The constant lure of continuous lights.

This is a scan from a print.  Sarah is a painter.  She has a wonderful face.

Since the very early days of my photography I've been drawn to continuous light.  There's something wonderful about seeing very clearly exactly what the camera will end up recording.  And it worked really well in the days of black and white film.  I abandoned hot lights during the infancy of digital because the weaker blue channel in most cameras (pre-2005) caused a high degree of noise when confronted with light that was strong in red and yellow but deficient in the blue spectrum.

After working for a number of years with studio flash and portable flashes I started to push back toward my earlier techniques.  By 2008 digital cameras were so good that they handled incandescent light with relative ease.  But until recently I had a very hard time making good black and white files.  Now, with the combination of PhotoShop CS5 and a new infusion of constant light sources I've started to venture into work made specifically to be shown as black and white.  And I've come to realize that I make important decision about how I'll shoot and how I'll light depending on what the final form of the image will be.

I like strong, deep shadows when I shoot portraits for black and white.    I also like much higher sharpness and more contrast.  But the general feel of the light; the soft quality of big sources, is a given.  Almost all the time.......

This is a scan from a print.  During the printing I used a device called a Pictrol between the enlarging lens and the paper.  It had plastic blades like the blades of a lens diaphragm and where the blades overlaid the image it created soft zones.

But the image of the rancher, above, was taken while I was deep in my first exploration of cinematic lighting.  I assembled a collection of spots and fresnel fixtures and even broad softlight fixtures and mixed and matched them for the effects I wanted.  In this instance I used a small Lowell ProLight with a four way barn door to come in from my left, right under his hat.  The barn doors narrowed the light beam and helped the light drop off across the front of the jacket.  I threw several spots of light on a gray seamless background and added a backlight, also from the left side.  The style worked well for character portraits and I kept the lights in my bag of tricks for sometime.  But it didn't translate well in the early days of digital.

Now we've come full circle and I'm testing the waters.  The Canon 5Dmk2 seems like a good match for this style.  The real trick is to find the right conversion parameters for black and white.  I have friends who swear by SilverFX but I'm busy making my own presets to mimic the look and feel I've always liked.  I want to understand better how the various light channels can be intermixed to get the effects I want.

Same general information as the image above.  All done with Hasselblad cameras on Tri-X film.

The next step is to figure out how to duplicate the look I had with tungsten spot lights with the new generation of LED lights.  I am drawn to them for both the softness of the larger banks but also for the idea that one can use LED lights very, very close to the subject without worrying about heat and discomfort for the subject.  LEDs are a technology that seems to be in its infancy right now but is spreading quickly.  I recently purchase three 500 LED panels that are AC powered.  They measure about eight inches by fourteen inches and they put out a nice light.  The cool thing about them is that I can use them so close in to my subject that the fall off (inverse square law) means that the light once again becomes contrasty and dramatic.

I've also been experimenting with the small, battery operated units because I can take them anywhere.  I kind of feel like a vampire though.  I like shooting at dusk or at night in the studio where I can have total control of the lighting ratios, unfettered by the ambient light that always acts as a degrading fill.

The next step in my process of LED exploration is to find a source of affordable fresnel or spot light fixtures to use.  I want to be able to have the same precise controls I once had with the tungsten fixtures.  There are companies out there that make fixtures that fit the description but their target markets are the large production companies that do feature films.  And their products are priced accordingly.  Built to incredible standards in order to survive the daily grind of movie production without a hiccup.  For an example search for NilaTV  (I can't make the link work on here for some reason......)  You'll find incredible LED fixtures with prices that rival small, new cars.  But the technology is already in the process of trickling down.

I remember when I had my friends pose for me in the days of hot lights.  In Austin.  In the Summer.  That's why I excited to play with LED's this time around.  No heat.  No discomfort.  Lots of control.  Remind me to take the flashes out every once in in a while....if for no other reason that to keep the capacitors formed.  More to come.


MS Photography said...

Funny, I too am expetimenting with "hot lights" after shooting with spider lights at photoshopworld this year. I love the lighting effects and that I can work with very small changesvwith worry about if the flash has recharged or not. I have not tried the LEDs yet but I think I might rent some now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks and more B&W, please!
Perhaps you know Exposure 3 by Alien Skin Software? There are some great presets and numerous adjustment options, too. (I'm not connected to them.)

Kirk Decker said...

I have SilverFX and even updated to the 64bit version, but I rarely use it. I found it awkward to use if I wanted a mix of conversions, such as light skin and dark lips. For me, channel mixer presets fine tuned with hue/saturation and some masking are the most effective.
Any updates on your friend who sold all his stuff and was headed to Cuba?

Anonymous said...

The top photo is amazing. Just amazing. In my dreams....

Jim Walker said...

There are lots of LED-based theatrical lighting fixtures that might give you what you're looking for. Most are RGB or RGBW, which may be more than you need.

But, there are a couple of the less-expensive lines that have white-only or white/amber (to control color temp) fixtures. Take a look at Elation lighting (or their sister company, American DJ) or Chauvet.

The main downsides of these fixtures are that they require AC power and are not particularly diffuse.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk. First time commenting though often reading - great resource you have created here. Re: directional LEDs, Have you tried to DIY using "domestic" LED products? There are now plug-in LED replacements for the classic small halogen bulbs with integral reflectors. Transformer is built in so they work from household AC. I saw a Philips model, CRI over 80 supposedly, temperature ca. 3400K, cost about $35 or so, drop-in replacement for 50W halogens of same shape but consuming only 7W. A say 3x3 array could be made for about $400 if you include the fixtures.