I'm going to get geeky and talk about an actual job.

This is an image we shot years ago on an Olympus e300 and the 11-22mm lens.  It holds up fine because I shot it on a tripod at a useful ISO.

I've had two remarkable days of photography this week.  I've changed everything I do.  Everything.  Up until a few years ago everything in my universe revolved around shooting with flashes.  Big flashes. Little flashes.  Remote flashes.  Flash on a wire and flash on a radio trigger.  I wrote a book about getting the most out of small flashes.  But for the last two days everything I've shot has been done with two relatively small LED panels on very small, lightweight lightstands.  And the most elaborate light modifier I've used is a rickety old, shoot thru umbrella which has a pencil taped (splint style) onto one of the struts that got bent in an unfortunate packing accident.

The panels cost me about $160 dollars each, require no electrical cords, don't need to be triggered by anything and can change output color temperature with the twist of a knob.  But this wouldn't have worked nearly so well for me if there hadn't been huge advances in digital cameras in the last couple of years. Clean files at 800-1600 ISO mean I can integrate my LED lights with existing lights and still get exposures with enough f-stop and shutter speed to stop the slow action I usually shoot.

The next big thing that synergistically moved the ball forward for me was the introduction of high quality, electronic viewfinders.  If you still think you'll never use one then you are already becoming one of those lunatic curmudgeons who rant and rave about cellphones not being real cameras.....(Hmmmm.)

I became aware of the fluidity of lighting and shooting with the this combination of tools in mid-shoot yesterday when I found myself looking through the finder of a Sony a77 and watching the color of a light source change as I twisted the knob on the back of a light unit.  I watched the scene and the light source get closer and closer to the same color temperature and then----they merged.  No iterative testing.  No hysterics.  Just dialing in the matching color temperature as though we'd always been doing it this way.  That's an amazing transformation.

People are writing about the Nikon D800 as a game changer because it does high resolution files and good dynamic range but we've got to admit that we've had access to that in medium format digital cameras for years.  But cameras with high enough quality EVFs to judge color are real game changers in the literal sense because now we can do stuff that we never used to do before with cameras.  We can dial in exposures and color temperatures and effects in real time.

One feature I'm starting to use more and more often (though not in the candy/clown way that we think of with this technique) is in camera HDR.  I'm using it to open up shadow areas in scenes so I only have to add small amounts of fill light.  I know that this is something many cameras now feature but it's amazingly useful in commercial shoots.  And, with my eye pressed to the finder it's easy to see just what the camera has done and whether I like it or not.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I wanted to talk about my new workflow so that's where I'm heading.....

I packed up to shoot some "editorial/corporate PR" at a restaurant on Monday.  Had it been an advertising shoot we'd have gone there when the restaurant was closed to the public and we'd have cleaned and styled and lit and tested and gotten all sorts of advertising agency approvals.  But in PR and editorial, especially if the location is not the client, you go when it's convenient for the people at the location and you shoot around the edges so you don't run off customers or inconvenience the staff.  I knew I didn't want to run electrical cables and have flashes going off so I packed just two Fotodiox AS 312 (two tone) LED panels, some lightweight light stands and a shoot thru umbrella.  That was it for the lighting.  Except for the big Sony flash that lives/hibernates in the big black Domke camera bag...

When I got to the location I checked in with the manager who gave me carte blanche. I shot some images in each of the dining rooms to start with.  I would set my Sony a77 on a sturdy tripod, line up my shot with the built in, two axis level and then shoot with the HDR engaged at a low level.  Most times the dynamic range was perfect but once or twice I needed just a bit more fill light in the shadows so I would put an  LED panel up high on a stand and dial it up (quantity) just so I didn't cast any additional shadows and then I'd dial in color temperatures (between 3200 and 5600K) while looking thru the finder to see when the colors matched.  Once they matched I shot.  I rarely did more than two images of any one scene because......why?

Since I was working with a tripod I could do all of the shots that didn't include people at ISO's like 50, 64,80 and 100.  The files (currently embargoed) are flawlessly smooth, detailed and sharp.  I think the HDR process works somewhat like another setting called Multi Shot Noise Reduction in that it stacks the frames and kicks out the noise components (which are random).  However it works it delivers ultra-clean files.  All of these images were shot as Jpegs which meant that the camera did the processing to straighten out the barrel distortion and vignetting of the 16-50mm lens, automatically.

After I shot all the stuff without people I ventured into the kitchen to shoot the important shots for the clients.  There was light from florescent fixtures with three different kinds of tubes and some light from skylights overhead.  It didn't bother me.  I rolled up the ISO to 1600 because I'd be shooting a cook,  and set up two of my LED panels for effective fill light in the darker corners and the background.  Then I did a custom white balance in the area of the kitchen that was important for the shot.  I knew that if I blew it I could color correct areas of the outlying quadrants in Lightroom or Photoshop.  I couldn't use the HDR setting because of possible movements but I was able to use the camera's DRO or dynamic range optimiser to bring up the shadow areas, albeit with a bit more noise.

After I shot some exteriors, with and without HDR, and with or without some flash fill, I headed home to post process and recharge my batteries and the batteries in my lights and cameras for a shoot that would start the first thing, next day.

Post processing goes like this for me:  Ingest images from card to Lightroom 4.1. Before ingestion but on the import page I do a rough edit and dump anything I don't like.  If the client doesn't see it they never know it existed.  During the ingestion I add the job name to the front of each file and have the program copy the files onto two different hard drives.  Instant critical short term back up.
Once ingested and previews rendered I sit down and do a vicious, take no prisoners edit.

Then I color correct and contrast correct in small batches.  If the job is small I also use gradients, retouching tools and whatever else the image needs.  If it's large I wait until the client picks the keepers to fine tune files.  Once I've made sure they all look very acceptable I output all the files as smaller jpegs and then upload them all to a password protected gallery on Smugmug.  I've used Smugmug since 2006 and currently have over 120,000 smaller (2000 pixel wide) files on their servers.  I send the client the link and the password and then I crank out an invoice.  Some get mailed and some get e-mailed.  Clients who are prone to losing invoices get both as well as a follow up e-mail...

When they make selections I do the necessary retouching and send them an additional bill for the post-processing and any additional totals for usage of additional images.  Then I sit around on my yacht and wait for quick payment.

The day after I shot at the restaurant I was engaged to shoot for a company that has a series of medical labs sprinkled all over Austin.  They do all kinds of tests including MRI's, CT Scans, PET Scans and other kinds of imaging.  Working with a great art director from their internal marketing department we spent a full day setting up shots with doctors, technicians and mock patients.  Most of the photos incorporated a million dollar+ machine in the shot.  Since time is money when it comes to high value, high investment diagnostic machines part of our brief was to be in and out of each location pretty darn quickly.

When I first started working for this company we'd come in and do the shots using electronic flashes. Usually monolights on big stands.  A typical location would require several lights with softboxes for the main lighting and then several smaller lights to put illumination on the backgrounds.  We'd set up and break down the gear at each location because it wasn't safe for the patients and staff to have us lurching down the narrow hallways with three foot by four foot softboxes on eight pound monolights on top of big lightstands with cords and extension cables in tow.

As soon as the digital cameras got better with low light we moved to replicate what we were getting from the big lights with a set of smaller, battery powered lights like Nikon SB-800's and the like.  We switched from predominantly using soft boxes to using more umbrellas because they were so much quicker to set up and take down.  I like the ones with black backing so I can control the spill light when I need to.

Now we're almost entirely using small, battery powered LED lights for a number of reasons. (Which I'll discuss below).

Our modus operandi for yesterday was to go into a room, figure out the action, line up a good shot, figure out the prevailing light, figure out if it needed to be improved, filled or transformed and then move in our small light panels and even out the lighting landscape.  We'd shoot fifteen or twenty shots and then try another angle and then another.  Three workable angles for each set up was pretty much the norm.  Then the lights would come down and into an Airport Security Think Tank roller, camera and tripod under one arm and off to the next location.

The downside of using the LEDs is the relative inability to freeze fast action (and that means anything that can't be reasonable halted by a 1/90th of a second shutter speed.  The second downside is that if you are going to shoot into a window there's not enough power to match sunlight, even through darkened glass.  Finally, the way to use LED's is to augment existing light instead of totally nuking the ambient light and replacing it with all new light.  Flash is not always practical when you have to show screen information and what not, and match illumination levels.

But the upsides are, for me, pretty compelling.  The lights are small, light and easy to place.  The fact that they don't flash is actually a big positive thing for me.  I'm working in what we'd call "practical" locations.  Real workplaces with loads and loads of non-professional talents.  I've come to understand that the flash of a flash is like a signal that something out of the ordinary routine is happening.  The flash attracts people like moths to a flame.  Everyone sees the flashes going off and they cruise on by to see what's happening.  Very disruptive.  And even more disruptive for the amateur talents who are already nervous and had to be cajoled into being in the shot.

And flashes make every gawker into a stand up humorist.  "Don't break the camera with that face of yours!!!!"  "Action!!!"  "What are you guys doing? Making a movie?"  With continuous lighting there's no repeating signal that says, over and over again, "Action over here. Come look."  Don't discount what a powerful time savings this is.  No one is really interested in anything that doesn't flash.  The camera isn't compelling.  The set up isn't compelling and that weak light on a stick is nothing much to write home about.  Can you hear it around the dinner table?  "Someone came into the office to take a photograph today.  The lights just stood there.  They weren't very bright.  They didn't flash."  Not a compelling story.

It's a lot easier than trying to keep your talent from being self-conscious as his or her work mates walk by to thrown in their two cents worth.  Another good thing about continuous light is that lack of anticipatory blinking that seems to happen with light sensitive people in front of the camera.

The second thing that's good, not just about LEDs but about all continuous lighting is that you can see all the little reflections and "gotchas" that are so hard to find when your flash is firing at 1/1500th of a second.  Really.

So, the combination of the Sony EVF and the Fotodiox variable color temperature LED panels helped me move through two projects more quickly that I could have done in the flash days and that's better for me and the client.

The workflow is, for me, so much more efficient that shooting/chimping/fixing/shooting/chimping fixing.  I know you think EVFs aren't for you and that's okay.  This story is about my use of the EVFs.  They make photography a hell of a lot more fun for me.  And that's all I really care about.


  1. yeah!!!! some workflow porn. Love this stuff and I have now added some LED panels to my wish list. Thanks Kirk.

  2. I loved the part about shooting..chimping...shooting..chimping..fixing Homes..Now on to the good stuff.

  3. Kirk, I really liked this post, and this way of doing things. As you often mentioned in your LED Lighting book, you sometimes use "MinusGreen" (Magenta) gels over the LED panels. Do you do that on location, or simply rely on doing a custom white balance in the camera for each change of lighting?

  4. As to EVFs: I've never liked their 'look' because it's a screen rather than optical. But after reading why and how you use them I went to play with a NEX-7 and an a77 yesterday. I totally understand what you're talking about now... When I realised the image on the LCD screen was exactly (EXACTLY!) what I'd seen through the EVF, I said wow. Hmmmm...

  5. Using the live view on a Nikon or Canon DSLR you should also be able to control and match the LED panels with the ambient lights - or am I wrong?

    1. Yes. Even more so if you put a $300 Zacuto Magnifying hood over the rear LCD to block out ambient light...

  6. Really interesting to see how a photographer approaches a job making full use of the new tools that keep coming along. If you have any guilt about flitting from camera to camera as they appear I'm sure that is erased by the time, money, and frustration saved by realizing the value of the good stuff and putting it to use in your work.

    1. I feel no guilt in changing systems if I think the camera can do better. One thing I haven't talked about enough is how happy I am to have a really clean ISO 50. Unlike the Canon 5D2 wherein the DR was less than the 100 ISO setting, the Sony achieves its max DR at ISO 50 and it's max S/N ratio. For people who want wide aperture portrait shooting it's a really cool part of the camera's make up.

  7. I use my Canon in Live View exactly for the benefits you cite. I shoot architecture so I have the camera on a tripod and can make sure the image is dialed in before I shoot. I love the idea of EVFs as it saves a huge amount of time over chimping and correcting. Of course that was a huge leap over Polaroid...

  8. Kirk, I'm unclear what you're looking at to dial in the color temperature (paragraph 4). Are you matching the LED's to the ambient light? What's your confirmation of a match? Some indication in the viewfinder or your own perception? That is a pretty cool feature of the LED's. No more hassling with gels on flash.


  9. Melmann, Bend a piece of lightweight, white cardboard (8.5 by 11 inches will do fine) into a 45 degree "wedge" and hold it in front of your camera. Let the ambient light strike one side of the wedge and then introduce an LED panel to the other side of the wedge. Turn the knob that changes color temperature until both sides looks identical in terms of color. The human eye is bad at remembering stuff from the past exactly but is a very precise comparator.

    1. Kirk, Wow! I've never heard of that before, but it makes perfect sense. Thank you for this very hidden nugget of valuable information! I'm adding a piece of white cardboard (that came with packets of printer paper) to each of my LED light carrying cases right now. Thanks!

    2. Kirk,
      Thanks for that tip. Like Gregg I'd never heard of it but it made sense as soon as I read your instruction. I'm thinking how much time that would take with flash and gels.....go LEDs!

  10. As a NEX-7 shooter I am also really growing to enjoy the EVF, and thanks to you I now have it coupled with one of the $150 LED panels like you recommended with the adjustable color temp. WYSISYG (What You See Is What You Get) is addictive. I am looking forward to the next gen of EVFs. If the D800E had an EVF...


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