Playing around in the studio with the LEDs.

I met Noellia six years ago.  She answered a casting call and we (the ad agency and I) used her in an ad campaign for the Austin Chamber of Commerce.  She was eighteen at the time.  When I embarked on my first lighting book I needed a patient and attractive person to sit still for lots and lots of the example shots.  She is the model on the front cover of my Photograhic Lighting Equipment book as well.  Noellia is an accomplished theatrical actor and she's been in New York City for the last year.  (Maybe that's why I didn't get any photography books done in 2010.....).  But she came back for the holidays and I convinced her to come by the studio and help me with illustrations for my LED project.  We worked for six hours today and got lots of stuff done.  The photo above is something I selected pretty much at random from the horde of thumbnails skating across the Lightroom window at the end of the day.

I used a Canon 5Dmk2 with an 85mm 1.8 for most of the day but I thought I'd throw some 60D shots in the mix just to have a real world comparison.  The 60D was equipped with the 70-200mm f4 L (non-IS) lens.  I used the tripod collar on the zoom and threw the whole rig onto my wooden tripod.  I shot wide open at 1/50th of a second @ 800 ISO.  The actual focal length was 126mm which is pretty darn long for the APS-C format.  The image was lit with three sets of lights and a really big scrim.

First up is the main light:  Two 500 bulb LED fixtures and one 1,000 bulb LED fixture pushed light thru a six foot by six foot Photoflex light diffuser.  The diffuser is mostly forward of Noellia's position and over to the left.  My camera is actually looking thru the edge of the fabric and the light stand.  It's a big wash of light and one of my favorite ways to light people.

I have one 500 bulb LED fixture illuminating the background, which is a gray painted wall in the studio.  I've turned off one bank of lights so I guess I was only using 375 bulbs directly into the wall.......

Finally, there's a little 183 bulb panel over to the back right of the set that throwing some obviously ineffective backlight into the mix.  It's a pretty straightforward design.  I notice that it's a lot easier to color correct the 60D raw files than those from the 5Dmk2.  I'm not sure yet why that is but I'm working on coming up with an answer.  I like the skin tones quite a bit.

 To add to the mystery I did a custom white balance for the 5Dmk2 but when I capriciously reached for the 60D I just set the WB on auto and blazed away.   The gray targets I use are these Lastolite flexible reflectors.  I have them in two different sizes and have come to depend on them for critical shoots with the full frame camera.  I also use the custom white balance on the big Kodaks.  But I do have a work around for color casts........I just throw my hands up and convert to black and white.

When I got into the rhythm of shooting I found that the 85mm on the 5D2 matched my intention most of the time.  Once or twice I wished I'd used the 50mm but I rarely framed anything that I felt needed to be tighter.

I still think the LED panels are absolutely cool  (literally and figuratively).  Every time I write this a handful of people (who must think that I missed out on the whole flash revolution) write back to me to let me know how deluded I am and to let me know that flash is the modern light of choice.  Not so fast my highly linear friends.  I'm starting to find the sweet spots for these lights and I'm convinced that I'm on to something that will bear fruit.  It's fun to see what happens when I mix the little LED panels with daylight on locations.  Sometimes I feel like flash demands that users clearly see that lighting has been done.  My intention in photographing is to show the subject in a way that I visualize it.  I'm aiming, on location, to make found reality match my concept of processed reality in a way that showcases or elevates the subject without showing the "magic trick" to the audience.

My early mistakes all sprung from one mistaken assumption.  The idea that all lighting was interchangeable and "cross platform" when it reality you, as the artist, are obligated to play to each source's strengths and weaknesses.  I want to get to the point where the deficiencies in my work come from my inability to concept and perform the dance well, not to be limited by my slavish dedication to doing something in the old way that belonged to another light source.  I think I'm getting there.

But mostly I wrote this to share the unalloyed and unspoiled joy of spending a day shooting a pretty girl in a series of experiments for a project that both captivates and motivates me.  Happy to have a busy mind today and someone to help me bring ideas to fruition.  More to come......


Kurt Shoens said...

Flash lighting is sort of like airline travel. There are a couple of obvious advantages, but many disadvantages that we learn to work around or simply suffer through. At least with LEDs, the pluses and minuses are different. Maybe that makes them the choice in some situations.

It's like the discussion a few days back about the Leica M9 vs. the Canon 7D. Different cameras, different prices, and unsurprisingly they're good at different things.

On the color correction ease of the 60D vs the 5d2, I'm hoping you're going to say that the 60D produces good color with automatic white balance but you need the calibration target with the 5d2.

If instead my fears have come true and you have to do more than that to get the 5d2 color where you want it, I would like to see the before/after and what you needed to do to put the color right.

When you posted those lovely cityscape pictures from the Kodak DCS 760 I tried putting the same sky color into a sunny blue sky Canon 5d2 picture. After a while flipping between the two versions, I became convinced that the original 5d2 sky looked fake and the corrected one looked real.

So I want to see if the steps you need for satisfactory skin tones on the 5d2 are as elaborate as changing skies.

kirk tuck said...

Hey Kurt, Hope all is well. The 5d2 requires me to do a custom white balance. If I use the AWB and try to correct in Adobe raw I get some variations in color cast. Some green gets picked up in midtones and shadows. It's a bit non-linear and requires me to go into Hue/Sat and drop down the green saturation. None of that occurs with the newer 60D. It's a straight correction.

Yep on the 760 versus the 5D2. Kodak did know their color. Couldn't market free money but they did know color....

Kurt Shoens said...

Ahh, interesting. So there's a green cast from midtones to shadows on the 5d2, but setting the custom white balance in camera takes care of it. Thank you! I always assumed that the eyedropper in ACR was as good as custom white balance but that must not be true.

Related to Kodak's expertise with color, a correspondent wrote to me this evening to offer me a compact film Pentax camera. This correspondent really doesn't like fighting with computer image processing. I'm going to try to talk him into keeping the Pentax and running one more roll of film through it. He probably won't so I'll cross the Olympus XA2 off my shopping list. It's too bad, though, because film would probably work well for him.

Patrick Snook said...


My music teacher at high school gave me the following mnemonic for spelling rhythm: say it out loud, hammering the third and sixth letters, and it has its own rhythm. "r-h-Y (pause) t-h-M". I love that, mainly because I love all my memories of her music lessons. It tickles me to pass it along to a wordsmith.

Really enjoyed that red apple on the bench in the previous post. Perfect. I'm ever impressed by your technical articles on lighting and lenses in particular (and I'm a 7D shooter and like you completely enamored), but I'm always most engaged by the photographs you post. The portraits, yes, I always love looking at the human face in all its variance, but I also enjoy the photographs out and about in Austin, a great city, a beautiful and delicious city, a fascinating and always entertaining city. You lucky man!

I don't know about business, but it has been a very profitable year for me as your reader. Thanks for all you post here.

More good luck to you in 2011.



Paul Feng said...

"Sometimes I feel like flash demands that users clearly see that lighting has been done."

Thank you for this comment, I will try to take it to heart.

It reminds me of a somewhat analogous idea in classical music: Some composers are known for being "great orchestrators" (selecting the right instruments to create an effective musical "color"). But then there are the composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms... listening to them, you don't notice the orchestration, you just wallow in the greatness.

kirk tuck said...

".....you just wallow in the greatness." I love this phrase.

e_dawg said...

Good for you for being an intrepid pioneer of LED-based studio lighting. I think it's only a matter of time before people figure out what you've known for the last year: that LED lighting setups are "the next thing" in photographic (and even moreso, videographic) lighting.

I have only just started to play around with LED lighting with a 160 LED panel that you wrote about in an earlier blog post, and i still don't really know how to use it properly, but i can defintely see the potential with its compact size and weight, high efficiency, and surprisingly decent colour (i expected worse colour casts than fluorescents).

If only someone would show me how to do LED lighting setups properly. Hmm... sounds like an opportunity for you to write a book on LED-based lighting ;)