The Astron Systems Orbiculight

The Orbiculight from Astron Systems represents a quantum leap in convenience for commercial product photographers, resulting in significant time savings and greatly increased output.
Photos © 1999, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved

It doesn't take long to tell whether most photo-related equipment was designed by a "design team," or by a photographer. The "team" product usually looks slick, but five minutes into an in-depth examination you've most likely chalked up several "Well, where's the so-and-so; I can't believe they left that out," plus at least one "Why'd they put that here; it feels stupid." That's the mark of gear that the designers never have to earn a living with. On the other hand, a photographer-designed item often elicits an "Oh, yeah! It's about time somebody did this!" Properly constructed, innovative, genuinely useful equipment is always a standout in the usual sea of mediocrity.

Definitely falling into this latter category is the Astron Systems Orbiculight, so-named for its encircling, "Orbicular" lighting technology. The brain child of Brad Axen, a highly successful commercial photographer, the Orbiculight is his answer to years of mental notes made during the pursuit of product photography by conventional means. Like most of us, he always managed to get the job done with traditional tools and techniques, but knew there had to be a better way.

The nearly infinitely controllable, wraparound lighting of the Orbiculight easily dealt with the shiny, concave shapes of this silver bolo tie. The bolo could have been lit with a totally even "wash" of light, or, as was done here, depicted with a degree of gradation to define form. (Rollei SL66, Ektachrome 100 Plus.)

The design goal was to build a self-contained product lighting system, combining the attributes of a typical product table with the advantages of "tent" lighting, but advancing the evolution of these two general principles by a quantum leap. By greatly reducing the amount of time and physical effort required to arrange the lights for a product shot, productivity is very significantly increased. Doing away with the need to be constantly adjusting lights and stands speeds the process dramatically, while eliminating the jumble of cords and light stand legs is a safety plus in a darkened studio.

Measuring 5'7" tall, 5'31/2" wide, and 6'91/2" front to back, the Orbiculight can be installed and operated in very limited confines, especially since there's no need for the usual necessary maneuvering space for lights and stands to the sides, front, and back of a conventional product table. The lights are all controlled from the Light Control Module, which can be moved anywhere along its front support rail, or removed and mounted on a computer station for digital use. A photographer can operate the system single-handedly, making an assistant a luxury rather than a necessity.

Same as left image, except shot with Kodak DCS 410 digital camera; wider view includes all of ram horns.

The Orbiculight consists of a chassis, power cabinet, a bed with a sweep backdrop, and a half-cylinder light dome. Construction is of heavy gauge steel, powder coated in an abrasion-resistant matte black finish. The chassis features wheels for easy, one-man mobility. While traditional product tables use 1/8" translucent Lucite or Plexiglas as a base, thereby severely limiting the weight of objects they can support, the base of the Orbiculight is 3/4" clear Plexiglas; if you can lift it (up to 500 lbs), you can shoot it. A thin sheet of white diffusion material overlays the clear Plexi, and continues upward to form the cove background. The front of the bed can be lowered 30° via gas springs and locking struts, allowing high-angle shots (gravity permitting) without having to climb a stepladder. For larger objects and/or lighting flexibility, the light dome can be raised at the front. The rear cove can also be independently tilted forward by 30°.

The many different planes and angles of this vintage belt buckle set, along with the varying reflectivity of the gold and silver elements, can be a pain with normal lights. The Orbiculight allowed the placement of highlights exactly where desired. (Rollei SL66, Ektachrome 100 Plus.)

As impressive as its mechanics are, it's the lighting system that really lets the Orbiculight strut its stuff. It utilizes 32 broad-spectrum, flicker-free fluorescent tubes, with a 5000K color temperature (CRI 85) and a lamp life of 30,000 hours. The tubes are mounted in pairs, each dimmable from 5-100 percent. The efficient design uses only 1024w to produce a light level of 90,000 lumens, on a single 120v AC, 15amp circuit. Photogra-phers who shoot temperature-sensitive subjects will appreciate the nearly total absence of heat from the lamps. The system was specifically designed for use with digital cameras, but is equally applicable for film use. Those who favor tungsten-balanced films can order it with 3200K tubes.

In addition to the individual dimming controls for each pair of tubes, even greater light control is possible via the Gel Tubes, clear plastic half-round shields that cover the pairs of fluorescent tubes. The Gel Tubes slide along guides on the light fixtures and are accessible from either side of the bed and cove, and either end of the dome. You can modify the color and/or intensity of any portion of any pair of fluorescent tubes by placing colored gels or scrim material in the Gel Tubes. The overlying diffusion material can be removed for harder lighting effects if desired. Add to this the fact that the bed, cove, and dome can be controlled separately and it should be apparent that your lighting options are nearly endless.

When you want to employ auxiliary light-control devices such as scrims, flags, dots, and filters, continuous utility bars around the front and rear of the dome and across the top of the cove make attachment a snap. Standard 53" rolls of seamless background paper can also be used.

Same as left image, except shot with Kodak DCS 410 digital camera; wider view includes all of ram horns.

As previously mentioned, the Orbiculight was developed spe-cifically for use with digital im-aging systems, and the combination is a marriage made in heaven. Just think of it: total lighting control; little required shooting space; minimal physical effort; the ability to ascertain that the shot is exactly as envisioned, without having to leave a setup in place until the film gets back from the lab (no more lab) or going through a small fortune in Polaroid proofs; exact control of color balance and contrast; all the creative/corrective possibilities afforded by software such as Photoshop and Live Picture; the opportunity to try different digital effects, simply deleting any that aren't to your satisfaction (in the darkroom you'd have to make a new print each time, and that's brashly assuming you could duplicate the effects by traditional means); and the elimination of darkroom chemistry helps keep the EPA and municipal watchdogs off your back. What more could a harried commercial photographer ask?

On-site set up and instruction is optionally available with the system, although the excellent training video will have a practiced studio photographer up and running in no time. Semi-skilled help can be tutored to a competent degree of proficiency in a day.

As you can see, the Orbiculight is a commercial product lighting system for the new millennium; totally in-step with the emerging digital technologies, yet equally applicable to conventional silver halide photography. While not inexpensive at a list price of $14,500, it will quickly pay for itself in increased productivity. It also carries a five-year limited warranty. The unit is amazingly complete and versatile as it stands now, but there are several accessories in the works that will make it even more all-inclusive and flexible. Even spending just a couple of hours with the system, my mind was racing with the possibilities, all of which would be logical, form-follows-function add-ons, requiring little or no modifications to the present unit, and that says volumes about the rock-solid practicality of the original design.

For more information contact Astron Systems, Inc., 22647 Old Canal Rd., Yorba Linda, CA 92887; (714) 283-8820, fax: (714) 283-5070. e-mail:;