The word ‘photography’ pretty much translates from the ancient Greek words of ‘photos’ (light)and ‘graphe’ (drawing) to mean ‘drawing with light’; so without light, there would be no photography. In the early days, that light was the sun and, as technology advanced, new methods of providing light when there was no sun or the sun was obscured came about. But because of the nature of film in those days, even with emerging incandescent lighting, it required subjects to remain very still for the entire, long, exposure. This drove photography to other methods of lighting such as flash powder, which provided quite a bit of light, but also presented its own problems because of the medium’s volatility.
Over time, flash powder was replaced by flash bulbs (magnesium or aluminium foil or wire enclosed in glass bulbs) and remained in use for a very long time as they were cheap to manufacture, produced enormous amounts of light (still sought after by cave photographers), and were easy and safe to handle, as well as being relatively inexpensive. You can probably still find these from time to time at garage sales and the like.
As with all things, lighting technology improved with better continuous lighting such as halogen, but one of the common problems with continuous lighting was the ever present issue of heat. While halogen lighting provided very good illumination, it also tended to fry the subjects, especially in relatively small studios. So electronic studio flash began to improve and dominate, and with built-in modelling lights, provided some of the benefits of halogen, but with power and lack of heat. But with both lighting sources, came the penalty of weight and the need for 240V power sources; not ideal for portability.
Portable flash units addressed some of these issues, but they too had their drawbacks, with battery supply often being a major issue, as they could chew through batteries like a kid through chocolate. However, one of the most significant advances in lighting technology in recent years has been Surface Mount Diode (SMD) technology and the likes of Cree LED technology. These super bright, efficient and small light sources have transformed just about every aspect of modern lighting. You can get this technology in torches, car headlights, driving lights, house lights and just about anything else. The SMD technology has made it possible to create almost any lighting configuration you can think of and you can even get them in flexible light strips that can be used just about anywhere.
Photographers were once constrained by heavy, awkward, heat producing and power sapping light sources, but now you can get bright, lightweight (often surprisingly small) and 12V/240V/battery operated systems that are nearly as good as anything that came previously, and with very low power consumption. And with modern cameras usually having video capability as well, these lights double as video lights to boot. These lights still have a small ways to go before they can fully supplant traditional lighting sources, but I can see these becoming the norm in studio situations and in the field, as their flexibility, light weight, power requirements and commensurate lower cost will enable them to be used in numerous, versatile ways.
And, ever in the quest for versatility, I went searching for lighting that could provide more flexibility than purpose built LED photography lights. Surprisingly, I found a Cree bicycle light that purported to offer 5000 Lumen of lighting power in a small package with a separate power pack and the light itself was only about 50mm in diameter and 50mm long. So I ordered one and it certainly turned out to be a compact and powerful unit, good for around 2.5 hours of continuous use with its separate, nearly 10Ah battery pack and all of this is fully waterproof as well. Obviously I had to do some modifications to allow me to mount the light on the camera hot shoe, but that was pretty easy with bits and pieces I already had at hand.
My intent with this light was more for illuminating animals and birds in our yard at dusk or at night, and for some macro/close-up lighting than anything major. But even as a single light, it has proven to be quite powerful and easily illuminated a group of people at night from a distance of around 30m, and proved so much easier to use than a typical electronic flash. Two such lights would have provided a more even illumination because, afterall, this light is designed to illuminate the road ahead for bicycle riders. For close-up work, it’s even better at illuminating bugs and the like.
Since the illumination from the bicycle light was extremely directional, I thought I’d try and diffuse it somewhat and did so by using a cheap white balance lens attachment I got from eBay and an old lens hood I had lying around. Combined, they now gave me a way to diffuse the light and, if needed, I can easily remove the diffuser and use the light in its raw format. Surprisingly, the colour of the light from this bicycle light isn’t that far removed from normal daylight, such that photographs come out looking reasonably natural.
The benefits of continuous lighting, especially when it comes to close-up photography and the like, is that it’s easier to balance daylight with the additional light so that you don’t get fully lit subjects with black backgrounds, as you tend to get with electronic flash. But as LED flash units are already available, I can see these two technologies merging into one, so that you get the best of both worlds. Traditional electronic flash has its place, but with the quality, intensity and low power draw now available from LED lights, it makes photography a lot easier and no matter what the subject matter, LED lighting technology is becoming invaluable. For example, with just one light reflecting off the ceiling (with the diffuser attached), it did a surprisingly good job of an interior scene.
And it works similarly well outdoors when you’re confronted with bright backgrounds and lesser light on the subjects.
So at the end of the day, I’m very happy with what I’ve been able to achieve with this compact, inexpensive and fairly powerful LED light. I wouldn’t be surprised if some industrious Chinese manufacturer sooner or later comes up with a purpose built light of this type for photography, with the right photography compatible attachments from the outset. I think we’re in for an illuminating experience in the next few years.