I love my strobes. Watching them pop away during a shoot energizes the set and amplifies my creativity. My obsession with light and its transformational qualities has been a career-long adventure.
But if you have been to any photo tradeshow or video shoot recently, you might have seen a new lighting trend emerging: LED continuous lights. Honestly, I have not been interested in these lights for two reasons. First, they didn’t have the power to overpower midday sun. And second, since the LED bulbs were pointed at the subject, the light quality was directional and not as soft as I like.
But recently I had the chance to try out a new LED lighting system, the Fotodiox Flapjack Edge Lights (for our full review visit digitalphotopro.com/gear/lighting/fotodiox-flapjack-review/). These lights had plenty of output to use in the studio, but what really caught my eye was the unique design. The LED bulbs are pointed inward toward the center of the unit and reflected toward the subject, creating softer light compared to standard LED panels using bulbs facing forward. I was excited to try these lights out in the studio.
Today many studios are using both continuous lights and strobes. One light isn’t replacing the other, but instead you have more lighting options than ever before. And when you mix continuous light with strobe, magic can happen. Let’s look at four lighting techniques utilizing the new LED lights and how to blend them with your existing studio strobes.
The LED Portrait
Continuous lights can be used just like standard strobes in the studio. But there are a few differences that are important to consider. First is exposure. When I shoot strobes in the studio, my first step is to determine an exposure that completely eliminates ambient light in the room. I generally have low-intensity overhead lights on so the studio isn’t dark. If I shoot at ISO 100, F8 and 1/250 using my Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 1000 strobes, the overhead fluorescent lights won’t add illumination to my final shot.
But portable LED lighting often isn’t as powerful as strobes. You might shoot at 1/30 at F5.6 at ISO 400 using LED lights. At this exposure, those same overhead fluorescent lights will add a nasty green hue to your portrait. Remember the exposure triangle? ISO, shutter speed and aperture all affect the final exposure. If you are using slow shutter speeds, any ambient light, including LED lights and room lights, will render in the final image. So the first step using continuous lights is to dim the studio lights so no errant light creeps into your shot. I turn off the studio lights and cover the windows so I have a completely dark studio.
Using slow shutter speeds also affects the freezing of motion in your portrait. When I use strobes, my sync speed is 1/250, but the flash duration might be 1/2000, much faster than the actual shutter speed. Since my strobes are the only light illuminating my subject, flash duration, not shutter speed, freezes the action. If a dancer jumps during a portrait, the fast flash duration will freeze them in mid-air. Using continuous LED light sources at slower shutter speeds would result in a blurry dancer, since shutter speed alone freezes the action. But this can work to your advantage using continuous LED light sources. Instead of freezing the action, you can blur the movement.
Positioning and modifying continuous LED lights is similar to using strobes. I had three Fotodiox LED lights to use; an 18” circular light, a 4×11” strip bank, and a ring light. For my first shot, I wanted to use all LED lighting. I put my model on a stool and used cross lighting for the portrait. I placed my large circular flapjack just off center and slightly above her as my main light. To add a bright accent to her hair and shoulders, I placed the strip bank behind her on the opposite side of the main light. Finally, to create separation from the background, I placed the ring light behind my model and aimed at the background behind her head. These LED lights produced nice, soft light, and the portraits looked good. I chose to shoot in aperture priority mode on my camera and make any exposure adjustments using exposure compensation.
One really helpful feature about using continuous lights is “what you see is what you get.” Since you are seeing your lighting in real time, you can accurately aim the lights exactly where you want them. Another nice characteristic of LED lighting is the ability to shoot at any aperture and shutter speed without worrying about sync speed. If I want to shoot at F1.4 and my shutter speed is 1/500 (faster than my camera sync speed), it will work just fine.
The Ring Flash Portrait
One light I was really excited to try was the ring flash. Ring flash lighting creates a very distinctive look. A faint shadow will outline your subject, and distinctive ring catch lights appear in the eyes. The lens aims directly through the center of the ring flash. You can either mount the flash on a stand and shoot through it, or you can attach the flash to your camera. To create large ring flash catch lights, you need to get close to your subject. Really close. If you shoot 5 feet away from your subject, the ring flash catch light looks like a tiny bright spot. I shoot ring flash around 2 feet from my subject using a 24-70mm F2.8 lens. Ring light portraits often have slight distortion since you are photographing so close to your subject, but this works with this edgy lighting technique.
I set up my model on a stool about two feet from the background. I wanted some of the ring flash to illuminate the background, although not much of the background would be visible in this tight headshot. A huge benefit of using LED continuous lights is they don’t get hot. I had my ring light around a foot away from my model, but she wasn’t burning up from the light.
The Blended Portrait
I liked how my ring flash shot was looking, but I wanted to move my subject away from the background and illuminate that separately. Adding a background light would create a beautiful highlight around my model’s face, and improve dimension and contrast in the portrait. But I had one challenge. My other LED lights created soft diffused light, and I needed a sharp high-contrast beam of light to illuminate the background exactly behind the model. For that job, I brought out my Elinchrom ELB 400 strobe.
The ELB 400 is a 424-watt, battery-powered strobe unit that accepts a wide variety of light modifiers. To illuminate the background behind the model, I placed the strobe head on an overhead boom arm and attached a 30-degree grid over the light. The grid would narrow the flash down to a spotlight, and I could precisely aim the beam where I needed it.
My LED light exposure was 1/60 at F5.6. Since I was shooting well below the strobe sync speed of 1/250, I only needed to adjust the power on my ELB 400 until I had the proper background exposure. Since I wanted a bright halo accent around my model’s face, I increased my strobe output until I had a bright background accent light.
When blending strobes and LED continuous lights, it is important to have a strobe system that can shoot at very low power to match the output of the LED lights. I found myself shooting at 40w/s, or about 10 percent power, to match the LED exposure value. Also, strobes have an approximate white balance of 5500 Kelvin, similar to daylight. Since the Fotodiox LED lights have variable white balance, I could set the white balance to 5500 Kelvin to match my strobes. Or I could change the white balance to 3200 Kelvin, creating warm orange light wherever my LED lights hit.
Shake And Bake Portrait
Truth be told, I was most excited to shoot “shake and bake” portraits, combining the best of both strobe and LED continuous lighting. Shake and bake portraits are created by illuminating part of the model with continuous lights, and using flash in other areas, typically just on the face. You then shoot at a slow shutter speed and move the camera during the exposure. The subject’s face should be sharp where the strobe hits (the fast flash duration freezes the face), while the areas illuminated by the continuous lights will blur during the camera movement and slow shutter speed. You can also have the model moving in addition to your camera shake, resulting in some really abstract shots. But here is the trick. Make sure that your continuous light source doesn’t spill over onto where the strobe is lighting the image. If this happens, the strobe-lit area will also be blurry.
I set up a black background to minimize light bounce and illuminated the model’s face using an ELB 400 strobe with a gridded head. On the opposite side of the model, I used the 18” circular flapjack and ring light to illuminate her clothes. Next, I had my model twirl brightly colored scarfs to add motion in the shot. Shooting at ¼-second at F8, the strobe froze her face for critical sharpness, while my camera shake and her scarf twirling added an ethereal effect to the final image. I couldn’t resist adding another one of my favorite effects, fog. Out came our Rosco fogger, and wow, this shot looked incredible. I felt like I was in a smoky Berlin disco; loud music, flashing lights and beautiful people dancing and twirling through the smoke. Can it get any better than this?!
See more of Tom Bol’s photography at tombolphoto.com