DIY LED Lighting for Photography

Photo of LED photography light

I learned how to light for television about 40 years ago while working in the broadcast industry. It was an expensive and difficult affair, but the basics of lighting haven’t changed — the tools have just gotten better and cheaper. Lots of folks photos and video every day, but the addition of just a little lighting can make the difference between “snapshots” and professional-looking quality. I hear protests regarding the cost of buying lights, not to mention carrying a pile of gear around. But what if you could build small, dimmable, custom lighting to suit your individual needs for about $50?

While teaching a course on Internet-based entrepreneurship it became obvious that some basic media training would really help the students. After all, they (and many of us) were all carrying smart phones capable of capturing excellent video and sound, and the cost of posting for a world-wide audience is approaching zero. With the addition of a little lighting and perhaps a better microphone, their media efforts could really stand out. I decided to devise a low-cost LED light that nearly anyone could build.

photo of The LEDs come on a reel
The LEDs come on a reel

Part of the inspiration came from a trip to Fry’s Electronics where I discovered flexible LED strip lights at very low cost. The whole lighting kit, including 16 feet of LEDs, and a power supply was about $50. I hadn’t seen inexpensive lighting like this before. It turned out that the LED strip had a self-adhesive backing, could be cut with a scissors into as small as 3-inch lengths, and could be powered by any 12 volt power supply. It occurred to me that I could cover a piece of foam core with the strips, and produce a very diffuse light source — perfect for photography. They even came in different color temperatures! I purchased a “warm-white” kit (3500 K) and stopped at the Dollar Tree for a piece of foam core.

photo of LEDs mounted on foamcore
LEDs mounted on foamcore

Once home, it took about an hour to cut and adhere eight, one-foot lengths of the LED strip to a 4 x 12 inch piece of foam core. The biggest difficulty was connecting all those one-foot pieces, but some short jumper wires and a little solder did the trick. There were even solder pads on the strips every three inches! After connecting the included power supply, I had a beautiful light!

With a working light, some protection and a mounting strategy were needed. A trip to the home store provided some poplar wood 1 x 2 and 1/4″ panel, as well as non-glare picture glazing.

photo of Frame materials
Frame materials

With these, I built a picture frame. The 1×2 was ripped on a table saw to a 1-inch width, and I also cut a rabbet on one side about 9/16-inch deep. This was to accommodate the thickness of a glazing/foam core with LEDs/poplar-back-panel sandwich. A series of 45º cuts made four pieces. I glued these together to form a frame with a 4 x 12-inch back opening. Likewise, a 4 x 12-inch back panel was cut from 1/4-inch poplar.

photo of back with dimmer and cord storage
Back with dimmer and cord storage

Last, I cut a 7 /16-inch hole on one of the long sides about 3/8-inch deep. I then pressed a 1/4-20 nut into the hole, and after getting the fit right, removed the nut and glued it in with epoxy cement. Sanding, a coat of flat-black spray paint,  more sanding, another coat of paint and some steel wool  produced the finish surface. The glazing, foam core and  back panel were assembled into the finished frame. Last, I mounted the dimmer to the back panel, wired it up, and it was ready for use. As a final touch, I added some strips of velcro that could be used to store the power supply and cords with the light.

photo of The setup
The setup

Testing was fun. I set up a small photo shoot with a couple of other small lights into a three-point model. The pictures below show the result. In the first picture, the objects are lit with just a window to one side. Notice the hard shadows and somewhat harsh look of the image. Next I added the new light as a “key” light, about 30º off-center. This softened the look and began to model the object shapes. Next, a second or “fill” light, about 30º off-center in the opposite direction further softened the shadows. Additional light and the resulting exposure change in the last picture made the table and background disappear. All four photos had a small back light and were shot with an iPhone 6.

Of course, the basic design could be modified to suite a variety of needs and approaches. The size can be varied greatly — I made a second light that is half the length and half as bright — good for the “fill” in a 3-point lighting model. The wooden framing could be changed to an extruded aluminum pre-cut frame thus minimizing the complexity at a slightly greater cost. Finally, the power supply could be replaced with a rechargeable battery-pack — making the unit usable in the field.

This project was a lot of fun, and I expect to get a lot of use from it. The rabbit hole here is the sheer number of ways to vary the light — size, shape, construction — and resulting photography. Let me know about your project. I would love to see everyone’s ideas!

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