The Photek Illuminata

The three faces of Illuminata. Model Holly Plunkett photographed with (from l-r) the Illuminata with no diffusers, with inner diffuser only, and fully assembled. Which do you prefer?
Photos © Jay Abend, 2000

As a working pro I'm pretty familiar with all of the pro lighting companies. My studio looks like a well stocked camera store, with virtually every diffuser, umbrella, and softbox known to man. When something new comes out, I usually wind up with one.

While stalking the aisles of the PhotoPlus show in New York last October I saw lots of new and exciting things. For example, a small spotlight from Speedotron; HMI and fluorescent lighting from Lowel-Light; new three flash outlet packs from Sun Star Strobo; and on and on. If I hadn't imposed a strict buying moratorium on myself, I could have gone crazy. Just then Bob Shell stopped me and suggested I check out a new light modifier at the Photek booth and off I went. Like a dunce I went to Photoflex and asked for their light bank. Well, they were happy enough to show me their latest and very slick wares. Later, when I was informed that I went to the wrong booth, I trekked over to Photek. I was shown the Illuminata, a very cool lighting device that is halfway between a softbox and an umbrella.

Here's a close-up of Holly shot with the Illuminata with only the center diffuser. Notice the large ringlight reflection in her eyes. I like this look a lot.

I'm pretty much a softbox kind of guy, with the occasional shoot-through umbrella for location people stuff. While the Illuminata looked nice, I figured that it was more for the portrait market, where Photek does most of its business. The Illuminata is a large octagon shaped umbrella like shell with a form-fitting translucent cover that turns it into a nice round softbox. Like any good reporter, I figured that I would withhold my praise or criticism until I had a chance to run it through its paces in my studio. A little while after the show the UPS truck pulled up and I was in business.

The most impressive thing I first noticed about the Illuminata was the quality of the materials used. The shell is a very heavy-duty rip-stop black nylon bonded to a silver inner lining. I can liken the materials to my Chimera Video Pro heat resistant boxes, very heavy-duty. Unlike umbrellas or Chimera softboxes, the Illuminata features a near universal clamping system that firmly clamps to the body of the light head. There are eight fiberglass rods that fit into the clamping unit to give the shell its shape. Besides the shell, there are two additional diffuser panels. The inner panel is a sheet of translucent white nylon with a silver circle sewn to the center. The final, outer diffuser is a translucent sheet with a silver border sewn in to turn the octagonal reflection into a clean circle.

Peel away the outer diffuser and you'll see the inner diffuser with its silver reflector circle.

Once out of the box, it was a matter of figuring out how to put the thing together. Unlike softboxes, the fiberglass rods in the Illuminata don't need a tremendous amount of pressure to fit into the holes in the steel mounting unit. You must be sure to bolt the flash head to the clamp system first, otherwise once the rods are in the clamp adjustment screw is blocked. This is somewhat of a hassle if you wish to swap light heads, since you'll need to remove at least one of the rods to access the adjustment screw. I chose a Balcar U series flash head to mount, since it has a flat outer surface. First you adjust the three movable metal clamps, and then tighten the adjusting screw on the fourth one. The clamps hold the head rock solid, and offer the ability to use any light source. Such as flash, HMI or tungsten, without expensive adapters or paraphernalia. Since softboxes mounted on my Balcars often have a bit of "droop" due to the loosening of the Balcar's reflector clamping system over the years, the rigidity of this Photek clamp was welcomed. Once assembled the large 54" diameter shell looks just like the massive Briese parabolic reflectors that most high-end rental studios offer. By adjusting the depth of your light head via the clamping system you can subtly change the quality of the light reflected by the shell. While Photek has designed this unit to be used with all three pieces in place, I actually found the shell alone to be an amazing light source, looking like the world's biggest polished aluminum reflector. It gives you a big, moderately soft, highly directional light.

The fully assembled Illuminata. Note the nice clean circle and remarkably even illumination across the front surface.

The next nice surprise was the inner diffuser. Photek designed this largely to remove the hotspot caused by the flash head. The silver reflector prevents the direct light of the head from hitting the front panel, thus giving you a much more even light at the front diffuser. I'm an experimental kind of guy, so I shot without the front panel, just with the inner one. Wow, what light. Soft and smooth with a nice punchy specular quality. Even better is the beautiful bright donut reflection in the model's eyes. It's like a big ringlight that's really efficient and portable.

The final setup, with the front panel on was a nice surprise as well. It's so incredibly soft and luscious that I can see why portrait guys would love it. I found, however, that for highly polished products it's just great. With the middle diffuser in place the front panel is almost perfectly white and round, very similar to a large custom made light bank with a plexiglass front surface. When hung over a reflective product you get a big, round highlight that looks very natural. I also found that on location shoots the reflection of the Illuminata in windows and glass doors looks fairly normal, nothing like the big spider web reflection that umbrellas yield.

With a list price of $375, I find the Illuminata to be quite a bargain. It's one of the most flexible light modifiers in my studio, and offers some lighting effects that are simply unobtainable from any other device. I know that once studio shooters get a load of this product, you'll be hard pressed to find a working pro without several Illuminatas in their arsenal.

The clamp system can be a bit tedious to get working, but it will adapt to virtually any head and locks very solid.

With no diffusers the Illuminata resembles a Briese parabolic reflector, a very nice portrait light.

For more information, contact Photek, 549 Howe Ave., Shelton CT, 06484; (203) 924-1522; fax: (203) 924-9388.