It’s odd to think that today’s LED lights—bright, low-power and lightweight—are related to the LED lights of the late 1960s and 1970s. Anyone of a certain age who suffered from insomnia or rolled into bed after a night of partying is familiar with the persistent, obnoxious glow of a bedside alarm clock. Who knew that the technology used to highlight your insomnia would one day be used to light up your studio shots?
It took the electronics industry decades to evolve the technology to create the modern LED light, but the wait was worth it. Businesses and homes have slashed their electric use by switching to modern, durable LED lighting. Numerous creative industries have seen performance and cost benefits by switching to LED lighting, including stadium and concert lighting, theater, motion picture and television production, and still photography.
LEDs produce great illumination per watt, and modern technology allows the color temperature of the lights to be varied nearly infinitely to match or overpower ambient light. The first photographers to dabble in LED lighting were those who also did video work. Companies like Arri, Bowens, Litepanels, Manfrotto™ and others produce LED panels that produce an enormous amount of light, and many of the models allow the photographer to dial in an exact color temperature.
For all the glorious light that LEDs provide, they are not without their limitations in a photographic context. The light panels are usually made of hundreds or thousands of individual LEDs, all pointed forward (to produce the maximum amount of light) which makes the light even, but without a modifier the light can be rather harsh.
Remember, the size of a light source and the distance from the subject determines softness, and each individual diode in an LED is its own light source. They merge together with a large panel, but not in the same way that light from a strobe would when bounced off of an umbrella or passed through a softbox. There are light modifiers available for many flat-panel LED systems, and they’re a great choice for photographers setting up studio lights instead of strobes, but the combination is slightly more cumbersome than just using studio strobes.
When I saw the Fotodiox Flapjack LED light panel at the Wedding & Portrait Photographers International trade show, I was struck by the clever design of their soft LED lighting system, which eliminates many of the issues found with a more “traditional” LED panel and a modifier. It was one of those “why didn’t anyone think of that” moments, and it was a surprising product to come from a company that’s mostly known for lens adapters and aftermarket camera and lighting accessories.
The Flapjack panels don’t have forward-facing LEDs; instead, the front of the unit is a large, round dish (or rectangle, depending on the model) that creates soft light evenly across the surface. The idea behind this is similar to something I created for my own studio, only much more successful. One of the inexpensive home light modifiers I’ve made is comprised of a hula hoop with LED holiday lights wrapped around it. Since the LEDs all point in different directions, the intensity of the light is variable across the surface. Place a semi-opaque light modifier like a sun scrim in front of the hula hoop and you get a soft, even, though low-powered light.
Would that I had access to a design and manufacturing team, what I would have created instead is the Flapjack. Each model in the Flapjack series is designed to use what Fotodiox calls “edge light,” an arrangement of the LED elements pointing toward, as the name implies, the edge of the unit, and that light is then reflected back to the center of the unit.
The various models all have variable color temperature output from tungsten to daylight, and the light output remains consistent across the color adjustments. The brightness of the Flapjack lights can be adjusted down to a subtle glow as well.
This is clearly the future of photographic LED lighting, and it’s a versatile tool that, while not perfect, solves a variety of problems. The systems are lighter than traditional LED panels and much lighter than most strobes. They can be powered in the field using standard battery packs, and they’re light enough that I often had my assistant simply hold them, using my assistant like a mobile light. Finally, the units remain relatively cool (as the lighting elements are not facing at the model but are covered under the housing), so they can be placed incredibly close to a model.
I’m surprised, frankly, that there aren’t similar models from the major lighting manufacturers.
Big, Soft and Portable
It’s important to note that the Flapjack system doesn’t produce light as bright as a traditional flat panel. If you’re looking to overpower sunlight, this isn’t the unit for you. It is, however (at least in the biggest size), bright enough to balance out sunlight, and it’s bright enough to balance out light in a studio or to help throw light of a specific color temperature on a model.
That means that the performance of the system varies depending on your shooting needs and the type of subject. The 18” unit is the most versatile, and it’s the unit that I took with me when testing the medium format cameras in this issue (see the preceding article). The images here were shot with the 18″ unit, while some had additional catchlight lighting via the ring light model.
While the rectilinear unit was bright enough to throw a strip of light on an otherwise unilluminated model, it wasn’t particularly useful for any other photographic use–I’d probably only use it for shooting indoor video or lighting products. To be fair, the lights in the system probably have the most application in the video space, where a consistent, soft light that’s positionable close to the model is ideal.
The ringlight is an interesting idea, though it doesn’t produce the same results as a typical, high-output studio ringlight. It produces a great, even illumination and a very nice catchlight, but it is most powerful in the studio and as a light to balance shadows in the field. (The ringlight mounts to a camera rail system.)
Limitations aside, I was able to do things with the Fotodiox Flapjack that I would not have been comfortable doing with most other lights. During part of the test shoot of the lights and the medium format bodies, I had the model sitting in the Hudson River, with the sun setting behind her. The combination of water and models is one in which I’d normally shoot without lights to prevent risk of electrocution. (I once was the digital tech on a shoot where the photographer had 1,000w/s lights on battery packs around the pool, and the fear of them falling into the water was enough to prematurely age me.)
To balance the setting sun behind the model without using strobes, I’d either rely on remote on-camera flash units or reflectors. (Yes, flash units have a capacitor to increase the output, and as a result I’d have had to position them behind me.) Since I didn’t have to worry about killing my model in the case of a mishap, I was able to use the lights to balance out the sunlight and able to adjust the color temperature to match the setting sun. I had my assistant crouching over the rocks with the 18” Flapjack a few feet from the model, providing both a nice, positional light and color balancing.
The result was as if I had used a reflector dish that had its own internal power source. The same soft, even light possible with a well-aimed reflector could have worked in the scene, but the low position of the sun on the horizon and the placement of the model between the reflector and the setting sun would have made perfect lighting challenging with just a reflective dish.
We are, fortunately, at the beginning of the age of LED innovation. LED units have gone from strict commercial applications to creative tools in a relatively small number of years. Just as cameras have finally started to change their shape to match their digital underpinnings, rather than looking like systems designed to hold a roll of film, so have lights started to evolve to embrace the new LED era.
The Fotodiox Flapjack is far from being the perfect photographic tool, but instead it is (both literally and figuratively) the shape of tomorrow’s lighting. As LED technology evolves (and as new technologies are born), we’ll continue to see evolution in lighting. Today, this evolution is best exemplified in the unique Flapjack series from Fotodiox, but tomorrow it’ll be the norm.