5.10.2009

Lighting instruments from another world.

I've been working on a book about lighting equipment and, after talking to many photographers, I am convinced that many are unaware there is a rich selection of alternatives out there to the usual battery-powered camera flashes, the monoblock electronic flashes and the various "pack and head" electronic flash systems.  The photograph on the right is of a Mole Richardson 10K fixture.  This thing puts out 10,000 watts of tungsten balanced light!  It's really amazing. Even more amazing are the 20K HMI lights.  That's 20,000 watts of daylight balanced light from one fixture.  

I bring this up because I think some photographers would really like to pursue a vision that's not based on using the same lights everyone else uses.  I was inspired to seek out these alternative light sources in part because of the work of Gregory Crewdson.  He does interesting fine art photos and relies almost exclusively on big movie lights for his work.  It seems to impart an entirely different feel to the work.

The same photographers who've sent me hate mail about my articles praising "radical" things like film and medium format cameras will no doubt rush to tell us that they can duplicate any lighting look with their White Lightning electronic flash gear or their $10,000 Broncolor gear but they will, as usual, miss the point.  And that point is this:  The tools and their attributes have profound influence in the creative process.  The feel of the camera, the heat and throw of a light.  The size of the fresnel in front of a light source.  It all influences our creative choices.  It influences the way a shoot flows.  And it definitely affects the outcome.

So, I found myself at an Austin shop called, GEAR.  They serve the movie industry, the television industry and a number of still photographers by renting everything from the stands and scrims to the enormous lights and the  trucks to haul them around in.  They have HMI lights (continuous daylight balanced instruments) ranging from 400 watts to 20,000 watts. They have all the most popular sizes of fresnel and open faced tungsten lights and they have stacks and stack of KinoFlo professional florescent lights.  

They have electrical generators you can put in the trunk of a Prius and also generators that come on the back of a really big truck.  And they have rolls of just about every filter gel you can possibly imagine.

I asked them for some pointers to pass along to still photographers who haven't worked on movie or television sets.  Any pitfall that might be avoided with a little forewarning.  Here is their short list:

1.  Lights over 1,000 will need their own electrical circuits.  Run a 2K tungsten on the same household circuit as the computer and you are asking for problems.

2.  Lights over 2,000 will require the services of an electrician to do something magical called a "tie-in" at the breaker box.  Alternately, you can rent a generator rated to handle the power requirements of these lights.

3.  Hot lights are hot.  You'll either need padded gloves to handle the fixtures or lots and lots of time to let them cool down before trying to move them.

4.  As above, the bigger lights put out an enormous amount of heat so don't plan on using your regular softboxes or umbrellas with them.  You'll need specially constructed softboxes or umbrellas that handle high temperatures.  Melting softboxes don't inspire confidence.....

5.  When you use a 12 foot by 12 foot silk scrim outside you need to understand that's about the same square footage as the sails that move boats across water at 20 knots or so.  You'll need more than a couple of 20 pound sandbags to anchor them!  Ask for guidance when you rent.

6.  HMI's have safety filters so that your don't tan or burn when using them.  Don't defeat the safety features!  You don't want a model suing you for the impromptu tanning booth episode.

7.  HMI's are expensive.  The bulbs start around $400.  Make sure your assistants know the score and make sure every light is secure.

Those are the big points that the rental guys deal with on an almost daily basis.  Even so you can get some really unique looks with some of these lights and the rentals on traditional tungsten lights are  reasonable.  Well worth trying out the next time you want to do something different.

I really enjoyed what I saw from the KinoFlo's.  There's something cool (literally and figuratively) about florescent lighting.  I'm pretty interested in how those differences might manifest themselves when shooting a portrait so when I saw an interesting fixture at Precision Camera I just had to get one.

Interfit makes cheap flashes and decent flashes and a bunch of other lighting stuff.  Just recently they came out with a light called the Cool Lite 9.  It's a fixture that takes nine compact florescent bulbs, comes with a large metal reflector and a heat resistant softbox attachment. All for $279. So far it's a lot of fun.  I need to be reminded from time to time how much fun it is to shoot with WYSIWYG continous lighting.

As you know if you've read much of my stuff I'm a real sucker for wide open apertures and short telephoto lenses.  They seem to converge to make magical portraits.  The Cool Lite 9 gives me enough light to keep the camera steady (1/125th or 1/250th of a second) at reasonable ISO's (200-400).  I'm working on a new series of portraits with this light.

I'm also shooting lots of examples for the book.  Should be interesting.  I keep learning about neat new stuff and relearning techniques that are mostly lost these days.  Hope the week ahead is profitable and fun.  Try some movie lighting if you get a chance.  But be sure to get the gloves........

Kirk