Improved Photo Lighting with LEDs
05/15/2016 - 12:55Filed in: Food Photography
I recently started having some problems with the indoor flash pictures I was taking for this web site. I typically use bounce flash indoors to get even lighting without harsh glare and hard shadows. There is some setting I don’t have quite right for exposure, white balance or both. Suddenly my pictures were sometimes coming out underexposed and the pictures often had a color cast due to the combination of fluorescent, incandescent, LED and daylight found in the Kitchen. I tried a new type of lighting, an LED light panel, that has solved the exposure and color temperature problems. It also has some other unexpected advantages, as well as disadvantages versus shooting with a flash. For those of you who are interested in shooting pictures of the food you make, I thought I would share my results.
BACKGROUND: The pictures I shoot for this web site are food photography on the fly. I am shooting the food as I am making it, to document what I am doing. I don’t have the time for fancy studio type setups with multiple light sources, diffusers, etc. Nor do I have a food stylist on staff to make things pretty. I need to grab a shot on the move that is reasonably well lit and reasonably pleasing to the eye. I don’t have time to mess around to achieve perfection. This is particularly true of shots of the food that has landed on the table and is ready to eat. I will have 4-6 people standing around waiting to eat and I really can’t make them wait more than a minute or so. I do get frequent comments from people, who have nice things to say about my food pictures. My big secret is the use of bounce flash off the ceiling. Light coming directly from the flash head can be quite harsh. I use a hot shoe mounted Canon Speedlite with a tilting swiveling head. This allows me to bounce the light from the flash off the ceiling, which results in a soft diffused light and eliminates some of the glare from shiny objects. I have written about some of the simple lighting tricks I use in several blog entries through the years. I will post these links at the end of this blog.
EQUIPMENT: I am using a Canon G5x: a so-called “enthusiasts” point and shoot camera. It shares some of the features from the lower end of Canon’s DSLR line. For the purposes of today’s blog the important features shared with Canon’s DSLR range are a hot shoe allowing you to use a detachable flash and the same logic chip used for setting exposure, focus and white balance. I use a Canon Speedlite 430 EXII which has a long range and features a tilting and swiveling head. The long range also comes into play in my work as an architect when I am taking pictures inside large rooms or spaces. The additional power is also required for bounce flash, because the light from the flash head is hitting the ceiling first, and gets spread out (diffused) and travels back past the camera to the subject. The light from the flash is essentially traveling an additional 8-10’ (2.5-3 m). The 430 EXII features a tilting and swiveling head with allows me to point the light source towards the ceiling or a white colored wall.
THE PROBLEM: As mentioned before, all of a sudden I was having problems with underexposed pictures and strange color casts. I had matched the settings from my previous cameras when I set up the G5x and I was using the same flash. But suddenly I was having problems I never had before. My guess was that when I was visiting the extensive menu system of the G5x, I had managed to accidentally change a setting(s). The G5X is my 4th G Series camera. As the G Series of cameras has advanced over the years the number of convenience features have increased, at the cost of more complex menus. I have a feeling that some setting I had used from my first G series camera moving forward, got accidentally changed. Due to the more complex menu structure it is not just jumping out at me. I fiddled around with the white balance settings, exposure compensation both on the flash and on the camera, as well as number of points the camera took the exposure from within the scene. Nothing worked. I was faced with having to take the images and correcting the exposure of the indoor shots by +1 to +2 stops. Even worse, I had to adjust the white balance in EVERY image. Before I might have one or two images where I had to do this, now it was all images. Worse yet, the odd color balance was something that was very hard to correct and the color cast varied from shot to shot. This meant I was having trouble getting a consistent color balance from image to image.
THE SOLUTION: These days there are lots of people doing video blogging or vlogging as it is often called. Many of them use the “enthusiasts” point and shoot cameras like the Canon G Series and other similar lines from the other camera makers. These cameras can be handheld if necessary and easily mounted to car dashes and other locations. As a result there has been a growth in hot shoe mounted LED lights for use in video and still photography on these type cameras. I decided to pick up one of these hot shoe mounted LED video lights to see if if would help with this problem. If it didn’t work I would return it and I wasn’t any worse off than before. As it turns out the light does work and gives me some other possibilities I originally hadn’t imagined. Where I am using it for my food photography I needed it to be able to provide even lighting up to a distance of about 6’-8’ (1.8-2.5 m) away. LED lights can cover far greater distances, but I was able to stay within a reasonable price range because I didn’t need real long distance coverage. The light panel I selected sells for around $108.00 and I got it on the day of a storewide sale for $89.00. This was something I wanted to try out in-store, on my own camera body, to see how it felt to use. If it made the camera awkward to use there was no point in getting it.
SAVAGE LUMINOUS PRO LED 204 VIDEO LIGHT:This light panel was reasonable priced, had a good build quality and had all of the features I would want.
- SIZE: The light panel itself is about 5” x 7” (13 x 18 cm) and is about 2 1/2” (6 cm) deep at the bulge created when the battery is mounted.
- LIGHT SOURCE: 204 LED Chips. The chips have several color temperatures allowing you to choose the color temperature you wish to use.
- LUMINOUS FLUX: 1440 lumens at 1 meter. In real world terms this means I can get plenty of light up to the 6’ - 8’ (1.8 - 2.5 m) distance I need.
- COLOR TEMPERATURE: 3200K (indoor) - 5500K (outdoor). Essentially the light color is more reddish near 3200K and more bluish near 5500K.
- CRI: 90% This stand for color rendition index and relates to how accurately the light produces the desired color temperature range. You are looking for a reading close to 100% and anything over 90% is good.
- MOUNTING: The light comes with a mount that can go on a camera’s hot shoe (flash mount) and also has a standard 1/4 20 female threaded mount for attaching to a standard tripod or light stand. The mount attaches to the light panel using a screw mount. The panel has 4 such attachment points at the center of both the long and short sides. These female mounting screws can be used with an optional clip to hold up to 3 of these LED panels side by side or top to bottom. The top portion of the mount has a knob allowing you to adjust the tilt of the light panel up or down relative to the camera. The mount holds the bottom of the LED light about 2 1/2” (6 cm) above the hot shoe.
- DC POWER: The back of the camera has a slot for attaching a Sony N series lithium battery, which is an industry standard battery for this type of use. The light comes with a Sony NP-F750 battery which is said to have a 3 hour battery life on a full charge with this unit. There is a safety release button you must press to release the battery, which is nice because the battery can never accidentally fall out during use. An AC charger for this battery comes with the light.
- BATTERY POWER INDICATOR: There is a 4 step blue LED battery level meter which comes on for several seconds when the power switch is first pressed. It also can be activated via an adjacent test switch,
- AC POWER: There is also an AC power plug and 6’ (1.8 m) cord for using the light with AC power.
- STEPLESS POWER & COLOR TEMPERATURE KNOBS: The knobs for adjusting the power and color temp are not clicky knobs with discrete steps. The knobs have no steps and the adjustments are infinitely variable.
TEST SETUP: I set up some prep items on my baking area counter similar to how I arrange them when baking. I turned on the LED under cabinet lights and the ceiling mounted fluorescent light for the Kitchen. Plus there was daylight coming through both the Kitchen door and Kitchen window. The LED light solved my needs at my Kitchen counters and presented me with some new opportunities. I also took some pictures at my stove and in the Dining Room to see what the results might be under those conditions. Here are my initial observations:
LED LIGHT - The Advantages:
- AMOUNT OF LIGHT: This light was easily able to handle the distances I needed to light. In fact I had to dial down the amount of light for the shutter speed and aperture setting I had to use for bounce flash.
- SMALLER APERTURE: Because I had more light than I needed I was able to use a smaller aperture such as f5.6 or f8 and take advantage of better focus over a greater depth of field. With bounce flash and the greater distance the light had to travel to get to the subject, I was not able to use these apertures due to the slower shutter speed involved.
- WYSIWYG: I really like being able to see the way the lighting will look before I snap the shutter. You don’t suddenly end up with an image that is too light or too dark when you shoot it. With the flash you need to wait until you take the actual image before you can see the final results. I have never taken this type of image without a flash and so I didn’t appreciate the bonuses of this approach. What I am seeing on my LCD camera screen before I snap the picture is the same thing I should see after. After you snap the image it stays on the LCD screen for 2 seconds or so. You may have missed something in the darker lighting before you snapped the flash picture and you may miss it in the 2 second review image that briefly appears on screen.
- COLOR TEMPERATURE: I had success using either 3200 or 5500K color temperature setting with the camera set to auto white balance under my existing combination of daylight, fluorescent and LED. Plus the color temperature was consistent from image to image. I decided to use 5500K going forward so if I decide to try to use this light out at the grill, I should have no problems. Daylight is around 5500K so using 5500K everywhere means one less thing to think about.
- CONSISTENT EXPOSURE: All of the test photos I took with the LED light had a consistent exposure. I can’t say this has been true of the flash recently and I really don’t know why. But the bottom line is I don’t have this problem with the LED.
- LESS MESSING ABOUT: With the bounce flash I would often have to adjust the tilt of the flash head to suit the position of where I was shooting relative to my subject. The goal was to bounce the flash off the white ceiling as opposed to a colored wall which could give the image a color cast to match the wall color. You must also adjust the angle to avoid shadows from the range hood or wall cabinets. The LED just needs to be pointing at the subject.
- MORE FLEXIBLE POWER: I like the idea of rechargeable batteries for the LED light. I have tried them in the past for my flash and they just don’t seem to last very long when used in my flash. I can be recharging the LED battery when I am not doing prep and in a pinch I can use the AC power cord.
LED / BOUNCE FLASH - Tie
- HANDLING: I thought the LED Light would be more awkward to handle and it “looked” like it should weigh more than the flash. It turns out the two weigh in at just over a pound. The difference is so close I will give it in kg for it to even show: 0.46 kg for the flash and 0.48 kg for the LED light. They both feel about the same on the camera too. The top of each item, when mounted on the hot shoe, is virtually the same.
BOUNCE FLASH - The Advantages
- GLARE - Off Axis Shots: Your light source will show up in your picture as glare on shiny surfaces such as my granite countertop, glass stovetop and Dining Room table. With bounce flash this is less often a problem because your light source is essentially the entire ceiling. One thing I like about the LED light is you can see if you are going to have a glare issue before you snap the image. Often I can step back a bit so the glare from the light falls a ways in front of the subject. Then I can zoom in so the glare is cropped out of the picture.
- GLARE - On Axis Shots: The one type shot that is the biggest problem for both light sources is a straight on shot when the subject is in a direct straight line with the camera (and light source). An example of this are some of the gear shots for this site. I use my Dining Room table as a background for the items I am shooting. I often want a straight on shot of the item and the glare is difficult to get rid of. With bounce flash I often have burn 5 or 6 images to try bouncing the light from different directions to see which works the best. I may not be able to completely eliminate it, but I can make significant improvements. A straight on shot with the LED light is going to reflect the light source. This is a given. However it has occurred to me I may be able to mount the LED light on a tripod off to the side and get the glare out of the picture. Where this lighting is directional there will be shadows to deal with. I only do this type of shot for static items that I am not cooking. I would never consider this for prep photos. But these gear photos are more like studio shots and I am often doing multiple items at once. So if I get the lighting right once, it should be the same for all. This I shall have to see. This may be one area where bounce flash keeps an advantage.
FIRST USE: This blog took longer to finish and get posted than I originally thought. In the meantime I used my new LED light to capture a small experimental cook: BIG, THICK, STEAKHOUSE STEAKS. This was the perfect cook to try the LED light on. I was only cooking 2 steaks and I was not going to have a roomful of hungry folks waiting for me to take my pictures so they could eat. I could take a little time to experiment with the LED light and take several shots. Here are some of my preliminary findings, compared to my normal use of bounce flash:
- GOOD-Zero Color Temperature Issues either indoors or out. I did not have to make a single adjustment to the color temperature in my photo processing software.
- GOOD-More Light = Smaller Aperture = Sharper images. For most images, where I am capturing a small image area I have more light available, which allows me to use a smaller aperture for greater depth of field. My flash is powerful, but that light is traveling a greater distance because it is being bounced off the ceiling, where it gets diffused before traveling back to the subject.
- GOOD-Even Light for Prep Photos. For prep photos on my counter top, which is typically a 3’ x 2’ (91 x 61 cm) coverage area, I got nice even lighting for the most part. You do need to look for potential glare with shiny items, but you can see this prior to taking the picture.
- GOOD-See the Finished Image Before Taking It. With a flash picture you must take the picture and look at the resulting image to try to catch any potential problems. With the LED light you can see how the composition will be lit and also see any potential problems such as excessive glare or reflections.
- GOOD-Faster Shooting Indoors. You do not have to fiddle with the flash head tilt prior to shooting to get the right angle. You can just point the camera at your subject, compose, focus and shoot. Plus you have more lighting so the auto focus locks in faster. As mentioned above, you already have a good sense of what the finished image looks like before actually shooting it.
- Good-Even Light for Grill Photos. For most grill photos I found there is plenty of light, and it is a slightly more even light than with flash. The only exception to this is if you must stand back away from the grill and zoom in, there isn’t always enough light. I will have to remember this and be sure to have my flash handy for these setups. Often there would not be time to run inside and grab the flash.
- GOOD-Faster Shooting Outdoors. The process is faster outdoors too. You are not waiting for the flash to power up initially or recycle between shots. More light initially means the autofocus locks in quicker. The end result is you are able to grab your shots and get the lid closed much faster.
- NOT SO GOOD-Higher Glare Potential. Bounce flash (or light coming from my soft box on the flash) is more diffused, so there is less potential for major glare. You must watch out for the additional glare potential with the LED and take steps to try to eliminate it. The more straight on you are to your subject, the higher the glare potential is. You really can’t eliminate it in any way other than moving the camera off axis from your subject. With the bounce flash you can shoot on axis with your subject and aim the head so the reflected light off the ceiling is coming off axis. Now you can mount the LED light on a tripod or stand to get the light off axis, but then you get shadows. The bounce flash is less prone to harsh shadows because the entire ceiling is the light source.
- NOT SO GOOD-Not Really Enough Lights for Dining Room Table Shots. This was a small two serving dish meal and the light was barely adequate to cover this smaller area of the table. I was getting light falloff towards the edges of the images. This particular LED would not be adequate for a larger meal covering more of the Dining Room table. If you still wished to use an LED light here, you could use a second or third light or a more powerful single light.
- NOT SO GOOD-High Glare Potential in Plated Shots. You must be careful with the LED light and plated food shots. The reflection and glare from the LED light may show up directly on your shiny plates. You also may get glare and reflection off the moist, glistening food. The trick is to move back and zoom in and/or change the angle of your shot to help move the light source out of the picture or off axis.
GOING FROWARD: For now I think I will use the LED light for all Kitchen prep shots and most shots out at the grill. To take shots of the plated food on the Dining Room table I will switch back to using bounce flash. The jury is still out on closeup shots of the plated food, because there are some issues with lighting these with bounce flash too.
CONCLUSION:The LED light is definitely a keeper. Behind the scenes it is giving me the uniform color balance and consistent exposure I suddenly lost using my bounce flash. I no longer have to spend an extra 30-45 minutes post processing these images. I was thinking it was sad that I had to buy this light to regain something I already had. But after using it, I have seen some advantages it gives me and I am happy to have it. One that will be readily apparent to users of this site is the sharper images because I am able to use a smaller aperture which gives me a greater depth of field. If you have need to throw a lot of light from a small light source consider one of these LED lights. Essentially the amount of light they can throw is limited by the amount of money you can throw at the problem. For me, what I paid was short money for solving some of my issues and giving me additional capabilities and flexibility.
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