When starting out with photography or video production, it pays to be resourceful- especially when assembling your first lighting kit. Balancing interests in still photography, filmmaking and later videography I first turned to the secondhand market to purchase my constant, continuous tungsten studio lighting. A combination of eBay, camera fairs and garage sales delivered and I became the proud owner of several tungsten photo flood lights with brightnesses ranging from 450 watts to 1000 (otherwise known as 1k). The thing to understand about these lights is that they are mechanically every simple devices. Its worth considering buying one even if it’s declared ‘not working’. More than likely its only fault is a burned out bulb, or missing or burned out fuse.
Be mindful of old photofloods without cooling fans
Tungsten lights feature a burning filament inside a glass tube, similar to a traditional incandescent ‘Edison’ light bulb. As they step up in their intensity and power consumption (wattage), so increases the amount of heat they generate. Older lights (1980’s and earlier) often stimpulate ‘duty cycles’ offering recommendations of how long you should operate the light, before switching it off to allow it to cool. Some of these lights had very crude cooling mechanisms, without fans or obvious heat syncs, and were designed during the heyday of Super8 filmmaking- a time when a single roll of film could only record two and a half minutes of footage at 24 frames per second. I found these lights to be generally more trouble than they are worth, though using them in combination with a modern dimmer is a good way to give these old fellas a new lease on life.
Cooling fans are best seen and not heard
Ignoring the duty cycle on such lights can lead to plastic in the light’s housing melting and distorting, and can create potential hazards for the operator, who can risk burns or electric shock as the heat takes over. Fortunately, German manufacturers Unomat and Bausch (and others) produced economical tungsten lights up to 1000W complete with quiet-running fans (thus eliminating the annoying duty cycles of the older, cheaper lights). These are the best ‘bang for buck’ option when buying your first tungsten lights. When considering a purchase, ask the seller if the light’s cooling fan squeaks- replacing the fan bearings is not an easy task, and if you’re planning on using this on a film or video shoot, a squeaky fan can ruin your sound recording.
Finding replacement parts for your photo-flood
When it comes to the maintenance of your photographic or video light, there are two spare parts you will need to keep handy: bulbs and fuses. You will be pleased to know that at the time of writing this post, bulbs are still available for both styles of 1K lights pictured here. If your light dies, and a fresh replacement bulb doesn’t illuminate your situation, you’ll likely need to replace the fuse.
If your light still has its information sticker attached, chances are it will tell you the Ampage of the fuse you require. In my case, both pictured lights required 6.3A fuses, and the existing burned-out fuses had this etched onto their metal caps. Another helpful detail which may be present on the sticker is the fuse’s DIN number. DIN stands for ‘Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Institute for Standardization)’ and if searched on Google your number should set you on your way to finding the right fuse for your light. The DIN for the fuse fitting my fan-cooled Unomat LX6000 and my Bausch VLG1000 is DIN 41660. The required DIN number for your fuse will vary depending on the style, age and wattage of the light you own.
Good news, fuses are plentiful and cheap
The fantastic news is that these fuses are still readily available and are very affordable. I bought three today from my local electrical repair store in Adelaide, South Australia: Statewide Appliance Spares. Three of them cost me a little over AUD$11, and the store had them in stock, ready to go. Bulbs for 1K tungsten lights in Australia cost between $20-30, and Osram bulbs tend to be quite readily available. I buy mine from Adelaide’s specialty lighting store, P.J White & Co. It is a good idea to purchase your bulbs locally whenever possible, as they are fragile items and need to be handled with care.
An environmental footnote
On an environmental note, it’s true… Tungsten lighting does burn a lot of power. The good news is that tungsten lighting is rapidly being replaced by LED lighting which generates very little heat, and is far more energy efficient in producing its brightness. There is no doubt in my mind that LED and similar technologies will replace the need for tungsten light in the near future, but for the time being, saving one of these well-crafted lights from landfill and putting it to work with a new bulb or fuse still serves an immediate environmental benefit- and is a good economical option for low budget creativity. While the three R’s of waste management typically include Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, I’m a firm believer in the 4th ‘R’… repair.
My journey into the world of macro-photography began after meeting fellow photographer Emma Sterling in 2003, and gazing in wonder at her fantastic floral abstract works. Back then, the 35mm film SLR was still the weapon of choice for the early-career photographer, and I quickly aquainted myself with the tools of the macro trade: extension tubes, bellows, close-up filters, ring flashes etc. I was also introduced to the variety of technical challenges that arise when seeking to capture and share the world beyond that visible to the naked human eye. In short, macro was an expensive, complex, slow and cumbersome business.
During that awkward period where DSLRs were obscenely expensive, and point ‘n’ shoots were too crude, the cost of shooting film made maintaining my habit cost-prohibitive. I turned my attention to filmmaking and then HD video production and then, suddenly in the last two years, the game changed. I now have the convergence of video and still camera technology to thank for re-engaging me with macro-photography, and providing me with the affordable tools I yearned for many years prior. Remarkably, I’m not talking about DSLRs, and to date I still do not own one.
Macro photography’s tough, but it’s never been easier
While I purchased a Casio Exilim EX-FH25 camera initally for its high-speed (slow-motion) video capabilities (which I will demonstrate and describe in a future post) the camera also offered some less publicised strengths. A point ‘n’ shoot camera styled to look like a compact DSLR, the camera can auto-focus down to 1cm from the lens’ front element. It was this Super-Macro mode that I used almost exclusively to produce the images you see here, and in my debut Butterflies of South Australia calendar, which is now available for purchase.
When working with a living and unpredictable subject such as the butterfly, a super-macro mode isn’t enough to guarantee the best possible pictures. I have listed below several key considerations to make when choosing a camera to shoot living macro subjects with.
Set focussing to Super-Macro
The best macro detail you’ll get from a point ‘n’ shoot camera will be in its dedicated Super-Macro mode. This setting will allow the camera to focus as close to the lens as possible- in the case of the Casio EX-FH25 at a distance of 1cm. Other macro modes may be seriously limited in how close they can focus, and actually work more like a tele-photo macro setting. This can be handy for larger butterflies (shot from a few metres back) but for the tiny ones, with wingspans under around 2cm, you’ll want to go super-macro. This mode also disables the zoom, so you have to work harder to get the right composition, and become a master of stealth and patience.
Set your camera to Burst Mode
Burst Mode (also know as rapid-fire or sequential shooting) is a camera setting which allows the camera to shoot a speedy series of frames at full or very high resolution. The Casio EX-FH25 can do this at slightly lower than full resolution: 9 mega-pixels for 30 consecutive frames, at a rate of up to 40 frames per second. The benefit of shooting in Burst Mode is that you will find the critical sharpness and subject pose will vary in any given series, and instead walking away with a couple of frames, you will have many more to choose from. If you’re really lucky, you might even capture a rare image of a butterfly taking off at the end of a burst.
Use Fast Shutter Speeds on Shutter Priority Mode
If you want to catch a butterfly in flight, you’ll need as fast a shutter speed as possible. Higher end consumer cameras and professional cameras have a Shutter Priority mode, whereby the user sets the desired shutter speed, and the camera automatically adjusts aperture and ISO according to the available light. Anything that saves time when working with live subjects is a blessing, believe me. You’ll also have immense difficulty focusing (even with auto-focus) on a flying subject. Feeding or resting butterflies allow for slower shutterspeeds to be used, but bear in mind that shooting macro at shutter-speeds slower than 1/100th of a second will likely soften with a degree of camera shake. The closer you are to your subject, the greater this problem becomes. Don’t bother trying to shoot from a tripod, as you won’t be able to reposition yourself fast enough (super-macro mode typically does not allow zooming) and the tripod will cast shadows and bump foliage, disturbing the subjects.
Know your subject
Butterfly behaviour varies from species to species, but from my experience, the best photo opportunities typically arise when butterflies are either feeding on tight clusters of flowers, or basking in the sun with their wings spread. Butterfly photo-opportunities are fleeting to say the least, so learn from the shots you don’t get, as well as the ones you do. As mentioned before, avoid casting shadows over the butterflies with your body or lens, and avoid making any sudden movements, sounds or disturbing the foliage. Remember, stealth and patience are essential to capturing macro magic with living subjects.
Discover more at NatureScope Photography
If you found this article interesting and enjoy nature photography, you should pay a visit to my new project website, NatureScope Photography. At NatureScope you will find regular posts of nature video, photos, production tips and news on environmental issues and actions… as well as a broad catalog of photographic images by Emma Sterling and myself to purchase and enjoy.
Locals in my hometown of Adelaide, South Australia will recognise that we’re in the early stages of an unusually wet winter. Since we’re placed in one of the less fortunate corners of this arid continent of ours, I never view rain as a curse and instead take great delight in seeing the foliage and watercourses flourish in times like these. In the past fortnight I’ve also taken pleasure in catching another symptom of the season, the awe-inspiring rainbow, on several occasions- recording them with whatever devices I had handy at the time. After proving popular on Twitter, I thought I’d break the Creativity Base blog-post format, and post this triptych of recent rainbows for your enjoyment. Of course, we have the divine science of refraction to thank for these gifts, and if you’d like to read some more on rainbows, Wikipedia provides a pretty good catch-all for the curious.
Shot on Emma Sterling’s cellphone, I tweaked the saturation to bring up the rainbow colour intensity in the above image.
You’ll notice in the above double rainbow, the colour band order is reversed in the outer, feinter rainbow.
This one was snapped through the windscreen on my cellphone while driving. At the rate cellphone cameras are improving, i won’t be bothering with a digital point n’ shoot by the last quarter of 2010… but that’s another blog post! Enjoy the rainbow season, everyone!