One year ending and a new one beginning has always seemed like a perfect time to examine the equipment we use for photography—as well as the way we use it. So many of us become comfortable with a particular camera, a favorite lens, a safe lighting setup, or even the type of lights we use.
A few weeks ago I used some unique tools on a project that required a completely different way of thinking and working. By the time I was finished, I was so happy with what I could accomplish with the gear that I decided that it will likely become a regular part of my shooting throughout the new year. What are the tools?
First, a little history.
Each year for the last twelve I’ve made a photograph of my son to send out to my friends and a handful of clients as a holiday card. I’ve often tried to make it seasonal, but I’ve also used the annual picture as an opportunity to try out some different gear, an alternative technique, or a new way of thinking while trying to make a lasting image.
My son was born in late 2002 and I decided back then that the best way to announce his arrival was to make a portrait of him. He was just weeks old, so knowing I’d have a squirming infant on my hands, a simple soft box setup seemed like the way to go for the very first one. I went with a macro lens and a medium Chimera box as the only light source to illuminate his newly minted skin and curious eyes.
A few years later when he was old enough to actually pose, I used a Profoto ring light in combination with a soft box to produce nearly shadowless light and a perfect donut-shaped catchlight in his eye. I’ve always loved the look of a ring light—both as a primary source and particularly as a fill source—and the efficiency of the ring light is perfect for shooting several frames in rapid succession.
Around the time he turned six, I was working on a 3D project for a client that involved shooting with two perfectly aligned DSLRs using Really Right Stuff camera support, matched lenses to capture the precise framing necessary for 3D, and lagged camera timing and strobes using a total of six PocketWizard radios. The six radio units insured that both shutters opened at the same time and that all of the strobes fired at the exact moment the shutters were completely open. So, when it came time to shoot the annual holiday portrait, I used the opportunity to make what turned out to be one of the most dimensional examples of 3D I’d ever captured. The camera alignment, the light, the spatial pose, and the prop all came together to make a very effective 3D image. (If you happen to own a pair of anaglyph viewing glasses—the kind that are red and blue—have a look at the image through the glasses and move your head from side-to-side to see the glass ball appear to shift position in 3D.)
Two years ago I used a speed light inside the Honl Photo Traveller Soft Box to make a “run and gun” simple one light holiday portrait outdoors at night. I wanted to use a lot of the environmental lighting that existed at the location, so the Traveller was perfect for a quick setup that would deliver beautiful light to supplement the existing lighting. The Traveller is the kind of soft box that folds flat for transport, but once opened it affixes to a speed light with ease and it allows you to go from camera bag to completely ready to shoot in under a minute. The small size makes it very efficient, but in order to get a soft-quality of light, it needs to be placed close to the subject. While a tripod kept the camera completely motionless, the soft box and speed light remained on a separate stand so that the light could be angled from any position. By using a PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5, I was able to trigger the flash wirelessly and the radios gave me the option of making the capture either manually or using TTL.
“For the first time in a long time, it didn’t flash.”
When the time came for the portrait this year, I chose lighting that gave me more control than I’ve ever had before. And for the first time in a long time, it didn’t flash.
Continuous light has always been alluring, but using it in the past has usually meant one of two things: Either needing to push the ISO to levels that would produce so much grain or noise that the image would be destroyed, or having to bring along enough lighting power to be able to use a lower ISO speed. This would often mean traveling with cumbersome HMI lights, Kino Flo fluorescents, or hot fresnel lights. Each produces beautiful light in it’s own way, but none of them travel well at all. Fresnel lights in particular produce the type of beautiful portrait lighting made famous by George Hurrell, Yousuf Karsh, William Mortensen, Bud Fraker and Robert Coburn. In the past, using fresnel lights at a useful size was typically restricted to studio use.
In the past few years, LED lights have emerged as a viable option for still photography. Respected manufacturers including Arri, Mole-Richardson, Dedolight, Litepanels and others have worked to create lighting fixtures that are both focusable and dimmable while maintaining a color rendition index (CRI) high enough to deliver light as beautiful as any strobe. What makes LED lights so amazing is they barely draw any power, they produce very little heat, and their light output is extremely high for their size. Additionally, they are generally dimmable without any shift in color. And remarkably, some can even vary the color of the light continuously from 10000 degrees daylight to 2800 degrees tungsten and also adjust the plus/minusgreen correction. This means that you can balance the color of the light for everything from deep outdoor shade, to indoor incandescent lightbulbs to banks of office building fluorescent tubes all with the same light—and it’s focusable, dimmable, and DMX-capable (DMX allows you to control the lights from a centralized lighting console) if you need that sort of thing. Of course there’s a downside and that’s the price. For example, the Arri L7-C head with all of the above features runs about $2800 per light.
If you prefer a more powerful light but with fewer features, the Mole-Richardson LED focusing fresnel lights are priced between $1100 and $2600 depending on the wattage, but you won’t get the ability to change the color the way you can with the Arri. The Moles produce a lot of light for their size and they also come with more than 80 years of lighting history behind them.
Litepanels are 1×1-foot LED panels that deliver nice light in usable volume, but they are difficult to modify because of their design. They are terrific when used as an unmodified source for a video interview, but they are not powerful enough to place inside a large soft box and they can’t be focused with the accuracy of the fresnel-style lights.
At the smaller end of the scale are Dedolights. These little lights have been around in the movie industry for more than 20 years, but with the introduction of their LED lights, they have created something truly useful for the still photographer. Each light is focusable, dimmable, and some models can even change color temperature—although, you’ll pay a large penalty in output for the luxury of changing color. What makes the Dedolights amazing is their zoom range of 1:20. The units use a double aspherical lens system that’s not quite a Leko-type spot, but not quite a fresnel either. The light is very controllable using a combination of the zoom ring, barn doors, graduated filters, and the optional Imager attachment that allows the projection of gobo patterns. The Dedolight is a light for small areas and finesse, while the Mole LED units or the Arri L-7 are powerful enough to be used for a broader area or in combination with diffusion such as a soft box.
For this year’s picture I used three Dedolight LEDs and a Mole-Richardson Tweenie fresnel LED. The main light was simply the Dedolight focused into a very tight beam and then further controlled with barn doors so that the light only hit his face. The second Dedo was also tightly focused to provide some very subtle fill light on to the tree in the background so that it would’t read as a silhouette. The last Dedo was fitted with the DP1 Imager and a blue gel to project a very tight oval pattern behind the tree. Finally, a Mole-Richardson Tweenie LED was attached to a 3′ Chimera OctaPlus for some very subtle fill light.
To develop a versatile LED lighting kit, you’ll likely need both the larger and more powerful sources like the Arri or Mole-Richardson units as well as the smaller finesse-type sources such as the Dedolight. How many of each is a personal choice and will depend upon the types of images you wish to make and the size of your wallet.
Once you make the jump to LED, you’ll likely find yourself shooting at a much higher ISO than you might with strobe and as a result you may be packing a tripod more frequently. But, the control you gain and results you achieve will truly change your approach to lighting.