8.31.2015

I went out to buy a gallon of milk but I came back with a new, inexpensive, high performing LED light that mimics open face tungsten lights of yore.

The RPS CooLED 50. The business end....

It will come as no surprise to VSL readers but I am a sucker for new lights. Especially new lights that can serve a purpose in my work and in my enthusiast projects. I left the house on Sunday to acquire some weatherstripping for my newly painted doors, and I think I was also supposed to buy some more milk while I was out but I got too close to the gravitational pull of Precision Camera and got sucked in due its powerful attraction. With entry a foregone conclusion I mentally prepared myself to experience inventory lust.  In the back of my mind I always have a subroutine working that automatically scours camera stores for rare, fun, awesome and underpriced lenses. I scanned and poked but nothing floated to the top of the pile in any meaningful way. 

I worked my way through novel stand cases which are always a necessity--- just because no one has ever made one that's just right. And they still haven't. I kicked the legs on a few, old school-style, aluminum legged tripods and ended up in a little helter-skelter niche that contained weird semi-system flashes, orphaned LED fixtures and vaguely interesting attachments. Always looking for the underdog I found a couple of boring looking boxes that had badly reproduced images of a weird looking LED light on them and, of course, I had to see what was inside. But I was a good customer. I didn't pull out my Benchmade pocket knife and go to town on the packing tape, instead I found a salesperson and asked if any of the product was out on display somewhere. "Noper." 

Could we open this box? "Yes indeed, we could." 

Inside, packed with protective cardboard, was a funny light. It's the one imaged above and below. It's called an RPS CooLED 50 and it's packaging states that it puts out as much light as a 500 watt tungsten movie light. Maybe in some alternate universe where all the 500 watt tungsten lights are only used under heat proof blankets.... Nevertheless I plugged it in and played with it and it licked my hand and looked cute and I had to take it home with me. 

So, what the hell is it?

It's an LED light that uses a concentrated (SMD=surface mount device) LED cluster that is more powerful than the traditional multiple, individual  5mm LED lamped panels. The major issue with most of the LED panels that we've used, especially the brightest ones, is that companies are using up to 1,000 individual 3-5mm LEDs, laid out over the surface of a 12 by 12 inch panel, and this "crowdsourcing" of enough LEDs  makes the panels bright enough to be effective for still photography and video. The big geometry of these devices always meant that it was very hard to get a sharp, specular light beam that would cast a deep and defined shadow. The diffused light of the one foot by one foot panels was soft and, used without diffusion, each little lamp cast a separate shadow and a separate light beam. Nothing at all like the conventional lamps, or even flash tubes, that we are used to.

The first SMD LED that I used, and have had a lot of experience with, was the Fiilex P360. It's a great little light and it kicks out a good amount of lumens but it's not capable of delivering the amounts of light that some of the newer compact light source models are capable of delivering. I continue to use mine almost every day but I have wanted to find a source of brighter (and cheaper) small source lights for a while. The RPS model fills the bill. The unit I am writing about here draws about 50 watts of power and is said to deliver the equivalent output of a traditional 500 watt tungsten light. While the output is quite exaggerated the CooLED 50 is still very efficient, and, in concert with it's polished 8 inch reflector (interchangeable and in a Bowens ring mount), it does put a significantly increased amount of light on subjects when compared to larger, flat panels I've used, or the P360.

This model comes with an A/C power block that fits into an accessory shoe under the body of the light itself but it can be replaced with external, 24V batteries as an option. The body of the light also has a connector on top to hold an umbrella in place. 

The SMD LED is compact and concentrated and gives a much too hard edged light for most lighting designs. The LED is covered with a removable glass cone that spreads light into the reflector efficiently. There is also an optional fabric "sock" available that fits over the front of the reflector, further softening the light. 

To maintain extended run times without heat issues the unit is fan cooled and most of the actual body of the light is covered with highly ventilated covering which should make any use of the unit around water seriously contraindicated. Lowering the heat load means that the light can run for a long time with little degradation to the components. 

Umbrella Connector on Top Matches with Hole in Reflector to Make Umbrella Use Practical.


The back of the CooLED 50 is pretty simple. An on/off switch and a five step dimmer switch. The dimmer switch is not infinitely variable, it's five discreet steps from full power to minimum power. The mounting yoke gives you a full range of movement even with the A/C power block riding underneath. 



After looking at the way the light is designed my biggest concern in actual use is that no one block the ventilation of the light by putting anything over the perforated surface of the main tube body. A cool running light is a happy light.

The unit came with a two door barn door set up which attaches securely. I looked at a Bowen's catalog of light accessories and there are lots of modifiers available that will fit this light. I'm not looking at any right now as my main use is to "push" the light through silk "flags" for diffusion which will allow me to use these, comfortably, as main lights for studio portraits. The same set ups also work well for video interview subjects.


But the real question is always about light quality. The manufacturer (Dotline) is rating this light at a CRI of about 90, a color temperature of 5200K (+/_ 200) and an output of around 5000 lumens. Specs that would have cost several thousand dollars only a few years ago. My first test was to see how it matched with direct daylight. I set up a camera with the WB manually keyed in at 5200K. I put a big chunk of white foamcore so that it was partially illuminated by direct sunlight through my window and partially lit by the CooLED 50 (that part of the foamcore NOT in direct window light but  well shaded from it). The light color temperatures were close with the LED being just a bit warmer but pretty neutral on the magenta/green hue axis. I would use the light unfiltered with sunlight or daylight balances. At five feet from the light, on axis, my Sekonic L-508 light meter gives me an incident light meter reading of ISO 100, 1/60th of a second, f2.8. While you won't be lighting up large buildings or overpowering the sun it is enough light in my studio to do nice portrait; especially if I use it fairly close in to the subject (always with diffusion). 

For the cost of $200 it's a pretty compelling light for the crossover work I've been doing lately. 
Here's a link for the light at Amazon > Affiliate Link for RPS CooLED 50

Tomorrow I'll be writing about this light's bigger brother, the RPS CooLED 100 which, as you might guess, is twice as powerful (that's only one stop more....). I bought the two with the idea that I'd mostly use the big light through a 4x4 foot diffusion scrim and the smaller light on the background to match the basic color. Make the set a pretty cool portrait duo for right around $500, total. 

Fine Print: I bought both of these lights for the marked, retail price at Precision Camera. I am not enticed or rewarded monetarily or with product by Precision Camera. I like to buy there to support a great camera story and to support our local economy. If you click through the link above or below and buy this light---or anything else for that matter----at Amazon.com the VSL blog will get a small commission. This commission is paid by Amazon directly and does not effect the price you pay for any product. Thanks! Kirk


I'm thinking about diving back into inkjet printing here at the VSL post production wing. Can we talk about printers?


I've been reading a book by Brooks Jensen entitled, The Creative Life in Photography - Essays on Photography, the Creative Process, and Personal Expression. I've enjoyed reading lots of what Jensen writes and it's made me nostalgic for doing photography in a way that mimics or emulates what I used to do in the days of the black and white darkroom. One of Jensen's contentions is that the photographic work we create isn't really finished until we've actually made our final expression: The Print. Everything else is just "work in progress."  Along with the idea of moving to images to completion is the encouragement to think in terms of folios and projects instead of just sporadic and unconnected prints.

It's odd. Nowadays my work seems split into two separate universes. There is the universe of digital where everything is tucked away somewhere on a hard drive or backed up on a DVD and the only expression of the work is as a small file presented on the web; generally on this blog. The work is harder and harder to find and since it is so cheap and easy to create the quantity of work done and warehoused is so astronomical that it defies my easy re-acquisition and becomes, in my mind, a mass of digital clutter. I rarely go back and re-visit work that's stored in a none visual way and so I've lost ready access to the continuity of my visual creations in a way that's both paralyzing and depressing.
If work is stored in ones and zeros it tends to remain in ones and zeros, hedged against some day in the far future when I might have the time and inclination to sift through and reconstruct it....

But there was another universe that started back in 1979. It was the universe of the darkroom and the black and white print. Everything, EVERYTHING, that seemed valuable, fun, personal, sexy or engaging didn't really exist to me until I printed it and once I printed it there was a real, physical manifestation of my vision that I could easily share with others. The sharing took place via portfolios, prints on the walls of my house, my bakery, my favorite gallery and on the postcards I would make by hand and send out to friends and clients. The expression, the making of an image all the way to the print required a commitment to the image. Each print cost time and money. Each print became a valuable physical proof of a memory or a vision. And a significant object in itself!

We tend to think of this schism in terms of film versus digital but it's not that way. For years I toyed with inkjet printing and spent much time printing images like the one at the top of this article on various papers and with various printers. Somewhere around 2004 or 2005 the print, as a deliverable to clients, fell off the map and the at the same time we experience the rise of "photo sharing" websites that would house and display our images for us at no cost. Somehow this displaced our emotional need to hold a physical manifestation of our images. I started to move away from "the print" in favor of the cost free/time free sloth of the internet gallery.

The last printer I owned that I bought just for making photographs was the best and the worst printer I've had. It was the Epson 4000 and when it worked it produced really gorgeous black and white prints at sizes up to 17" by however long the roll of paper was. Really gorgeous images! I continued to print as I had in the darkroom and continued with a revolving show of framed and matted prints at Sweetish Hill Bakery that had been part of my artistic expression in the community since the early 1990's. I'd made the jump to digital but without abandoning the printing aspect that made so much of the work feel REAL to me.

The Epson 4000 (along with photo sharing on the web) put the nail in the coffin as far as my printing was concerned. The technology was flawed. The printer clogged whether I used it constantly or not. I would go through hundreds of dollars of ink and paper just to get it all up and running again only to have the damn thing let me down at the worst possible moments. The moments in which I had an emotional investment in getting a great print out of the machine when I wanted it. When I was receptive to the process. Let's face it, if you are working hard at your job and you have a limited amount of time to print your own work it feels so frustrating; almost like an intentional betrayal, to have the process grind to a halt and require hours of trouble shooting. You start trading family time and work time in the service of the machine and not really in the service of your art. At a certain point you just say, "Fuck it" and move on.

I gave the printer away to another photographer. I don't know whether I did him a favor or cursed him with a new monkey for his back. I bought a Canon 9000 that prints beautiful invoices and an occasional large photograph that might be needed for some background art in a shot or something. But at the moment that the printer with fine art potential left the building I never printed my own work in earnest again.

The lack of a physical target, in retrospect, has blunted my creative process. Without the need to print well and large of what use is it to have technically super-duper cameras? Who cares about all the tech stuff if everything you show is going to end up as a file that's 2100 pixels on the long side? Why bother with a tripod? Why bother to get up in the morning and shoot your own work? And, in truth, I've spent the last 10 years working for clients and watching my own engagement with my personal work diminish. But because of Brooks Jensen I think I'm about to end the cycle and re-engage with a way of doing my work that was organic to the whole process of seeing, shooting and presenting. I'm planning to

8.29.2015

Why do I keep those Olympus EM5.2 cameras around? Why do I like using them so much more than everything else I own?

Got the Bokeh, if you want it. 

I finished up all of my August work yesterday morning. There was the big PhotoShop project which called for me to convincingly make an executive (who we photographed in front of a green screen) look as though he was addressing a packed auditorium. There were the two portraits for two professional women who are re-entering the workplace after some years off and needed the right look for LinkedIn and other social media. There was the video footage that needed to be post produced for the company providing speaker and spokesperson training. By the end of the day everything had been delivered, approved and billed. Time to take a long neglected walk through downtown Austin. But first the task of selecting a camera and lens(es) to make the walk fun and interesting....

I stood up from the desk and walked to the equipment cabinet which is really a professional grade, Craftsman rolling tool chest (five ample drawers; lockable) and peeked into the bottom two drawers. If you read the blog on a regular basis you probably know that I have relentlessly downsized on camera inventory and also lighting inventory. In fact, I own fewer digital cameras now than at any time in the past fifteen years. Something I still find scary and

The Summer Went By Too Fast. Balancing Family and Work is a Tougher Equation Than it Seems at First Glance.

A Nice Little tripod set up for quick studio portraits. 
Gitzo Something or Other with a "side arm" center column.

Belinda and I just drove back from the Austin airport. We dropped off our kid, Ben, for his flight back to college. He's heading back a week and a few days early for an orientation/training week. He'll be a peer mentor for sixteen incoming freshmen this year and the college takes the training of their peer mentors seriously.  I know a lot of parents are anxious and eager to accompany their kids to college, help them set up their dorm rooms and generally mope about, delaying the disconnection that has to happen. 

Ben has never been the kind of person who needs that amount of handholding and he's done a reasonable job of training his parents not to hover. He went by himself on his initial college tours and got on a plane the first semester of his freshman year to travel solo. That doesn't mean there are no moist eyes in the car as his mom and I drive back home. But damn, he looked so grown up wheeling his luggage into the airport...

The Summer was interesting for me. I worked lackadaisically. A project here and a project there. Nothing major got done with the next book. No real marketing happened for the business. No big, out of town trips to shoot stuff. Instead I set time out for more family interaction. We ate dinners together almost every night. We hit all of our favorite restaurants.  After Belinda headed off to work in the morning Ben and I would sit at the dining room table, each sipping coffee and reading the news on our respective electronic devices. Then, at 9:30, Ben took one of the cars and headed off to work.

I worked on my various projects but mostly I entertained the Studio Dog. Ben and Belinda worked more than me. Ben had two fantastic job offers at the very beginning of the Summer. Both were from established software companies. Both were interested in his writing and video production skills. He worked hard but short days (his choice, his negotiations) and was very well paid. He fit into the corporate culture of his chosen company well. He saved most of his money and invested it. 

Dinner conversations were inevitably interesting. They ranged from "how to invest" to "I found a Japanese online clothing company that actually has cool clothing for short, thin people...." to "you have to see this movie in the theaters because..."

Try as I might I couldn't find the balance between work and family this Summer so I defaulted in favor of family. I could not have made a better choice. 

I'm happy to see Ben having so much fun with school. I'm sad because I already miss him. He's been a fun guy to hang around with. I have hope though.  Even though he loves his college he mentioned that Austin is amazing because there is always so much to do and so much great food. I'm sure the city will keep drawing him back.

Studio Dog has already staked her claim to his bedroom.

Now it seems like it's time to get back to work.

Sunday update: Ben is now on campus, has unpacked his belongings and even been shopping. He e-mailed that he had to go out and buy a fan. It never occurred to me (Texan) that a residence hall at a college would be built without air conditioning but apparently in upstate New York it's less a necessity than in Texas. Seems Saratoga Springs is having a little heat wave this week.... His mom and I are very happy to hear that he's arrived safely. Thanks to our friends in Saratoga Springs for treating him so well!