Developing an Idea, Part 2: Compact Fluorescent Bulb

In Developing an Idea: Part One, we talked about the process of coming up with an idea for a photo and then letting it sit in the back of your mind while you solved the series of problems you would encounter while producing it.

In this case the idea was to produce a photo to grab people's attention long enough to learn more about compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFL's.

In preparing for the shot, four major "curve balls" were identified. Again, I like to think of problems as curve balls. They can be very daunting, but many people obviously learn to hit the daylights out of them. It's a good mindset.

First was the illuminated CFL light source itself, which was to drive the exposure for the photo. It would leave the remaining part of the bulb very dark. This would be solved by combining flash and available light (the CFL's light output) to compress the tonal range. No different, in theory, than using "fill flash" in the noon-day sun.

Second, the business end of the bulb is white even before it is turned on. So that part of the bulb would have to receive almost zero strobe light, which would be tricky given it is right near the base of the light, which would have to be fully lit by flash.

Third, the light would need to glow, even with the base fully visible and apparently unattached to AC.

Fourth, an offshoot of curve ball number three, is how to make the bulb appear to float.

Starting with the glowing light issue, we simply needed to design an invisible lamp. This was easy enough, but not something I would encourage unless you are comfy working with household AC current.

(No kidding, this stuff can kill you. It basically can defib your heart if you grab it wrong. Don't play with it unless you know what you are doing. Strobist is less than three months old and I do not need to be killing off readers.)

What I did was to solder a lamp cord directly to the screw threads and bottom of the CFL. By doing both wires on the same side, I could shoot the CFL and have it appear to be unconnected to power.

Second, I wanted it to float in order to reveal the entire screw thread assembly. By running (and taping) my lamp cord down the length of a dowel clamped to a light stand, I could invisibly support the light and apply electricity to it at the same time. The dowel passed through a small hole in a piece of ordinary black poster board, which hid the light stand support and gave me a sort of "studio" background look. I say "studio," because it was shot in a smallish townhouse living room.

Studios are just big, boring rooms. "Studio lighting" is very limiting. Try to learn to separate the terms, "Studio" and "lighting" in your mind. It's a strong and needless association for many people. I actually got yelled at on a very popular digicam message forum recently for just suggesting such heresy. Oh, well.

Total cost for the extras at Home Depot: Couple of bucks for the dowel and $1.24 for the extension cord. (I just cut the female end off.) Forty nine cents for the poster board and some gaffer's tape later, I was in business.

Here's the shot with a couple of Nikon Speedlights lighting the base of the lamp. There's WAY too much light spilling onto the bulb part, but the shooting angle is hiding the support just fine. So we are getting closer.

A few minutes later, having experimented with some cardboard snoots, I had most of the strobe light killed from the bulb part, as seen above.

Here is a shot without flash, with the bulb plugged in, showing what will be the ambient portion of the exposure. (I held my breath the first time I plugged in the lamp.) Remembering that we have controlled the flash spill from the base, combining the two light sources is now very simple.

Here is the combination shot. If I wanted to change the light level on the base, I did so by changing the camera's aperture. If I wanted to change the exposure on the bulb, changing the shutter speed made it a piece of cake.

Only thing left is adding some tone and color interest to the background. This was done with a third Nikon SB-800 speedlight with a blue gel on it propped up on some books.

All of the flashes are on manual for full control. The back flash was powered way up because the black poster board ate light like crazy. The front flashes were almost too bright at 1/64th power.

And there is the pull-back, which shows the whole setup for the final shot. What amazes me is how spartan the set is, and how produced the final photo looks. It looks better than the original version, which was shot in my brain about a month ago. This is almost never the case for me. But I will gladly take it when it happens.

Photoshop-wise, this is almost a straight, in-camera photo. There was a dollop of solder on the bottom that I cloned out. You can see it in the interim photos. It was a tradeoff between safety (I wanted a very good solder joint) and invisibility. Safety won.

Much of the credit for how good this final image looks goes to Nikon. The D200 (loaner) digital camera I was using when I made this shot makes some amazing files. I want one. Or two.

All of my cameras are purchased by The Sun - and I am not complaining, mind you. But that also means that I am not in control of when I can upgrade, and what I will upgrade to. If it were up to me, I would gladly trade in my two (Sun) Nikon D2h's for one Nikon D200. The camera is far ahead of the D2h.

If I got this assignment with one day's lead time, it would not have happened. But being on your own time frame - and having a chunk of time to learn to hit your curve balls - can let you find the path to the photo your mind can easily snap the instant you get the idea.

Oh, and switch to compact fluorescent bulbs. You'll save money every month on your electric bills.

And if you don't need to save money because you already have too much, do it anyway. You can use the money to buy me one of those D200's for my birthday.

Next: 5-Minute Test Shot


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Anonymous val_photo_gal said...

Impressed and amazed at your dedication to get down 'on paper' what you saw in your mind. Love the ingenuity and tinkering to get it done too - (don't worry tho, as much as your work inspires me, *I* won't be trying that wiring/electricity stuff at home - yikes!)

And welcome to Florida!

June 20, 2006 5:32 PM  
Anonymous Nick Decker said...

Nice shot, David. I know exactly what you mean about using what's at hand as your studio; you gotta work where you gotta work.

One question, though: Why the yellow color of the CFL? Wouldn't white contribute more to the idea of these lights being "normal" in color?

June 20, 2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger David said...

They want them close to tungsten. That's where people are used to lights being, color-wise.


June 20, 2006 6:13 PM  
Blogger Fascist said...

Nice work. It really turned out well. I just hope you destroyed that mangled extension cord when you'd finished with it. Wouldn't want anyone coming across it and plugging it in. Eeek!

June 20, 2006 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And to think - some people would have just photoshopped it.

Don't get me wrong - I think this is great.

June 20, 2006 7:16 PM  
Anonymous BobSam said...

ah me thinks - 2 pictures + Photoshop = 1 picture of bulb "on" without being in socket.

But me not photojournalist. My picture doesn't have to be real and untouched. different set of experiences. :-)

June 20, 2006 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great work, but i have a question. i was taught never to use the clone tool for newspaper work (the nppa agrees). is the baltimore sun a bit more relaxed on this or was the image used in a magazine supplement where pj ethics maybe don't apply?

jm in nz

June 20, 2006 11:05 PM  
Anonymous Jeffffd said...

David, great shot. I did a similar thing recently with a broken light bulb. I was inspired by a post in the D70 forum at DPReview. I posted some setup shots and the final image in the strobist pool.

Thank SO much for the site. I'm excited about participating in the boot camp.


June 21, 2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger David said...


It was shot as - and labelled as - a photo illustration, which makes the rules very different. Many photo illustrations involve much more esxtensive use of Photoshop than this.

June 21, 2006 8:21 AM  
Blogger EssPea Photography said...

Wow, stunning result.

I especially like the way you hid the power supply.

June 21, 2006 8:42 AM  
Blogger Dave New said...

Uncle Fester would be proud of you.

June 21, 2006 12:04 PM  
Anonymous joe said...

wistful sigh? I missed something. What happened to the D200?

June 21, 2006 2:07 PM  
Anonymous joe said...

oh never mind -- I just read the whole post more carefully and caught the fact that the D200 was a loaner. I just ordered mine -- and it's supposed to arrive monday. Yay!

June 21, 2006 2:11 PM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

Fantastic photo David!

June 21, 2006 3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah ha ! thought so david. now stop reading these comments and enjoy your holiday.. you deserve it. i look forward to your return!

jm in nz

June 21, 2006 7:33 PM  
Blogger MagikTrik said...

Amazing setup, but just out of curiosity, may I ask what the white piece of paper taped between the two snoots is for?

June 22, 2006 7:36 AM  
Blogger Pixxil said...

Very impressed by your work and your thought processes... and really love the Blog.

I have been inspired...!!
I just ordered enough gear to complete my lighting kit...(plus a little bit extra)!!! now its just a matter of waiting until it turns up. And I can tell its going to be a looooong wait!

June 22, 2006 7:54 AM  
Blogger David said...


I was trying to paint a little highlight all the way across the screw threads. It had very little visual effect, but it also helped to hold the snoots/strobes into place, as they were heavy enough to cause the "bounce" angle of the teo flashes to sag slowly.

June 22, 2006 11:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the freakin' coolest/most useful site I've EVER come across on the net!!! Been a working photojournalist for 14 years this Fall and have always needed work on my lighting, but never wanted to have to drag around umbrellas and extension cords etc... Now I just need an extra strobe and my whole philosophy on shooting with lights is changing for ever!

Thanks David.

Columbus Ohio

June 22, 2006 11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I resorted to this sort of low-cash, DIY improvisation home studio stuff a couple of years ago, not because I wanted to save money but because I didn't have any. I was quite embarrassed about it at the time.

I wouldn't have been so embarrassed if I had only known that there are pro's out there who do it too.

I think I'm going to set my DIY studio up again :-)

September 13, 2006 1:04 PM  
Blogger Jon Thornton said...

This shot reminds me of the floating lens shot on one of the Dean Collins DVDs.

BTW, the Dean Collins videos are fantastic. Since buying the videos, I have sewn many ripstop nylon panels, including a PVC coated nylon panel to use as a reflector. Now I just need to find some willing models. Watch out family!

November 30, 2006 1:19 AM  
Anonymous Claus Jepsen said...

You won't believe all the inspiration and good ideas your writing causes. I'm so thrilled and amazed that you find time to share your deep knowledge and great skills making fantastic photos with very simple tools.

This is my favourite blog so far, and I'm a humble studient of your "school". Keep it coming, it's so great and so generous of you!

Best regards,

December 09, 2006 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GE should have visited your site:

March 05, 2007 3:42 PM  
Blogger Stuart said...

Is there a thread about that Quantum battery and the cords you use for the flashes in this photo? I have the flashes and the battery and I thought they were incompatible.

March 31, 2007 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Solichin said...

Thanks for the tutorial! I've been thinking of doing this for a client. You sure helped! Thanks.

May 22, 2007 7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of those things where the 'lazy man' in me says: "people are going to think it's Photoshopped anyway, so why bother actually setting up the shot 'for real.'"

But then I'm also reminded that my dad used to tell me that the reward is in the journey, and since it wasn't like you were on a tight deadline, getting it done 'yesterday' didn't need to factor into the process... Damn my MTV-Generation mindset! :-)

Thanks for the great article (even though I'm kinda late to the party)- fascinating reading...

August 08, 2007 8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

been reading through your lighting articles, and came across your compact fluorescent bulb shot. creative set up. i did something pretty similar back in 2005 with an incandescent bulb. you can view it here if you'd like.

set up was:

one 550ex as background light ( about 5 feet from subject ), one red incandescent bulb for ambient light, and a flood lamp up above for fill ( about 3 feet from subject ).

50mm 1.8 @ ISO200 - 1/200th - f:8

take care,

October 12, 2007 4:34 PM  
Blogger Jacopo Tarantino said...

I'm confused. Why exactly is the setup "Spartan?" As an MSU student I do not appreciate being lumped in with a duct-tape way of life. Other than that, this photo is ingenious. As I read I had some of the lighting issues worked out but it would have taken me a whole day to come up with the dowel rod-power supply. Cheers!

February 24, 2008 7:21 PM  
Blogger David said...

See definition "b":

Spar·tan (spär'tn)

Of or relating to Sparta or its people.
also spartan
a. Rigorously self-disciplined or self-restrained.
b. Simple, frugal, or austere: a Spartan diet; a spartan lifestyle.
c. Marked by brevity of speech; laconic.
d. Courageous in the face of pain, danger, or adversity.

February 24, 2008 8:40 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

In my Sociology class ("Social Inequality") today, my professor was going through slides, doing an activity to demonstrate how hard it is to get by on a low income. We were making a budget, and when we got to the slide involving utilities, I went wide-eyed. My prof had found this CFL photo to use on his slide.

I knew he didn't know anything about Strobist and had probably just found the photo on a google image search, but I immediately started re-analyzing the light in the photo and remembering all the elements mentioned in this article. It was a nice distraction from class.

April 17, 2008 6:18 PM  
Anonymous dialac1 said...

Your comment "Strobist is less than three months old and I do not need to be killing off readers" got me laughing till i fell off my seat...I have to confess that after I saw the shot, I immediately noticed that it was lit with 2 flashes that had a snoot on them...this was visible by the shadow that was in the middle of the bulb's lower part...but I didnt think of the soldering...
NICE TUTORIAL ONCE AGAIN...I really appreciate all the knowledge you drop on your blog!!!

August 23, 2008 1:01 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I love your blog and I apologize for commenting on such an ancient post, but something just struck me about your picture. Did you photoshop the backlight? Your setup shot shows a virtually unmodified (except for color) flash pointing up at a couple feet from the backdrop, so I would expect to see a roughly V shaped light with a much, much wider bottom than what is pictured probably with a faint shadow above the support. If you didn't photoshop the backlight I'd be very interested to know how you got that much control.

December 24, 2008 11:46 AM  
Blogger California Photographer said...

I have been looking foe this information for some time. Thanks for posting it. I'm just a bit leary about soldering bare wire to a light bulb. I'll need to get a fire extinguisher before I attempt this as I'm afraid I may burn my place down. :)

But I do look forward to trying it out!

May 29, 2010 4:58 AM  
Blogger shayne gray learns photography %$#! said...

...funny to read this right now - just last week I tried almost exactly the same kind of shot. My solutions perhaps weren't quite as elegant or technical as your (I was just hand-holding the bulb for the most part and my girlfriend happens to have a screw-in adapter to plug a light into an extension cord), the end I got pretty much what I was after except that...the bulb itself had so many scratches on it hey....

Thanks as always for sharing - I'm a little more informed now for next time!

shayne gray learns photography

February 09, 2011 12:12 AM  
Blogger shayne gray learns photography %$#! said...

...oops! This time with the proper link:

Oh! and you're mentioned in the post by the way - I'm going to try and catch the flash bus tour in Buffalo if I can (coming down from Toronto).


February 09, 2011 12:14 AM  

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