Studio notes, including my LED constant lighting setup.

Discussion in 'Lighting Forum' started by JamieW, Dec 13, 2013.

  1. JamieW

    JamieW Mu-43 Veteran

    Oct 25, 2013
    Update: After some extensive testing I've come to the conclusion that I needed more power than the LED's in this post are capable of providing. While I feel they'd be fine for beauty work and certain types of video work, I don't feel they provide the output required for my needs. I'm returning the lights and have switched to standard Alien Bees (1x 400, 2x 800, 1x 800 Ring Flash). I'll update this thread after the new year with more detailed information regarding the studio.

    I was going to wait and write this next week after I've gotten a few photo shoots under my belt with the new lighting, but since I've gotten a few requests for more information after posting a photo of my son, I thought I'd go ahead and start this thread a bit early for those who were interested.

    Back in 2005 my wife and I set up a studio. We used Interfit strobe lighting for a couple of years before moving to Alien Bees. This worked well for us for a few years, but in 2010 I got pulled away towards other interests and went back to school. We've taken the last few years off from studio work. Back in October after returning from a trip to NY where I didn't have a decent camera, I caught the bug again. I bought the Canon 6D, but after using it for a couple of weeks, I wasn't really feeling the love. I wanted something more compact. Photography for me is less about the gear and more about the experience. With that, I gave my wife my Canon gear to replace her aging 5D MK II, and I bought an Olympus E-M1.

    It didn't take long before we were talking about setting up another home studio, but since we had sold off most of our gear this would require buying new lighting. Since video is so prevalent in camera gear now, we thought we might be interested in a constant lighting setup, and a short bit of research led us to LED panels. There are pros and cons to LED panels, not the least of which is that the good ones, the ones that produce enough light for our needs, cost over $1500 a panel. There's also the issue with not being able to use a standard light shaping tool that you may be used to working with such as a softbox or a beauty dish.

    A bit more research brought us to a fairly new product, which is an LED light in a strobe-style mount. Last week we decided to take a chance on a product we couldn't find any reviews on. We do this at times. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it bites us. It's too early to tell yet about this purchase, but we're off to a good start so far.

    The current setup, Lighting:

    Fotodiox LED200WA-5600 Daylight calibrated LED lights, x3.


    We decided to take the plunge on the 200's over the 100's which won the Popular Photography's POP Award for 2013. These lights were just introduced in November, and have an integrated Bowens bayonet style S-Mount so finding standard accessories is a breeze. The kit I ordered came with (3) lights, (2) 48" octobox (softboxes), (3) 11" reflectors, 2 diffusing socks (shower caps), 2 stands (I already had a few stands laying around).

    These lights are similar in a way to the Profoto pack lights I've used in the past, in that you have a flash head, and it's tethered to a separate power pack that you can use to control the power output or turn it on and off. It all looks quite impressive in the studio, but in the real world it's just one more thing to pack and set up if you're doing location work.

    Later today I have a "heavy duty" boom stand on casters with 11 pound counter weight coming to support the overhead light. I typically shoot just under the light and get it as close as I can for beauty work, but with a standard light stand getting under the light is a bit difficult. It's not one of the $600 beasts from B&H that I would have wanted, but it should get me by for now. It actually looks kinda cheap to be honest, not like the C Stands I'm used to own, but it has decent reviews. I'll share my thoughts in a followup post.

    On my immediate add-on list which I hope to acquire today or next week is a 22" beauty dish, and two slot softboxes (something like 12" by 48") with grids. Right now the biggest issue in the studio is light spill. 48" octoboxes and reflector cones don't do much to help confine the light. I have a couple of gobos that need stands, but the softboxes mentioned above combined with the beauty dish should help quite a lot. I'll probably put down some thunder gray paper on the floor since I have a huge ream of that not being used, and maybe paint the walls in the studio to a neutral gray.

    Why LED?

    LED has a few advantages, and a few disadvantages. They aren't quite as bright as a flash, though depending on how you use them they don't really need to be. The 200's I bought are pretty bright, and should do for most things I'd used them for in a studio setting, though I doubt I'd be able to take them outside and overpower the sun. Aside from that, it's mostly good news.

    First and foremost, you can't shoot video with a flash. You need constant lighting, and while we're not into video yet, we plan to dip our toe into the video world soon, mostly for community oriented documentary work as personal projects. For this type of project, these lights will be great hooked up to a small quiet Honda generator on location somewhere. Don't get me wrong, they won't replace HMI lighting for movie work though, but for interviews, lighting interiors for documentary purposes, etc. they're pretty bright, and there's no flicker.

    Constant lighting reduces fatigue caused by flashing in the studio, which can take it's toll on a subject over a long shoot. The lights don't give off any noticeable heat, so compared to hot lights they're much easier on the model to sit in front of for long periods, and there's no fear of melting your diffusers. Since there's no flash and the light is already where you want it when you shoot, you get a real WYSIWYG environment. Combined with the live view display on the back of the mirrorless camera, you can see exactly the shot you're going to receive before you push the button. The lights at full power draw less power from the wall than most high end modeling lamps, and finally, you get more color from the subject's iris since their pupils are already adjusted to the light. Since the light is always "on", the iris adjusts to the bright light, giving you more pupil and thus more color in the photograph.

    Camera gear:

    I'm currently shooting on an Olympus OM-D E-M1, and while I own the 45 1.8 and the 75 1.8, I prefer to use the 12-40 in studio for a few reasons. First, it allows me to get much closer to the subject than either of the other two lenses, which gives me a look that I like. Additionally, it's wider than the other two lenses, which I sometimes use. Traditional theory says don't use wide angles for portraits, but I usually chuck the rules out the window. I'll shoot at 12mm if it gives me the look I'm going for for a particular shot. Finally, and this is the big one, I get more in-focus shots on the 12-40 than I do on the 45 and 75. The 45 seems to be the least accurate of the 3, and I seem to get a much higher number of missed focused shots on the 45. The 75 is a bit better in that respect, but the focal range is a bit long for the studio. The 12-40 nails focus almost every time. I think I've missed focus once in the 12-40 in the last two nights of testing.

    We also have the Canon 6D which I haven't used much but suspect I might. I have the 24-105L which I used in the studio for years and love it. Here's the breakdown between the two cameras:

    E-M1 Advantages:

    Face Detect. Face detect + constant lighting is awesome. It locks on quick and accurately with the 12-40. No need to focus and recompose, so no out of focus shots due to parallax.
    More accurate white balance. I love the out of camera jpegs and RAW files, especially with the new Lightroom 5.3 E-M1 profiles.
    Smaller, naturally. More fun to shoot with in the studio.
    Articulated LCD for those times when you need to get down low or shoot overhead shots.

    Canon 6D advantages:

    Tethered shooting. Plain and simple, it's a massive oversight not having this on the E-M1, and enough to keep it out of the hands of most studio photographers. You'll never see a professional photographer on Creative Live or similar training site using the E-M1 because they can't tether, which means they can't share the images with the live audience in real time. People buy what they're used to seeing other pros use because they want to be like them. If Olympus wants to see more E-M1's in the studio, they need to resolve this tethered shooting issue.

    In my own workflow, I use tethered shooting a lot with the clients. I take a few shots, and they always all start out a bit nervous. It's natural when getting in front of a camera. Once I get a couple of decent ones I show them to the client. Almost immediately in every situation it relaxes them and I get much better shots going forward. Showing them the really good ones as they happen just makes it that much easier to build off of it. The 3" display on the back of the camera just isn't sufficient, and it's the reason I may end up grabbing the 6D for some clients.

    Other than that, LED isn't as bright as studio strobes. Some types of low-key shots require shooting at a higher ISO and the 6D trumps just about every other camera out there in terms of noise handling at higher ISO's. While the E-M1 does a good job, and the difference between the two probably wouldn't show up in a 20" print, it's always in the back of my mind that I could grab the 6D and get cleaner images. Still this isn't a deal breaker, but the tethered shooting thing might be.


    This one's fairly easy. I use Adobe Creative Cloud, with my primary tools being Lightroom and Photoshop. When I get into video I have After Effects and Premiere Pro as part of the subscription. I have quite a few other tools but I mostly use them for non-studio work, such as Photomatix for HDR or NIK Collection. I'm probably going to look into Imagenomics Portraiture eventually. I've toyed with it in the past, but never really pushed the button.

    The Studio:

    Nothing too fancy here. Just converted my old living room and office into the new studio, about 340 square feet. It consists of a couch and a book case with reading materials for the clients' guest, my office is behind the area you see in this photo, which is where I stand for the shoot and where my editing computers are. It's a bit of a mess in this photo. I'll get some better photos up once I get in the new light modifiers and stands. I also need to replace the current blinds with some blackout blinds on all of the windows.

    This is enough space for single portraits, beauty work, and headshots. For groups I'd probably shoot people one at a time and merge in PS, or shoot on location somewhere. For reference, that's a 9' seamless roll on the backdrop.


    I've tried to answer everything I could think of in advance. I'll be posting more samples in the future when I get a chance to use the equipment for some shoots. I have a few lined up for this weekend. If anyone has any questions I haven't already answered, fire away. I need to get some batteries for my remote triggers before I can do some proper comparisons in power output between my Alien Bee strobes and my LED lights, but I'll try to do some testing on this soon.


    One light, camera left, 48" Octobox


    3 lights: Two rim lights each using an 11" reflector with diffusing sock (shower cap), and one overhead light using an umbrella (overhead) and a silver reflector (under his face).

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  2. Ccasey

    Ccasey Mu-43 Regular

    Jul 29, 2011
    Austin, TX
    Nice post, Jamie. I am curious about the power - do you have to up your ISO or open up your aperture for a similar shot compared to your experience with strobes, and if so, how much? If you had no plans for video, would you still have gone continuous?
  3. RKTodd

    RKTodd Mu-43 Regular

    Dec 6, 2012
    Randall Todd
    Jamie, I was wondering about the color balance of these LED's. I know you probably don't have a color meter, but just wondered what you are seeing as far as color accuracy. Seems like a lot of LED's have a bit of a color shift to them. Would like to somehow know that if they are rated at say, 5600, are they close to that.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Edit: Just looked at their website for the LED's. Looks like the lights are rated at either 5600, or 3200, with a CRI of 85. According to Will Crockett, a lot of the manufacturers don't always put the most accurate info out on their lights. This is why I was wondering what you are seeing in real life on these.

    Look forward to your continued testing.
  4. JamieW

    JamieW Mu-43 Veteran

    Oct 25, 2013
    These photos were shot at ISO 200 on the E-M1. I haven't tried ISO Low yet, but on the Canon 6D I can get ISO 100, F7.1, 1/125 for a beauty shot with 1 light. Obviously that's right in front of the light, like a beauty shot.

    I know some (most?) of the LED lighting out there requires users to drop down to ISO 400 to 800. That doesn't seem to be the case with these based on my initial tests.

    This is a hard question to answer right now. Give me a bit of time to use the lights in a few shoots first before I commit to an answer on that. :)

    In a way, LED lighting is kinda like using Micro 4/3. Sure you get more power out of a strobe, like you get cleaner and higher resolution images from a full frame camera. But there comes a point when having more power isn't necessary. A 20" studio print from an E-M1 is breathtaking, and doing the same shot with the same lighting on a full frame doesn't really give you any advantages over the E-M1 in a 20" print.

    Likewise, having more lighting power isn't really an asset if you don't need it. As long as it provides enough power for your needs, then I see no NEED to use strobes. For me that's the deciding factor. If I can get the shots I want from the LED's, then I'll probably always continue to shoot on LED's. If not, then I'll go back to a strobe system. Only time will tell. Using strobes means using a remote trigger, a light meter, yadda yadda, and LED's are a fun new way of getting things done for me so I'm eager to see what possibilities lie ahead.

    Having said that, I LOVE lighting. Every time someone releases a new lighting product, for me it's more exciting than new camera announcements. I would be lying if I said I wasn't drooling over the new Profoto B1's for location work, but at $2000 a head I doubt I'll be seeing them any time soon.
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  5. JamieW

    JamieW Mu-43 Veteran

    Oct 25, 2013
    All I can tell you right now is what the site says. It seems to be pretty consistent, but I need more time to test. I've only had a couple of hours in the studio with my son.

    I'm not using the greatest monitor, but it is calibrated using a Spyder 4, and reports 96% SRGB gamut. From my initial testing, the color output seems to be pretty consistent.

    I'll tell you more after I've had a chance to spend more time under the lights.
  6. JamieW

    JamieW Mu-43 Veteran

    Oct 25, 2013
    OK, I got a chance to do some actual testing tonight with the lights.

    The short of it is that the LED lights would work fine for beauty work, but once you move on to working with couples where you need to step down in aperture, they start falling short and you need to boost the ISO. I couldn't shake the feeling the lights seemed weaker than I remember the strobes being, but it's been a few years since I've used them, so I bought some batteries for my remote triggers and broke out my only remaining Alien Bees AB400, Interfit 300 from 2004, and my FL-600R to do some side by side comparisons.

    The results were pretty disappointing.


    Here are three shots. In each shot, I didn't adjust the camera as I was trying to illustrate a relative power output. It was shot at ISO 200, F2.8, 1/80. Each light was shot through an umbrella, each with the subject about 3 feet from the light.

    In the first shot I used the Fotodiox LED200WA-5600 at 100% power. In the second shot I used the Alien Bees AB400 at 100% power (for reference, the shot actually exposes properly with the AB400 at 1/32 power). In the third shot I used the FL-600R with +5 EV FEC.

    So what I said earlier still stands, if they work for your needs, go for it. If I was only doing beauty work they'd be fine. However, I'm a big believer of being prepared for any occasion so I think I'll return these lights and re-evaluate my options.
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  7. Ccasey

    Ccasey Mu-43 Regular

    Jul 29, 2011
    Austin, TX
    Thanks for the replies and for sharing your experience. Sorry it didn't work out for you, but it's a good thing you discovered this while in your return window. I'd love to hear what you wind up with when the decision has been made.

    Happy shopping!
  8. JamieW

    JamieW Mu-43 Veteran

    Oct 25, 2013
    Thank you. :)

    I've decided to keep things simple for now. I've worked with Alien Bees in the past, so I'm sticking with it.

    After gutting my old studio I was left with about 1 of everything, but I did have one AB400 and one AB800 Ring Flash left. I found a used AB800 in a local camera store for cheap so I snagged that yesterday. I'm still short 1 more AB800 and pretty much all of our diffusers, but I'll be ordering that on Monday. Going to add two rectangle softbox with eggcrates (grids) for the rim lighting, and a 22" beauty dish or 36" octabox for the key light. Still deciding on that.

    I was playing around on Saturday preparing for a shoot I had scheduled for today. I used the AB400 and AB800, tossed some umbrellas on both and experimented a bit. Aside from photography, I'm a biker and a welder and I've never managed to take a portrait of myself I liked so I made it my mission last night and keep the image I hated the least.


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