Cool and inexpensive light using fluorescents

Martin explains a very inexpensive way to spice up your photos with cool catchlights in your model's eyes, using fluorescent lights.

Picture (c) Martin Ziaja

From time to time I use “unusual” lightsources like fluorescent lights to create nice catchlights in my model’s face. In the meantime quite a lot of companies in the photo industry offer devices for that, but because I use continuous lightsources so rarely, I wanted to go for something cheap.

So I went to the nearby building centre and bought two of their cheapest fluorescent light-sets (incl. bulb fitting), that were about 1m long, and two metal brackets as well. These I simply attached to the fittings with two screws and connected a mains cable with the lamp carriers – done. (Please do this ONLY if you have some experiences in working with electricity! If not, ask an electrician – he will do it for you in two minutes). To attach the lamps to my light stands, I put a C-clamp on top of the stands and fixed the metal bracket from the lamps in it.

The shoot can start! Here’s an example:

(C)MartinZiajaPhotography - fluorescent lights

For this shot I positioned the two vertical fluorescents very close to each other in front of my model, Nora, and photographed right through them (as can be seen in the parallel catchlights in her eyes). Quite cool! But lighting with fluorescent requires some degree of planning:

These lights don’t have much power, which means that you have to crank up your ISO and/or position the lights very close to your subject! The short distance combined with probably a wide aperture leads an extremely narrow depth of field, which can be appealing, but can also be hard to handle. So take many shots to make sure you nail the focus.

Another thing to keep in mind has to do with your shutterspeed. If you buy the inexpensive lamp carriers, your light is powered by your household socket current which alternates with 50Hz (Europe) or 60Hz (U.S.). That means, if you choose a shutterspeed faster than 1/50s (1/60s), you may get underexposed pictures with probably a strong colour cast. (For technical background please have a look here). There are other lamp carriers that have a certain device built in (ballast -Ed.), that increases the frequency, so that you can shoot at any shutterspeed you like, but these are more expensive. I shot two frames of a greycard to demonstrate what happens if you shoot at a fast shutterspeed.

This is shot with 1/1000s:

For comparison a shot with 1/30s:

If you keep these things in mind, fluorescent lights are a great and very inexpensive way to light your portraits! Here’s another shot with the same setup, but for this I included to speedlights with blue gels as rimlights to separate my model from the background:


I use these lights only from time to time (as well as my ringlight), because one can get tired of looking at this effect quite quickly…

So have fun playing with fluorescents and post some examples if you like!

– Martin –