I used a Stella CLx8 modified with a Profoto collapsible beauty dish as a keylight and a Stella Pro CL 2000 as a very subtle sidelight to photograph Natu and Joko at the Singapore Zoo for my continuing orangutan portrait series to help spread awareness of the issues between these magnificent great apes and the production of palm oil. The alternative to not finding sustainable solutions is for these primates to go extinct in the wild.
At one time, continuous lighting was the only choice for photographers wanting to craft their images with artificial light. Masterly Hollywood portraits by George Hurrell and images of the who’s who of the mid-20th century by Yousuf Karsh serve as classic examples.
Then, early strobe practitioners came along, such as Gjon Mili and Harold Edgerton, who used the fractions-of-a-second flash durations to freeze action imperceptible to the human eye, while Herman Leonard could keep film grain down and light intensity up in smoke-filled nightclubs recording the who’s who of the jazz world. And while the moving-picture world continued on with “hot lights” for obvious reasons, strobes, because of their far greater power output, became the norm for stills.
But with the advent of LED lights and other 21st-century technological advances, photography has gone retro, in a way, giving practitioners a “cool” alternative in a small package, allowing lensmen and lenswomen to sculpt their light in real time.
See which of the following continuous light or lighting systems are right for you.
Spotlight On Stella Lights
For a variety of international assignments, from the Czech Republic to China, I pack a variety of demure but powerful Stella lights (lightandmotion.com) and their modifiers with no need to swap out modeling lights, as I do for my strobes, or use power converters.
The Stella Pro Expedition Kit includes three completely submersible Stella Pro 5000 RF 5600K LED lights with built-in radio receivers that are adjustable at distances up to 656 feet with the included Elinchrom EL Remote Control. The lights have built-in rechargeable Li-ion batteries that can give from 90 to 375 minutes of run time, depending on the power setting. The kit comes with four-way barndoors, two 50-degree Focus Optics, a 25-degree Fresnel attachment and an omnidirectional Glo Bulb. A Speed Ring Gel Holder and a Profoto adapter are also included and packed into a wheeled hard case.
Stella’s Portrait Kit comes with a CLx8 (8000 Lumens) and a Stella Pro CL 2000, plus modifiers for both lights packed into a small soft case. This allows for a two-light setup for portraits with a keylight and a hair or backlight. For this setup, my go-to keylight is modified with a Profoto collapsible beauty dish fastened over an adapter.
The CL lights can run cord free with multiple power settings using an integrated Li-ion battery, making them great tools for quick setups around the globe or close to home. These dimmable weatherproof lights can also be plugged into AC or DC power sources for studio shoots. The Stella Pro CL 10,000c is AC-powered, so it’s a good option for studio photographers who are interested in working with continuous light sources.
I used two Stella Pro 5000 RF 5600K LED lights positioned behind and to the sides of actress Li Yibo on location in China, one with an omnidirectional Glo Bulb camera left and a 25-degree Fresnel attachment camera right. Without the lights, her black hair would have been almost indistinguishable from the background. I added ¼ CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gels to the lights to match the warm frontal ambient light that was being cast onto Yibo with the help of a large Westcott reflector.
What’s Available For Continuous Lighting
Litra: While Light & Motion made its name below sea level, it’s not the only one not afraid of the water. The Litra Torch Pro (litra.com) can work down to 90 feet below sea level while outputting 1,200 lumens for up to 45 minutes with adjustable color temperatures from 3000-6000K.
Smith-Victor: My first continuous lights were those made by Smith-Victor (smith-victor.com) swapping out daylight and tungsten-balanced bulbs depending on the shoot. It’s great to see that the company is still going strong all these years later and has evolved with the times. The Smith-Victor Acies Pro LED Strip Lights, for example, come in 32- and 48-inch-long sizes with the light being sculpted by adjusting the included barn doors.
Litepanels: My first LED lights were those made by Litepanels (litepanels.com) that slid into my Nikon’s hot-shoe for “run-and-gun” documentary video shoots. Litepanels have continued as leaders in the field with a large array of portable lights, including its Gemini 1×1 Soft RGBWW LED panel with the ability to dial in a wide selection of Kelvin temperatures and lighting effects. Weighing in at just under 12 pounds, the Gemini can run off XLR, V-Mount or Gold Mount batteries or AC power and has onboard and remote-control options via DMX, wireless DMX and Bluetooth.
Lume Cube AIR: As a point of comparison to the extreme range of continuous light options for the 21st-century photographer/videographer, the 2-ounce Lume Cube AIR (lumecube.com) can give off 400 LUX of daylight-balanced light at 3.3 feet with a 60-degree beam angle and is waterproof to a depth of 30 feet with four manual brightness levels and a strobe setting. In addition to a traditional tripod thread mount, the Air has a built-in magnet for quick attachments to metal objects and can be controlled wirelessly via its Lume-X App.
Broncolor: One of the great names in strobe lights, Broncolor (broncolor.com) is an active participant in the retro move to constant light sources. Its F160 can put out up to 12,000 lumens, with the ability to adjust Kelvin color temperatures from 2800-6500K. Broncolor light modifiers, originally designed for its strobes, are compatible with the F160.
ARRI: ARRI’s powerful SkyPanels (arri.com) extend the Kelvin temperature range from 2800-10,000K. Using the SkyPanels Stellar app on an iPad, photographers and DPs can quickly dial in proper color balance for a given situation or go for a special color effect. It has become the norm for LED lights to have the ability to be controlled wirelessly, with this being especially important when using large light sources such as the SkyPanels when positioned in high or awkward-to-reach positions.
Savage Universal: For a quick-to-achieve, shadowless beauty look, Savage Universal’s LED ring light (savageuniversal.com) has a 12-inch diameter opening with a shoe mount and ballhead for camera placement and a color temperature range from 2700-10,000K. The RGB Ring Light can be controlled remotely with its Savage Light Manager app. For shooting video, sounds and varying light patterns can also be created.
Hive Lighting: Hive Lighting’s Wasp 100-C LED (hivelighting.com) can output the equivalent of a 400-750 watt incandescent bulb with a color range starting at a very warm 1650K and extending to a cool 8000K. Running off battery or AC power, the light has a wide spread of 180 degrees.
Lowel: Lowel’s Blender XL is a bi-color fixture using powerful and efficient surface-mount LEDs producing an output almost four times that of a traditional 1×1 panel. This affordable fixture provides high-quality output (98 CRI) in a compact package powered through a switchable AC/DC power supply that accepts professional V-Mount batteries. Its 45-degree optical lenses cast a narrow flood illumination that provides broad coverage while remaining strong enough to deliver enough power to keep quality up and ISOs down. It also includes removable diffusion that seamlessly blends its independently controlled daylight and tungsten color-balanced LED arrays.
K 5600: The output of K 5600’s Joker-Bug 200 (k5600.com) can be compared to a 750-/1000-watt quartz fixture and bills itself as ideally suited for small interiors, interviews, documentaries and car shots. This daylight-balanced, battery-operated, PAR-type designed light with its accessories can control the beam pattern from 5 to 65 degrees. For those with the wallet and the need for more power, K 5600 has 400, 800 and 1600W models.
Regardless of the artificial light system used, it’s vital to pay special attention to proper color balance. For instance, using a daylight-balanced light in the warm afternoon glow will look artificial without color correction. For light systems that don’t have built-in Kelvin temperature adjustments, keeping CTOs and CTBs on hand in ¼, ½ and full strengths will help dial in the correct light for a given situation. The same goes for keeping an eye on light ratios. You can lop off a couple of zeros on the “look” of a $100,000 production or make a small-budget shoot look high-end. The quality of a production or the lack thereof is in the details.
Tip For Buying Lighting Gear
Before making the investment in a continuous light setup, you can see many of these illuminators in action at conventions such as PhotoPlus in New York and Cine Gear in Los Angeles and Atlanta. This is in addition to the many workshops sponsored by the individual light manufacturers. Also, ask the photographers whose work you admire on Instagram which lights they’re using. Most will be happy to provide you with an answer.