Many cameras, including many D-SLR models, feature a built-in pop-up flash. They’re pretty basic flashes, really. They are single-direction, fixed zoom, tiny pinpoint flashes. The results can be quite ugly. Don’t get me wrong, those tiny little flashes do their job: They will illuminate any subject of your choosing within a short distance in a relatively dark room. Your subject could have blown highlights; the background a stark contrast to the beacon of light in the foreground and wrinkles and sunken spaces will deep and dark.
A bare pop-up flash is not the way to a great photo.
The Lightscoop system was developed as a solution to the ugly built-in flash. Four years ago, we reviewed the Original Lightscoop and were impressed by its results. But there were a few areas where we felt the product could be improved. Four years later, we managed to get our hands on two new versions of the Lightscoop: Lightscoop Deluxe (for SLR cameras) and Lightscoop Jr. (for pocket cameras). Both iterations were developed with the soul of the Original Lightscoop. With the original as a basis for our evaluation, we’ll explore and tell you about both.
The Lightscoop Concept
In general, all three Lightscoop products, including the Lightscoop Deluxe and the Lightscoop Jr., serve the same purpose: To bounce the light instead of blowing it full-force into the face of your subjects. Each of the products differs slightly, but they each consist of a mirror that bounces your camera’s flash upwards towards the ceiling. From there, the light fills the space before you, illuminating your subject and everything around it. The key to soft light in flash photography is to have a big light source or to modify it in a manner that makes it appear much larger. Lightscoop essentially takes your tiny hard-light casting flash and modifies it with the ceiling, turning it into a large light source that softens your subject and the scene before you.
And you didn’t even need an off-camera flash, an umbrella, soft box or any other sort of light modifier.
An additional benefit to the Lightscoop is the elimination of red eyes in the shot. Red eye is caused when light bounces off of the inside of a persons eye and then returns to the camera to be captured. This is nearly unavoidable with on-camera flash as the flash’s position almost guarantees direct light into (and in turn bounced out of) a person’s eye. The Lightscoop bounces light off the ceiling, eliminating any direct rays into the eye, and so the red eye effect is avoided.
The Lightscoop does require you to have a relatively low ceiling for it to work. This shouldn’t be a problem for most homes and even some public facilities – such as a school. But when the ceilings are high or when the ceiling is painted a dark color, it won’t perform like you would expect. Likewise, the Lightscoop doesn’t work outdoors. It’s not designed as a replacement for off-camera flash. But it does offer an economical solution for shooters wishing to improve the quality of their on-camera flash. Furthermore, it could be a great tool for photographers who run lean with their cameras at social gatherings.
We’ve discussed the original version when we initially reviewed the Lightscoop, so we won’t dwell. Suffice to say that the Lightscoop Original features a fixed mirror. It’s durable and dependable, but when shooting in portrait, it is limited to rooms with light colored walls.
The Lightscoop Deluxe is a step up from the original design. Like the original, the Deluxe is designed for use with SLR style cameras with pop-up flashes. It is more compact: Folding down to a relatively thin wafer and is much smaller when mounted on your camera. Unlike the original, the Lightscoop Deluxe also swivels from it’s mounting arm in front of your flash. This is a nice feature over its predecessor because it allows you to bounce light off the ceiling from the portrait shooting position as well, from either side. Finally, the mirror can be swapped with different mirrors that are tinted to warm your photos, or for a splash of color using colored mirrors (sold separately and not tested as part of this review).
The Lightscoop Jr. is designed for compact cameras. Many compact cameras have a fixed flash on the front face of your camera that is ever present even when not in use. Other compact cameras have pop-up flashes on the edge. But rarely do they have a hot shoe for mounting the Lightscoop Original and Lightscoop Deluxe (not to mention they’d look goofy on such a camera). The Jr. comes with a little mount bracket that can be affixed to your camera with a bit of adhesive tape (several pieces are included). In use, the Lightscoop Jr. is a small mirror that sits in front of your camera’s flash. Otherwise, it works very similarly to its big brothers. The Lightscoop Jr. comes with extra adhesive squares and small key-ring carrying case.
Included in your kit are some basic instructions on how to get started with the Lightscoop. Generally speaking, it will advise proper room selection (bounce off of walls 3-4′ from the camera or ceilings 8-12′ high). You are also advised to use spot metering and increase the ISO to 800 or higher. In the tips, you are advised to tweak the exposure compensation to +1 for an extra boost.
The Lightscoop system is designed to soften the light. And it does that very well. Bouncing light off the ceiling is a trick even a professional would do with an after-market flash – off camera or in the hot shoe. The Lightscoop does the same except with your on-camera flash. And so the light fills the room, wrapping your subjects in soft light. This is an ideal case for an event, gathering or otherwise because the light is predictably and dependably consistent across the scene. From an artistic perspective, however, soft light isn’t the only possible goal as we should be considering direction, balanced or intentionally unbalanced light (across the scene and between subjects), highlights and color. With that in mind, the Lightscoop is a bit too dependable, delivering results that are too consistent and lacking in drama. Though I acknowledge the Lightscoop was not designed for drama, this is still a factor when considering the quality of the light vs. what is possible in the world of photography.
To really test out the Lightscoop, I recruited my children who are never afraid to get in front of the lens. And we set up in my poorly lit living room. Without the Lightscoop, harsh shadows and poor room illumination is readily apparent. As you can see in my first picture of my daughter, she casts a rather dramatic shadow onto the wall several feet behind her. Further, the room is not much of a setting with such poor lighting. The Lightscoop fixes all that by filling in the shadows, decreasing the contrast between the subject and the background and generally softens all of the shadows.
In practice, the results are pretty good. The use of any Lightscoop demonstrates that your flash is likely more powerful than you would expect. Of course bouncing the light make the light within the room far more uniform and much easier for your camera to handle. Your photos will appear more uniformly lit. The dark spots will be filled and the bright spots will fade to reduce overall contrast and permit some of the detail in those extreme areas to become relevant again. Bottom line, your photos will look better.
If you’re working with an SLR, I would advise bypassing the Original Lightscoop in favor of the Lightscoop Deluxe. Nevermind the fact that it folds to a more compact – more pocket-friendly – size, or the fact that you can change the mirrors. The advantage that the Lightscoop Deluxe has over the Original is that the mirror can tilt from side to side. So when you up-end your camera into the portrait position, you can choose to bounce off the ceiling if you wish. Likewise, you can choose to rotate the Lightscoop Deluxe in landscape format to bounce off of a nearby wall, opening up the possibility of more dramatic (though still soft) side lighting. It’s a simple feature difference, but an important one.
As for effectiveness of the Lightscoop Jr., well it depends on your camera. I think the design approach is a good one, as the Jr. can easily be adapted and set up to accommodate a wide array of pocket cameras. If you have a camera where you have enough control over the ISO and aperture settings and the flash is powerful enough that the ceiling doesn’t eat all of your light, it will work fairly well. But if you only have a basic point-and-shoot camera, you may find the results aren’t impressive. I first tried the Lightscoop Jr. out with my son’s camera – a pretty basic Kodak point-and-shoot – and so I don’t have control over the ISO or the aperture, let alone the flash. So I wasn’t able to get any photos that turned out well. Sadly, a quick survey of the current market reveals that there are a great number of cameras with similar lack of control and an under-spec’d flash. Lightscoop Jr. was not designed for such cameras, and so such users won’t be able to take advantage of the Lightscoop Jr.
There are a good number of more advanced pocket cameras on the market that can take advantage of the Lightscoop Jr. In fact, there are a number of them listed on Lightscoop’s website, like the Nikon P7100, the Canon G12, the Fujifilm X10 or the Pentax Q series, or their successors. I don’t own such a camera, so as a simple proof of concept, I was only able to briefly experiment for a few minutes with the Lightscoop Jr. on a Nikon P7700 and a Fujifilm XF1 (both borrowed). Though I don’t know either camera very well, I am pretty confident that I would be able to get results not unlike that of the Deluxe.
Where I get hung up is the fastening method. There really is no better solution than a double-sided tape, at least not without defacing your camera. But the temporary feel of the tape is the problem: It’s really easy to knock it unintentionally while in use or if you forget to take the mirror off when popping into your pocket. The mirror portion is built very well, so the stem is not likely to break. But the tape is another issue: When you do knock it off, you can’t really reuse the tape much before it loses all adhesion. Except that it seems to stick the Jr’s mount very well, making it frustratingly tedious to remove it so you can replace with a new piece. I gotta give Lightscoop credit for trying. With so many different form factors in the point-and-shoot sector, there really is no all-encompassing perfect solution. Maybe that’s why the owner of the XF1 had their own DIY solution in the form of a ND gel he carried in his wallet.
Across the board, the Lightscoop is not a replacement for a good after-market flash. Nor should it be. The system is really a bit of a one-trick pony because you must have a ceiling or wall in play for the system to work at all. And while the same is true for bouncing the light from an off-camera flash, the off-camera solution at least offers you other options through the use of diffusers or more directional light as you need it. But I don’t want to get carried away making that comparison. The Lightscoop Deluxe is a more economical solution at $37 USD, as compared to $200 for a reasonable bare-bones off-camera flash (and that’s not including essential accessories like light stands or light modifiers). And the results are a significant improvement over the built-in flash alone. So at the very least, the Lightscoop may be a solution for the up-and-coming photographer on a tight budget. You won’t have the ability to create dramatic hard shadows or edgier directional light. But when you need to wrap the light over and around everything in the room, the Lightscoop specializes in that. In a social gathering, the Lightscoop is also much more compact and somewhat less obtrusive, so it may be more comfortable for the guests as well.
Thinking outside the box, the Lightscoop system would be a great solution for off-camera shooters, at least in terms of keeping your subjects comfortable. Many off-camera flash photographers use optical slaves to trigger their flashes and they use their on-camera flash to trigger them. But if your subject is a living being, the synchronization flash can still be quite startling to the subject. Your optical slaves only need to see the light, so there shouldn’t be a problem bouncing it off the ceiling or wall. Something like the Lightscoop would go a long way to keep your subject comfortable.
Bottom line; the Lightscoop is a cool little gadget that solves a real problem. It’s not a complete solution, but an economical one; filling a significant gap between the on-camera flash and the setup for an off-camera flash. It could also be a side-arm tool for photographers to leave behind their bulkier flashes for social gatherings or the like.
Things we liked:
- Economical light modifying solution that uses the camera’s built-in-flash.
- Durable design and manufacturing.
- Tilting reflector (Lightscoop Deluxe only) gives you control of the direction of light.
- The results are significantly better than using the bare built-in flash.
Things we didn’t like:
- Indoor use only: A low ceiling or light-colored wall must be in play or the system doesn’t work.
- Results are dependable to a fault – bounced light will fill the scene, stripping you of control of the light levels across the scene.
- Lightscoop Jr. specific concerns:
- Fastening solution – a sticky double-sided tape – is not desirable (albeit, it is likely the only universal solution)
- Under-powered flashes or over-simplistic cameras may not be able to take advantage (this was not a factor in our scoring).
[Editors note: We gave the Lightscoop Deluxe 3/5 stars for light quality while the Lightscoop Jr. earned 2.5/5 stars for light quality. Some may feel that is low, but consider that the pinnacle of great quality artificial lighting truly does require an off-camera solution with an array of modifiers. Of course with that in mind, many might feel we rated the light quality too high for either product. To that I must reiterate just how awful in-line, unmodified on-camera flash is. So we feel that the Lightscoop system gets you about half-way to where you’d like to be. Considering how difficult (and how costly) it is to get beyond that, and I’m sure you will find our ratings to be quite fair.]