in how the light fell on Mary’s hair and the background.

Putting The Kit To Work
Working together, Mary and I assembled the kit’s components in about an hour, after which we made a few test shots. That’s about 2 man-hours for initial set-up, counting installing flash tubes and modeling lights in both StudioMax III monolights and assembling the 36x36” soft box and the 12x36” soft box that more correctly might be called a striplight.

Tip: Striplights create dramatic lighting on a subject but because of the narrow light projected you have to be careful that only the important part of the subject is properly illuminated. Like everything else in portrait lighting, determining what’s “important” is up to you.

In this setup the main 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III is placed at camera right with the striplight located at camera left and raised near the ceiling (8 1/2-feet). The main light was set between 1/4 and 1/2 power, while the hair/background light was set at 3/4 power.

Shooting with a Canon EOS 5D and EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens (at 135mm) produced an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/13 at ISO 100. My initial pose with Amber was with her seated but when she started playing with her hair it evolved into the pose you see here.

The thickness (and stiffness) of the fabric used for both lightbanks made assembling the 36x36” soft box slightly difficult and took longer than I anticipated, but I expect with more use the fabric will “learn” its ultimate shape and the process will go faster. Surprisingly, the 12x36” striplight took less time to assemble than I imagined but knockdown takes time and patience so you don’t bend the support rods.

Most of the non-electronic components of the 640 WS Soft Box Portrait kit are built to post-Mayan apocalyptic standards and seem over-engineered. The speed rings seem strong enough to withstand being driven over by a pick-up truck, yet are attached to the monolight with a single, slim bolt. Mounting a lightbank with speed ring attached—the method suggested in the instructions—can be tricky. You’re supposed to slip the speed ring under a pair of lugs (“ears”) on the StudioMax III monolight’s face, wiggle it into position, and then tighten that bolt to lock the speed ring in place. A bigger, more finger friendly bolt and head would make it easier to get the fit as snug as you should, especially to keep the hefty 36x36” soft box in place.

For my second set-up the main 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III is placed at camera left with the striplight slightly behind it and raised about 8 feet. After initial testing a circular silver reflector was added, providing fill on the opposite side of Amber’s face. The background is a 53” wide roll of BD Silver Grey seamless paper.

While adding highlights to Amber’s hair, the second 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III at 3/4 power also lightened the grey background. The main StudioMax III was set between 1/4 and 1/2 power. A circular silver reflector was added at camera right to provided fill on the opposite side of Amber’s face. Together they produced an identical exposure of 1/125 sec at f/13 at ISO 100 with a Canon EOS 5D and EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens at 135mm.

Since Photogenic includes a sync cord with the proper mini-plug (no adapter required) to connect to the AKC320, I decided to go old school and shoot corded because my Canon EOS 5D does have a PC connection. If your D-SLR does not have a place to connect the cord or maybe you just hate having cords laying around your shooting space, I suggest ordering the kit and including one of company’s (optional) RTK-4 Radio Triggers ($79.95). This wireless system has a transmitter and a receiver that lets you trigger a StudioMax III monolight up to 80 feet, which should be useful for outdoor events such as weddings. Inside my 11x15-foot home studio, the StudioMax III’s built-in but non-switchable optical slave worked perfectly at the monolight’s rated recycle time of 3 seconds (full power) to 0.02 sec (1/32 power). Even when working fast, I could not outshoot the AKC320’s.

Left: For my portrait of Jennifer Arlene in the red dress, I used a 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III placed at camera right as shown and a 32” (diameter) circular silver reflector. This produced pleasant lighting and would be a good choice for run-and-gun photographers who need to make 3/4 length portraits or headshots. Right: Here the StudioMax III with 36x36” soft box mounted was placed near the subject and at camera right with a circular silver reflector at left for fill. The Canon EOS 5D and EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens (at 44mm) produced an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/14 at ISO 100.

My first formal shooting session with the AKC55K 640 WS Soft Box Portrait kit went smoother and faster than any lighting kit I’ve tested in a long while. For the first portrait of Amber, I placed the main light at camera right with the other 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III monolight on the boom at camera left and slightly over her head. The second light was set at 3/4 power before raising the boom, which brought up some initial concerns.

With the StudioMax III 8 feet in the air I thought making power output changes would involve lowering the boom, changing the setting, raising the boom and then shooting, but I ended up just lowering the whole lightstand to make adjustments. For Amber’s second set-up I flipped the key light around to camera left and, while the effect was nice, I felt it needed just a bit of a kick on the right side of her face and placed a circular reflector, as shown in the illustration.

Even though the background is the same BD Silver Grey used in Amber’s photograph wearing a grey top, the effect of the narrow light from the Photogenic striplight produces an almost black background, creating a low-key look. The Canon EOS 5D and EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens (at 85mm) produced an exposure of 1/80 sec at f/11 at ISO 100.

For my sessions with Jennifer Arlene, I began with the main light at camera right with the other StudioMax III monolight on the boom at camera left and slightly over her head before moving into mix and match combinations. In the next set-up I used a 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III with a 36x36” soft box at camera right as the key light with fill from a circular reflector on the left.

The light quality here was surprisingly good. A wedding photographer shooting individual portraits of the bride or groom will find this arrangement a simple way to quickly set-up, shoot and knock down. Want some drama? Flip the lighting using the 12x36” striplight as the main light at camera left with a reflector on the opposite side as fill. A change to a smaller light source caused me to open the aperture a stop at the same ISO, but I still had more than acceptable depth-of-field. As both examples show, you can use either lightbank on whatever side of the subject you like to produce different looks from the same portrait session.

Here I’m using the 12x36” soft box aka striplight with the 320 Watt-Second StudioMax III as the main light. Striplights can be used to create dramatic portrait lighting but because of the narrow light that is projected onto your subject you have to be sure that the most important part of the subject is properly illuminated. Like everything else in portrait lighting, determining what is “important” is up to you. For the initial series of shots, I used a 32” (diameter) circular silver reflector as shown here.

In Conclusion
Everything you need to create salable portraits on location or in the studio is all there in the AKC55K 640 WS Soft Box Portrait kit. All my monolight/lightbank swapping exercises illustrates that when it comes to portrait lighting you ultimately have a choice in how the lights are placed and controlled. You’ll need a reflector to try some of my techniques, but the rest of the tools are all there to help you make decisions on how the final portrait will look.

Ultimately, that’s the point of any portrait session: Everybody looks different and so should their portraits. With this kit Photogenic provides lots of different ways—only some of which I’ve touched on—to create portraits that will work for you and your clients.

This portrait of Jennifer Arlene uses the same lighting setup as Amber (in grey) but because she is sitting on a stool, while Amber was standing bringing her closer to the hair light, its effect is more subtle, yet still noticeable. The Canon EOS 5D and EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens (at 90mm) produced an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/13 at ISO 100 that is identical to Amber’s photograph but creating an entirely different, more low-key look. The background is a Westcott (www.fjwestcott.com) Blue Skies collapsible backdrop.

Visit Photogenic’s website (www.photogenic.com) to see all the specs on the kit and to see some of the other available kits that might be a better fit for your budget and photographic style.

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