A Talk With James Madelin: Creator of the Orbis


The ring flash effect in photography has recently been gaining more and more popularity. Many amateur photographers have been trying to create their own homebrew versions, with varying degrees of success. James Madelin, the creator of the Orbis, started doing this years ago until he created a product now widely used in commercial photography. BHInsights decided to do a quick interview with him on how he created the product, and what influenced him.

Chris: Tell us what exactly gave you the idea to create the Orbis and what you typically shot before.

James: I was actually working as a newspaper and magazine photographer first and foremost, and I was also doing some commercial freelance work. All the newspaper, magazine and commercial work involved shooting a lot of portraits–often five to eight portraits a day. That came along with the challenges associated with being in horrible locations, with the lighting all wrong. And sometimes you really wanted to do something completely different, to stand out from all of the other freelance photographers.

I started experimenting more and more with lighting. It was right around the time that David Hobby started up the Strobist blog. I hadn't ever formally studied photography, and I really wanted to learn all about photographic lighting–what I now call the ‘final frontier’. There's a journey when you decide to become a photographer that encompasses holding the camera, understanding shutter speed, aperture, and depth of field, and these things get increasingly complex. But the final frontier for almost every photographer is lighting.

Some people are natural light photographers. Don't get me wrong, but most people that say, "I'm a natural-light photographer"–and I used to do this myself–they really mean, "I'm a natural-light photographer, and I have to use the light that comes through the window because if there isn't any, I have no idea what to do”. That was me, and I realized that I really wanted to master lighting. David Hobby started putting great theory and tutorials out there, and because I was working as a photographer, I had this fantastic opportunity where I'd go home at night and study his Photography 101, and the next day I'd go in and work on the assignment. I got quite good at lighting. 

During that time, I was also expanding my equipment, and the one thing that really eluded me during my journey was ring flash. I call it ‘the million dollar ring flash look’; you see it in the high-end magazines, billboards—the kind of thing that unless you've got endless money, you're never going to get that look.

I built my own modular ring flash, and it was a complete failure. For some reason, I went back to it a few months later, and after a few months of working on it, I ended up with one that worked quite well. I can remember exactly where I pressed the shutter, looked at the back of the camera, and had the mother of all "wow" moments.

Chris: Do you remember exactly what you did in terms of improving on your first prototype to really get that look?

James: No light came out the front of the first prototype—

Chris: What did it look like, exactly?

James: It was a lot of cardboard, polished styrene—and, yeah--it was a complete mess. The big problem that I came across was, sure it took cool photos, but it didn't have a professional look when you've got something made of duct tape and tin foil. I really wanted this lighting tool, but it didn't exist. And that’s when the light went on over my head and I thought, "I really want one of these. And if I do, probably other people do, too."

And that's what really set the ball rolling.

Chris:  How many prototypes did you go through?

James: The honest answer is that I've completely forgotten. There's an old adage that says that any commercial project, be it software or hardware, will take you at least twice as long--and cost you at least twice as much--as you think. I realized that, firstly, the Orbis had to look and feel like a professional-grade piece of photography equipment, and additionally, it had to work significantly better than anything you could build in your shed. 

First of all, I set out looking for the money for all this because developing, from an idea, a product that is fully marketable, and that people would really love owning and using, takes years and costs a huge amount of money. There are lots of different options in the entrepreneurial world. Once I sorted that out, I contracted product designers to get working on the industrial design. I also worked with a team of optical engineers who–through virtual prototyping and testing–were able to come up with the light tunnel technology that we've got inside the Orbis, that distributes the light so evenly. It's a long process, because your industrial designer will produce a design, and there is only so much you can do before you need to spend several thousand dollars and have that prototyped. Almost immediately when you hold it in your hands you'll probably go, "Oh, that doesn't work. We need to change that."

Then you'll redesign it and re-prototype it, and that goes on and on. You realize, of course, that there is only so much you can do when you're holding it and testing it. You can only test it when you've got one of those prototypes and I'd say probably more than 20 of those prototypes were gone through. Somewhere in storage I've got heaps of them stacked up.

Sometimes you look back and say, "What was I thinking? That was never going to work." Even down to little things like how you hold it, and people saying, "I think it should have a lip here and this part here should have some raised grip surface. And what about when you're not using it, what if you want to put it on your shoulder? How and where are the shoulder strap lugs going to go?" So it's a really involved process that led to the final product. But it's an amazingly exacting process and the more you show it off the more people get excited about it.

Chris: Did you ever think that maybe photographers would be using your product for lighting purposes other than achieving the ring flash look? For example, as an off-camera softbox of some sort?

James: That's one of the things that I think the Orbis gave back to me. For several years, I was putting in loads of resources and not earning any money. As part of the process, I became very focused on making the product as good as it can be. When I launched it, it was all about the ring flash. It was only as I started playing with the finished product and started messing around and having fun, did I say exactly as you just said, "It works really well as a micro-softbox."

I tell people at trade shows that the Orbis is unique in that it really shapes the light. It's not just spreading the beam, but exactly as you pointed out; it moves you from a small light source.

But the answer is no. When I was working on it, I was really just thinking ring flash, and it was one of those things I just stumbled upon.

Chris: I know you keep mentioning David Hobby, but was there a specific photographer's work that inspired you?

James: I'm trying to think, you put me on the spot now. Hobby was one of my inspirations for pushing my lighting knowledge. I bought Joe McNally's book. As much as the lighting is in there, he also talks about framing. But they weren't direct inspirations. Dave Hill though, he uses a lot of ring flash, and he uses it in quite a subtle way. He's one of those guys that do that million dollar ring flash look; he does some huge celebrity portraits and billboards, and that kind of thing. But he was a huge inspiration at the time because people were getting excited about the Dave Hill post-processing look, and one of the fundamental tools he used--and I think still uses--was ring flash.

People respond very well to the fact that the Orbis is so easy to use. You know if you're using a brolley or a softbox, 9 times out of 10 there is a lot you have to think about because the TTL won't always work since it's often five to ten feet away from the camera. There's actually quite a bit of knowledge involved, but the Orbis works with TTL.

I thought, not only can I give that ring flash look at an affordable price point, but I can also offer TTL. You just hold it up, that's all you need to do.

A lot of nameless photographers also inspired me. I’d open up magazines and see these beauty cosmetic portraits where I’d see the ring in the eye, without always knowing who shot them.

Chris: I mentioned to you previously that at New York Comic Con, I was using the Orbis, and at one point I actually dropped it and panicked a bit, hoping that the review unit was still in good shape. Amazingly, it was, and it continued to work very well. What kind of punishment was the Orbis designed to take?

James: I have to preface this with a big "Do not try this at home".  At the point when we were basically ready to launch the Orbis, one of the first things that happened was we got a box of them from the factory, and them saying, "We need you to try and destroy these. We've drop tested them, and now we need you to."

Those were the first 12 Orbises that came out of the factory, and so I did drop testing from different heights and every single different angle. I've been an amateur photographer since 13 years old, so I know that even when you're being careful, stuff happens to you. So I needed to know that it could handle a photographer's life style. And as you discovered, yeah, they do.

Some of the components physically lock together, and some of the other components have ultrasonic welding to ensure that they keep on working.

Chris: So how did you ensure that the Orbis retained the durability it has, and was able to give off the light it currently does, as opposed to all of the home made versions that keep popping up?

James: That involved virtually building/prototyping a flash gun and then building all sorts of different prototypes in a computer program that you then fire the light sources at to work out how and where the light travels. And then it was just a matter of prototyping and testing. I was using the prototypes as they were intended to be used, finding issues that needed to be resolved. I’d go back to the optical engineers, and then back to prototyping.

Chris: With that in mind, do you feel that the Orbis is perfect right now, or do you feel that there may be improvements made in a later version.

James: I am an absolute perfectionist; there is always room for improvement with absolutely everything. The cool thing about the Orbis is that in the back of my mind there are always things floating around but what I'm really excited about with the Orbis is having had it on sale right now in the US and how well it is being accepted. I'm very focused on the current product because of this, and the Frio that we're about to release. But in terms of things that can be done, I'm always reviewing ideas and things.

Chris: What does the feedback from photographers usually sound like about the Orbis?

James: Every now and then, I'll field inquiries from people. Often I'll get back to them saying their request is valid, but not many people out there are asking for it. I can't tell you right now what we're working on, but there are a couple of innovations that I'm looking to release the first half of 2011 that will hugely expand the capability of the Orbis.