Review: The Best of Dean Collins on Lighting

To appreciate what a Lighting Rock Star Dean Collins was in the late 80's, you really had to be at one of his seminars.

Imagine yourself and a couple hundred other photographers sitting, mesmerized, in a hotel ballroom as a half dozen synchronized Hasselblad slide projectors took turns unlocking secrets and opening doors in their brains.

And talking non-stop at the front of the room was Collins, never standing still for a moment. His hands constantly gesturing, his delivery machine-gun fast. But somehow, your brain processed it all.

You were a rat and he was the Pied Piper, leading you out of the dark ages.

There was no time to take notes. It was enough just to listen and try to keep up with the guy. And you couldn't not pay attention. Because you were starting to get it.

And he couldn't slow down if he wanted to. Because he had so much to tell you.

Those of us who are a little older remember how his techniques took the commercial photo world by storm. He started out playing with PVC pipes to make his own gear. Soon, Bogen was marketing "Lightforms," which were designed right out of his "Tinker Tubes" notebook.

All of this lighting mania led to a series of books, and later, videotapes. Photographers watched them repeatedly. And they adapted their methods to embrace what they had learned.

Sadly, Collins passed away last year after a three-year fight with cancer.

Thankfully, his willingness to share his knowledge via books and VHS tapes means that he will be able to go on teaching future generations of photographers.

The Best of Dean Collins on Lighting is a new, 4-DVD, 6-hour compilation of the best of his VHS series.

And the one weakness in these DVDs stems from the state of the art in video production at the time the VHS tapes were produced. You'll notice a lack of the sharpness and resolution that we all take for granted in this day of HDTV and 10-megapixel consumer cameras.

But the weakness stops there.

The content of these tapes is timeless. The clothing styles may scream 1980's, but the lighting techniques are just as valid today as they ever were.

And unless someone repeals the laws that govern light and physics, they will continue to be applicable for the foreseeable future.

The "Best of Dean Collins on Lighting" DVD set began shipping this month.

Mine arrived via UPS as I was waiting to pick my kids up at the bus stop. I saw the brown truck drive past. I saw him pull up to my house. I knew what he had for me.

But when you have a five-year-old who has just started kindergarten, you don't bail on him to run back to your house to see the new DVDs. You pick him up at the bus stop.

About three years later the bus arrived with Ben and his older sister, Emily. We headed back to the house.

All four DVDs ship in one double-width clamshell case. The first three discs contain between eight and ten full, commercial shoot breakdowns. Disc number four is simply entitled "Basics."

It is disc four that you should watch first. In it, Collins introduces you to his philosophy of lighting by using one, small battery-powered flash. Before it is over, he will show you the big guns at the big shoots. But the principals hold true right down to the small stuff.

As you watch it, you learn about the different areas of a lit, 3-D object. If terms like "diffused highlight" and "specular-to-diffused transfer" mean nothing to you now, get ready for them to start popping into your head every time you hold an apple up to the light before you take a bite.

Collins takes us through several portrait shoots using one modestly-powered flash - and a high-powered brain. These are the early productions, and he was still using some home-fashioned light control gear.

That's a good thing, because the commercial Bogen versions are very difficult to find these days. Maybe on eBay, if you're lucky.

But that's okay, because you can make this stuff. I'll be making some panels and documenting the process on this site soon. More fun than buying it, anyway.

Your appetite whet by the basic concepts, you are off to the races.

There are 27 shoots broken down in the remaining three discs. Each one of them will leave you with a mixture of awe and a feeling of "Hey, I could have done that!"

That's because he was (is) such a good teacher. And he doesn't just teach you a bag of tricks, either. Along the way, you learn how to think about light. Midway through the DVD's you find yourself anticipating the solutions to the lighting problems he faces.

I would imagine it is very much like the experience of a fellow photographer I know who spent most of his childhood in his native Korea. Years later, he stopped in amazement while walking down a street in the US. It had just occurred to him that, for the first time, he was thinking in English.

There are far too many examples to do the DVDs justice, so I will run through some of my favorites:

• A pair of tennis shoes, shot on 8x10 film, and exquisitely lit from all angles (including underneath) for a catalog shot.

• A stunning, "in-motion" shot of a Yamaha street bike and rider shot on 8x10 large format and lit with four, small quartz lights. And 8-seconds of exposure time in which to do some quick, in-camera "Photoshopping." (The ubiquitous program was not yet invented when this photo was made.)

• Various, outdoor photo sessions that turn ugly, mid-day light into a beautiful environment using reflectors, diffusers and mirrors. So, yeah, magic is done with mirrors.

• And this annual report cover shot in five minutes (with lots of prep time) at an airport with two airline executives:

This image reminds me of a favorite story Collins used to tell.

This was one of those instances where he used about a gazillion watt-seconds to transform a large, ambient environment for a photo. As it happens, he was using optical slaves to trip the lights.

Well, they had everything all set up and were waiting for the execs when an elderly Japanese couple walked by with a small, point-and-shoot camera.

If you are a photo bug and walk past a setup like this, you're gonna want to snap a souvenir shot. Even though your camera only has a dinky little flash that cannot possibly ever hope to light such a big area.

Except for this time.

In the instant the the tourist tripped his shutter, thousands of watt-seconds were released as all of the strobes went off at once.

I would have loved to see the look on their faces. I would also love to see their picture.

They learned a lot about light that day, too.


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Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Wonderful review!

August 31, 2006 6:46 PM  
Blogger James Pratt said...

Just got mine yesterday. Watched the first DVD about 5 minutes after it arrived. I was mesmerised and thought about it all night. I would have jumped into the rest, but I wanted to savor them, think about what I saw, and enjoy them rather than rush through the remainder like a kid in a candy store. I am going to slow down and watch them one at a time, think about it, enjoy what I learned, put it to use, and stretch out the fun of learning this stuff. Absolutely outstanding.

August 31, 2006 9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity to meet Dean Collins at a seminar in Cincinatti when i was in college. He was a great guy, we watched these videos in school so i was a bit intimidated to talk to him. Turns out not only was he an amazing photographer, he was easy and fun to talk to!! I just ordered the set today and look forward to watching them again. By the way, this blog ROCKS!! keep up the great work.

August 31, 2006 10:36 PM  
Anonymous Charles Zablan said...

I took your advice and splurged on these DVD's and I would have to say that i've learned more in these 4 dvd's about light than I have ever learned in any of my books (visual learner) I needed to repeat the dvd's a few times though(which I ddin't mind at all) because he speaks like a machine gun at war! Awesome though!

September 01, 2006 4:05 AM  
Anonymous kip collins said...

Thank you David for the fantastic reveiw on Dean. I have been in awe of Dean since he built a model glider plane out of a block of balsa wood,razor blade, paper & glue without any plans and it flew perfectly Dean was only 8 years old at the time. Dean excelled at everything he ever was interested in. In his senior year in high school he became the photograper for the schools year book and that was when he fell in love with photography, from that point on nothing stopped him in his pursuit for knowledge in this field. I would also like to add that he was the greatest brother anyone could ever hope to have!
Kip Collins

September 01, 2006 11:56 AM  
Anonymous kevinv033 said...

Mine arrived on Wednesday. I was just able to start viewing them today (Friday). I started with DVD 4 (The Basics) and I watched the "Studio Portraits" section. It is amazing what you can accomplish with one single portable flash.

I haven't even gotten through all of DVD 4, but I can tell that it is already worth every penny spent.

If you don't have it, save up and get it. You will not be disappointed.

September 01, 2006 3:05 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

Likewise, have only just completed Disc 4 and it was AWESOME. Some great photos with the most minimal of gear - he as a model Strobist (Now back to my DVD player!)

September 02, 2006 3:14 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Got mine last week, just watched the first DVD today.


If any of you out there aren't sure about dropping $125 on this set (I was weary at first), it's worth it.

I wish I knew about these DVDs before I bought another set of lighting DVDs (all three seemed to just be the same info from the previous dvd, just recycled). Those three are going on e-bay.

Lots of information, very detailed, I know I'll watch them more than once.

September 04, 2006 11:55 PM  
Blogger Nowell C. Wisch, MAS said...

I had the privilege of printing the original Finelight Series for Dean and Gary Burns away back in the early 80's. Throughout the years, we did his entire boxed set of a dozen or so series, featuring his setups.

At the end of our business, we printed the covers for the VHS tapes that these came from. They were excellent teaching tools then and should be good now. I pulled some of the tapes out of storage this evening and plan to order the DVD set tomorrow.

Thanks for resurrecting these. Dean Collins was a true visionary in the field of photographic education and he lives on in these works.

September 23, 2006 3:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW! He's the GURU!!! Incredible knowledge.

October 09, 2006 6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took a weeklong seminar from Dean in the middle 80's and he changed my way of looking at life. Not only lighting, but as a person. He was a very special guy and it took me a very long time to get over he's passing away. He had a saying that I'll never forget (at least I haven't in 20 years)...."Remember, about life, this isn't a dry run! You can't come back and re-do it."

He lived with that in mind and every once and awhile I hear his voice in my head saying just those words. My best to his family.

I'll be ordering these DVD's as a refresher and as a way for my son to meet the best teacher I ever had.

Steve Morrison in Rockland, Maine

October 14, 2006 7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like a great learning tool.
The only place I've found it is at:

for a price of $179 (!)

Previous folks have mentioned it being closer to the $125 range - any other sources out there? (my various google searches didn't turn up anything else)

Looking forward to it!

April 05, 2007 10:53 AM  
Blogger David said...


They ran a special for quite a while at $125, but that is over, I am afraid. There is a link on the main thread where they can be rented.

Highly recommended.


April 05, 2007 1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, maybe the steep price tag will keep it from going the way of LS&M where no one can find it!

July 17, 2007 10:21 AM  
Anonymous John Allan said...

I'll never forget that Dean Collins taught me late 80's how to shade a model on location to lower the light level on her. Then compensate, by opening up. The result is the background going to this wonderful pastel... Beautiful and unique.

Thank you,
John Allan

August 22, 2007 9:48 PM  
Blogger michael said...

I'm another that did his workshop in San Diego and kept in touch up until his death. I knew I could never be a photographer who just copies what others do. Dean did not show us what to do, but taught us how to think and how to understand light-totally. I met up with him at a convention once and we were sitting at a table talking and within minutes we were surrounded by dozens of photographers listening to him. He had enormous charisma and was a fantastic teacher. I owe my career to him.

December 30, 2007 7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very sad news about Dean. He was definately a pioneer in his lighting techniques. I still have some p42 pannels that I still use daily. I will definately be picking up the new dvd, the VHS series was great.

Rob Jones

February 11, 2008 9:23 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

I remember attending one of his lighting seminars in Cleveland, Ohio, sometime around the early 1980's. It was fantastic. I never forgot about the Finelight series, nor him. I'm sorry to hear that he passed on; however, his work will always be remembered.

I never look at a piece of PVC the same again, nor a sheet or piece of ripstop nylon. Totally amazing!

February 12, 2008 11:03 AM  
Anonymous Olubayo said...

My heart goes to the late Dean Collins and his family. I had no idea he was dead until I this afternoon. I was his follower in the 1980s. I bought all his finelight series and had the privilege of meeting him in person when he performed at the Jacob Javits Center here in New York. As a show of respect for him, I'll buy the DVDs as soon as possible.

May his memory lives on!

February 12, 2008 6:06 PM  
Blogger RaNGeR said...

So David, have you got one of these t-shirts yet? ;)

March 20, 2008 8:08 PM  
Anonymous mycke said...

will somebody please correct me if i'm wrong but the yamaha shoot was i think 6 seconds not 8 seconds exposure. or maybe i'm wrong. :D

July 07, 2008 10:15 AM  
Blogger Reuben said...

Thanks for the review

August 29, 2008 7:11 PM  
Blogger Marcos Aspiazu said...

I tried to get the DVD from SmartFlix and was the worst services I have ever experienced. They charge my card and them put me in a waiting list for a movie that I was suppose to get immediately, finally I canceled the order now I waiting they reversed the charges on my card


October 01, 2008 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Randy K from Iowa said...

I was lucky enough to see a Dean Collins seminar also. He was my hero. He took the time to visit with me and was a very gracious person. I was crushed when I Googled his name and discovered he had died. I was lucky enough to subscribe to his Finelight notebooks and have them all. Dean Collins was the best and his name will live on!

October 19, 2008 7:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched the first DVD volume 4, and honestly, the DVD is just ok. It's good to step back and review the basic technique from the master but most of his lighting material is nothing new. Also, his equipments (camera, lighting modifiers, etc) are quite dated and less practical these days. He has the whole team of 2 assistance whose jobs are just to set up and holding light panels for him. Being said that, using mirror for hair light outdoor is interesting.

Anyway, will watch more when I have time.


January 12, 2009 5:17 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

Dean was the MAN! So much information in these DVDs, I have watched them several times already. I learn something new every time, it really is timeless stuff. So sad that he isn't around any more. I've never seen anybody who is both hyper and super-chilled at the same time before...a real one-off. RIP Dean, a true legend.

April 05, 2011 7:34 AM  
Blogger Rajiv Sarathy said...

A friend, who was a teaching assistant at Brooks when Mr. Collins occasionally taught there, lent me a DVD with one of Collins' live presentations at Brooks. One word: outstanding.

July 12, 2012 9:23 PM  

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