Look at the size of that thing. The first time I saw a photo CFL bulb, it really surprised me. I had no idea it was that huge. Photo CFL’s are becoming very prevalent these days, but are they really the best choice for your lighting?
As different countries try to do their part with our environment, and companies come up with ways of saving energy, of course this will affect our choices in artificial light for photography.
Each of the lights I am discussing are bulbs that you would use in a softbox like this to the left. The softbox diffuses the light source – sometimes not enough and you need to diffuse further, but you get the idea. This is the Westcott 411 uLite and I talk about it often in other posts.
I’m going to discuss all the options you have for artificial light bulbs, tell you my favorites, and some pros and cons of each one.
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1. Incandescent Light Bulbs (Tungsten Filament Lights)
During the days of film, tungsten bulbs were extremely popular. Though they are still heavily used in the movie industry now, still photography is moving away from the incandescent light bulbs because they are an energy waster.
Many countries have banned incandescent light bulbs. In the US, the specialty photo globes are still allowed. They are very bright bulbs that are 250 watts, 300 watts, 500 watts, 650 watts, 1000 watts, all the way up to 24,000 watts – no joke. Oh yeah, that bulb, the 24,000 watt bulb, that’s about $4000.
I personally still like using my tungsten lights when I can.
Pros Of Incandescent Light Bulbs:
- The lower wattage bulbs that we use in softboxes – 300 – 500 watts are very inexpensive, $3-$6.
- Incandescent photo light bulbs have a very clean light, meaning there is no green tint in the light. I love tungsten light. It’s a very pretty light.
- Easy to purchase in the US.
- They are much brighter than LED’s and CFL’s so you only need one bulb in your softbox compared to 4 or 5 LED’s or 2 or 3 CFL’s to get the same brightness.
Cons Of Incandescent Light Bulbs:
- They are also called Hot Lights, because they are incredibly hot when used.
- The amount of energy they use VS the amount of light they emit is extremely inefficient.
- They do not last very long. In fact, some bulbs say they last a total of 50-60 hours – but that is a bunch of malarkey.
- Several countries have outlawed these bulbs because of how inefficient they are, including the specialty photo bulbs.
- They are very delicate and the filaments can get damaged in shipping.
- These lights have a WB from 3000-3400 so you can’t mix them with daylight unless you gel them.
- You can not touch the high wattage bulbs with bare hands because the oil from your hand can actually make some bulbs pop.
2. CFL – Compact Fluorescent Lights
CFL’s are fairly new to the scene in our photo world because of the ban on incandescent lights. There are all kinds of CFL’s with all kinds of prices, and I’ve been researching these bulbs for a year now to figure them out. I have several issues with these lights that I will share in the “Cons” section below.
You have to do your research with these lights and you CANNOT buy the cheapest ones you find. This light shown to the left is made by Westcott and is one of the good ones. Not all Westcott bulbs are the same however – so read the reviews!
There is a very important rating for lighting these days. It’s called CRI – Color Rendering Index. To put it simply, CRI tells you how clean your light is. How accurately that light source is at rendering all the colors. The range goes from 0 – 100. This bulb above has a CRI of 91, which is great for a CFL. Do not use lights with a CRI less than 90.
Any light source has two different values to consider, the white balance, and the tint. The white balance is the color temperature, and that goes from yellow/orange to blue. The tint is a value that goes from magenta to green.
So, the cheap CFL bulbs have a low CRI, so low that they won’t even tell you what it is. When you read the light coming from their bulb with a color meter, then you can see how much green the bulb is adding to the light that it is emitting. This is obviously a huge problem because a company that is using marketing jargon calling their bulb a “full spectrum” bulb would be implying that their bulb renders colors well, but it actually has a low CRI, like 80 for example and the light has a huge green tint to it. This green tint makes it very difficult to color correct and should never be called a “full spectrum” bulb.
Here is an example of a cheap CFL that is totally bullsh!tting what they say about it. Do not buy these cheap LimoStudio bulbs. It’s saying it’s a daylight bulb with “Full Spectrum”, then it says in the details that it is “Daylight Balanced Pure White”. This is WRONG. Totally false advertising. Yes, it has a WB of 6500, but with a tint of 29 points green (according to my light color meter). I’m sorry, but that is not “pure white light”. 29 points green is a HUGE problem!!! I have two of these as they came with the cheap crappy softbox I tested.
The entire point of using a daylight bulb is that you can mix it with real daylight if you need to. If the damn thing is green, guess what?? You can’t mix it with daylight because daylight is clean light and will never be green. It just pisses me off the false advertising.
I go on Amazon and I ask these import companies what their CRI is on their bulbs and they NEVER answer my questions because they don’t want anyone to know how bad they are.
There’s another huge issue I have with these lights. All CFL’s contain mercury – yep mercury! You know that extremely toxic heavy metal that can do all sorts of damage to your body. If you break a CFL bulb, you just ingested some airborne mercury powder. Oh they tell you that it’s no big deal because it’s a small amount. That’s fine if you have never come across mercury in your entire life, ever. But I’m sorry, that’s just not the case. We have mercury in our water, the air (if you’re in a big city), in our tuna fish, the list goes on. So this adds up over time. I know this because I had mercury poisoning a few years ago. It’s not a good time. Enough said.
Pros Of CFL Bulbs (Not Much)
- They last a long time – seriously, I was told by Westcott (you can call them and ask any questions) that their CFL bulbs last 8,000 hours. So you could, in theory leave the light on all year long, every day.
- They do not get hot – which is really nice.
Cons Of CFL Bulbs
- They contain mercury and breaking them is a major hazmat clean up situation.
- Some countries have outlawed putting CFL bulbs in the trash. You have to dispose of it as if it is hazardous waste – because it actually is.
- The bulbs that have a high CRI are very expensive – $40 to $50 each.
- They do not emit a lot of light at all. You need several CFL’s to equal 1 incandescent light bulb.
- They are huge, so not all softboxes are appropriate for those bulbs. If you are not using a heavy duty light stand, your softbox can easily tip over if you are using four bulbs in one head.
- The cheap CFL’s have a major green tint to them, which really makes them useless.
- It seems the higher the wattage (brighter), the lower the CRI.
#3 LED Bulbs – The Current Winner/Favorite When I’m Not Using Strobes
I’ve been testing some LED lights and I am very impressed. I now have 8 of the bulbs you see here to the left. They are made by Hyperikon which is a privately owned US based manufacturer. These bulbs are UL listed, which means they are built to certain specifications to make them safe.
They also export to 30 countries, so my international friends, this is the bulb to look for. I have seen the 9.5W version on Amazon UK. They also sell these in Canada. My Aussies, you’ll have to find an equivalent brand as Hyperikon are not there yet.
LED’s also do not get very hot when they are on, so that’s great. However, it is very hard finding higher wattage LED’s with a high CRI.
This bulb is 16W (100W incandescent equivalent) with a CRI of 95. This is the highest wattage with the highest CRI I have found yet.
So what I suggest to do is instead of using the CFL’s, get four of these LED bulbs with this 4 socket adapter (or equivalent) for your softbox if you need new bulbs. There are many brands that make these so don’t get the cheapest one and try to find one that is UL listed in the US or the equivalent in your country.
This one is made by the LimoStudio Korean import company that I am not a fan of, however this one product IS UL approved – or so they say. I’ve been using them and they seem to be fine. Just know, I never leave lights plugged in after I use them anyway just for safety.
Pros of LED Bulbs
- Very affordable compared to CFL’s – Four LED’s are $37 – Four CFL’s with high CRI start at $160.
- They last an extremely long time
- They do not get hot when used
- Very small, compact, and lightweight
- The good brands do not contain mercury or lead
- Very efficient and use very little energy
- You can get daylight WB (5000K) or Tungsten WB (3000K)
- You can get LED’s with a CRI as high as 95 for very clean light
Cons of LED Bulbs
- The highest wattage I have found with a normal household medium screw base and a high CRI is 16W (100W incandescent equivalent). So you have to use at least 4 bulbs in your softbox to get near the output of 400 watts of light.
#4 Strobe Lights
There are several different kinds of strobes and this will be it’s own blog post later on, but for now here they are.
1. Speedlites, like the one on the left, are the smallest strobes. They take batteries, or can be plugged into their own little battery pack. They can be used off camera, and with devices called slaves to make them talk to other speedlites and talk to the camera.
As you can see by how small the speedlite is, it’s limited in how much light it can put out when you start putting it into softboxes and other light modifiers.
2. Next we have monolights. Monolights are also self contained and usually have to be plugged into the wall for power. There’s all kinds of extra accessories for these lights, like big battery packs so you can take them anywhere. You need to use light modifiers for these as well, as the bare head strobe has very harsh, direct light. The image to the right is of a very small monolight that is only 110watts. So again, like the speedlites, you are very limited in power with monolights.
A popular brand of monolights is called Alien Bees. Alien Bees have several strobe options going from 160w up to to 1320 watts with prices from $225-$550.
3. Strobe heads with strobe packs. For my commercial ad work, I mostly use large strobes. I use strobes to emulate daylight and that’s the trick. It’s something I specialize in.
In the image above you can see two large strobe heads and they are plugged into those large black boxes. Those black boxes are the power packs. Each of those packs is rated at 4800 watts. I bounce light all the time off my studio walls and you need a massive amount of power to do that AND to have enough light to shoot an image at F/16, which is what most of the ad work requires, everything in focus.
I will also use strobe heads inside softboxes and other modifiers.
So you can see how the little monolights just don’t have enough power for what is needed when shooting images where everything needs to be in focus.
With using professional studio strobes you have hundreds of accessory options for strobe head attachments, light modifiers, all kinds of fun stuff to choose from. However, they all come with a steep price. The more power you need, the more money you have to spend to get that.
Using strobe lights is very different from any light source because you are working in stops of light. You measure the light coming out of the head in F-stops so it’s confusing for folks when they are first learning this. And you have to sync your camera’s shutter speed to the strobes. You must also use a light meter (pictured left) to measure the light coming out of the strobe heads.
I will get more into the details of how to use strobes in another post.
So, there you have it, all our artificial lights that we have to choose from for photography.
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