Godox Witstro AR400 ring flash review

The Godox Witstro AR400 is a portable battery flash designed to provide the full ringflash look. Is it any good?

Once you have gotten more familiar with lighting set-ups, there is a big chance you already have looked into ringflashes. These flashes are especially popular for fashion photography and are used for a number of different effects depending on if they are used as main or fill light. When used as main light the effect is bold, but it is subtle as fill. However, ringflashes are best known for the unique catchlight they create in the eyes of your model. The ring-shaped catchlight draws the attention of the viewer towards the eyes, which is something portrait photographers are trying to do, irrespective of the type of lighting they are using.

I understand that not everyone knows what a ringflash is, so here is a very brief explanation. It might sound very basic, but a ringflash is a flash shaped in a circle or a ring. The center is hollow and therefore it is possible to stick your lens through it. Since now the flash tube is located completely around the lens the result is that you have 100% on axis light. With this pure on axis light it is possible to take pictures without any shadows.

Before the introduction of the Godox Witstro AR400, the ringflash I will be reviewing, there were basically two different options when you wanted to have the ringflash effect. The first one was to use a speedlite with a ringflash modifier, such as an Orbis, Rayflash or Roundflash. Although this option is affordable for most photographers, it is far from ideal. Ringflash modifiers are very inefficient and speedlites are known to be not the most powerful flashes. The other option was to invest in a dedicated ringflash, just like the ones the professional photographers are using. These ringflashes are rather bulky and expensive, certainly not ideal for  photographers that like to work on location. Basically there was a trade-off between power against convenience.

However, one year ago Godox introduced a third option for photographers. One that uses an internal battery pack and has plenty of power. This third option is the Godox Witstro AR400. It was meant to bridge the gap between the ringflash modifiers for speedlites and the heavy ringflashes. The AR400 is a light(er) dedicated ringflash with integrated lithium-ion battery.

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The first time Godox showed the Witstro AR400 to the public was at the Photokina 2014 and at that point I knew I had to get my hands on one. During my time as photographer I have tried many different ringflashes but none of them felt right. It seemed that this flash was the first ringflash to get it right. Even more interesting, the AR400 fits well together with the existing AD360, AD180 and Ving V850/V860 flashes. A combination of the AD360 as main light, the AR400 as on axis fill and the V850 as hairlight seems perfect.

Specifications

Godox Witstro AR-400 specs

First impressions and build quality

After opening the flash you’ll quickly notice¬†that the AR400 is indeed a member of the Witstro family. Although the shape of the AR400 is very different to the barebulb flash, it still resembles the AD360 strongly. For instance, the LCD display and the button lay-out around it matches the one used for the other Witstro flashes.

In my review of the Witstro AD360 you can read that I was rather impressed by how well it was built. I am happy to say that Godox again does not disappoint with the AR400. It feels equally well built, giving the impression that this flash is able to withstand the abuse that professional photographer give their equipment. All the different plastic parts fit well together, i.e. it is just well built.

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On the exterior of the flash are two ways trigger it. We find a USB port, into which the FT-16 radio receiver can be plugged, and a 3.5mm sync port. Unlike the AD360, no battery pack connection can be found on the AR400 since the battery is integrated in the unit.

To mount your camera, a metal bracket is used, which can be adapted so that it fits almost all different type of cameras on the market, ranging from mirrorless to full-sized professional DSLR bodies. What is convenient about the bracket is that it can be folded when not in use, making it easier to bring to on-location shoots.

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Instead of an AF-assist light the AR400 has a number of LEDs that are located behind the flashtube. These LEDs can be activated and used as makeshift video light. The power of these LEDs can be regulated in three steps and is done by turning LEDs on and off. For example, when using the continous light at the lowest power setting  it means that only 1/3 of the total LEDs are turned on.

Besides the flash, the battery and the charger a plastic diffuser is included as well. This plastic diffuser for the AR400 has a similar functionality as the Stofen diffusor has to a speedlite. Unfortunately this plastic diffusor is mediocre at best. It fits poorly and is a nuisance to remove. Hopefully with later batches of the AR400 this has been improved, because it is not something that I would have expected of Godox.

Interface

I can be very brief about the interface that the flash uses, since it is identical to the other flashes in the Godox Witstro series. When compared to the AD180/AD360 the position of the buttons have slightly moved, but kept the same functionality. The LCD which I loved on the AD360 remained the same, just like the menu structure.

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For people that have not read my review of the AD360 I will give try to give a brief summary. The interface of the AR400 is intuitive and easy to use. In the menu you can find four settings, M, S1, S2 and RPT. M stands for manual, the regular mode while two other modes enable the flash to be triggered by another flash (with different timings). The fourth one actives the stroboscopic mode, to fire a series of flashes. Pressing the MODE and SET button at the same time turns the flash into the high speed sync mode, but due to longer flash duration at higher powers this can only be done at 1/32 or higher. Note that to be able to use HSS you need a compatible HSS trigger.

Mounting your camera

As I mentioned previously your camera can be attached to the ringflash using a metal bracket. It is possible to adapt the bracket to the dimensions of the camera in such a way that the bracket fits most cameras, ranging from full-sized DSLR cameras to smallish mirrorless cameras. Personally I have used both the Nikon D800 with grip and the Fuji X-E2 with the AR400 with great success.

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The bracket feels sturdy, even when a heavy camera is mounted on it. The combination of Nikon D800, Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art and AR400 weighs a lot, but it feels solid. I am not sure if I would recommend you to carry this combination all day long without having some serious arm muscles, but it is possible (short a short while) to carry it.

Since the lens has to fit through the hole in the ringflash you are limited in size of lens you can use. Most lenses with a 77 mm filter thread fit well, some are a bit tight, but I seriously doubt it that lenses with 82mm thread will fit.

Off-camera mounting

What is unique about the AR400 when compared to other ringflashes is that it is more than just a ringflash. Godox has included a second bracket which can be used as umbrella mount. This means that the ringflash can be used as a off camera as well in combination with an umbrella or any umbrella styled softbox. It works for instance particularly well with my Westcott Apollo softbox.

In the image underneath you can see how an umbrella is mounted on the AR400. It is even possible to use the existing camera bracket as swivel for the umbrella, but I personally favor to use a dedicated umbrella swivel due to the extra stability it gives.

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Usage

For most photographers it will be a weird experience to use a ringflash for the first time. The combination of the AR400 with a professional DSLR results in quite unwieldy package, not something which is ergonomic to handle. It also requires some time before you completely understand how ringflash light should be used, similar to which is the case when you buy a new light modifier. But once you get the hang of it you will be happy that you did.

There is something about ringflashes. The light they give is special. When used as main light the effect is unique, but it is very harsh and will reveal every imperfection in the skin of your model. It is fun to try this look, but I have to admit that after a few times the effect gets a bit boring. I have much more success using the ringflash as fill in combination with a main light. With the main light I give the direction of the shadows but fill in the shadows with the ringflash to retain the details. The images underneath show some examples how I have used the AR400.

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Something which is worth mentioning about on-axis light is that it causes the pupils to appear red, also known as the red-eye effect. This happens when the ambient light is low and the light is on-axis. It can be prevented by either moving the light more off-axis, which is not possible because it is a ringflash or by increasing the ambient light. Increasing the ambient light and thus reducing the width of the pupils of the subject can be done by activating the integrated LEDs inside the ringflash. It also works very well as AF assist light.

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Even when I was using the continuous light during my shoots I had no problems with the battery life. The battery is rated at 450 full power flashes. Using the LEDs might decrease this number slightly, but for me it is still sufficient for a full day photoshoot.

As indicated in the introduction I have used several other ringflashes, but most of them have found a new owner or are collecting dust in a shelf. With the AR400 Godox managed to resolve most of the issues that I had with the other ringflashes, which were mainly about power and portability. Even though the weight of the AR400 is quite heavy I enjoy using it. It has received a place in my standard go-to kit because since it is very versatile. It works not only well as a ringflash, but also as off camera flash with an umbrella type softbox.

During my shoots I used the AR400 together with with the Godox Witstro AD360 and the Ving V850. The combination of these three together flashes make a great on location kit, since they are small, powerful and battery powered. The¬†AD360 is perfect as a main light, the AR400 as on axis fill and the V850 as rim. I really like using this combination, in a certain way it is my ‘dream-team’ for flashes.

The performance of the AR400 is very similar to the AD360. There are some slight differences when compared to the barebulb flash, such as better recycle time and 33% more power, but nothing significant. Due to the longer and differently shaped flashtube there is a slight difference in flash duration and colour temperture between the AR400 and the AD360, but nothing significant that I noticed while testing.

Conclusion

It has been a while since I received the ringflash and initially I was afraid that the AR400 would become a one trick pony. You have to like the look of ringflash photography and even then the effect when used as main light can grow old rather quickly. However when used as fill the effect is subtle but very effective. It gives the eyes a pop so to speak due to the catchlights of ringflash.

You can think of the AR400 as a multi-function flash. It is a good normal flash that can be used as a ringflash as well, or alternatively, you could say it is a great ringflash that can be used as a normal flash as well. Obviously it is bigger than other ‘normal’ flashes such as the AD-360 due to the odd shape, but it is still small enough to be packed together with the rest of your equipment.

Personally I think that the Godox Witstro AR400 is currently one of the better ringflashes on the market, if not the best. Obviously the Godox cannot be compared to ringflashes from Profoto or Broncolor, which are much more expensive, but what I rather like in practice is that the Godox is self-contained with integrated battery. No cables, no battery packs, no fuss is what is great. I do not have assistants that carry my gear and in that case less mess is better.

The only bad thing I have to say about the Godox Witstro AR400 is that the diffusor which is included in the kit is rather fiddly. It is annoying to detach and even after months of use I am still not sure what is the easiest way to remove it from the ringflash. This should be improved. Another feature that I would like to see for the AR400 is a reflector. Other high-end ringflashes other have a (optional) reflector that increases the size of the ringlight. Think of it as a softbox for a ringflash. One advantage of this reflector is that it makes the light a bit softer but the other is that it increases the size of the catchlights.

If you are considering to buy a ringflash then I can certainly you advise you to buy the Godox Witstro AR400. It is affordable for most photographers since it is priced at $500. At the moment there isn’t anything like it really. All alternatives are more expensive or are speedlite modifiers. Summarized: Godox has repacked the AD360 in a ringflash shape and improved it even further!

The Godox Witstro AR400 is now available on eBay and from other sellers. The official Godox distributor in the USA is Blink Photographic, who currently list the AR400 for $449.