Somewhere in December 2021 I started dabbling with LED lights. That was fun! And also very much something I am a novice at. So, I wanted to grow. And in order to learn - and learn effectivelly - I gave myself a little challenge:
For a two month period, use only LEDs. No stepping back into the comfort zone of flashes.
Okay, cool! So what to use? It wasn't the first time I ever used LEDs - I've used DMX LED theatre lights often enough, but those often yielded nasty hotspots. Also, figuring out how to effectivelly drape my entire studio in DMX cable sounded like it would become prohibitive to quick setup changes.
So, my wishlist was:
- It needs to be wireless / battery powered. No cables please, it really needs to be a step up in terms of ease of use.
- It needs to not be a pin-light. Used those plenty in the past and the hotspots they create are annoying in editing.
- It needs to be wirelessly controlled. For the same reason: ease of use - I want to change things fast!
Given that, tube lights seemed an appropriate thing to figure out. You can use them individually or layer then next to eachother to create softer lights. I did some price and brand digging and - eventually - settled on using the following:
- 8 Godox TL60 tube lights. These are my bread & butter. Colors everywhere and everything remote controlled. I've attached them randomly to stands and move them around a lot, trying things out.
- 3 Godox SL60W white LED lights, I already had these for video anyway, so might as well use them here as well. These are mounted in softboxes, and usually gridded and sometimes gelled (they are already powerful enough to fry your gells though, so be careful). These provide directional light when needed.
- 3 cheapo 12W LEDs in regular 230v fixture haphazardly dangling from the ceiling - these are nice for small bits of filler or for creating tiny rims.
This is - by now - quite a kit. But you actually don't need all that. Anything that produce random colors can be used. Philips hues would work.LED strips would too. Christmas lights. Mix and match, find them anywhere! Play!
Read on for my key takeaways from these two months of learning, and see all the results chronologically listed at the end!
1. LEDs are so much faster!
Working with remote controlled LEDs means instantaneous access to all colors with the click of a button. No more walking to flashes and replacing gels. Means more shoots and more setup changes within the same timeframe!
Bonus: it is more pandemic-friendly as well, as there's no direct need for me to be anywhere near the model & lights.
Perhaps even the biggest pro - what you see is what you get! This has all kinds of benefits. First: tuning lights and tweaking colors is immediate, and there's no need for test shots to check if this works. Second, the model sees the colors om themselves as well, which has a beneficial effect on undestanding of what I aim to achieve, making the shooting process quicker.
There are some small differences between what I see and what my camera sees. For example, blues are more pronounced in my camera, but that's something I can get used to.
3. Same light for photos and videos.
Switching from photo mode to video mode used to be cumbersome: it meant storing away the flashes, grabbing the SL60Ws, gelling them, recalibrating everything to get the same look. This meant we usually didn't do video during photoshoots. Now we can. With ease actually! A quick reel here and there? No problem! A professional video shoot? Tried it, works as well! This is fast!
4. Instagram and Tiktok selfies & reels
My biggest pet peeve with flash photography is now finally resolved. The almost-always happening quick model phone selfie is now once and for all correctly lit the way I intended them to be lit!
Mind you, depending on your shooting style this can also be construed as a downside. Be ready for lots of random interrupts during your shoots! ;)
Biggest issue for me - the brightness of LEDs is (and must be) much less than that of flashes. Consequence: higher ISO, which means more noise. You can compensate with slower shutter speeds (causing more motion noise), wider apertures (causing maybe too small depth of field) or more LEDs. Each of these has their own downsides though - especially, weirdly enough - the latter: more LEDs will overpower your eyes, causing very tiny pupils or even making it physically painful for the model to be in that place.
2. The environment.
Second, you will need a completely darkened room to start out with - any natural light will be visible in your image. This requires a bit more planning for on location shoots. With flash you can basically overpower most if not all, so flash provides more opportunity for control.
3. Harshness and shape of light
Obviously, a LED tube by itself will not provide the same beautiful soft light falloff as what you can get with a good softbox and flash combination. You should not expect this. The light will go in more directions and is more harsh. And due to its limited power it also needs to be a lot closer, causing a quicker falloff which certainly will impact group shots.
If you know my work you might have noticed I use a lot of smoke. There's two reasons for that. One: it's smoke. I like smoke. Two: it's a universal diffuser. When used appropriately you basically turn your entire studio into the insides of a humongous softbox. And behold, the beautiful creamy soft light returns! :-)
4. LEDs aren't color gels
As a minor thing - for my style anyway - colors from RGB style LEDs will by definition be mixtures of primary colors. However, a color isn't a single fixed thing - it's a spectrum. As such, those mixtures can be imperfect, and I've noted a few occassions where the same color from an RGB led just doesn't match what I could get with a color gel that was built for that. This can become an issue if exact color reproduction is important.
Two months of learning - in pictures!
The shots below were captured between December 2021 and January 2022 showcasing my slow dabble in continuous light, trying out various things, and - hopefully - improving over time. If you've read all this, I'd love feedback! Let me know your thoughs :)