Monday, October 29, 2007

$9 DIY Ring Light

Ring lights are all the rage now, and DIY versions are way more practical than buying a $1000+ flash head. I'm a typical sheep, following the herd, so I decided to try my hand at it too...

Although my story starts early this month when I was working my way through the local OSH (Orchard Suppy Hardware) with my daughter on my shoulders (because riding up there is way more fun than riding in the cart). I looked in the lighting aisle to check for some CFL replacements in our house, when a circular fluorescent light caught my eye and made me think, "Ring Light!" I looked at it, pondered, looked some more ("DAAADDDY! Let's go!") and left, not wanting to spend our limited funds on another useless photography project.

Once I got home and thought more about it, I realized:

  1. The thing was really cheap (the receipt is at right) -- $8.99+tax for the bulb and ballast!
  2. We could always stick it in a lamp if I didn't need it for photography.
So on our next shopping trip I picked one up along with a 30W bulb. I ended up taking the 30W bulb back because it didn't have the ballast (driver) with it and the 23W version wasn't compatible as far as I could tell. The pic of the bulb in the package opened up this entry (apologies for the crappy sun-lit photo).

So, you're supposed to replace your standard incandescent bulb in a lamp with this thing (you know, a lamp with a shade). Just screw in the ballast/center thing and the bulb itself is a horizontal circle in the lamp. It really comes in two parts: the bulb, with four prongs for the cord from the ballast, and the ballast unit which has the standard light bulb threads and the cord that plugs into the bulb (as shown below). The ballast also has a support to hold the bulb, but that easily snaps off.

Since I'm not the type to take a long time and build a nice support rig, I screwed the ballast into the socket on an Ikea lamp (handily attached to a long cord) and held the ballast and bulb in my right hand while operating the camera with my right. DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME! YOU COULD GET ELECTROCUTED! (sorry, had to include that for liability reasons... although with hundreds of volts running through the unit, I probably shouldn't have done it). The other side of the lens looked something like this:

Attaching the bulb and ballast (along with some sort of reflector and light stand connector) would be no trouble at all. It was reasonably convenient in the fashion I held it (takes a little time to get things settled in the right place, but then they are secure)... but again, I'm an idiot who doesn't mind a little electrocution once in a while. After all, growing up surrounded by farms and electric fences, we made a lot of dumb bets involving electricity (and fire, but that's another blog entry altogether).

The images that resulted were... passable. I actually wanted to reshoot (hence the delay between the purchase of the equipment and this post) but didn't find time. Fluorescent tubes have two major problems: not very bright (compared to a flash, at least) and poor color balance (I shot RAW, and was able to get reasonably good color balance, but the sliders were almost all the way to the end, if you know what I mean).

Luckily, my daughter was around to help me:

Although the best picture, IMHO, was of me that she took. Well, OK, for the record, I held the light and the camera, and had her push the button, but she nailed the focus!

Overall, I'd say it is a very workable solution for head shots, close-ups, and or some macro work. It'd be easy to rig the light up on a frame with the camera, and it does give that really nice circular highlight in the eyes. I did wish the diameter was a bit larger than the 9" or so it is (sometimes my fingers got in the way) and the intensity was pretty weak. Although I got 1/200 sec @ f/2.8 and ISO 200, which isn't too bad, but the shots are very close. The 30W bulb would help a lot (I didn't see any ballasts for it at my local OSH though) and a reflector would also probably double the light output. If you want to play around with a ring light, this might be the cheapest solution!

No ring light post would be complete without referencing those who have come before. I'll do it in a relatively random list of links and brief commentary:
Honestly, if this stuff interests you, digging around in those links will keep you busy for a very, very long time... For me, I haven't decided if I'm going to plunk the thing into a lamp or rig up a finished version.

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