10.02.2016

A good, small working system. Right under my nose.


In the 1990s I spent a great deal of time shooting with a small Leica system. Usually a couple of M6 cameras (the .72 and .85) as well as the 24mm, the 50mm and 90mm focal lengths. All five items fit into a small, Domke shoulder bag and were never the kind of burden I've since experienced with a couple of full sized DSLRs and the usual "Holy Trinity" of zoom lenses: The 17-35mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8 and the monstrous 70-200mm f2.8. Those five pieces in a bag would quickly make one's spine lopsided or the small of one's back a war zone.

It's seems like all but most dense or the most physically courageous have left the punishing load of cameras behind and embraced some of the smaller systems. A good idea unless someone is paying you thousands of dollars per day to haul the freight. As a (hard) working professional who carries his own bags I'm still a bit stuck. I'm using the Sony full frame A7 series and while the two bodies I use are lighter and smaller than my previous gear I would not be gaining much (or, indeed, any) advantage once I added in Sony's gargantuan, fast zoom optics. Their 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm f2.8 lenses are no smaller or lighter than anyone else's and, in most cases are a bit more weighty.

My workaround for the Sony system is the same one I used for the previous Canon system: get better optical performance and less of a physical workout by purchasing and using the same basic lenses but choose the ones with the f4.0 aperture instead of the prestige f-stops. In nearly every system the pro lenses that are one stop slower are sharper, contrastier and better corrected. I won't find out if that's true in the Sony system because I never intend to drop the money (or suffer the burden of carrying them long enough) to find out.

This past week I shot a couple of dress rehearsals for Zach Theatre. We did one for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and we did one for a children's play, Charlotte's Web. In both cases I wanted to use cameras that were silent. At Priscilla we had a full audience and I was positioned near the videographer who was recording theater sound in addition to having a patch from the main sound board. At Charlotte I was surrounded by kids and parents and the space we were shooting in was more intimate than the main, Topfer stage.

I have two cameras that feature the option to use the shutter in a silent mode (just counting interchangeable lens models; both of my RX10ixx models have the same silent abilities), the A7Rii and the a6300. During Priscilla I shot with the 70-200mm on the A7Rii and used the 18-105mm f4.0 G lens on the a6300. They were quite silent, but here I also have a tip for people just starting out in theatrical photography or performance work: Turn off the review screen on the back. If there is an audience then chimping on a brightly illuminated screen is sure to piss off everyone behind you... Suck it up and buy a camera with an EVF and then select EVF-only for your review options. When you stop to chimp during a performance you'll just look like a guy in a partial coma instead of an indifferent asshole.

As you probably expect, the performance from the A7Rii and the big zoom lens is pretty great. Wonderful detail and the ability to be used at ISO 6400 with no worries. But the camera that made me smile both times was the a6300. It's small and light and resembles my old and nostalgically remembered Leicas. I use it mostly with fun little primes but the 18-105mm is sharp and lightweight. It's the perfect selection of focal lengths for the work I've been doing and the handing is straightforward --- at least if feels like it now that I've been using it for a good while....

Though small and light the EVF is very good and the overall response of the camera: focus, zooming, viewing and taking, is very good as well. After looking through several thousand images shot in the space of a week I can honestly say I'd feel confident going out with just that camera and lens to shoot just about anything; from a conference to a portrait session. Of course, I am "old school" so I'd want an extra body in the bag as a back-up, and while I'm taking up space with back up bodies I guess I'd also toss in a similar lens as well. No sense traveling across town or half way around the world and then suffering through a camera accident or failure.

Sony has packed a lot of capability into a very small package. One that can almost keep up with the full frame flagship from that company. I'm carrying it with me to San Antonio tomorrow. I've got meetings and obligations but what a perfect tool for pulling out of the messenger bag just to snap a few shots between the endless cups of coffee and the sometimes false camaraderie of commerce.


What has changed in LED lighting technology?

RPS Dotline, 50 watt SMD LED.

When I started working on my book about LED lights for photographers there were limited choices in the general configurations of LED lights that were affordable for most hobbyists (and pros buying a second or third lighting system) to choose from. Nearly all LEDs aimed at photographers and videographers were small, rectangular constructions that depending on grouping dozens or hundreds of small, low powered, individual bulbs. Cost effective bulbs were small and low powered and so, to get enough lumens on a subject to be effective, the designers depended on strength in numbers. At one time I owned several panels that had 1,000 individual bulbs. 

These panels worked. They were especially useful in situations that required soft light since they were necessarily large in size and could be easily diffused. The granddaddy of the multiple bulbed panels was LitePanels. At the time of my book publication one 1 foot by 1 foot LitePanel was around $1800. If all you wanted  from your light was a biggish, diffused source then these were very practical. But most videographers, directors of photography on TV and movie sets and photographers wanted more flexibility. We wanted to be able to use LEDs the same way we used to use flash and tungsten. We wanted to have strong, highly collimated light if we wanted to create hard shadows or place a shaft of light with any sort of precision. 

While the price of multi-bulb panels dropped and became more and more widespread in the field higher end light manufacturers started working with a new technology: High Density, Surface Mount Device (SMD) LEDs. This technology allowed LED makers to radically shrink the surface area required for the LEDs down to the basic area of a traditional bulb. Or smaller. The first applications came at the high end as lighitng manufacturers for film and stage started engineering fresnel spot lights with the new SMDs. 

About three years ago Fiilex and several other light makers started introducing what we used to call "open face" instruments. These were smallish lights with high output SMDs. The advantages were all about controlling the character of light. A smaller source gives you the ability to have either a hard light or a softlight by using the lights bare or with various softening modifiers. The advantage beyond lighting character was portability. The lights could be made smaller and in more practical shapes and that meant we could toss three or four Fiilex 360s into a small case and light in lots of different locations. 

I got samples of the Fiilex units early on and I was very impressed with the light quality the created. The one thing I was unsatisfied with was their output. It was hard to use them in some situations because they would be overpowered by ambient lighting in industrial and office environments. There were more powerful SMD LEDs available but at the time the pricing for those upgrades was staggering. For example, Fiilex makes and markets a unit with the same output as a traditional 1K (thousand watt tungsten) for around $2500. Given that you need three or four matched units in a kit and the pricing for an individual photographer (who must still have a strobe system....) becomes unworkable. 

But around two years ago I happened upon a boxed product at my local retailer. They'd done a poor job at displaying the product and I had never heard of it before. It was an RPS product. In the box was a 100 watt (500 tungsten equivalent) SMD LED configured like a monolight. It uses a Bowens mount for speedrings and reflectors and has simple power level controls in the back. The price at the time was $299, which is a relatively painless "toe in the water." I bought one to test. With a simple custom white balance it was good. And bright. And (with a whisper fan) pretty quiet. 

The ability to use these lights with soft boxes, umbrellas, shoots, grids and all the usual cinematic modifiers quickly sold me on the concept and I purchased two more of the big units and two of the lower power (50W) units. Each light came with a standard, bowens reflector, a set of barn doors and a diffusion "sock" that fits over the front of the reflector. 

Since the electronics and the light source of an SMD LED light are more concentrated heat management becomes part of the engineering equation and all of the SMD lights (cheap and dear) that I have played with come with cooling fans. The RPS versions are very, very quiet and, in all but the most anechoic environments, would be okay for shooting video interviews with sound. 

I have used the SMD LEDs to light lots of food, products, interviews, portraits and more. I have intermixed them with smaller panels I have in inventory around the studio and I have mixed them with indirect sunlight. They have worked well. In particularly light being able to use them in medium sized soft boxes since I can now light portrait set ups with half the number of stands I needed when using large, multi-bulb LED panels. I would need one stand for the panel light and one more stand at each station to hold the modifier. My total investment in SMD LED lights is about $1200 for five instruments. 

While I'm talking about RPS product here I want to quickly say that it appears the same basic SMD LED light source is being used in quite a number of inexpensive units that come from China. Godox, Fotodiox, and Alzo all seem to use the same basic form factors and the same Bowens mount fitting which leads me to believe that all the units start life at the same factory but have the option of customizing the casing, features, etc. 

Anecdotally, the 100 watt units seem to garner the highest number of good reviews and a lower number of instances of failure then do the newer, 200 watt versions. While the extra one stop of output would be nice, I think I'll err on the side of reliability for now. 

The shift from big panels to compact, flash-like, lighting configurations (made possible by the SMD tech) is changing the market. I'm pretty certain we'll see a shift away from the multi-bulb panels except for permanent installations (TV studios, etc.) as the newer form factor, made possible by the concentration of light power, makes these units easier to transport and much more versatile as lighting instruments. Given how clean middle ISOs (400-1600) are in the newest cameras and you can see that the combination of technical advances leverages in both directions. 

There are plenty of instance in which I still depend on electronic flash. When I fly out of town on jobs I tend to take multiple smaller flashes and radio triggers because they travel well and can be massed if I need to mix with sunlight. In some very critical instances the more balanced spectrum of flash can be discernible on projects where flesh tone rendering (skin) it critical. 

The one Achiiles heel (only for photographers) is that in order to match the power of sun light with continuous lighting you need sources that are very strong. If you put people in front of these lights you will invariably get squinting and blinking. This application; matching the power of sunlight, will be the provence of short duration flash for the foreseeable future. 

In the studio, shooting product, I can't imagine a nicer lighting tool than an open face SMD LED light that takes popular flash modifiers. For travel on small planes to remote locations I can't imagine a better set of tools than a rolling case filled with 120 watt second, battery powered flashes and a bunch of high capacity batteries. As usual, it's a case of choosing "the right tool for the job." 

If you are running out to buy some SMD LEDs you probably should be aware that the current "budget" lights, like the ones I've been using, are not as highly corrected, color wise, as the more expensive models. While it's hard to find real numbers you want to look for a CRI (color rendering index) of over 91 and preferably over 95. Don't expect to find this in any of the under $500 units. 

It's an issue if you must correctly match daylight but in most cases, working in controllable studio settings, custom white balancing your camera will give you files that are pretty close to perfect. I found great value in using continuous light sources like the SMD LEDs in a recent assignment we did shooting small, glass ampoules for a client. I was able to work at 1:1 with a macro lens and instantly choose an aperture/shutter speed ratio that worked for required depth of field with various sized objects. I was able to use the lights in close and not worry about heat or the optical aggravation of intermittent pops of bright light (flash). It's a calm and relaxing way to work. 

I'd love to say that a generalist could make a career with just LEDs as his or her lighting tools but we still need a good combination of tools. LEDs can be a much more efficient and easy to use source but flash still has mission critical features in lots of situations. It's good to have access to both. 


An example of a primitive and very inexpensive multi-bulb panel from yesteryear. 



The diffusion cone helps to emulate the character of a classic bulb.





Old, 500 bulb panels. Perfect for shooting food...


New SMD LED in softbox. Less stand clutter.