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!

10,000 Mistakes – “Play” in learning photography

A couple of years ago, I was struck by a neat Zen quote; “The difference between a master and a novice is 10,000 mistakes.”  It was around about the time I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, sketching the general requirement for one to invest 10,000 hours in mastering a cognitive skill, and so it particularly struck.

As a result I shot a few left of field experimental shots, for example; spraying water in front of a street lamp and blossom during a long exposure, stacking filters to make a 19 stop ND (for a ~500,000 multiplier to exposure times) and shooting images of our cat’s backlit fur with a £5 extension tube on a 50mm 1.8.  All good fun, and a great way to embed lessons about light, exposure and photography in general.

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In shooting these, however, I was always looking for a shot to add to the portfolio.  Little by little, I realise, that experimental has fallen away.  I’ve recently started listening to the awesome Martin Bailey Photography podcast, and stumbled across this interview with David duChemin about his ebook The Visual Imagination.  You can check it out here – it’s fantastic, like all of Martin’s podcasts, and like every interview I’ve listened to with the relentlessly inspiring David duChemin.

They explore the idea of play in practice.  Taking shots to practice, to learn, to enjoy, to play – without any express intention to catch any lasting portfolio shots.  The notion resonated with what I used to do, but have increasingly formalised, so I thought I’d head out to play around with a flash and some subjects on my doorstep – using a bareflash and streetlight on some early summer blossom, a big white shoot through umbrella on a pole over some dense cow’s parsley and then flashing a scene with a nylon sheet over a clothes horse, before swooping my 24mm TS-E off the tripod and down towards a bare white LED buried in bright green leaves (or messing around with focus/shift mid-exposure).

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Whilst I’m not about to add any of the shots to my portfolio overnight, it was incredible fun and massively overdelivered in terms of learnings.  I’d 100% recommend checking out the podcast, have downloaded the ebook (superbly priced like all Craft & Vision products) and look forward to shooting practice sessions with greater freedom, without the burden of expectation and coming to know the tools, craft and possibilities of photography all the better for it.

Hope you’re well and having an incredible week so far.