Light Unleashed – Creating hard shadows with bare LED’s

I currently light paint with a couple of high power LED’s – one to light objects in the scene, a military spec Lenser LED, and one more modest, unbranded unit to draw lines in the scene when shooting images like these;

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A couple of months back I managed to drop the second of the two in a Slovenian river, leading to its near death.  Whilst frantically unscrewing and shaking it in an attempt to bring it back to full life, I discovered the entire lens element could be removed, leaving a strangely naked LED unit exposed to a full 180 degrees sweep of reality.

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Wonderfully compact, and now working perfectly again, the tiny LED is capable of producing a quite bizarre world of light – at once vast and smooth, yet titanium hard.  The full 180 degree area of effect is more like a cloud of light than a beam per se – used at night outdoors it offers an incredibly even pool of light in all directions, falling away over some 40 feet or so.  As an example, here’s how the beams look on a wall – first the original through the lens element, and then the bare LED;

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What you can’t see in the second image is the huge misty expanse of light sweeping endlessly away, effortlessly smooth.  It appears a deceptively soft light, yet – as one would expect from such a tiny light source (3mm x 3mm perhaps), it is in fact insanely hard.  The shadows it creates are edged as if cut from black card with a craft knife.  What’s more, as it’s so very, very tiny, and so very, very wide it still creates these hard shadows even when placed point blank to whatever obstacle you choose to use to throw them.  Here’s a quick example – the first shot with the LED held above the (iPhone) camera, then second held lower, below the foliage, and thus throwing up a dense thicket of shadowy leaves and stalks onto the white wall.  All that’s changed is the position of the light – 3-4 feet lower in the second.

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Being able to place it so close allows you to fill a whole garden – even a large one – with a hard, shadowy tangle of leaves and thorns, even if given just a foot or so of bramble to cast from, or turn normal banisters into a vast foreboding wall of prison-dark bars, or a shimmering net of energy by shining through a glass door.

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I’m still working out quite what to use this learning for in terms of “portfolio images”.  For the moment, I’m just happy to have discovered the possibility and to be exploring it.  Walking around a house or garden, LED held low and open creates some wildly spooky shadows.  Also – it’s a good reminder of the difference between “even” light and “soft” light; all too easy to mistake a superficially similar until one puts a model in them.  Hopefully those of you who haven’t discovered this already will find the idea – I don’t think it’s practical enough to call it a “tip” yet – interesting and will enjoy exploring it.  If you do, I’d love to see the images that come from it!

Have an amazing weekend all!

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