The Quest for Light … When There Isn’t….

I don’t about anyone else, but here in Calgary, especially in the winter months, we get these pockets of sunlight and these overcast days.  I’m constantly looking for various ways to light various things.  Especially when one is caught indoors.  From a “standard” lighting setup, we tend to have a couple of solutions of course Smile  We always have flash and depending on the subject matter, I have my light box.  One of my more passionate subject pieces tends towards plant life.  My wife works in a garden centre and it only stands to reason that our home has a lot of plant both inside and outsideSmile  In reality, one of the tougher things, tends to be able to get better control of light.  The ultimate goal of course, is to get that perfect shot as you visualize it.  In most cases, if you have a bright sunlit day, you can always fiddle with angles, reflectors and fill flash.  Granted, depending on the time of day as well, you time may also be constrained. 

As one gets more serious, have you ever noticed the sheer amount of gear we tend to accumulate in order to get those shots?  Smile  For me, I TRY to keep the accessory side as a minimum.  I try to get that shot the first time.  I do have quite a background stemming back to the 35mm days and back then, we didn’t have a lot of options, so the shots had to be set up correctly.  There wasn’t software back then, and doing your own processing was an expensive proposition.  Getting it right the first time was always the goal.  So what are some of the things that can be done at the offset?

From the Camera Side

The camera and controls are the key to getting your exposure under control.  Your lens controls the composition.  Depending on your camera, the camera may have a zoom lens built in or it may be of the interchangeable lens type.  In the end, the final photo is the end result stems from the gear.  The content comes from you Smile  

The general tendency, depending on where or how far you want to take it, will be to upgrade your gear accordingly.  OR perhaps take a slightly different approach Smile  I got the gear to fit the scenario I wanted to shoot. Yes, I do have a lot of gear but it’s in the sheer number of cameras not so much accessories.  When I jumped back in – everything hinged around mobility and getting a good quality image without tons of gear.  For most of the things I do, I don’t like having a lot of gear with me.  I do, however, want a lot of functionality too Smile  Despite the fact that I do own a DSLR or two plus a bunch of lenses, I also am not married to them either.  The one thing that I have learned in my “journey” from pointy shooties to DSLR’s, is that todays technology can deliver a pretty high quality photo. 

My favourites for most things I do, are travel cameras and the more advanced cameras.  My advanced cameras are the Fuji X10 and XF1 and Panasonic LX7.  The reason for these, is that have fast lenses for low light.  They are small and more than get the job done.  My travel cameras get me in the area past 4x zoom while still delivering a high level of functionality.    Generally, I will have the XF1 plus either a Panasonic ZS25 or Nikon S9400.  If I anticipate something that requires a bit more control, I have either a Fuji F800 or Sony HX30V that can manage that.  My Fuji X10 used to be my primary camera and it does still get used that way for certain things, but for more advanced work, I have my DSLR’s and Compact System Cameras.  My DLSR’s are a Nikon D3200 and 5100 with several lenses.  My Compact System Camera is a Panasonic GX1 with two zooms and a macro primary lens – 60mm f2.8.  These tend to be used when I free lance or require I require absolute top notch photos.  It’s not that the other can’t deliver that, they can but aside from additional functionality, DLSR’s have battery and flash power that the rest simply don’t have. Back to light or lack therein…..

Exposure and Light

When it comes to exposure, we have several ways to control it.  We have things like Polarizing filters, Neutral Density filters, not to mention the camera functions that can assist as well.  In certain situations though, there simply isn’t enough light.  From the camera side we can kick up the ISO OR we can use flash.  Then there are reflectors to “bounce” or reflect light to enhance the photo.  There are also studio lights. And then there is of course, sunlight Smile  Depending on the time o f day, there can be lots of it and not enough.  There are advantages to either situation.  And then there are those overcast days – I’m sure you’ve had them.  The light is literally deal flat – no shadows and here you are dying to take some pics…. Sad smile  Sometimes, you can use your flash to get that extra contrast but sometimes you need some additional lighting to enhance your shot.  In the case of plants being indoors, sometimes getting that shot with limited light coming through the window, can present its own set of challenges.  For me, I take that as a challenge and have a blast with it.

I had one project a while ago that involved shooting a small stained glass piece.  This one piece was quite small and I was able to use my light box, but it got me thinking about finding something that would backlight a piece to bring out the colors of the stained glass.  I couldn’t find an easy way to get that shot backlit, so ended up shooting it on the window sill.  Not as good as it should have been, but it worked out. Also, there are certain shots that I want try using a backlight. 

Soooo… there are actually two issues that cropped up – first – coming up with a way to backlight,and second – a light of some sort that would work easily.   The other thing, was that I wanted something relatively portable AND quite bright AND adjustable if possible.  I tried one of those work LED lights but it wasn’t quite bright enough.  The other thing I’m still fighting with, is a way to back light easily  I kept looking and one day, I was in a camera store and spotted an Optex Movie Light!!  It worked well enough but then it wasn’t near portable enough.  Small enough to carry in a bag, but if I had to use it in a confined space it wasn’t quite small enough.  It had he output, but still not quite as bright as I would have liked.  Light  was small enough, now just some of jury rig….

The other side of this, was that I wanted something small enough to carry in my sling and at the same time, be brighter.  Sound like wanting my  cake and eating it too?  Absolutely !!!  So now, it got a little more complicated – some sort of rig for backlighting for “studio” type work and something else for “mobile”.  I was actually looking for something smaller than the Optex.  What I stumbled on at the camera store was actually not for photo as much as movie was the quodos knog.  This was actually designed as an accessory for the GoPro or equivalent.  It was a light designed for underwater use, so not only was it small, it was bright.  And expensive. 

knog_handknog ruler


This sucker set me back about $150!!  Sooo.. why so expensive?  Well, I personally didn’t want to spend THAT kind of money, but anytime you get small and powerful, it does get expensive.  I have a smattering of flashlights that have incredible amounts of power (430 lumens and it fits in your hand), and those things aren’t cheap either Smile  Soooo.. its in a waterproof housing for starters.  Output is at 200 lumens on its strongest setting and you have mode switches that control the amount of light.  Under full power, and all 3 Cree LED’s, it’s rated at 2.5 hours continuous.  It uses a micro USB to charge and the battery has to be pulled out of the housing to charge.  It’s well built and comes with additional accessories in a really nice metal container.

I got the following shot using it :


It was around 2 o’clock so the sun was streaming in the window.  At this time of the year (late Nov.), the light can change quickly.  So here’s the natural light shot:


BTW – this a plant called the XMAS Cactus and they start to bloom around XMAS, as the name implies.  Even this shot is not so shabby Smile  My wife has this plant in this white color as well as orange and red. 

Here’s the setup I used for the shot above:


I mounted the light on a DSLR GorillaPod and wrapped it on the leg of my ProMaster 525T Carbon Fibre tripod with a Milano B-3 Ball Head.  The camera is a Nikon D5100 (I got it for the articulating viewfinder) with a Sigma 18-250 F3.5-5.6 Zoom with Macro.  Just thought I’d toss in techy stuff for inquisitive mindsSmile I was initially going to use my 40mm Micro Nikkor for this shot, but I wanted to use the tripod for stability, so zoom it was Smile  The other setup I tried, was wrapping the Gorillapod on the bannister and also just setting the knog in another pot and pointing it up.  All of them worked fine with each creating a slightly different photo.  A key thing to remember here, is that at 200 lumens, you could be a fair distance away and still get a ton of light.  This light appears to solve the light, small and powerful piece.  Next….

For the next part of the project was to build a small stand so I could shine the light up. The primary purpose was for doing stained glass.  If you have ever worked with backlighting and smaller objects, this has it’s own set of challenges.  Jewellry, etc. lends itself well if you can set a light underneath.  For portraits, it’s easy as you can move a light behind.  One can shoot stained glass, especially smaller pieces in a light box easiest enough but if you want to light it up from behind, well.. different alright.

Here’s a piece that my wife had commissioned:

Staine glass piece 

These is a pretty quickie shot from my light box.  It renders the colors fine but I thought there was no “dimension, to it.  I have others that have props which are much better, but when it comes to stained glass, there’s nothing like backlighting it.  Back to the solution.  Off to the woodshop I went and came up with this :


That piece on the back moves BTW to adjust the light.  Sooo.. the first test shot I took was to take a glass piece that my wife had:

Crystal Man

This shot, I feel is the best (another one to follow).  Successive tests using both the Opex and knog, showed the knog was still superior.  The one that I did find out about this unit though, is that it runs hot!!!  Very hot.  After about 10 minutes, you almost can’t hold it.  The more I thought about the jig to move the light around, the more I didn’t like it.  I couldn’t adjust the angle enough and I didn’t really have the time to fiddle with it too much.  Sooo….I got thinking about something like a small GorillaPod or something equivalent that I could set up the lights with more flexibility.  A quick snoop on the ‘net sent me off the camera store to snoop. I ended up with a small GorillaPod and this Manfrotto Mini.  The mini is probably the neatest Smile

Manfrotto MiniGPod and Manfrotto Mini

Back to my jig and I got the following as my tests.

Crystal Man_backlitStianed glass_backlitClock

The box stand too roughly a couple of hours t o build so not that big of a deal for me.  It is, however a little too large for my light box – depth.  I have a very shallow light box.  Sooooo…. I was just thinking on this, if I have a bit of loose time being between contracts, I probably wouldn’t have come close to getting this much done.  The other side of this, was that I would have missed those cactus shots Smile  They are fascinating photo subjects and will probably show more of them as they bloom. 


About gkamitomo
IT Busines Analyst

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