DIY fluorescent panel light
In particular, lighting has made some significantly huge strides. Small camera flashes have become more powerful, larger strobes have become more portable and the advancement of fluorescent and LED light has simply been astounding. While there is no denying the advantages of professional photo-calibrated lighting, for the beginner or hobbyist those lights are well out of their price range. Fortunately the photography world has a large sub-culture of creative minds that like to bend rules and re-purpose materials. For those of us with shallow pockets; thank god for the do-it-yourselfers.
I recently found myself wanting a small panel fluorescent light. Something I could use for product shots but wasn't too expensive. A quick trip to the local home improvement mega-store solved my problem.
In the lighting section of the store I purchased a small two by two foot recessed fluorescent light fixture. One of these fixtures will run you about $40 (give or take). This particular light uses two T-8 'U' shaped bulbs for a good spread of light. In addition, the light fixture itself has a plastic diffuser over the front that helps create a nice soft light dispersion.
I suggest going with the T-8 bulbs which have a smaller diameter over the more traditional T-12's for several reasons. Primarily they are more energy efficient. They also pack a lot more lumen power per watt than the older T-12 bulbs. Lastly, the new power converter, or ballast, used to power these bulbs run more effectively and the flicker rate is so short that it actually syncs better with photo equipment than the older bulbs. Couple that with daylight balanced bulbs and you can get really good results literally right out of the box.
Well, almost right out of the box. Actually you have to do two things to it in order to be able to use it in your studio; add an electrical cord for power and add some kind of mounting hardware to use it on a light stand.
There are several ways of mounting a panel to a light stand. The easiest is to create a receiver for the top of the stand. I did this with a bit of extra metal tubing I had laying around and some electrical parts. Just make sure the inner diameter of the tubing you use can fit over the mounting stud of the light stand. Aside from the tubing, here's what I used; two PVC tubing clamps and 5 self tapping sheet metal screws.
That's it. Hang the light on a stand, place your subject in front of it and go to work. You will be surprised at all you can do with this simple set up.