Hot lights. Fun lights.

Hot Lights.  Fun Lights.
by Kirk Tuck

Written and then lost before posting nearly two years ago.  Finally resurrected for your consideration.....

A few days ago Michael Johnston, the writer/owner of a website called www.theonlinephotographer.com,  proposed a “new” learning exercise to master photography.  He suggested that the best way to learn is to buy a Leica rangefinder camera (film version) with one lens.  He suggested a 28mm, 35mm or a 50mm lens.  My choice would always be the 50mm but then I see everything in that focal length.  He further suggested using only a 400 ISO speed black and white negative film like Kodak’s Tri-X or Fuji’s Neopan 400.  His theory is that the finder is unexciting so the photographer must previsualize what he wants to shoot.  The film is a standardization so that one doesn’t spend time spinning wheels with too many choices.  The limited focal length choice teaches exactly what one will get in the frame every time.

Michael estimates that one should do the exercise with only the one camera, lens and film type for one year and that a photographer will learn an incredible amount about photography.  Since that’s basically the way I learned (out of student budget necessity) I’m inclined to agree that it’s a wonderful way to learn the craft.  And I would go further and say that if you are unsure about your skills in using a flash or doing lighting in general you might consider my lighting exercise.

I’m suggesting that you bag the flash altogether and get your hands on a basic hot light.  Believe me, you won’t be breaking the bank.  I’ve used Lowell DP lights and a bunch of other 650 watt to 1,000 watt hot lights from a number of makers and find that as long as you satisfy a few parameters just about anything will work.

Get a light like the Lowell DP, the Lowell Omni, a Smith Victor or any other fixture that has a way of focusing the beam of light it throws out and also has the ability to easily use a four way barn door attachment.  Make sure it uses quartz halogen lights and NOT photofloods (which have a very short life and quick color temperature decay).  If you really feel broke just head down to the discount hardware store and get a cheap set of work lights.  They won’t focus and you’ll have to make your barndoors out of Black Wrap (heavy duty black aluminum foil) but you’ll likely be able to press them into service for what I have in mind.  If you have money to burn you might want to look at getting a Mole Richardson 650 watt fresnel spot or an Altman or Arriflex 650 watt fresnel spot.  The glass lens on the front helps to focus the beam of light without adding any sharp edges.

Once you’ve got the light start over from scratch and learn to light again with the continous hot light.  The overwhelming reason is that you will see what you are going to get.  The light is the light.  If you’ve worked with flash, even with units that have great modeling lights, you know there is always a big difference between what you see before you click the shutter and what you actually see after the blast of flash freezes time.  The balance between ambient light and flash is always a mystery no matter how many times you’ve set up flashes and lit things.  You’d be lost without an LCD screen or a Polaroid.  Admit it.

But the beauty of the hot lights is that you really do get what you see.  If it’s beautifully lit it’s beautifully lit.  If you’ve got a mix of ambient light and hot light you can instantly see the relationship.
I think it’s best to start over and go through the steps to see how light really bounces around and reflects off stuff.  How little changes in angles and placement can make a big difference and how the continuous light allows you to instantly see all these relationships without even having to fire up your camera.
First things first.  Put a person in a chair and bounce your hot light off a high white ceiling.  Then really look at how the light cascades down that person’s face.  Next, take that light and bounce is off a white side wall and see how the shadows change.  Use a king size white bed sheet as a giant diffuser and see exactly how that light affects your subject.  And keep going until you’ve experimented with this one hot light in every possible permutation.

What you’ll find is that every tool limits it’s user.  It’s hard to drive a nail with a screwdriver and it’s hard to screw in a Phillips head screw with a hammer.  The little flashes you might be used to using seem to call for a harder, more concentrated approach to lighting.  The lust for portability drives most of us to use very lightweight and easily transported equipment.  This drives us to use smaller umbrellas, use smaller stands and less accessories.  The limited power of battery operated flashes pushes us to make decisions about placement and much more.

Studio flashes bring another set of potential restrictions:  We use them near power outlets.  We still don’t get “What you see is what you get lighting”  and even at low power we don’t always get to use the exact apertures we might want to use.  And here’s something else to think about....with flash you set up the lights and camera then you make an exposure and then check the exposure on your screen.  If you don’t like what you see you have to change something and then go throught the whole process again.  Certainly, pros who’ve done this stuff for decades will be able to do it faster than newbies but the disconnect between what you are seeing and what you want to see remains.  Lighting with flash is this amazingly iterative process that proceeds by fits and starts.

Hot lights make the whole process more elegant.  You can watch the light on your subject AS you move the hot lights and you’ll see every change of shadow and reflection.  If you decide to bring in a reflector to fill in a face on the opposite side of your subject you’ll be able to actually SEE those light ratios change.  And while it’s a learning process to interpret what the camera will finally render you’ll be more integrated into the flow of the process with hot lights.

Understand that I’m not advocating dumping your flashes and going back to the 1950’s with big movie lights dotting your studio.  I’m advocating using a hot light as an exercise or workshop because, if you are like me, and you’ve been doing this for a number of years you’ve learned to make accommodations and short cuts with flash and you’ve stopped really looking at the light.  You know how to get an effect because you’ve done it over and over again.  But the hot lights let you see it fresh each time because it’s not filtered through the process of “shoot, look, change, shoot.….”   And we haven’t even touched on how easy it is to incorporate a sense of motion into your images with the long exposures that hot lights encourage.

If you are new to lighting this little exercise can be an amazingly revealing shortcut that’s as cogent to learning as the LCD screen on the back of your camera.  And you can add additional lights by pulling the high intensity lamp off your desk or adding a regular lamp into a background.

If most of your lighting is outdoors in the high sun this is not an exercise for you.
The attached photo(s) were done with two hot lights.  One is positioned to the left of the shooting camera.  It’s a 1,000 watt Profoto ProTungsten light aimed thru a 78 by 78 inch white scrim.  The second light is a little 300 watt spot light aimed on a background about 25 feet behind the subject.  There are several things we haven’t touched on that I love about doing these portraits with continuous light.  First,  with ISO 800 in a D700 I can have my cake and eat it too.  I get smooth, grain free files with shutter speeds in the range of 1/125th of a second to 1/180th of a second at f4 or f5.6.  This means that when a great expression comes along I can lean on the shutter button and grab some great frames at 6 or 7 frames per second.  Second, working with hot lights means I can go anywhere I want on the aperture scale with impunity.  All I need to do is change my shutter speed so that the overall exposure stays the same. This makes shooting wide open at f2 or even f1.4 a snap.  Getting to the same spot with studio flash is a whole can of worms (and in many cases woefully ugly mixed lighting.…)

The photographs are of actors at Zachary Scott Theater.  Over the course of four days in May we photographed nearly sixty people for a season brochure.  The images included theater patrons, board members, community supporters and even staff.  My lighting design changed with each category of sitters.  Some were done on white backgrounds.  Some on canvas.  My intention in using hot lights for this project was to make the images softer and to have very shallow depth of field within the frame.  The continuous source works so well with sitters as there are no blinks from anticipating the flash.
I have another project in mind where I’d like to use all florescent fixtures ( or LEDs)  but that’s something I’ll talk about in a future column.

If you have the opportunity be sure to give the hot light exercise a shot.  Everyone learns something new with the lights on.….


Alex said...

Here is a photographer who actually did the "one camera, one lens" exercise: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fingerprinz/

Wally Brooks said...

Would LED's give the same look and feel, everything else being the same, as the hot lights? For the diffusion panel I think LED would work for the back light not so certain but with a light modifier maybe?? Also I did get your LED book and recommend it to anyone thinking about lighting.

kirk tuck said...

Hi Wally, I use the same technique in lots of examples in the book. You'll need more fixtures to make up the power difference...or just use a higher ISO. Thanks for the recommendation of the LED book. I appreciate it.

theaterculture said...

Terrific writing here - and great advice. Seems to me that more and more of what you're talking about in the blog is the difference between learning "how to" and learning "about." WIth digital gear it's so easy to go through this iterative process where you eventually get to a good result without really understanding what you've done, at which point you know "how to" but may get stuck on thinking that the particular gear or combination of settings constitute a magic secret. The hotlights actually force you to grapple with the theory of light and learn about illumination itself. Once you know that, the actual gear becomes secondary.

ohnostudio said...

I still have my old 1980 Smith Victor. I was going to give it away but then I thought twice. It takes up a little storage room, but I find uses for it even now.