1.31.2011

LED lighting. I'm finally getting a handle on this stuff. And I'm using it more and more. It's a "style" thing.

I did a project a little while back for the Austin Technology Incubator and most of it entailed taking photographs of the really smart people who seem to be inventing the next wave of entrepreneurial businesses.  The building we photographed in had a wild mix of business start-ups, mentors and educators, all seemingly bent on discovering or sharing why some businesses thrive while others never seem to get cranking no matter how much time and money get thrown in.  The building also had an amazing long central atrium that was filled with diaphanous clouds of softly diffused sunlight.

I used one of the "sky bridges" that linked the two sides of the buildings together as a portrait location for some of my shots.  What I wanted was the "idea" or feeling of a large, open space but without the instrusion of too much detail.  It was the perfect venue for using the technique of shooting a moderate telephoto lens at a shallow aperture.  I chose to use a rather pedestrian (but more than adequate) Canon 85mm 1.8 lens, stopped down to f2.8.  While the area behind my subject was nice and bright the ceiling over the bridge blocked all the top light and, since he was on the outside edge looking in he wasn't lit by much fill from the other side.

I knew I would have to add light to balance the difference between the illumination where he was standing with the illumination behind him.  I also wanted the light to have some direction so I would want it to come from one side, high enough to put a little shadow under his chin.  I added a second, harder but weaker kick light from the same side just to add some teeth to the light.

I could have used a small flash into any number of modifying accessories but I've become weary of the constant use of flash.  Subjects are used to continuous light.  They don't react as much to that.  Flash always seems to draw more attention.  And subjects also seem to "play to" flash more than to other kinds of light.  I was in an experimental mood so I shot all the work on that particular day with a combination of different LED light fixtures.  Some battery powered and some A/C powered.  And what I liked, once again, was the WYSIWYG nature of the lights.  With a 1/4 minus green (a magenta colored filter) over the main light source the balance for the diffuse daylight is pretty darn close.  I dropped the green saturation by about -10 in Lightroom 3.2 and that seem to make everything just right.

Here's what the set up looks like:
160 LED fixture on the far left.  500 LED fixture in my typical "portrait" position being diffused by a one stop scrim on a Westcott FastFlag frame.  Canon 5d2 with an 85mm 1.8 on a Berlebach wooden tripod.


When I first started working with the LED lights I felt a bit "off" and that perceived lack of mastery is probably what pushed me to continue to work with them.  I hate unsolved mysteries.   And, in truth, I haven't really changed a bunch of parameters since I started as much as I've just allowed myself to sink in a become comfortable with the lights.  It's the same thing we did with studio flash but for many of us it happened so long ago that we've forgotten the learning pains of the process.

Now it's becoming my preference (where practical) to light portraits with LED's.  I'm into some mental groove that makes me happy to perennially problem solve and so, I guess the constant need to blend light sources instead of overpowering them is giving me some kind of nice feedback loop.

Let's revisit the ground rules for the blog again:  You don't have to light like me.  You don't have to use the same gear.  I'm just writing "out loud" trying to help you and me understand why I sometimes approach a task the way I do and what the attractions are.

And I'll be frank,  part of the attraction right now is that so few other people are lighting things the way I do.  And that's cool too.

29 comments:

Aaron said...

Is the 500 LED fixture plugged in to an outlet? (looks like there's an extension cord in the photo)

Can they be powered by a battery pack?

kirk tuck said...

That one is definitely plugged into a wall socket. There is another model that looks nearly identical that can be battery powered.

FrankG said...

Could we see a photo before you added the lights to the scene?

kirk tuck said...

FrankG, Sorry, no. These aren't examples made for teaching they are real shots made on a real job. We have very limited time with the subjects and we generally have the lighting set up and ready to go so that when they walk onto the mark we're ready to start shooting. At some point, if the blog morphs into a subscription based media outlet we'll have the budgets to "set up" shoots with "before and after" in mind. But for right now, considering how I usually work I thought it was enough to have a wide shot. Hope you understand.

Debbi_in_California said...

Burl wood tripod?
Cuz ? Handy? Aren't those for surveyors?

kirk tuck said...

Hey Debbi, Wooden tripods are very much for photographers. They don't suck away heat from your hands like metal in cold weather and we Texas Photographers can touch them without asbesto gloves in the direct sun in the summer. They're really good at not transmitting vibration. Bonus: It's nice to feel organic materials under your fingertips when you're working.

I have the one you see above and a bigger on for large format cameras. They're delicious. And the three section one above was less than $300. You add your own tripod head.

FrankG said...

I completely understand. Sign me up when you morph.

Anonymous said...

You write too fast. I can't keep up. Take a day off!

Debbi_in_California said...

Do those tripods level easily?

Steve Dodds said...

Hi Kirk

Sounds like your tripod stole this show. I love wooden tripods but they're not a good idea in the tropics where I live. The termites would reduce it to dust in a few months.

I just did a few 'copy-stand' style still life setups using a couple of small 164 LED units runnng on AA rechargeables. Mine seem to run coolish at around 46k rather than the claimed daylight temperature. A great learning exercise. I find LEDs are fun to work with and very easy to adjust, not that I'd call myself competent yet. Haven't used them for people shots though, but you've definitely shown how good they can be if you have the power and the skill. Some sort of diffuser seems to suggest itself, even for close-in still life stuff.

Max Young said...

I don't really like the portrait Kirk, to be honest (although I do appreciate most of your work).

I am visiting the USA later this week and am looking into the LED lighting process. I may pick up a light or two from Amazon in the process; (stuff is too expensive down under).

Regards,

Max

Dave Elfering Photography said...

Kirk you totally fooled me. The LED lighting you are engineering looked nearly all natural so I thought most of the primary light was diffused daylight and the LED was fill. Neat stuff! One of my strobes recently failed and I'm pondering adding an LED instead. You are right, there is a certain visual violence to even the small strobes. The lighting tends to have an edge to it that the LED's don't appear to show.

William said...

I know you are not a name dropper,But could you drop a name or a link about the LED's you used in this Blog. Thank you for all of your open mind approach and teaching. you are a big part of my on going learning.

Alan said...

Kirk, do you know of any LED units that might be usable for portable use i.e. shooting events? I've seen the camcorder units but any diffusion would likely cut the light down way too much. I guess I just need to wait until the small units get stronger.

kirk tuck said...

Max, thanks for being honest. I don't like everything I see from my favorite photographers either. Some of it is about context. I know why I like this one and it's really just because it fits my idea of how the website it was shot for should look. All the same I get your point.

Debbi, I generally use ballheads on my tripods so I level there but it's no better or worse than any other type of tripod. I just loosen the upper leg tightener and slide the leg. Alternately each leg can be spread all the way to 90 degrees so that's a quick way to level the system....

Alan, I'm not sure I'd use LED's as primary units for fast breaking events. But if I tried it I'd probably go with one of the Fancier 160 LED lights I own. They are hot shoe mountable, run on a bunch of different batteries and, if you are in close proximity (two person portraits?) they would work well. Alternately you could bank together some and have an assistant follow you around and stand where you want them to. Since it's continuous you never have to worry about syncing.

William, most of the LED's besides Ican and Lightpanels are OEM units from China that are branded by multiple vendors. I've been buying 160 bulb portable units from Fancier and ePhotoInc on Amazon. I've been buying the "plug in the wall" AC versions (in 500 and 1,000 bulb configurations) from Cowboy Studios, Fancier and ePhotoInc. Also on Amazon. If I think about it, after lunch I'll put some links up.

Thanks to everyone for the feedback.

modern outdoor lighting said...

LED lights are really a big help in saving energy. Most street lights are LED bulbs. It is one of the better alternate for older bulbs. But be careful always on using it because there some chemicals that are present on these product that can harm your health.

Jameson said...

William, most of the LED's besides I can and Light panels are OEM units from China that are branded by multiple vendors. I've been buying 160 bulb portable units from Fancier and e Photo Inc on Amazon.

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John said...

I totally agree about the wooden tripod. The metal ones for people who never work outside.

LED lights are taking over every area: from automotive to photography.

Albert said...

Kirk Tuck said...