Tuesday, January 15, 2013

DIY fluorescent panel light

Photography has made some wonderful advances in the past several decades that, in retrospect, would blow your mind. For those of us who came into digital photography from the days of film, there is no denying how far it's come. Yes, some things have been left behind and many would argue that the ease of accessibility to photography has watered down the creative pool. But that's for another article.

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.

Adding power is relatively simple. The fixture I bought does not come with any kind of wiring. It's designed to be wired into a ceiling, after all. You will need to get the following items; a chandelier replacement cord, an in-line dial on/off switch and a plastic cord strain relief. You will also need some electrical tape or wire nuts to connect the power cord to the ballast.

For my light I drilled a small hole in the rear of the fixture to allow the power cord to pass through. Just make sure you are not drilling into wires or the ballast. The hole should be big enough for the cord with a strain relief attached to it. Once connected, simply add the dial switch (see photos for detail) and you're ready for the mounting hardware.

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.

I cut a small 2 inch section of tubing and attached it center line on the back of the fixture so that the front panel's hinges were at the top. This way if I had to open the front to change a bulb the panel would open upwards rather than dropping down. The tubing was attached with the two PVC clamps, one at the top and one at the bottom of the two inch section. I then used the fifth screw to secure the section of tube to the top PVC clamp as a redundant safety factor (see photo for details). You'll need to pre-drill the PVC so it doesn't break.

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.

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