Revisiting a job done with LED lighting. Newer processing.

I suspect that the current generation of photographers has been raised to look at performance instead of content, the shell instead of the embedded code. When I first started working with LED light panels a couple of years ago all I heard from the still photography industry was that the LED was not a useful light because it didn't render colors as exactly as better flashes did.  The crux of the matter all came down to CRI (color rendering index).  Here again was a metric that could be brought to bear to beat down any attempt to stray from the pack.  Here was a handy metric that, like horsepower in cars, could sum up a complex array of attributes and parameters in a simple, and simple-minded, single number.  Most panels at the time had CRIs of around 81.  Noon daylight (presumably in Rochester, NY in mid summer) is the reference point of 100.  Ergo, the use of LED light panels in "good" photography was a non-starter.

I love being told I can't do something in a certain way.  It stimulates me to try anyway, figure out workarounds, leverage advantages and just have......fun. So, as soon as an eminence grise of the imaging world told me that using LED panels was foolish I was all in.  But why?

I conjecture the desire for "pure" lights is based on a flawed assumption of how "all" commercial photographers work.  While the boring ones do the same "product" over and over and over again in the studio for no other reason than to maximize efficiency and make a profit the ones I want to be like are the photographers who go out every day and problem solve.  The people who hit a location and grapple with insane mixed lighting.  The people who used to have a bag full of filters and the brains to bend existing light to their photographic will.  I've never wanted to be a photographer who just followed a lame recipe aimed at helping me ooze into the sleepy center of the boring Bell Curve.

The most exciting photography (as a practice, not necessarily for viewing...) is to go somewhere new and use a combination of existing light and "brought" light to create images that feel real and fun.  It means you have to keep your eyes and your mind open to the possibilities.

Ever since we started to walk erect and took photography out of the womb of the studio and started practicing it professionally on all kinds of locations we've had the choice of "nuking the crap out of the existing light" (meaning that we set up big flashes and totally overpower every last photon of existing light in a space) or we've practiced lighting coexistence and we've let the light on a scene inform our own lighting.  We'd seek to augment what was there already---which, in a way, seems more honest and straightforward.  As long as you don't let too many color inconsistencies bite you on the butt.  LEDs and continuous lightsources make it easier to mix and blend existing light with the light you provide.

When I started to get a handle on small, portable LEDs, I started figuring out where and when to use them best.  I knew I'd never be overpowering sunlight but I knew I could use them to tune and mold interior office lighting and interior home lighting.  I also came to know that they have real value in open shade and in the soft light created by overhangs and other sun blockers.  Their continuous nature is what appealed to me.  Seeing what I would get was much more straightforward, especially with EVF finders that would should me the global effect of my balancing act.

And I realized that, as photographers, we'd been dealing with light sources that never even approached 81 CRI for decades.  They were called fluorescent lights and they hang in ceilings across the world, flickering merrily and tossing off non-continuous spectrum like bad candy.  And pre-digital we all seemed smart enough to filter and massage that light and make good pictures.  Here are a few other facts:  Sunlight is only "sunlight" when it's directly overhead.  It changes color characteristics depending on the angle relative to our position.  Sunlight is warmer at sunset, warmer in the morning, far bluer at higher altitudes.  Its CRI is affected by cloud cover, air pollution and all the stuff it reflects from.  And interior light is no more pure.  It's generally a mix of sunlight coming through heavily tinted windows, combined with ceiling mounted fluorescent lights, some MR16 track lights, a few incandescent can lights and the blue-ish glow of the ubiquitous computer screen.  And we've been shooting and correcting for these lighting environments for decades.  On film.  With ponderous cameras and far fewer tools.

So, am I to understand that just when we've invented cameras that make color correction almost mindlessly simple we can no longer shoot with any light source that's not nuts on perfect?  That's just bullshit.

But it's all pretty much moot now as the makers of panels with thousands of points of light bring us better and more compliant instruments.  At some point we'll have to come to grips with a new reality when our LED light sources become too clean and accurate for the changing target that is "daylight."

I shot the file above with little, cheap LED panels because I wanted to shoot at wide apertures and let the background slide out of focus.  I also wanted to be able to set up quick and not run cables to power outlets.  And, I was making a point.  The point was to add just the amount of light that would give direction to the light.   The file was fun to play with when I first messed with it and delivered it to an Annual Report client.

Recently I returned to the file and ran it through Lightroom 4.2.  The color correction was painless.  The program didn't care one bit what the CRI of the predominate light source happened to be.  It just rendered the file in a very pleasing way with very little steering on my part.

LEDs not ready to do real work?  Maybe you're just not using your imagination.  Then again it could be you are just stuck in your belief that there's only one "official" paradigm of lighting.  Of course, it could be that you're just not ready to be a photographer who lights outside the box....

All Of Kirk's Books.


  1. Kirk, I read your LED lighting book, and what I read made so much sense that I ultimately purchased 3 of the Fotodiox Pro 312AS LEDs that you later recommended on your blog. I followed your book's instructions to perform a custom white balance in the camera, by using the large gray patch of my ColorChecker Passport. The Canon 5D Mk II nailed the white balance EXACTLY. When I processed the files in Lightroom 4.0, and used the White Balance eye dropper tool on the gray patch, it didn't change a thing from what the 5D Mk II had set the White Balance to. The product shot came out looking great!

    I have since purchased some of the Rosco MinusGreen (Magenta) gels to clip onto the front diffuser of these LEDs, and with the 1/4 cut, they are indeed getting pretty close to 5600K, but I still perform a custom white balance in the camera.

    I do like the "you get what you see" apsect of shooting with LEDs vs. Flash. The LEDs do have limitations, like shooting objects (or people) in motion, or for group photos of more than 2 people, I just don't have enough lumens coming out of the 3 LEDs that I have, so I still have to resort to using flash in those situations. I will say that I really like the ease of using the continuous lighting of the LEDs more than the flash.

    1. Thanks Gregg. It's good to remember that you and are I getting good results out of lights that cost around $160 each and that there are instruments out there that put out tons more lumens, if we need them. I'm looking forward to using the Lowel Prime Lights. I think the higher output and 91 CRI will make them an interesting choice for a huge range of lighting needs.

    2. Kirk,

      I have not bought your book yet,(mea culpa), but can you elaborate a little on your technique of setting a custom white balance or better yet maybe make it a blog topic? Thanks!

      Bruce Bodine

    3. Bruce, every camera has different menu instructions for setting white balance. Just read the manual. It's usually a setting in white balance, aiming the camera at a white target and pushing one of the buttons. That's it. Not enough for a blog post.

  2. Just got your book as a Father's Day present yesterday, and read it through all at once - yes, it's that good. Thanks for the additional pointer to the Lowels!

    1. Thank you. I always appreciate good feedback.

  3. Perfectly natural lighting is a specialty need anyway. Most people look best during the "golden hour", and that is hardly pure white.

  4. Kirk, years ago I found that my thyroid condition contributed to an altered color vision, and even a difference in the color vision of each eye (my right eye sees things a bit warmer than my left eye). There are other conditions that can lead to such shifts in color vision, to the point that one article said about 20% of adults suffer from altered color vision to a certain extent.

    After reading such data, I decided that color balance, for me at least, would be less a matter of what is "accurate" than what is "right". Granted, I'm not producing photos for archival documentation, or even for a major clients quarterly report or full page 4 color magazine ad. I just look at the flesh tones and tweak what I have to so they look as pleasing as possible.

    As I read about the ways in which people wrestle with "perfect white balance", I wonder how we ever produced decent photos with Kodachrome 64 in shadows or cloudy weather or portable flashes that started to turn warm after a couple of years of regular use.

  5. The issue isn't a matter of color temperature or shifts, but of "spiky" color profiles where certain wavelengths are simply missing or are very underrepresented. This means photos taken under such lighting suffer from a form of color-blindness. That's not always a fatal defect, as you show very well, and it's wrong / ridiculous of people to by so dismissive.

    It's also wrong to be flippantly dismissive of work to improve the situation. It's technically possible to do better, and without any meaningful push to do so, we'll be stuck with poor color lighting both for photography and just for living. So, yeah, please continue to do work which pushes the boundaries with what exists, but why not also advocate for improvements?

    I think I've mentioned this here before, but CRI isn't really a very good metric, and NIST advocates a new measurement, Color Quality Scale, as a replacement. See http://www.nist.gov/pml/div685/grp05/vision_color.cfm. Since you have a not-insignificant influence on LED lighting in photography, I'd love to see you pushing for wider adoption of this scale — at the very least, it never hurts to have a better understanding of what we're working with, right? (This is a Science Lab, after all, isn't it?)

    1. The LED lighting world as it pertains to photographers is a moving target. Lights from Lowell, Altman and others are approaching 91 and 92 CRI. The problem is not dismissiveness or people not pushing for innovation the problem is two fold: 1. Lights get better at the expensive end first which means we know good LED's exist, most of us are waiting for the quality to trickle down the price ranges. 2. I'm not a paid lobbyist for the LED industry. I buy what I can afford for the uses I think are important and then I try to figure out how to make it work for me.

      If you think the film industry and the retail industries aren't constantly pushing the ball forward you need to read more.

    2. As mentioned, CRI isn't really a very good metric; "pushing 91 and 92" unfortunately doesn't mean what it seems like it should mean. On the other hand, that clearly doesn't prevent one from doing great things with them. I stand by my dual points: people are wrong to be dismissive on both sides.


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