Developing an Idea, Part One

Even though you guys are off shooting your Boot Camp headshots, I am going to try to shoehorn something else into your brain as an exercise in learning to be a thinking photographer. After all, you have loads of free time on your hands, right?

With the On Assignment post on Ant Upton's Paris soccer shot, I included a lot of color about the process he went through to fine tune and then nail his photo. Today, I want to take that concept a little further.

If you will remember back when we made the DIY macro strip lights, I said that I was planning what was (for me) a relatively difficult close-up shot. As it turns out, the photo was to be of a compact fluorescent bulb, or CFL, as seen above. Note that this is not the final photo. (Hey, give me a little more credit than that...)

I am throwing this up today to try to introduce you to the idea of the long-range fermenting process that can yield a high-impact photo. The idea it to let it pickle in your brain until you are ready to shoot it. Long-range thinking is quite different than a 20-minute brainstorming session. For me, it is the only way to get around some of the engineering "curve balls" a more complex photo can present.

But, before that, this:

Incandescent light bulbs are positively neanderthal in their energy consumption. A 60-watt light bulb is denoted as such because it uses, continuously, 60 watts of electricity to produce light. The light itself is measured in lumens, not watts.

A typical CFL will put out the same number of lumens as a 60-watt incandescent bulb, but only use about 14 watts. Given that about 30% of the average household electric bill (and energy usage) comes from lighting - if you use incandescents - you can see what a difference reducing that portion of your consumption by 77% can make.

Want to know more? Look here, here and here. Some countries are even considering dumping all of the incandescents. Not a terrible idea, IMO.

We are all going there eventually. It makes too much sense not to. And after that, LED array bulbs are on the horizon (already available but still very expensive) that can light your whole house for less than then energy consumed by a 60-watt old-style bulb. Sweet.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, for us photogs, the day of the "30cc-green," standard fluorescent are going away. These CFLs are all over the map, color-wise. You'll have to white-balance and pray. Or gel your flash with a CTO and go with the tungsten setting for white balance, which will get you pretty close on color.

And speaking of color, some of the new CFL's are flippin' gorgeous. You just have to try them out until you find one you like. In the USA, try Home Depot's "Consumer Electric" bulbs. They are only $10 for 6 bulbs in a multi-pack. I have changed over my whole house, and do not miss the tungstens one bit. And, as you might imagine, I am pretty picky when it comes to the quality of light.

OK, the sermon's over. You can wake up now. Back to the long-range, percolating idea thing.

In presenting the story on the benefits of CFL's, I wanted to make a stopper of a photo. The money/energy savings are stunning, so I wanted the picture to grab the reader to make him/her soak in the numbers.

Here is a shot, stopped way down, of a lit bulb in a fixture. You can see that (a) they really are getting pretty close to tungsten, and (b) this CFL really takes on a lovely, neon-sculpture look when exposed as an internally-lit object instead of used as a light source.

This little grab shot in my basement laundry room got me thinking. Given that you can use fill flash to compress the tonal range of a sunny day (filling in dark shadows) could you use flash to compress the tonal range of the lit and unlit portions of the light bulb?

Sure you could.

But look at the light again (up top.) It's white, shiny, filled with complex, convex curves. It is gonna pick up any strobe fired near it. And the strobe-lit, white bulb parts will then be contaminated with frontal strobe light, which will ruin the internally lit color intensity that drew me to the shot in the first place.

Then, we will of course want the bulb turned on for the photo. So choosing the lamp will be important, too. Or not, as the case may be.

Over the course of a few weeks I let the shot turn over in the back of my mind. One by one, I came up with solutions for the problems. Some solutions worked right away. And some ideas needed to be revised when I actually tried them. But by stretching out the problem-solving process, one complex problem morphed into a series of very solvable smaller problems. It is a very organic and satisfying experience, and a process I highly recommend trying.

It is important to note that I had the time to think because the proposal was mine. I did not even present it to an editor until I had my shot worked out. That's a good way to control your timetable if you are typically rushed with the illustrative ideas at your own publication. When I presented the idea in its final form, it was an easy sell.

So, if you are up for some mental gymnastics, take three or four days to mull the hurdles over in your mind and figure out how you might shoot it. As a reality check, I ended up using about $5 worth of items bought (all at a hardware store) specifically for the shoot. I also used three small Nikon speedlights (2 SB-26's and an SB-800) to light it. Nothing fancy, and all done in my living room.

In the end I was particularly pleased with the result, which I will post in a few days. At that point, I'll go through how the problems were solved and go into detail on the light.

Feel free to think out loud in the comments section in the interim.

Next: Pt. 2: Final Shot and Setup Photos


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Blogger Dave New said...

I've discovered a problem with all the neat CFLs -- they interfere with radio receivers. I started replacing bulbs in my house with these little jewels, until one day I noticed a warning on the packaging that they were not to be used around marine radio equipment. Say what? It turns out that various of these bulbs churn out wide-band RF hash that is clearly audible on a shortwave receiver for quite some distance from the house.

Being a ham radio operator, this is really a bummer. Not wanting to throw out what turned out to be a sizeable early investment in these bulbs, I've learned to go around the house and turn off all the various CFLs, just so I can hope to hear stations above the cacaphony that seems to permeate most neighborhoods these days, with everyone's leaky cable systems and myriad of radiating computer equipment.

What I don't get is why the FCC even allows such contraptions to be sold in the U.S. They should be forced to add the one or two cent's worth of parts to these bulbs, so they can peacefully coexists with radio services, and stop polluting the RF environment.

I've fought battles like this in the past, with cheap light dimmers, automatic porch lights, and those dumb 'touch' lamps. Now I have yet another trendy item that is being marketed with no care for users of the radio spectrum.

June 16, 2006 11:06 AM  
Anonymous BobSam said...

David said .."they really are getting pretty close to tungsten"
The ones the wife bought for our home sure don't look like tungsten to me. They look like white, full spectrum, outdoor light. Great for reading the small print. Do they make different spectrum?

They do have a downside to the environment -- They contain Hg. Oh the choices of existing.

June 16, 2006 2:02 PM  
Blogger David said...


There are several different brands, each with multiple color options. The Home Depot "cool white" ones drive me nuts. Could not live with them.

As for the Hg, they are still better, net, when you consider the Hg produced - and released - at the coal power plants for the extra power needed to run tungstens over the life of a CFL. has pretty comprehensive ongoing coverage of this stuff, BTW.

June 16, 2006 2:09 PM  
Anonymous phil pereira said...

Your lightbulb commentary couldn't be more timely. My wife and I were discussing switching bulb types last night and when I read this, it convinced me that we should go ahead and make the switch. I'll have to follow those links you posted.

June 16, 2006 2:53 PM  
Blogger David said...

Wait'll you see the final shot.


June 16, 2006 2:57 PM  
Blogger Dave New said...

I do wish that the CFL manufacturers would publish at least CRIs, if not actual spectrum graphs, of these bulbs. We have a CFL bulb in one of the kitchen fixtures that makes margarine look like, well it doesn't look like anything I would consider edible.

Actually *all* bulb manufacturers need to 'fess up when they make all those 'daylight' bulb claims. I find it really frustrating to look at carton after carton of so-called daylight bulbs at the nearest Home Depot or Lowe's, only to see no information on the packaging whatsoever to back up those claims. The FTC should require truth in advertising for 'daylight' balanced bulb claims. Bulb manufacturers' web searches are usually equally fruitless.

Just trying to find good, balanced D50-like light for critical print viewing is harder than it should be, as well. I really don't want to have to run those hot Solux bulbs, just to get something that looks like a reasonable fascimile of daylight for print review.

There are a couple of flourescent tube series, like the Sylvania Osram and GE Sunshine series, that produce pretty good-looking light (although with worrisome spectrum spikes that may cause metamerism to rear its ugly head). The cafeteria at work uses them in the food service area (salad bar, etc) and it is really noticeable. I've considered moving to those bulbs, but in a lot of home situations, you don't normally have the appropriate fixtures in place to accomodate the two or four foot tubes.

June 16, 2006 3:17 PM  
Blogger David said...

Back in the good old(?) days of chrome film, I shot a lot of commercial and bizmag jobs. I had a four-foot-long box of "gel condoms" for fluorescent fixtures.

Any time I had to shoot chrome on a big job in a room with window light and fluorescents, I would pull the bulbs and slide them into my 4-foot, CC30 majenta fluorescent condoms and re-install them.

Presto, a room full of "daylight" fluorescent bulbs.

Can't do that now. Those tubes are all over the map, color-wise - as are the CFL's as you are well aware.


June 16, 2006 3:30 PM  
Blogger Gary W. said...

Dave, Great work. I'm a pro working for a couple of magazines now. I started just a year ago (been shooting for a lot longer, just left my day job at that time) and the information on portable stobes is invaluable. I'm used to using big studio lights, but maybe I'll have to sell those at ths point and but more SB's...

David New - I don't think margerine is edible, is it?

September 04, 2006 2:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been using CFL lights for a few years now and notice that the CFL lights in the bathroom do not last very long. I have a horizontal light strip above a mirror where there are about about 8 CFL lights. I believe the cause of the early failures is due to the lights being horizontal. Has anyone else noticed this issue?

April 06, 2009 5:31 PM  

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