How my work with video is now affecting my photographic lighting.

It's odd. I have been a working photographer for more than 30 years and in most of that time, while I may have dabbled in constant light sources (LED, Tungsten, Fluorescent..) my commercial work was done mostly with electronic flash. In the early days it was because film was relatively insensitive and the bigger formats we worked in demanded smaller apertures to keep everything we wanted to have in focus sharp.

Our first studio electronic flashes were huge and heavy. I remember why we needed assistants so desperately, a Norman PD 2000 power pack weighed in at over 30 pounds; we traveled with three of them. Add in the flash heads and the heavy light stands and there was no way one could survive going out of the studio solo.

Eventually flashes got smaller and more efficient. In tandem we moved from large format to medium format and then; mostly, to a 35mm style of camera (this transition coinciding also with the advent of primitive digital cameras) and the overall gear package shrunk in size and weight.

I never truly abandoned studio flash and up until very recently
had mono-lights and a few "pack and head" systems from Elinchrom, Photogenic and Profoto lingering about the studio like aging actresses reclining on chaise lounges, waiting for their rarer and rarer moments in the spotlight.

When I started shooting an equal amount of video in my day-to-day work I knew I needed to acquire lights that provided constant output and great color so I've worked my way through successive generations of LED lights with a few diversions into fluorescent and tungsten lights. When I changed over to the newer Aputure Lightstorm LED panels (supplemented with a few Amaran LED panels from the same company) I was pretty sure I would be doing most of my work; both photography and video, with these lights. And, for the most part it works.

This had led to a sustained sell off/giveaway of many of the older flashes. As of today I have only three traditional, plug in the wall, flash units. Two are PhotoGenic PowerLights that are 600 w/s units with digital interfaces on the back and 1/10th of a stop controls. The other is an ancient, Elinchrom EL 500 mono-light that pops out 250 watt seconds and has sliders that allow one to go from full power down to a quarter power.

When you consider that only a year ago I had three or four times the number of units you can see that the shedding of older flash gear has been a priority for me. I hate having all the clutter around my office and I hate to see potentially useful gear (for someone) just languish.

What I've found in my romance with LEDs is that they are great for many things but stumble in a few categories in which strobes excel. While they are great for still life photography, considered portraiture and, of course, video they are not up to freezing motion or matching the power of the sun in applications where that's necessary.

The essence of my current rejection of big, heavy, last century flash gear is what I have learned in recent months while going on location to create both video programming and stills for advertising, using the same cameras and much of the same gear. The LEDs work for lots of situations, but not all. By the same token I just can't bear the thought of dragging along one set of lights for the video half of a job and an additional heavy burden of big flashes for the moments when I need the attributes of electronic flash. Too much gear. Too much weight. And handling that's too slow for the current pace of engagement.

This has led me back to the path I was heading down in 2005 and 2006 when I first started using multiples of Nikon Speedlights with radio triggers and I.R. triggers to take the place of big flashes in my every day location work. An article I wrote, using the images of Dell's CEO as examples of small flash capability, led to an invitation to write a book about the techniques I was using. The book, Minimalist Lighting for Professional Location Photographers, was a distillation of the trend toward smaller, battery operated, remote controllable lighting. But somehow, after the successful publication of the book I reflexively went back to the nostalgic "safety" of my older working methods. Big flashes with big soft boxes and lots of power cables running across the floor.

Recently, on a trip to Oklahoma City, I imagined (correctly) that I'd need some flash for some of the situations in which I faced mixed lighting or lots of sunlight. I also knew that my powerful LEDs took more time to set up and use than would a smaller, portable flash. The LEDs were mandatory for video work but smaller flashes were indicated for some of the photography work.

I bought a couple of Godox flashes that use big, dedicated lithium ion batteries and which can be controlled by radio triggers sitting in the hot shoes of my cameras. I brought them along and used them with stand adapters and various umbrellas. They were the perfect, low profile adjunct for the LEDs.

I seem to have come full circle to that period of time in which I was experimenting with everything that could hold a battery and pop out reasonable flash power. The radio trigger technology seems mature and the inexpensive flashes seem to be holding up well. Gone, I think, are the days when we will willing drop $600+ for a camera manufacturer's dedicated, top of the line flash. Especially if you are not tied to the idea that everything needs to be TTL....

The one area that left me in a quandary is the occasional requirement for more power or for sustained bursts of flash. Something like shooting an actor in front of a white background and shooting fast for a range of expressions. That seemed to me to be a use situation that isn't quite perfect for smaller, battery powered flashes. With that in mind I've kept around the three mono-lights I mentioned above.

Recently a reader suggested that I look at another, newer product from Godox. The product is called the AD200 and it resembles, mostly, a black brick. It's a flash unit that comes with its own high output Li-on battery pack, can knock out 500+ full power flashes, is radio controllable, recycles in about 2 seconds at full power, has interchangeable flash heads that provide a traditional speed light-fresnel fronted flash tube assembly as well as an interchangeable bare bulb head. As their model number indicates the AD200's spit out 200w/s at full power. More than enough to work in a softbox or out in direct sun.  A pair of them would seem to be just what the light doctor ordered. And the kicker is that they are only $300 each, including both flash tube configurations.

I read everything I could find about the lights and ordered one with the idea that I'll try it out and, if it works as intended, I'll buy at least one more.

The lure is being able to pack two of these units in a very small bag and be able to hit the ground on an assignment, set up, and shoot in minutes. And with about three times the power output of a conventional, battery-powered speed light.

The first unit should arrive tomorrow and I'll test it and get familiar with it immediately so I can bring it along on Monday to photograph at a law firm downtown.

If the AD200 works as I hope I'll finish the process of jettisoning the last remnants of my "last century" lighting inventory and a lot of the heavier trappings that go along with that method.  This will allow me to have flash and LED on location without the need for ever more checked baggage and with the chance to put my big, fat light stands on a diet.


Mike Rosiak said...

You obviously are not on autopilot, either in your vocation, or your avocation. Good for you! I believe that's the key to staying young forever.

Anthony Bridges said...

I really dig your cover photo for this article.

ODL Designs said...

Great article, I haven't every replaced my first set of studio strobes which I bought for that price performance blanace (Alien Bees 800 and 1600), I just keep sending them off for the odd repair.

I did take advantage of the firesale when Olympus moved to m43rds a number of years ago, and many users were selling their FL50Rs and bought 3 for about $170 each, plus an FL30R for about $100. Those I keep as my portable set-up.

Those Apurture Amaran LEDs are very nice. I was a bit dissappointed with one I bought that was not as neutral as my first few. But all in all very nice LED lights. I just need to pony up for a bit more output with the Lightstorm versions.

There is so much variety today I can barely keep up.

neopavlik said...

I've still got : 3 Einsteins for studio , 1 Xplor TTL for outdoors, 1 Rovelight (outdoors backup), and Intellytech 485W Bi-Color LED and RPS CooLED 150W Bi-Color LED both for video though I haven't really shot those yet.

My recent purchase was a Sekonic spectrometer ( color meter ) to help balance the LEDs as close as possible and try to make colors that stand out.