Oh the things you can do with those LED lights!!!! (Apologies to Dr. Suess).

Every day I read some expert on the web who tells the unwitting and incurious that LED lights aren't ready for prime time, can't be of interest to photographers as long as we can get our hands on some sort of flash mechanism, don't hold a candle to the brilliance of XXX other lighting  equipment. But I fundamentally disagree. If you want to do interesting things it helps to use interesting tools. And I find LEDs most interesting. 

The image of Erin, above, was done for Zach Scott Theatre's (world) premier of Steven Dietz's play, Mad, Hip, Beat and Gone. The lead tech and I decided on LED lighting for the session because we were shooting for both video and a stills and, well, flash doesn't work so well for video. We were shooting black and white and we're projecting the images up to 24 by 30 feet as part of the on stage production design. The look, feel and style of the images is just what the art folks wanted. And the two hours we spent working under the cool lighting of the LEDs was pleasant. Four lights, a couple modifiers.

Of course the web experts will tell you that you can't get good color out of LEDs but that's not true either. The above shot of the cook is lit with LEDs mixed with the lighting in the kitchen. If you look at the inexpensive florescent bulbs under the hood vent you'll see a classic green spike. But that was coming from the Flos, not the LEDs. I could have used flash but why? This is the image I was looking for and the blend of light sources is part of the magic. Need more color purity? Turn off the overheads and put more LEDs in to take their places. (color pumped up but not corrected in Snapseed).
From the very first day I used a decent, modern LED that plugged into the wall I've been sold on the what you see is what you get accuracy of the way the lights track. I like the way they can mix and blend with ambient lighting and I love the quick, no hassle set ups. When I go battery powered I love the fact that I can get good color, ample output and not have cords to trip over.

In fact, I liked LEDs so much I asked my publisher at Amherst Media if I could write a book about the subject. It's still the only book out in the market for photographers that is a dedicated introduction to LED lighting. If you are curious about the future of lighting I humbly suggest you read my book. At the very least you may come away comfortable with what you already have in your light kit but with some curiosity satisfied. 

I'm loving their use as Hybrid Lights. Crossing over between video and stills. Easily. 

Here's a link to the book at Amazon:  LED LOVE

Note: Don't want the book but want to support the VSL blog? Any link you click on here will take you to Amazon and, on that particular adventure, anything you buy counts. I'll get a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Thanks very much for the support!


  1. I couldn't agree more. Your book was very helpful in helping me get my feet wet in lighting with LEDs.

    Lately I've taken to making my own fixtures with inexpensive strips of LEDs available at Amazon, mounted on foam core. I haven't spent more than $50 making one of these. There are two favorite things I like to do with these.

    One, since they're so small, light, and cool, I can use them very close in for really dramatic falloff. This is nothing groundbreaking, but it's a lot less hassle than a big softbox.

    Two, if I fill a big piece of foam core with multiple strips, I get nice soft shadows just like with any larger light source. But here's the kicker - if I use it undiffused (be careful of your subject's eyes) I get soft shadows but with the very high contrast / high specularity you can't get with a traditional light source. It's a look I literally couldn't get any other way.

    And did I mention how much fun it is making my own stuff?

  2. LED's are so promising and I love the ideas I get from the book. Hopefully taking time out to write for the rest of us has worked out ok from a reward standpoint. I need to focus on finding ways to take advantage of the portability and adapting to not being able to simply throw a beauty dish on a mono. It as been a hard lesson for some reason.

  3. Kirk--

    Would you do a post illustrating the output power of the different sizes of LED lights you have?

    I bought the $30-something 160-LED light and the $160 Fotodiox 312-LED lights that you've recommended. I expected the 312 to be brighter since, well, it's got twice as many LEDs. Not so! Half of the lights are a different color to enable the WB matching, so the 160 light panel is actually a bit brighter than the 312 light panel.

    I'd like to add bigger panels, maybe 500 or 1000 units, but I'd like to have better understanding of their power relative to one another. I have your book on LED lighting but don't recall seeing a comparison of the lights. I'd think lots of folks would find that helpful.

    But I could be wrong.

    1. +1 I'd find that helpful too.

      Every time I look at the prices of LED lights they get cheaper, currently the 160 units are $20 including delivery on ebay. They are so cheap you can't afford not to have some.

      But which one should I buy..... are the el-cheapo $20 units good enough? I mostly shoot Tmax400 or Delta so I really don't care about WB

  4. The cook photo is really cool and the mixed light sources add to the drama.

  5. Hi Kirk,

    I'm looking at ideas of getting back into wedding photography but want to do it with LED lighting. What would you recommend? Or do you have a chapter in your book for that and I should buy the book? :) I hate the high cost and recharge times of flashes, as well as the general harshness of it. I would love to get a consistent light from it but curious if you or others have done weddings with it and any situations where it gets used as a flash to it comes on and off real quick or are LED's always just on or off? I'd be curious to see if a priest would like lights on if they were always that way. :)


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