Shooting Theater Ads with LEDs. Yes you can light a set.

Martin Burke as the elf in David Sedaris' play, Santaland Diaries.

Santaland Diaries, is my favorite Christmas play ever.  And when Martin Burke plays the elf in this one man production it's possible that it rises to becoming my favorite live theater performance, extant.  So, every year the marketing folks at Zach Scott come calling and we do a shoot for direct mail, website use and various other bits of advertising.  I'd like to think my work is so great that it's the reason they sell out every performance, but as I've already said,  it's a great play.........So much for my fragile ego.

They called again this year and I threw a wrinkle into the plans.  As you probably know I've become fascinated with LED lights of all varieties and I told them I'd love to help out with the photography as long as they'd be okay with me using all LED lights for the shooting production.  "Sure.  We guess."

 I went into the studio the night before to clean and set up.  I've got a nine foot wide seamless on the back wall and it's being lit by one 500 LED panel placed on either side, just behind Martin.  The lights have a lot of spill so I'm using two of the Westcott FastFlags, covered with black fabric to block any spill forward onto Martin.  The lights have four switches on the back and you can turn on and off banks of LEDs to adjust the intensity.  After a quick metering I turned off one of the four banks on each back light.

For a main light I'm using a 1,000 bulb LED panel aimed through a one stop diffusion cloth on a Chimera four foot by four foot frame.  I added another 500 bulb light just to the left of the big light.  It's mostly hitting the diffusion but I'm also letting some of the light hit Martin directly just to add some contrast and intensity to the shot.

On the opposite side I'm using a small Westcott FastFlag with a white fabric of fill (you can just see the sliver of the side profile above the flex fill that's sitting on the floor and leaning against the light stand.
That's the extent of the lighting.  So, how did it all work out?
 I was very happy to shoot with the continuous light.  I could see very clearly and quickly the effects of any changes in the lights.  If I moved something I could see it immediately.  But it did take a few minutes to re-orient the actors to a new way of shooting.  We've shot together many times and on most of those occasions we've used flash so they were used to being able to make fast moves and big gestures without worrying about blur.  For most of the time on this shoot we worked at f4, shutter speed = 1/80, ISO= 800.  If action was important I'd bump up the ISO a bit more.  (Camera:  Canon 5dmk2)
 I noticed two big differences.  The actors didn't get tired as quickly.  They are used to working under continuous lights and both mentioned that it was much preferable for them to the disconcerting nature of random and powerful studio flashes.  The light levels in the room were much higher than what I usually get from the modeling lights and that helped make the actors pupils close down, which makes images much more natural.  The second thing I noticed was that no one had to wait for flash recycling.  If I saw a fleeting expression I could catch it in a quick burst of 3 fps without any worry about erratic exposure.
 In earlier blogs I reported that I had been filtering the lights with "minus green" filtration to deal with the mild, but obvious green spike in the color spectrum of the LED panels I'm using.  I've found that if I do a custom white balance at the beginning of the shoot and keep the light on the set the same I get perfect color with good saturation and consistency across the board.  And that's without any filters at all.
While the LED panels throw around a lot of light and spread it pretty well they are still pretty hard sources when used without diffusion.  On this shoot most of the light that touched to the actors was diffused through fabric diffusion cloth.  I've also recently paid a visit to the movie rental facility here in Austin called, GEAR, and laid in a good inventory of diffusion materials that go from 1/4 stop to 2 stops and include Rosco Luxe (a beautiful diffusion material!!!!!) and even various thicknesses of ripstop nylon.  And guess what?  Every permutation gives a subtle yet very different look to the light.  It's the combination of direct and diffused light through the same surface.  And I can tell that, with a little bit of practice, I'll be lighting better than I ever have and with more control because I can see the changes as I shoot.  I guess this is why some movies look so darned good.  The DP's utilize much more control that we typically do as photographers.  We tend to think in binary terms about soft and hard but there are so many intermediate shades of gray (or collimated and diffused light rays....)
The images here are all directly out of camera, converted from RAW files to Jpegs.  The marketing people will make their selections and we'll clean up the backgrounds and retouch the skin a bit.  Am I happy with this project and the inclusion of LED lights.  Absolutely.  Will I do it again?  Tomorrow.  Literally.  Jana and I are shooting all day long.  But the twist is we'll be using both these big panels in the studio and a bunch of smaller, battery powered units on exterior locations.  I'll have examples up as soon as I can.

Final word was from the marketing crew:  "Wow.  No heat."

Zachary Scott Theater is building a new theatre next year and the plans call for them to be the second theater in the country to switch over to all LED stage lighting.  Do I feel a groundswell occuring?  Or is it just the inevitable slide and glide away from the light bulbs of the last century?


Unknown said...

10 thumbs up, Kirk! I'm really intrigued by your set up; thanks for sharing it. I do zero in-stuio/lighting work, but want to get more into on-location supplimental lighting, with something easy to carry and use. I look forward to seeing what you are doing in that situation.

Bold Photography said...

This truly is the future of lighting. I'm really geeked out to hear about all of these new diffusion materials..

Herman said...

Sounds like you are going to have fun with the new all-LED stage-lighting as well.

Will be good to know how that behaves photographically.

Love the first photograph, really catches the eye.

Anonymous said...

I can't see anything in these pictures that suggests LED lights are in any way superior or even the equivalent to the strobes that fill your closets.
Sure there's a novelty factor and you can shoot video with these but as a workaday light solution LED's don't add up. How many of these will you need to shoot a large group and have everyone sharp front to back? How useful would these be outdoors, filling sun or overpowering ambient light?
When you're shooting on location you'll have to bring along c-stands and frames to hold the diffusers instead of simply attaching umbrellas or soft boxes to strobe heads.
You're having fun playing with LED's and that's great but when it gets down to it the strobe is a more versatile instrument for a working still shooter.
Of course you have a constant light source so you can assess the look but with instant feedback from digital it's hardly a powerful selling point.

Ellis Vener said...

Always good to see how you are thinking about changing your tools but I'm just not wild about the skin color here. It may be well white balanced but based on these samples LEDs just don't seem to be a particularly flattering source for skin, in these examples it just doesn't have the emotional bite (sorry to be so vague) of their expressions.

The way different types of light sources interact with skin is indeed a tricky business.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Nope. The light is not superior. Yes there is a novelty factor. No I'm not shooting large groups with them. Yes I like the way they work in portrait shoots. No I don't have to bring along c-stands and frames. I can put diffusion right over the front. Yes there is a difference in continuous light and strobe and sometimes I like the look for things shot with continuous light sources. I'm not asking anyone to throw out their strobes. I'm just writing about playing with light that I think are wonderfully fun, easy to use and which I will master to the point that, technically I'll be able to wonderful portraits with them. But if I always wanted to do the same things in life, over and over again I would have gotten a real job.

The feedback from Anonymous sounds a lot like the feedback I got from lots of photographers in 1999, 2000, and 2001 who thought I was silly for learning about, gasp! Digital photography. And they could show you all kinds of research proving film was better and always gong to be the choice of the pros. The longer they took to finally get into the digital marketplace the longer and more painful was there conversion.

Also, while a strobe may be a "more versatile" instrument for a still shooter this also presume that we don't want to do video. And I'm already shooting video. For clients. For money. And I sure as hell can't do that with strobes.......

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Why do photographers presume that everyone shoots the same kind of stuff they do? Why can't you own more than one set of lights? Who mastered studio flash in their first week on the job? Why are people so afraid of trying new stuff?

An aside to Ellis: Believe me, I will get the skin tones just right......

Unknown said...

Very impressive. Way to go. I'm new to studio photography, but what you've demonstrated makes lighting sound so simple and easy, which is where my focus lies at the moment. I plan to buy my first set of lights within the next two weeks and although I've been considering LED's, reading this blog has pretty much sealed the deal. I do have a question though...what purpose did the white fill fabric play and is it hanging from the ceiling? Again, I'm new to photography so please excuse the amateurish question?

Duncan said...

Stacy: The white fabric is acting as a defuser, making the light from the big led bank larger and therefore softer. Basically the led lamp plus the big defuser make a soft-box without any sides. It looks like it is supported by a stand at the bottom (look just left of the model's right arm in the last photo)

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Stacy, I like the new LEDs very much but I would hesitate to recommend them as first studio lights. They won't freeze action. Their lower output means that you really must work with subjects to slow them down a bit. And in shots where you might need lots of depth of field, meaning the need to stop your lens down, you might not have enough power. On the plus side seeing exactly what you are getting makes learning quicker and easier. I'm using LEDs because I love to explore new stuff but keep in mind that I have several professional flash systems at hand as well.

Everything is a trade off and we're still in the early days of LEDs. From a purely business point of view I'd go with some inexpensive electronic flashes like the Alien Bees as a first line of tools and then add LEDs as you become more proficient and ready to experiment.

That said, I think LED light panels will improve by leaps and bounds over the next few years and become a truly universal light source.

Cristian said...

Great post and great photos Krik! I can see you are a Pro.

I found our post when I was looking to buy led panel lights for video interview and weddings.

I like the settings in your studio.

What can you say about led lights for videos after a year of using them?

Thank you very much Kirk.

God bless you!