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 Last month, Hamburg based Briese Lichttechnik established Briese NY, its first U.S. division office.  I recently sat down with Gerd Bayer, who heads the office to talk about Briese, and to get an up close and personal look at some of their products.It doesn’t take a whole lot to figure out what makes the Briese light different – and that’s before you even plug it in.  You may see deflectors, pencil or stick type lamps and large parabolic reflectors among other companies’ products, but none put them together the way that Briese does.  The result is a unique way of distributing and controlling light.  Briese was the company at the forefront of the large, umbrella style parabolic movement.  With seven sizes available today, no one comes close to matching the range of focusable parabolics offered by Briese.  The other thing which makes the Briese Focus unique is that it is essentially an exoskeleton with a reflective surface underneath.  The beauty of this arrangement is that since the structure is on the exterior there are no ribs or spreader assembly compromising the interior.

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 Gerd already had a Focus77 set up when I arrived at the Briese NY office on West 27th Street.  As I watched him move the flash head utilizing the focus tube or wand from the flood to the spot position and back (near the outer edge of the umbrella inward and out) the change in the position of the light on a subject is very much like watching a Fresnel being opened up or closed down. 

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  The linear flash tube which the Briese Focus uses seems to produce a  directed, even and efficient light.  I’m going to address one thing right now as a user of the wonderful Elinchrom Deep Throat Octa which is a little larger  than the Focus77 because someone is bound to ask:  Inspite of being similarly shaped, the differences in the shape of the flash tubes, the interiors, as well as the ability to move the Briese flash tube, nets differences in  lighting patterns and characteristics.  With the addition of diffusion materials on both however and depending on where the Briese flash  is positioned, I believe the differences may be narrowed.   The Focus100, which was not available, and the Deep Octa are essentially the same size.

 The components of the Focus system excluding the power pack and a light stand include:  The Focus umbrella, the flash tube, shield and deflector: the focus tube/wand, the flash/lamp base, the mounting assembly, the set up assist/storage post, a breakdown ring and a transport bag.  Gerd cautioned me that one of the most important things to remember in handling the Focus is not to pull on the ribs.  He says that the most common repair he sees is exterior rib breakage, and usually because of someone trying to open or close the Focus improperly.  If you place the collapsed umbrella on its end, insert the set-up post into the ring opening and apply a little pressure, the Focus takes shape.  The breakdown process while different is just as simple:  You place the breakdown ring on top of the exterior rim of the Focus, insert the set up post, apply some pressure and the umbrella collapses. Perhaps because I am a bit of a “gadgeteer,” I did not find the set up/breakdown process at all intimidating, but I do think that I would  have felt differently if a Focus220 or 330 had been in front of me; where some things are concerned, size really does matter!  I can certainly understand how some people might find the set up/breakdown process different enough to be a little too involved or worrisome.

 The Briese Focus comes in one finish: hard  silver.  If you want to alter the characteristics of the resulting light, diffusion panels can be secured to the tips of the Focus.  A soft grid can also be attached to the tips for another level of spread control.  I pressed Gerd, as to what type of material is used on the interior surface of the Focus.  I had heard that it was Kevlar;  he smiled and indicated Briese does not disclose that, but went on to say that the material is special because the Focus range is also compatible with the Briese line of tungsten and HMI products and has to be able to withstand substantial heat.  All in all, I was impressed with how well made the Focus components are, and how seamlessly they fit together.

 The Focus77 was attached to an 800w/s multi-voltage, Briese Yellow Cube Pack.  The 800i weighs about 17 pounds and when the lid is on —  you guessed it — is a yellow cube with a carrying strap.  This obviously is a real departure from the typical black or grey box one usually sees in the studio.  The air cushioned sliders on the bottom of the pack are both a thoughtful and utilitarian touch.  The pack has outlets for 2 heads.  Interestingly while I wasn’t intimidated by the Focus77, the 800i was a different story.  There are a lot of pressure pads for flash and modeling light control.  I’m confident that if I spent time with the pack, that its operation would become second nature, but my initial reaction was “Oh my God!”

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With the Briese pack, the shortest flash duration is achieved at maximum power.  A four-stop range is the price one pays for the multi-voltage capability of the “i”series packs.  The “e” series packs which are designed for use in Europe and are 220-240v have a seven-stop range.  While the lack of familiarity with the pack controls can be overcome, for some photographers, the four-stop range of the ‘i” packs may be regarded as too limited.  Hopefully this power adjustment range issue will be addressed in future products and/or updates.  Given that the “i” series power adjustment range is not as robust as other premium brand generators, it was interesting to watch how making power and focus adjustments can work hand in hand in with respect to light output.  The Briese generators start at 400w/s and go up to 6400w/s.

 Among the new products which Briese has introduced is the “Focus Help” (FH,) a remote controlled unit which will tilt the Focus umbrella as well as move the focus tube in and out.  For users of the larger Focus models, the FH will allow precise adjustment and fine tuning of the lights after they have been positioned.  This device is clearly an assistant’s dream.  While the Focus may be the product that people most readily associate with the Briese name, Gerd made it clear that there are several other stellar modifiers including a line of strip boxes.  Like the Focus, the Strip is essentially an exoskeleton lined with reflective material.  There are no ribs or wands inside the reflective surface area.  The interior appears to be softer silver than that found in the Focus.  The Strip comes in a few different sizes and there are louver and  baffle options available to provide additional control.

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Briese products are available at a couple of studio here in New York for in-studio and location use:  Among them is Milk Studios.  I was told by one of the equipment gurus that “We [at Milk] like the product and the client demand is definitely there.”

 While I did not press Gerd about future product development, we did talk about growth.  He indicated that “Continuous lighting and HMI specifically is definitely a growth area.”  I was not surprised by his comment:  As motion and still applications continue to converge and offer visual continuity across formats, clients may be able to realize significant economies of scale in being able to handle both of these needs on one set, at the same time.  As of now his sense is that the Briese flash products are used more in New York for still work as opposed to Los Angeles, where the  use of Briese continuous light products is driven by motion work.

 Ken Allen of Monster Lighting, a professional film and video lighting house in Los Angeles has handled Briese products for approximately a year now, and says of the system, “It’s just a great product.”  Ken confirmed that the light weight of the Briese continuous lamp fixture is an advantage in using and placing them on sets.

 The one topic that I have held off mentioning until now is price.  There are a couple of reasons for this:  I wanted the focus of this entry to be on the Briese products which personally, I find intriguing.  The target audience for these products is not the casual shooter, or the guys going at it on Internet forums as to which brand of lighting is better or trying to define what constitutes “professional lighting.”  Let’s call it like it is:  The market for Briese products includes high end commercial applications and photographers who have the client base and budget to justify or warrant the expense.   They must feel that the Briese product will perform on the set as they demand and give the image the look they want and need.  In my opinion, products like the Profoto 8Air, the new Profoto Giants, the Broncolor Scoro packs and Paras are aimed at the same markets and photographers make similar decision about there use based on their  performance needs and desired look..  The only point here is that Briese is not alone in this regard.  Let’s also acknowledge that many photographers rent this type of  equipment when they need it, as opposed to buying it outright.  You don’t find the Briese product in the popular virtual or brick and mortor  stores, but they are found in a growing number of studios and specialty rental houses.  I also did not want the discussion of expense to drive this entry because many times discussions  on expense and value,  just as discussions about “quality of light,” tend to be both subjective and relative. 

But for those who are curious about the cost of ownership of the Briese kit that Gerd had set up in the office, here are some familiar products or services for which the price range, in U.S dollars, is comparable:  One (1) 2009 Toyota Yaris; or a brand new Phase One 645 camera with a P30+ back and 80mm lens kit; or six (6) 17 inch 2.8GHz Mac Book Pros; or two (2) Nikon D3x camera bodies; or one (1) Canon 5d MarkII and the seven (7) fastest L prime lenses from 14mm through 200mm; or a face lift and tummy tuck.

 For more information on Briese, their products, and availability,  or about Milk Studios and Monster Lighting, click on the embedded links in this entry.

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If you want to seriously stabilize your Canon 5d Mark II or Nikon D90 (referred to as “hslrs,”) a tripod and/or monopod along with a fluid head are, at a  bare minimum, essentials. They are available in different configurations and at various price points.  A critical consideration is making sure the tripod/monopod and the head can support the camera and lenses that you are going to mount.  Be sure to check the load capacity of the equipment you are considering.  While tripods and monopods address relatively stationary shooting where you may primarily be interested in panning and tilting movements and you have the space to use them, they do not address dynamic shooting conditions or shooting in tight spaces.  And that’s when you need to look at the portable stabilizing solutions.

 

Just like with tripods/monopods and fluids heads, there are portable stabilizing options to fit every budget.  Personally, I did not want to wear a belt, vest or any contraption which made me look like I was in traction while trying to stabilize my hslr.  In addition to keeping the camera steady, I also wanted to keep my wallet steady.  After giving the matter serious consideration, I arbitrarily set my budget for a portable stabilizing solution at $300 maximum:  Too much over that amount and I felt that the solution would be overkill since my primary usage for both cameras is  still work.  The solution had to be easy to transport; easy to set up and break down; and just as importantly, easy to use.  The stabilizer also had to be able to support the camera body and substantial telephoto lenses.  I was aware that this last consideration might knock out some of the support products aimed at the palm sized camcorders.  My last requirement was that I had to be able to physically handle the product before purchase.  The “video virgin” in me was driving this requirement.

 

After doing a lot of research, I found two products that piqued my interest, and were readily available here in New York for purchase.  The Manfrotto Fig Rig which I found at Calumet Photographic and the BushHawk 320D camera support which I picked up the next day at Adorama.  These are two very different solutions, but two products with impressive lineage:  The Fig Rig being the brainchild of writer/director Mike Figgis in conjunction with Manfrotto, and  BushHawk offering stabilization products for many  nature and wildlife photographers.

 

The Fig Rig

 

fig-rig1What do you get when you mount a camera inside a steering wheel?  You get a Fig Rig!! I keep hearing the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” every time I think about the Fig Rig!  People may find the concept of walking around holding a “steering wheel” in front of you, strange but I have to tell you it works.  The Fig Rig offers incredible freedom of movement.  The two handed navigation if you will, results in tremendous stability and smooth shooting.  The body acts as the shock absorber and does not transfer the jarring movement to the Fig Rig.  The wheel itself can accommodate add on’s such as video lights or a microphone using the optional Fig Rig clamp.

 

The Fig Rig is made of aluminum with padded hand grips.  You attach the supplied quick release mounting assembly to the frame and plate to the camera and you are essentially ready to roll.  Also supplied are 4 cable clips which allow you to manage any wires for accessories you might attach to the frame.  You are looking at somewhere in the vicinity of 2 pounds before you add the camera.

 

The biggest drawback with the Fig Rig is the fact that it is impossible to place the camera down in a stable position when it is mounted.  I find myself removing the camera from the cross bar when it is not in use (perhaps some sort of surface brace or stand can address this.)  The other possible drawback is that you do look a bit weird walking down the street with one.  But to those worried about how they look, I say get over it!  The price of admission:  $299.

 

The BushHawk 320D

bushhawk1The other product that I found myself very excited about is the BushHawk 320D Shoulder Support System.  If you think steering wheel with the Fig Rig, think shotgun with the BushHawk!  This shoulder based stabilizing system is what is called gun mount with a trigger which with the appropriate cable release will “fire” the shutter.  Now one of my big concerns about taking this thing out and using it on the streets of New York is that someone is going shout “gun” (as Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire” does in a crowd) and wrestle me to the ground!! 

 

 

The 320D Pro Kit (one of two Canon versions and there is a Nikon version as well) I purchased included:

 The 320D double handle stabilizer with trigger and shoulder pad; Canon shutter release cord; Quick   release assembly and wrenches; Window Pod;  Strap; Release cord case; and Storage bag.

 

bushhawk2The 320D is a modular thermoplastic frame which is extremely light and strong.  An adjustable arm, which has a shoulder pad at the end slides into the main frame, and is locked into place by tightening a knob.  While BushHawk advertises the product with both hand grips in the same plane, I  loosened the front hand grip and rotated it 90 degrees (as pictured to the left,) which gave me   better balance and  greater stability while shooting video. 

 

 

 

 

One of the biggest plusses for the BushHawk 320D is that with the cable release cord attached, you can effortlessly capture stills while shooting video with the 5D MarkII via the trigger button. I also found the BushHawk worked well for normal viewfinder shooting, live view shooting or video.  If there is a negative associated with the 320D, for some people it will undoubtedly be  having the shoulder pad braced against them.  It does take a little getting use to. The price for all this at Adorama was $212.

 

Whether you go with either of these systems, or with another, the stabilizer is only part of the equation.  The other part of the success of any of these systems depends on you and your ability to hold and move with  the product of your choice.  For me, a heel toe combination seems to work best for removing variability from my stride under most circumstances when moving with either of these stabilizers.  I urge anyone buying a stabilizer to practice moving and finding their own “right” stride.  And don’t forget about picking up a light set of weights to get your shoulders and arms into shape.  You will thank me for this advice!

 

In Part 3 of this series, I will be looking at  the Bruce Dorn U Boat Commander.  I have elected to talk about this system independently because unlike the Fig Rig and the BushHawk, both of which I purchased, the U-Boat commander is on loan for evaluation purposes. Also unlike many of the available solutions, the U Boad commander was developed specifically for use with the 5D Mark II.