Constant Light.

I’ve been working on getting things sorted for next year’s projects, by researching and educating myself more thoroughly on the way to properly present and shoot products. I have the goods when it comes to capturing the image – my camera is incredible and I have proper glass. There are a few other areas I need to sort – camera mounting and stability, and lighting. The first to get tackled is lighting as I already own enough to tweak my setup slightly and greatly increase the quality. Under studio conditions, controlled conditions in other words, there’s no realistic alternative to light objects other than flash. 

There’s three types of studio lighting available; constant light, speed light and studio flash. Constant light is inappropriate for anything other than video work, so not worth considering for me. Speedlights are something I already own and studio flash requires quite a lot of investment in equipment to achieve consistent, powerful flash quality. I guess it also has an impact on the studio space, with more needed to move these bigger lights around properly, so bigger boom stands, giraffe stands, C-stands etc. The big plus however, and one of the main reasons that all professional studios use studio flash units, is the modelling light; that is the constant light built into the flash head allowing you to see what effect the flash will give once fired. 

For me and the product photography I do, and the objects that I photograph 100% of the time, demands maximum control over the light position, reflections and quality. In the past I’ve spent far too much time with a trial and error approach because, as mentioned, I only own speedlights, the small battery powered flash units that are synonymous with paparazzi. I’ve also, because of this time required, taken to using an LED panel to take on-the-fly photographs, as I can see where the light is hitting and adapt quicker and achieve nicer photographs. This has a massive impact on the shutter speed, ISO and aperture I can use however, so most of my photographs are either wide open f/1.4 or incredibly dark. The upside though, is that speed lights can be cheap – £40-50 for a wireless, high-power flash unit. The ones I have are all Yongnuo III, which are £40-50, wireless and group-able. Which is brilliant when coupled with a wireless transceiver, as you can group flashes together and control the power and zoom of each group wirelessly from the camera. This is really hand, for the times when I have a flash way above my head or a multiple flash setup. Before using this transceiver control unit, I had to reach up to or pull down the speedlight to change any setting, or walk around changing all speedlights individually, take a photo and then do it all again to tweak the power of each flash. Now I can control any and all flashes from the camera mounted unit in an instant, and group sets of flashes so I can control 2 or more in each group simultaneously. It’s brilliant. 

The awkward downside to a speedlight is the inability to see what your flash will do before it flashes; there is no modelling light available. So either I do what I’ve been doing in the past, which is mostly guesswork followed by constant tweaking of positions and hope for the best, sometimes getting lucky, mostly not. Or the alternative is to add a modelling light to the speedlight. Now that’s pretty easy in terms of the main overhead “bare bulb” speedlight as I can just screw on a normal bulb beside the flash and voilà, we have a modelling light. This light goes behind a scrim and thus no problem. As long as the camera settings are set to a quick enough speed/small enough aperture, the modelling light isn’t captured, just the flash. The problem however comes when using flash modifiers, or things you stick on the end of a flash to make it something more. This could be a softbox, or a snoot, or a beauty dish etc. How does one get a bulb inside this thing without A: interfering with the flash i.e. leaving a big shadow, B: causing a fire hazard and C: make it easy to swap out modifiers with ease.

I found my solution in the form of LED strips. These inexpensive, very bright, very small lights are easy to manipulate, come on a sticky backing and are, if you are willing, solderable. Therefore I could create inside each modifier a group of LED’s with a tail sticking out of the end to accept the power cord and we should be in business. There was a few questions remaining however, which mainly were 1: will the LED’s be bright enough to illuminate sufficiently the area which the flash would light and thus give me an idea of what the modifier would do? 2: will the LED’s, due to being numerous point sources of light rather than one central bulb like the studio flashes, cause some strange multi-shadow effect that would negate or impact point #1? And 3: how would I mount the LED’s in such a fashion to both allow me to swap out modifiers easily but also not impact the flash at all?

The starting point would be to firstly set up a standard from which I could begin assembling my modifiers, and that is how I would mount my speedlights to modifiers. Traditionally I would have to mount a special speedlight modifier to a speedlight with another mount, for example an umbrella mounted to a speedlight bracket. However if I instead bought mounts that would allow me to use general modifiers, this would allow me to use more types of modifier…in other words if I bought a speedlight to bowens mount. This is a large mount with a big screw clamp that you stick the speedlight into, screw it down and it allows you to use bowens type modifiers. Step one complete.

I found some 1200 lumen LED strip online and bought some pre-wired power tails, some wire and a power brick, as well as a soldering iron. This turned out to be quite powerful and I hoped it would be enough to light up enough through a modifier to give me a proper modelling light. Problem 1 solved….hopefully.

Next was the numerous light source issue but that would become apparent after problem 3 – mounting the LED’s. I figured that the way forward would not be to create a set of LED’s that would remain with the flash/bowens mount, with the modifiers slipping over – there wasn’t enough clearance for this. The answer would be to create within each modifier, the LED bank. The modelling light would go with the modifier when it was removed. This would mean more soldering and more LED strip, but then I only really have 3 modifiers to create modelling lights for – a 7″ beauty dish, a snoot and a soft box. If this works, then I’d have a modelling light for each setup and will have saved an incredible amount of money, as well as future proofing myself with investing in bowens type modifiers. If I decided to go with a studio flash setup in the future, I could use these modifiers, sans LED strips, with that setup too.

The test project was the small 7″ “beauty dish” which really is like a lampshade with a metallic surface within. If I could stick LED’s inside this dish, solder them together in a way that keeps things neat and out the way, then I could thread out the power cord tail through one of the various holes and thus have my constant modelling light around the flash head, keeping out the way and providing a perfectly illuminated, uniform light! Here goes.

What looks a bit messy is a radially mounted strip which really doesn’t do very much except illuminate the flash head. However the strips with wires connecting each strip is the stuff of dreams. Each strip of 3 LED’s is soldered to another strip of 3, giving me 6 strips and 18 LEDs pointing outwards. The inner long strip does give oblique light but nothing as effective as the smaller strips. With a wing and a prayer, and not a little solder, time and effort, the LED’s lit up and gave me this:

Shown with a grid on the front, this solution is basically a ring flash within a modifier and gives me uniform light. There are a bit of funny optics and shadows going on with the multi-source-point LED’s through the grid, but it works remarkably effectively. With a diffuse layer on front I can easily see the limits of the flash, the surfaces that catch highlights, reflections and shadows, ultimately cutting out any guesswork and finger crossing. It’s perfect.

2It’s better than perfect because I also have several high mAh battery packs with the same connection as the power brick, so I can now have remote modelling lights out-with the reach of any wall power source. I can hold the assembly of the bowens mount, battery pack and modifier in my hand and, with a bit of sweat and arm shake, move the flash around and get the perfect light on a subject hand-held.

I’m so chuffed – I set out with a goal to create a constantly powered, bright and accurate modelling light for my speedlights, and I’ve achieved it with so little effort and cost. The total for the LED strips and wires was £30. The soldering iron was £12 and came with some solder. So for £42 I have created a modelling light for one modifier and have enough left over for at least another modifier, if not two. Compare that to the price of one decent studio flash head without any form of power control, and it’s around £600. Yes the modelling lights on those are extremely bright and are far superior to my LED strip, but for the work I’m going to be doing, close product photography, I cannot think of a more efficient solution to my speedlight problem.

Now for the next challenge: creating a proper studio environment.

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