The Photek Softlighter II – Dream lighting for photographing people with flash

I have a new secret weapon. Using this thing is almost like cheating. I found out about the Photek Softlighter II from David Hobby’s Strobist.com blog, and after seeing a video of Annie Leibovitz using a single Photek to light a shoot with Keith Richards (it is an old video from 2009 but still available for viewing), I decided it was time to investigate.

“If you photograph people, Photek’s Softlighter II is the best single purpose portrait light source there is. And that’s guaranteed! Just ask anyone who has one.”

Well, I do have one now, but that’s a bold statement printed on the front of the included documentation. I haven’t even been lucky enough to use Profoto studio lighting equipment but I would have assumed that they would be the best portrait lights. They’re expensive enough. Right?

I have been shooting with off camera flash and umbrellas for a short period of time and this has drastically changed my approach to photography. Understanding how to apply flash light to a scene has even helped me to understand how light behaves whether it be natural or artificial. Umbrellas were giving me the ability to use flash light and have it actually look good. Gone were the hard shadows, harsh reflections and red eye that I had previously associated with all flash lighting. The Photek takes the quality of light that I get to another level. It is soft, even and very flattering when directed on a person.

Now I’m not about to categorically recommend this product to every photographer out there. To effectively use the Photek you will need a relatively powerful flash, a Nikon SB-900 in my case. You will also need some sort of lightstand and once a lightstand becomes a part of your regular kit things can start to get a bit… inconvenient.

But lets assume you’re willing to lug all this stuff around. Willing to partake in the 2 minute setup time just to get a shot, the overall conspicuousness of the whole setup and occasional taunt from a friend or stranger about the overall conspicousness of the whole setup. Your reward is this:

X-Pro1 with Zeiss 2/50 Planar ZM. Nikon SB-900 with Photek Softlighter II.

Beautiful, soft light. Whenever you want it and available in a couple of minutes. Freedom from the random variability of the sun. Say goodbye to high ISO noise too, because ISO200 will become your staple. The ability to control position and intensity of light allows me to get the most out of my X-Pro1, which produces incredible low ISO files. With careful preparation and a little experimentation I can take photographs in locations that would previously have been deemed impossible. I can choose locations not because they offer good light, but because they are simply interesting. Whether or not they are well lit becomes irrelevant.

X-Pro1 with Zeiss 2/50 Planar ZM. Nikon SB-900 with Photek Softlighter II.

This photo of Tim was taken in almost complete darkness. Why miss out on a great location just because it lacks available light?

I think it’s safe to say that this will be my go to light modifier for the foreseeable future. I love what it does for my photos and willingly suffer the inconvenience just to know that it is on hand to deliver quality light when needed.

The best single purpose portrait light source there is?

It just might be.

Images taken with a Fujifilm X-Pro1 and Carl Zeiss 2/50 Planar ZM, Nikon SB-900 with a 46″ Photek Softlighter II.

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6 comments

  1. More wicked lighting! I need to shoot flash more often.

    1. Haha. Watch out though, it can be highly addictive!

  2. That photo of Tim is AMAZING! The feel, the tone, the light. A hellova portrait!

    1. Thanks Jonas!

  3. I have a question about the softlighter … I am on the fence about buying one.
    My gear is a D7000 and SB-910 . I understand that you either use a wireless trigger and so no TTL, you have to set the flash on manual. My question is .. is the 910 enough ti fill a 60″ softlighter, or should I get the smaller one, 46″ ? How is the fit of the 900 in the ‘sock’ of the softlighter ?

    1. Hey Roberto, thanks for writing. I actually had the exact same question when making the purchase myself. I ended up getting the 46″ because it comes with the reflector discs that are not included with the 60″. I haven’t tried the 60″ but the SB910 would probably fill if you used a dome diffuser on the flash but you would lose another stop of light output. The 46″ is a good size for general use though.
      Regarding fit, I actually place the whole flash into the unit and just reach in through the sock to make adjustments.

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