Cheap DIY Fluorescent Studio Lights for Beauty Photography

Who said that hi-end lighting equipment has to be expensive? And who says the only way to shoot with fluorescent light is to use the flicker-free Kino Flo lights that can cost you thousands of dollars?

I began using my fluorescent lighting technique nearly 10 years ago, long before Kino Flo’s and Peter Hurley became popular. I have been asked to describe it so many times that I decided it was time to put together a few tutorials to show how to build it and how to use it. In this article, I am going to deal with “how-to use” the fluorescent studio lights.

Jump to the end and you will find a video and parts list that will help you build your own set-up for less than four hundred dollars.

So what’s the big deal with this fluorescent light after all?

Simplicity: it is a simple-to-use light that is very soft and molds to your subject almost effortlessly. It’s great for subjects who struggle with flashes.

If you’ve taken a class in lighting or read a lot of textbooks, you have been taught that common household fluorescent lighting fixtures will not work well for studio photography.

We are told it is because of the flicker

You see, fluorescent bulbs are gas filled tubes; the gas is charged by electric pulses from a ballast which in turn creates visible light. Because of the pulses, the lights are rapidly turning on and off. This happens fast enough that we generally don’t see it with our eyes, but since the camera’s shutter works at a very fast speed, over the course of several frames you will notice that not only does the exposure change, but the color quality also changes due to the pulsing of the light.

The more expensive Kino Flo lights use a different type of ballast that allows them to operate at a higher than standard lamp current and a higher frequency, hence eliminating the flicker.

Technology has given us a new smaller, brighter, energy efficient and flicker free bulb (T8) that eliminates many of the obstacles that we faced with the older style (T12) bulbs that most of us grew up with.

So the primary difference between T8 and T12 fluorescent bulbs is the size of the bulbs and their bases. The number 8 or 12 refers to the difference in the diameter of the bulb. T8 bulbs are eight eighths of one inch, or one inch in diameter, while T12 bulbs are twelve eighths and have a larger diameter of one and a half inches.

The T8 bulb is slightly brighter than the T12. A T8 bulb produces around 2600 lumens, while the T12 bulb puts out just over 2500 lumens. A T8 bulb is 32 watts, while a T12 bulb is 40 watts, so this his makes the T8 bulb more energy-efficient.

Over time fluorescent bulbs begin to lose their intensity and brightness. T8 bulbs have a slower period of decrease, losing only 10 percent of their initial brightness after 7,000 hours of use. In comparison, T12 bulbs can lose 20 percent, or double the T8 after the same number of hours.

T8 bulbs are powered by an electronic ballast compared to the magnetic ballast that the T12s are traditionally powered by. This makes them more energy efficient and also completely quiet – making them great for video production where you need to be able to record sound.

Check out this video to see how to build the units. Links to the main parts are at the end of this article:

So let’s talk about how to use the set-up…

Check out this video for details and examples. (Note – the fixtures in this video use the older T12 bulbs. The newer T8 fixtures in the previous video work exactly the same except they eliminate the flicker – see below for an explanation):

So there you have it. Now you know how to build your own fluorescent lighting rig and how to use it to create awesome portraits and beauty shots.

What about the flicker?

You only have to worry about the flicker if you are using the older T12 bulbs — click here to see the first video in the series If that’s the case simply make sure you always use a shutter speed that is 1/125th or a second or slower. That’s it!

A shutter speed of 1/250th of a second… which is what most flash units sync at will give you dramatic inconsistencies with exposure and color balance.

Slowing your shutter speed down to 1/125th of a second or slower will eliminate that dramatic shift, and while you may occasionally see a very slight shift – it is nothing that can’t be corrected very quickly in Lightroom or Photoshop.

The T8 bulbs have little to no flicker and do NOT require you to shoot at 1/125th of a second – you can use faster shutter speeds with very consistent results.

With my rig – I am usually shooting at ISO 200 – 1/200th of a second shutter speed and f5.6 lens aperture.

Keep in mind if you like to use a big heavy zoom like a 70 – 200mm – shooting at 1/125th of a second handheld may risk camera movement and blurry images for some shooters. If that’s the case… use a monopod or tripod.

Links to the main components

Lithonia Lighting Industrial 6-Light High Bay Hanging Fixture at Home Depot

Lithonia Lighting 2-Light Electronic Channel Fluorescent Strip Light at Home Depot

Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp without Stud at B&H Photo and Video (You can also search for generic clamps – they are often cheaper. Amazon is also a good source for these)

You can do your own comparison… here is the link to Kino-Flo Lighting Systems web site.

About the author: Joe Edelman is an award winning editorial, corporate, and advertising photographer. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.