Note: This is Post # 2, of a three post series, that I have planned for this week, all centered around the DIY Christmas Tree Ring Light that I'd constructed a few years back. This article was originally written for my Global Photography blogsite, and was published about four years ago. A minor amount of editing has taken place to that original article.
After many weeks of planning, designing, purchasing, procrastination, and then final construction, my DIY Christmas Tree Light Ringlight -- built using scrap masonite, foil tape, deeply-discounted Christmas tree lights, and six sticks of glue in a hot glue gun -- is now fully operational and real-world tested. All in all, it's a very interesting (though somewhat flawed) lighting instrument (one that certainly won't be coming out on every shoot), but which adds to the array of looks that can be achieved when shooting portrait photography. I suspect that it might also have some amount of use in product photography, though that's something which I'll have to investigate much later on.
First off -- to bring everyone back up to speed -- my DIY ringlight is based upon a Christmas Tree Ringlight that Steve Rychetnik (with Alaska's Sprocketheads) built for use with his cinematography and video production work. As a brief aside, I really want Steve to write a guest column on this blog so that he can talk about his lighting techniques for cinematography. He's jaw-droppingly good, and very, very innovative... Anyways, Steve's basic design -- which I've borrowed from heavily -- was to take a sheet of plywood (about 3 foot by 3 foot), paint it white, cut a six inch hole in the middle, and then staple Christmas Tree Lights all over the surface in a circle surrounding the center hole. Myself, I've altered this design a bit for still photography work (I wanted less weight and higher light output), and so I took a piece of scrap masonite (about 2 foot by 2 foot), trimmed down the corners a bit, applied silvery foil tape all over the front surface, cut a six inch hole in the middle, and then hot glue-gunned three hundred Christmas Tree Lights to the shiny surface. Actual construction is very straightforward and very, very affordable . Here's the basic parts and price list:
2 X 2 Foot Sheet of Masonite (mine was just a piece of scrap, so let's guess at the price): $3.99?
One Pack of Three Hundred Christmas Tree Lights (bought after Christmas at deep discount): $5.99
One Roll of Foil Tape: $5.99
Hot Glue Gun and Six Sticks of Hot Glue $7.49
Total Cost? Somewhere around twenty-three and a half dollars.
In terms of the amount of time spent actually building the light, I'd have to estimate that about four hours of sawing, drilling, taping, cutting, and (most time consuming) hot glue gunning went into the overall construction. I suspect that -- were I to build another Christmas Tree Light ringlight -- that I could get the build time down to about two-and-a-half hours or so.
Okay... So enough with the nuts and bolts sort of stuff... How well does it work?
Pretty well, actually, thought with some interesting limitations... Here's a quick portrait from a studio session that I did yesterday afternoon:
Wow! Not bad for twenty-three and a half dollars worth of scrap masonite, shiny tape, discounted Christmas Tree lights, and a bunch of glue sticks.
One thing that I need to mention is that the light output from this device is low... Really, really loooooooooooooowwww. An ASA of 500 is pretty much mandatory in order to get f-stops and shutter speeds into a reliably usable realm for portrait work (i.e.: faster than 1/25 of a second, and somewhere between f2.8 and f5.6). Were Santa Claus to be nice to me and bring me a shiny new Nikon D7000 for Christmas, well, I wouldn't even hesitate to shoot at ASA 500, 800, or even 1200. As things stand, I currently shoot with a Nikon D200, and though I don't fear ASA 500, I do get a bit nervous at speeds higher than 800.
Also -- and this is related to the overall low output of the ringlight -- it's kinda' hard to use strobes as secondary lighting sources with this device. The combination of high ASA and wide open aperture that's needed to take pictures makes even the cheapest, dimmest, beat-to-crap portable flash as powerful as a tactical nuclear weapon. Massive amounts of distance and scrimming are needed in order to render strobe lighting into something that won't violate nuclear proliferation treaties.
Anyways... The light output from this DIY project is fairly low AND it also happens to be a somewhat heavy piece of equipment to be hauling around. My guestimate is that the overall weight of my DIY ringlight is about four pounds or so, which puts it out of the realm of usability for any sort of editorial or run 'n' gun sort of work.
Sooooooooo... Enough with the bad stuff... What is/are the good qualities to this light?
Simple... It gives a really, really, really cool ringlight effect to close-up portrait work AND it creates the best dang' eye sparkle that I have ever seen. The three hundred individual lights which make up the design and build of this ringlight get reflected back in peoples' eyes in a way that's absolutely magical -- almost like a cluster of stars.
Here's a close-up of the eyes... Be sure to check them out at full size:
Totally, awesomely, head-spinningly cool.
One other thing that I need to mention is that the color temperature of this ringlight is also very, very low (a white balance of around 2450 degrees K.) and that skin tones come off a bit pinker than usual, even with a proper white balance. On the other hand, this does add to the overall style of portraits created with this light, and so (in a very Microsoft-ian manner), I might start referring to this as a "feature, not a flaw" of the device.
P.S.: Special thanks -- and a shout out -- goes to my "model" for the above images: David Walker Clapp. David lives and works here in the Portland area doing personal fitness training and professional speaking engagements. Trust me, the dude kicks some serious butt... He was also kind enough to let me take his picture using my very scary looking (and previously un-tested) homemade lighting contraption.