Why LEDs? And what was I thinking?
By Kirk Tuck
So. I finished writing four books and I was ready to take a break. Then I ghost-wrote a marketing book for a friend and I was really ready to take a break. But my publisher was insistent. Didn't I have something I wanted to write for them? Well, I did have one thing I was keenly interested in, but I wasn't sure anyone else would really care. I pitched the people at Amherst Media on a book about LED lights, and they went for it.
Once I signed the contract the reality of what I'd done kicked in. With my previous books I could fall back on a rich library of past assignments done with flashes and various cameras. I could fall back on twenty-odd years of experience divining just how best to use the lights of the day. I could steal from the best, like Jon Falk, who really was so instrumental in turning us all on to portable lights, homemade battery packs, and off-camera lights.
But when it came to LED lights I was as naked and uninitiated as the next guy. In fact, when I pitched the book, I'd only done a handful of commercial assignments with the lights and just a couple of small, industrial videos. But I had a nagging sense that LED lighting equipment, mostly small panels, was poised to change photography. And video production. With that in mind, I spent a year experimenting and playing and learning everything I could about the lights. Then I sat down and pounded out my book.
Since every studio has an equipment cabinet full of electronic flashes in the form of monolights, pack-and-head systems, and battery-powered flashes, why would anyone care about a relatively low-output light source that needed some color correction intervention? Why indeed.
But as I looked over the photographic landscape I noticed a few things that gave me pause. Since everyone was using essentially the same kind of lighting and the same kinds of modifiers (flash, with umbrellas and softboxes and grids) everyone's work was starting to look like everyone else's work. Sure, some few photon workers had some post processing they'd throw into the mix for a bit of differentiation but the foundations of the images all cloyed together like visual and cultural mud.
And when I looked at the professionals a couple of generations younger than me I saw a group of people who could swim back and forth between video and stills with a fluid effortlessness that made me envious. These were people who could shoot both sides of the divide without missing a beat. But they were trained by people like me who were already mired in the sticky status quo of photographic tradition. We made sure they knew how to flash. What they needed now weredual-purpose lights. Lights that could do still life, portraits, product shots, and movies and videos without changing a thing. They were pushing for them. And I realized that was exactly what LED lighting was all about. It could go either way.
After two years with the LEDs I am more comfortable shooting a portrait with a continuous light source than a flash. We've started to light stuff more like DPs on movie sets and less like 1970s portrait studios.
I've done some research and I've found that my subjects are more comfortable too. Seems that repeated flash causes the pupil to contract and expand over and over again. That causes optical fatigue and headaches. It affects both the shooter and the models. Flashes also encourage blinking because people subconsciously gird themselves against the popping onslaught of photons. (Are they waves or particles? Or waves of particles?) The continuous light allows use to become habituated. Comfortable in a way that flash never does.
I've assembled enough LED power to put a prodigious amount of lumens through a big diffusion panel and still get exposures like ƒ/5.6 at 1/250th at ISO 400. With a good camera I can push the ISO higher and get even more action stopping exposure settings. And it seems natural.
In the course of writing the book I've come across dozens of experts who tried an LED panel or two back in the early part of the century. They came away with the permanent prejudice that the lights were all over the map color-wise, and not nearly powerful enough to use with the still cameras of the day. (I remember how bad the high ISOs were on cameras like the Kodak DCS 760.) That's all changed. And the days of being dependent on using ISO 80 to get good quality are long gone.
There are compromises. They will change. Right now only the most expensive LED panels have real CRI's (color rendering indexes) of 90 or more; 90+ is thought to be the gold standard for getting really accurate color spectra. Most of the less expensive imports advertise CRI's of 80. But most of us don't shoot under "gold standard" studio conditions anyway. We've learned to shoot well in mixed light, florescent light, and combinations of daylight and artificial light.
LED panels, especially the inexpensive ones, have some rough edges. They could be brighter. And almost all of them suffer from a treatable green spike (or magenta dip) in their overall spectrum. But now they are easily correctable with appropriate magenta filtration. And when using a camera like the Nikon D3s or the Canon 5D Mark III, you'll have more than enough clean ISO to do just about any kind of photo short of filling in shadows in direct sunlight.
I think they have their place in providing a new way to shoot. I'm particularly happy with the portrait work I like to do in black and white. The tonality is different from other light sources, and the subdued magenta makes for better skin tones. I like the calmness of working with them when shooting people who are unused to a traditional "flash" studio experience.
So, I wrote the book and discussed what I'd found. I tossed in 250+ samples and examples and I talked about using the lights for video as well. If you've been curious about what's out there beyond flash, this book might be for you. The video guys have pushed the "new tech" market hard. There's innovation and value pricing everywhere. It's all to our advantage. The push of efficient lights with better and better rendering characteristic means we photographers pay much less for good LED lights than ever before. It may be time to stick a toe in the water and see what it's all about.
Kirk's new book, LED Lighting: Professional Techniques for Digital Photographers (U.K. link)
Kirk's Recommended LED Products
Fancier 500 LED Light Panel ($179.99). This is the basic 500 LED light. It's got four switches on the back to ratio power. It's bare bones. No color control or battery adapter. But it's cheap and rugged.
Fancier 160 Dimmable LED Camcorder Light ($59.99). These are my favorite cheap, battery-powered LED Panels. We use them for everything. Even put them in jack-o-lanterns for Halloween. They use AA batteries or cheap, generic Lithium batteries that are a copy of the Sony camcorder batteries. They have a stepless control for power. No color control, but a slot for supplied filters.
Litepanels 1x1' 3200K/5600K Bi-Color LED Flood (pictured at the top of the post) ($2,329.95). This is definitely the high-priced spread. This is what they use in the White House News Room. And in network TV. And in the photo studios of the still photography demigods. It's the Litepanels 1x1 LED with two set of colored bulbs, daylight and tungsten. By cross fading between the two sets you can shift color balance from 3200–5600K. These are the "gold standard" of the industry. (Kirk says, "I want four. Hello, Santa?")
Fotodiox 1000ASV Still/Video LED Light Kit ($429.95). Kirk's big favorite. Here's a light that is dimmable with a rotary knob and, with a separate knob, will cross-fade between tungsten and daylight bulbs to hit any color temperature between 2300k and 5600k. It comes with an AC power adapter and is wired and plugged to accept Sony V-type 12V batteries for location use. For the price it's pretty astounding. You'll still need to add in a bit of filtration for the green spike.
Fotodiox 312AS Still/Video LED Light Kit ($158.95). And here's a smaller, lighter unit that does the two-color cross-fade along with the stepless dimming control. Comes with two generic Sony-type camcorder batteries, a charger and a set of color filters. I'm buying one right now, today, before this post goes up, so I can be sure to get one for myself [me too. —Ed.]. A perfect size in a nice kit.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Gerry Morgan: "I've just finished reading Kirk's LED Lighting book and it's superb. The little I knew about LEDs before reading it I had gleaned from Kirk's blog. The book was a fun read and a great primer. Armed with Kirk's technical information (and safety warnings—don't stare at those LEDs), I now feel ready to get started."
Featured Comment by Rick: "...Me too! Thanks, gentlemen—I never really looked into this, as a quick search made it look like $X,XXX to get into this. But I'm now on my way.... :-) "
Featured Comment by Mike Plews: "Great piece. I'm a TV news shooter and we keep Fancier 500A fixtures in our cars for live hits. In the last year we started going from traditional live trucks to IP-based live reporting. TVU backpacks if anyone is interested. The problem with this is the loss of a full truck with its generator to run a couple of Lowel lights.
"The Fancier runs just fine off a cigarette lighter inverter or a 12v battery. The 500A also has a dimmer in addition to the individual switches. That means on night hits you can set up the camera to get the background where you want it then stand the talent in place and use the dimmer to balance it all out. You can do the same thing by feathering the lights or walking them back but when you are up against it just being able to spin a knob is very cool.
"We also put Litepanels micro instruments on top of all our cameras for run-and-gun shooting. If you want to get cute you can pull the light off and hold it at arms length to get nice off-axis light when working in the dark.
"The progress in LED lighting in the last couple of years has been amazing. You can really get a lot of light for not much dough these days. That's a good thing."