Why Are Strip Lights So Cool?

Today's post comes from the book Christopher Grey's Studio Lighting Techniques for Photography by Christopher Grey. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

I know I won’t be telling you anything you don’t know when I say that photographers are just little kids playing with their toys. Over the course of my career, I’ve been lucky to be interested in shooting everything, and I have managed to stock a very large toy box with all sorts of goodies.

Some time ago I decided to replace my nondigital studio strobes with new gear as sophisticated and precise as my camera and light meter. I wanted to duplicate everything I’d previously purchased and add a few new items as well. Though I’ve always had a wide selection of softboxes, I’d never before had a totally matched set. In the past, I added gear as necessary, or just because I wanted to play with something to see what it could do. There’s nothing wrong with that approach—it’s certainly less of a strain on the ol’ checkbook than doing it all at once—but the various brands and ages of the equipment meant color temperature differences were getting wider as the gear got older and digital cameras got better.

Along with everything else, I replaced two earlier strip lights, about 16x48 inches each, with 1x6-foot Profoto strip light softboxes. I became so enthralled with the look and shape of the light they produce that I now use them in place of more traditional modifiers and in situations I’d never thought to try before. I think you’ll see possibilities for your work, too.

When used as a background light, these long, narrow boxes create a long and consistent light that’s reminiscent of a horizon just after sunset. In this shot of a singer, the strip light creates a background light that splashes and rides up the folds of the curtain just as bounce light from a spotlight might do.

Use two strip lights, one from each side, to illuminate both the subject and the background. When they’re evenly spaced relative to the subject and the background, and powered to the same strength, the light is even across both. The look is terrific and very easy to create, yet it’s important to remember that the model can’t be too far forward of the background (about four feet, in this case). As the model is moved farther away from the background, it will become darker, because the light will lose strength.

For product and stock photography, softboxes like these have a lot to offer. For example, beverage, stemware, and cookware photographers spend a great deal of time placing highlights that accent the form of the product. Because strip lights are so long, they can create a highlight that runs the entire height of the vessel.

The highlights on this glass of brandy were easily formed by setting a softbox on each side, angled to a V shape to mimic the shape of the glass. Both strobe heads were powered equally. In order to get a reflection that followed the entire shape, it was necessary to place the bottom of the light below the base of the product.

This shot of old boots was lit by placing a strip light flat against the back of a sheet of milky white Plexiglas, so that the edges would stay relatively sharp and defined. The parabolic reflector on the main light was fitted with a 10 degree grid to keep light from spilling onto the Plexi and diluting the shadow.

You can use one of these modifiers to create beautiful hair light for an individual or multiple strip lights to create even, semicircular coverage over your subjects’ heads and shoulders. Center the light over and slightly behind the subject(s).

Gelling the light is as easy as taping the colored acetates to the black nylon frame of the softbox, a little trick that produces stunning results for applications such as editorial or stock photography. The main light modifier for this shot was a 20-inch beauty bowl, and the background light was a 2x3-foot softbox, powered to 1/3 stop under the main light and placed close to the background to fall off rapidly. The strip light power was 1/3 stop over the main light. My 70–200mm zoom was used at 150mm to compress the perspective and throw my chemist slightly out of focus at f/9 (images 18.6 [diagram] and 18.7).

One of the older and smaller live theaters inMinneapolis, the Southern, features a proscenium arch with intricately carved and formed plaster details that must have been spectacular when new. Well, the years have not been kind to the property, and much of the detail has been chipped away or scraped off, but the wall and arch are still intriguing, especially as a photographic background. Frankly, if I had a wall like this in my studio, I’d insure it with Lloyd’s of London.

One of my professional dancer friends, Denise Armstead, rented the theater as a background for a video she was producing for her company, DADance, and had promised me some time to shoot. She and her dance partner, Gerry Girouard, had created and choreographed a tango that was outstanding as a motion piece but which begged to be shot as stills.

I’d brought quite a bit of gear to the shoot because I’d not previously seen the dance and had no idea what I would need to set up the shot. After watching the performance, I felt strip lights would create a sense of fluid drama quite nicely.

I set one strip light at each end of the wall on the left side of the arch. Each strobe was powered equally, and I made a mental note (looking at features on the wall) where the two strobes metered to the same stop. The lights were set to feather across the wall’s details but were mostly aimed at the dancers, who had about five feet to move between the points of perfect exposure. As they moved from one side to the other, the two narrow softboxes took turns being main light or fill, allowing the dancers more freedom of movement than they’d have had if they’d been lit for only one place on the floor (images 18.8–18.10).

So, if you’re looking for a new twist on an old standard, you might want to investigate a strip light softbox. Most manufacturers do not offer a box as narrow as Profoto’s, so make sure your brand of strobe gear makes a speed ring that works with the narrow rod placement that the brand of softbox you buy will require. If you like what the softbox does as much as I do, buy another so you’ll have a matched set—then go play with your toys.


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