Lowel’s Rifa eXchange System; Continuous Lighting Has Its Advantages

At a recent pro photo show I came across what I consider to be a unique innovation in small studio lighting--the Lowel Rifa eXchange System (#1), which is comprised of four self-contained softboxes that come in varying sizes. At 16x16" the Rifa eX 44 is the smallest and the Rifa eX 88 is the largest at 32x32". What makes this system special is the minimal time it takes to set up plus the fact that the lamp heads are equally fast to change between tungsten-halogen and daylight-fluorescent bulbs.

1. The Rifa eXchange System shown with the four interchangeable lamp heads. Photo courtesy of Lowel.

Because each Rifa eX softbox comes as a self-contained unit they can be set up and opened ready for use in less than a minute. Depending on what type of bulb you wish to use, 125w to 1000w tungsten halogen, or 27w to 65w daylight fluorescent, it takes only another moment to attach the interchangeable lamp head with a push and a twist.

What makes the Rifa eXchange System especially nice for a small studio, particularly one in your home (see #2, my dining room table studio), is that the lights and stands fold up compactly for storage. In fact, a set of three Rifa eX lights with their stands folded will fit easily in the back of my coat closet (seen to the left of the dining room table in #2). This also means they are easy to transport for location work.

The softbox creates a particular style of lighting, one that is favored by many commercial studios. It is the type of light you would find on an overcast day. Overcast light creates its own fill that is particularly pleasing for portraits and product photography. It is also pleasing for glamour, or beauty, photography. If a more dramatic light is desired, then the softbox would not be the best choice as it cannot be focused to create sharp relief or heavy shadows.

To use a softbox effectively it should be placed relatively close to the subject, usually within 3-6 ft, depending on the size. Ideally the softbox used for the key light should be larger than the subject. Large softboxes, such as the Rifa eX 88 are good for evenly illuminating the subject without requiring a fill light. Small softboxes make very effective hair and accent lights, and fill when needed.

While continuous output lights are the only kind that can be used in the movie industry or for making videos, strobe lighting is by far more popular with still photographers. This is because tungsten-halogen bulbs, the most common form of continuous output lights for still photography, generate a lot of heat and draw a lot of power. Tungsten halogen also requires a very high wattage bulb to achieve enough light to create a usable depth of field. This is not a problem for tabletops where a long exposure can be used, or for studio portraiture where the subject is sitting or standing still, but it is a limiting factor when the subject is moving, as in a lot of fashion and glamour work.

The Rifa eXchange System is designed around continuous output lights. I am not here to convince you to switch from strobe lighting to continuous output but I will tell you the advantages. The first is obvious. If you ever want to make a video you will need to use continuous output--you cannot tape a moving sequence using strobes--that went out with Peter Max and the Pop movement in the 1960s.

A less obvious advantage is the ability to see what you are going to get when you light the subject. With strobe lights you are always guessing. With continuous output you know. A simple light meter reading of the highlight and shadow values will tell you if your lighting ratio is correct. If it is not, move the fill light in or out. For this reason, continuous output is the best way to learn lighting techniques as well.

Another advantage is that continuous light sources do not create the sudden burst of light associated with strobes.

If you are doing portraiture in the studio or on location, this is less stressful for the subject.

The ability of the Rifa eXchange System to use daylight-balanced fluorescents is a big bonus for those who prefer to use continuous lighting. The fluorescents use a fraction of the power of tungsten halogen and run cool. If you are working in a small studio space, whether you are doing a still life or portrait, the fluorescent lights are more comfortable to use, for both you and
your subject.

2. Dining room table product studio. I am creating a cover for the 3rd Edition of The Darkroom Cookbook using a Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D on a Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod.
All Photos © 2008, Steve Anchell, All Rights Reserved

The daylight-fluorescent bulbs used by Lowel are very close to 5500K. Look at the front panel of the eX 88 used as the key light in #2. Although I manipulated exposure, saturation, and sharpening in Adobe's Lightroom, I have not made any white balance correction to either the set image or the completed cover image seen in #3.

3. Cover image for The Darkroom Cookbook, 3rd Edition. This image was lit with a Lowel Rifa eX 88 using a FLO-X1 65w single fluorescent bulb as the key light and an eX 55 with a 27w single fluorescent bulb for fill. Exposure at ISO 100: f/16 at 0.6 seconds.