9.02.2015

Shooting with bigger LED lights. A follow on from an earlier post about the RPS CooLED 50. It's big brother.

The RPS CooLED 100

We take up where we left off yesterday and plumb a little deeper into the RPS line of SMD LED lights. These are the kind of lights that I think are the next step in the evolution of LED lighting for photographers and videographers. Not that RPS lights specifically are the "next step" but that the SMD LED technology is beginning to roll out not just in higher end lights but in lights that just about everyone practicing their imaging craft can afford. The RPS models are just the first, lower price options, with the kind of power and configurability I need that hit my radar. There are lots of competing brands out there at higher price points and from recognizable photo oriented brands.

Although I did a lot of work with the earlier LED panels ("a thousand points of light...") I had circled back and by this Summer I was mostly using electronic flash again for a lot of my work. It seemed easier. The bigger panels are just big enough to be a handling burden but not so big that they don't still require more diffusion and modifiers to make their effective radiating size big enough to give me the soft shadows I like in a portrait. With a  powerful flash you can bang light through a kingsize bedsheet, if you want, for all the softness you'd ever want. If you need more power it's typically there in reserve.

But then Ben came home from school and I wanted to make a nice portrait of him. Problem: He's the world's fastest blinker. His blink reflexes are off the charts. I was getting a 10 % hit rate with electronic flash in soft boxes. So I switched to a constant light source and a quicker frame rate and all the blinks subsided. A good enough reason to take another look at LEDs.

Shortly after that a big ad agency booked me to help them create video content for their website and we ended up on location in a series of conference rooms; all of which needed to be lit. We certainly couldn't to it with flashes so we fell back to LEDs and it worked well --- but I found myself wishing for harder, stronger light sources and nostalgic about the days when we used to light with tungsten spots backed up by 1,000 watt ratings. I have a bunch of smaller panels and they are great for modest sets or as accent lights to boost an effect but they don't have the punch I really wanted.

When I saw the first RPS light (the CooLED 50) I thought, "well, someone is on the right track and the price is right but.....I'm sure the color will be off or the power won't match the bulk of the unit." I was beyond surprised when I did a color test. I set up a white Lastolite test target and illuminated it with the diffused CooLED 50. I took RPS at their word and set a manual WB by selecting an exact Kelvin color temperature. The box said, "5200K" and that's what I set on the camera. I expected the light to be much bluer and I steeled myself for a trip to GEAR to buy some M/G axis filtration. When I opened the files in PhotoShop CC and stuck an eyedropper on the white (with detail) of the target I was pretty (happily) surprised to find the R.G.B. reading to be something like 245, 246, 245.  No hue tweaking required to get to neutral. I measured the Fiilex P360 (same basic technology and a known performer) and it comes in right at 5400K. Not a big jump and certainly in the ballpark for my work.

When I saw how great the color was I immediately started thinking about the fixture I had passed up at Precision Camera. It was the CooLED 100 and it was, at $299, just $100 more than its baby brother. I got back in the car and went back to fetch it, ASAP. I was in and out of store in 10 minutes and had both lights set up in a favorite portrait configuration within the hour. The only real difference between the lights (besides the cosmetic touches) is the one full stop increase in power.

Both have umbrellas mounts (though I would need wider reflectors to use umbrellas effectively) and both have the same color and overall feel to the light. Both are fan cooled but both are quiet enough to use for all but the most auditorially sensitive video projects. The nice thing about both is that they have PUNCH. If you need extra punch you can take the diffuser cones off the lights and you'll have a 1.5 by 1.5 inch light source that's as specular and hard as you would ever want!!! (for safety reasons never look directly at the bare SMD while lit. The light rays are collimated enough to do real damage to your eyes!!!). The smaller light source (with more power) gives you many more lighting options starting with more through and ending up with more flexibility in choosing modifiers. I think the big light would be at home in a medium softbox, but I mostly push the light through diffusers on square frames. I like the control and I light the subtle differences of the light being closer or further away from the diffuser.  With a weak enough diffuser you can create a hard source within a soft source and that's way cool.
The back end of the CooLED 100 with a five position power knob calibrated in half stop increments. 

The two different RPS lights an the Fiilex P360 banging neutral light onto the back wall of the VSL celebrity studio.


Here's my raw, uncensored test target right at 5200K.

Bottom line: Do I like them? I liked them enough to buy them at retail like everyone else. If you mostly do weddings and events then these aren't the lights for you. If your assignments take you all over the map and you also shoot video then I'd say these would do you well. If you have a bigger budget then there are sturdier and more compact lights like the Fiilex line that might be a better long term investment but these are right there in the same output quality ballpark. I am saving up money to buy a couple more in both flavors. A great light for someone shooting back and forth between stills and video on the same shoot.







8.31.2015

I went out to buy a gallon of milk but I came back with a new, inexpensive, high performing LED light that mimics open face tungsten lights of yore.

The RPS CooLED 50. The business end....

It will come as no surprise to VSL readers but I am a sucker for new lights. Especially new lights that can serve a purpose in my work and in my enthusiast projects. I left the house on Sunday to acquire some weatherstripping for my newly painted doors, and I think I was also supposed to buy some more milk while I was out but I got too close to the gravitational pull of Precision Camera and got sucked in due its powerful attraction. With entry a foregone conclusion I mentally prepared myself to experience inventory lust.  In the back of my mind I always have a subroutine working that automatically scours camera stores for rare, fun, awesome and underpriced lenses. I scanned and poked but nothing floated to the top of the pile in any meaningful way. 

I worked my way through novel stand cases which are always a necessity--- just because no one has ever made one that's just right. And they still haven't. I kicked the legs on a few, old school-style, aluminum legged tripods and ended up in a little helter-skelter niche that contained weird semi-system flashes, orphaned LED fixtures and vaguely interesting attachments. Always looking for the underdog I found a couple of boring looking boxes that had badly reproduced images of a weird looking LED light on them and, of course, I had to see what was inside. But I was a good customer. I didn't pull out my Benchmade pocket knife and go to town on the packing tape, instead I found a salesperson and asked if any of the product was out on display somewhere. "Noper." 

Could we open this box? "Yes indeed, we could." 

Inside, packed with protective cardboard, was a

I'm thinking about diving back into inkjet printing here at the VSL post production wing. Can we talk about printers?


I've been reading a book by Brooks Jensen entitled, The Creative Life in Photography - Essays on Photography, the Creative Process, and Personal Expression. I've enjoyed reading lots of what Jensen writes and it's made me nostalgic for doing photography in a way that mimics or emulates what I used to do in the days of the black and white darkroom. One of Jensen's contentions is that the photographic work we create isn't really finished until we've actually made our final expression: The Print. Everything else is just "work in progress."  Along with the idea of moving to images to completion is the encouragement to think in terms of folios and projects instead of just sporadic and unconnected prints.

It's odd. Nowadays my work seems split into two separate universes. There is the universe of digital where everything is tucked away somewhere on a hard drive or backed up on a DVD and the only expression of the work is as a small file presented on the web; generally on this blog. The work is harder and harder to find and since it is so cheap and easy to create the quantity of work done and warehoused is so astronomical that it defies my easy re-acquisition and becomes, in my mind, a mass of digital clutter. I rarely go back and re-visit work that's stored in a none visual way and so I've lost ready access to the continuity of my visual creations in a way that's both paralyzing and depressing.
If work is stored in ones and zeros it tends to remain in ones and zeros, hedged against some day in the far future when I might have the time and inclination to sift through and reconstruct it....

But there was another universe that started back in 1979. It was the universe of the darkroom and the black and white print. Everything, EVERYTHING, that seemed valuable, fun, personal, sexy or engaging didn't really exist to me until I printed it and once I printed it there was a real, physical manifestation of my vision that I could easily share with others. The sharing took place via portfolios, prints on the walls of my house, my bakery, my favorite gallery and on the postcards I would make by hand and send out to friends and clients. The expression, the making of an image all the way to the print required a commitment to the image. Each print cost time and money. Each print became a valuable physical proof of a memory or a vision. And a significant object in itself!

We tend to think of this schism in terms of film versus digital but it's not that way. For years I toyed with inkjet printing and spent much time printing images like the one at the top of this article on various papers and with various printers. Somewhere around 2004 or 2005 the print, as a deliverable to clients, fell off the map and the at the same time we experience the rise of "photo sharing" websites that would house and display our images for us at no cost. Somehow this displaced our emotional need to hold a physical manifestation of our images. I started to move away from "the print" in favor of the cost free/time free sloth of the internet gallery.

The last printer I owned that I bought just for making photographs was the best and the worst printer I've had. It was the Epson 4000 and when it worked it produced really gorgeous black and white prints at sizes up to 17" by however long the roll of paper was. Really gorgeous images! I continued to print as I had in the darkroom and continued with a revolving show of framed and matted prints at Sweetish Hill Bakery that had been part of my artistic expression in the community since the early 1990's. I'd made the jump to digital but without abandoning the printing aspect that made so much of the work feel REAL to me.

The Epson 4000 (along with photo sharing on the web) put the nail in the coffin as far as my printing was concerned. The technology was flawed. The printer clogged whether I used it constantly or not. I would go through hundreds of dollars of ink and paper just to get it all up and running again only to have the damn thing let me down at the worst possible moments. The moments in which I had an emotional investment in getting a great print out of the machine when I wanted it. When I was receptive to the process. Let's face it, if you are working hard at your job and you have a limited amount of time to print your own work it feels so frustrating; almost like an intentional betrayal, to have the process grind to a halt and require hours of trouble shooting. You start trading family time and work time in the service of the machine and not really in the service of your art. At a certain point you just say, "Fuck it" and move on.

I gave the printer away to another photographer. I don't know whether I did him a favor or cursed him with a new monkey for his back. I bought a Canon 9000 that prints beautiful invoices and an occasional large photograph that might be needed for some background art in a shot or something. But at the moment that the printer with fine art potential left the building I never printed my own work in earnest again.

The lack of a physical target, in retrospect, has blunted my creative process. Without the need to print well and large of what use is it to have technically super-duper cameras? Who cares about all the tech stuff if everything you show is going to end up as a file that's 2100 pixels on the long side? Why bother with a tripod? Why bother to get up in the morning and shoot your own work? And, in truth, I've spent the last 10 years working for clients and watching my own engagement with my personal work diminish. But because of Brooks Jensen I think I'm about to end the cycle and re-engage with a way of doing my work that was organic to the whole process of seeing, shooting and presenting. I'm planning to

8.29.2015

Why do I keep those Olympus EM5.2 cameras around? Why do I like using them so much more than everything else I own?

Got the Bokeh, if you want it. 

I finished up all of my August work yesterday morning. There was the big PhotoShop project which called for me to convincingly make an executive (who we photographed in front of a green screen) look as though he was addressing a packed auditorium. There were the two portraits for two professional women who are re-entering the workplace after some years off and needed the right look for LinkedIn and other social media. There was the video footage that needed to be post produced for the company providing speaker and spokesperson training. By the end of the day everything had been delivered, approved and billed. Time to take a long neglected walk through downtown Austin. But first the task of selecting a camera and lens(es) to make the walk fun and interesting....

I stood up from the desk and walked to the equipment cabinet which is really a professional grade, Craftsman rolling tool chest (five ample drawers; lockable) and peeked into the bottom two drawers. If you read the blog on a regular basis you probably know that I have relentlessly downsized on camera inventory and also lighting inventory. In fact, I own fewer digital cameras now than at any time in the past fifteen years. Something I still find scary and