Sunday, July 28, 2013

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Light Painting at MOA with a SupBeam X40...

On Saturday night, instead of braving the crowds and photographing yet another "Celebration of Light" fireworks, like I have for many years in a row (I was tempted), I decided to do something a whole lot more peaceful and meditative. I went to the totems behind the Museum of Anthropology and did some light painting.

Well actually, it wasn't all that peaceful for me...

It turns out that I did a whole lot of running back and forth through each frame with my new handheld LED searchlight, making sure never to stop in one spot long enough for my body to register on the shot, although there are a few ghostly hints of me showing on a couple of the images. I also made sure that while painting, I was either blocking the head of the flashlight from the camera's view with my body or with objects in the scene, or simply made sure that I was never pointing the light back towards the camera. I did ruin a few attempts when I wasn't being careful enough...

I also had to make sure that when lighting the background trees, the spill of the light didn't overexpose the totems or Native longhouses, so that meant running back and shining the light up at the trees from behind the front of the structures. Lastly, for the up close detail work on the ends of the roof posts, and for highlighting parts of the houses, I turned the power down on the light to make sure I didn't overexposure those areas. It took a couple of attempts before I figured out the right combination of beam intensity and speed of playing the light across the structures to make sure the exposures were good. If I had paused the max-output flashlight beam in any one spot, say 10 feet away, for even a couple of seconds continuously, those areas would have been totally washed out and overexposed.

The flashlight I used was a SupBeam X40 L2, which I bought from the company directly, a relatively compact rechargeable handheld searchlight which has three ultra-bright Cree XM-L2 LEDs in its head, capable of up to 3480 lumens of total output. It has a convenient, magnetically docking USB charging cable, and can be recharged via a computer's USB port, 120 VAC or a 12V DC car adapter, all of which are included. The internal charging circuit is also sophisticated and well designed apparently, more along the lines of a high quality external charger than what is generally used in lights of this sort... those few that even have internal charging capability that is.

At full blast, the X40's beam easily outshines and out-throws a car headlight's high-beam, although it does have a somewhat tighter focus which helps. Visually, it has a slightly cool colour balance but it wasn't so far off that I had to do much with these shots. I processed these with fairly close to daylight settings in Adobe Lightroom, Temp: 5300, Tint: +40. The normal daylight settings for my Fuji X-E1 for example, are 5500, +10 so that means that this light will render a bit green when compared to real daylight. However that is not at all unusual for most LED lights that are not specifically designed for photography.

The X40 has continuously variable output, smoothly adjusted using a control ring which has a wonderfully damped feel, almost like the focus ring on an old manual-focus Nikkor lens for example. The control ring allows you to dial the brightness from 3480 lumens all the way down to only 28 lumens. In addition it has a detent for a separate 3 lumen "moonlight" mode which can give you a whopping 1200 hours of runtime. At full blast though, you only get about 2 hours of runtime with gradually declining output. Once you dial the intensity down even a little though, the light output becomes fully regulated and then the X40 will give you consistent, non-declining brightness virtually right up to the point that the batteries are depleted.

Its control ring also has detents for its maximum 3480 lumen output mode and for a disorienting "tactical strobe" mode than flashes the light at full brightness at about 13 Hz. Note that there are virtually no other handheld lights of this intensity which give you that sort of smooth and direct control over the beam brightness. Most only have between 3 and 5 discreet brightness levels that you can cycle through. The machining and build quality of this light is absolutely first rate too: it's weatherproof with o-ring seals and seems built like a tank. There are a few very minor issues with the X40, for example I am not fond of the included wrist lanyard, so I'm using a different one, and the USB to 120V AC and USB to 12V DC car adapters it ships with are pretty basic and don't seem up to the quality of the rest of the light, but other than that, there really isn't anything to complain about. I like this light! It will come in very handy when searching for backcountry campsites after dark and it's clearly bright and adjustable enough to be useful for light painting duties.

The batteries the X40 uses are three 18650 Li-Ion cells, which are not included with the light. You can see the X40 disassembled above, showing the batteries in their carrier. There are a large number of inexpensive 18650 batteries available from Amazon, eBay etc., but beware because many of them are of very poor quality. Some are even made by using cells taken from discarded laptop battery packs! It is actually quite difficult to source this kind of battery locally here in Vancouver, but one place I did find relatively nearby, was an excellent online store that is located out in Abbotsford, called Mack Outdoors. They have a good selection of high-end flashlights for sale themselves, although they don't carry SupBeam. However they do sell the highly-regarded EagTac (Eagle Tactical) 3400 mAh Protected 18650 batteries. The EagTac's have Panasonic cells at their core, which are generally considered to be the best cells to use in these sort of batteries, plus they also have a well designed protection circuit.

The term "Protected" means that each battery has a tiny circuit board which monitors the "health" of the battery and automatically protects it from over-charging, over-discharging and over-heating. You can find many 18650 batteries that use a bare Li-Ion cell with no protection circuit, but they potentially could be a little dangerous to use in the event of a problem. Batteries like this can output a massive amount of current: for example, the EagTac protection circuit will kick in if the current draw exceeds about 6 amps, so a short circuit of an unprotected 18650 battery could cause rapid overheating, fire and maybe even a small explosion. Not fun.

Anyway enough of the geeky flashlight and battery talk! Having a light this bright, basically meant I could keep the camera pretty much at base ISO, stop it down for depth-of-field and still keep my exposures relatively short to avoid them getting noisy and to keep it from taking too long to light-paint each frame. Funny, but after the hour and a half of light-painting I did, when I got back to the car and drove off, I briefly thought there was something wrong with the headlights! They were quite dim and yellow compared to the light I had been using and I found myself wishing for much brighter headlights!

The first three light-painting shots above were taken with my Fuji X-E1 and 18-55 zoom. Exposure times were between 2.5 and 3 minutes at f/11, ISO 200. On every one of those shots, virtually all the light you see on the ground, on the structures and on the trees came from the one X40 flashlight I wielded and shone around during the exposure. The dim orange light, illuminating the wooden logs lying on the ground near the camera, was glow from the interior lights of the Museum of Anthropology that registered on these long exposures…

The last photo below was shot with my Nikon D800 and a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens that I'm currently testing. Exposure was 2.5 minutes, f/11 at ISO 200.

Finally, below is a photo showing the four "high-end" LED flashlights I currently own. Okay, one last bit of geekiness. For reference, the little guy on the very right is just about the size of an AA battery, just a little fatter and slightly taller. From the left, we have the SupBeam X40 of course, using 3x 18650 cells at 3480 lumens max output, next the Sunwayman D40A running on 4x AA cells at 980 lumens, then the Zebralight SC52 running on a single AA at 280 lumens max and finally the tiny little 4Sevens Quark Mini 123, running from a single CR123 with 180 lumens of output. The smaller lights all use a single LED.

Of all these lights, the X40 has the most convenient user interface, with the silver brightness control ring below the flashlight's head. All the other lights require that you cycle through all the modes to get where you want, so in other words, if you want to go dimmer you have to step through all the brighter modes first, kind of a pain. On the X40, just twist the ring in the direction you want to go: left for dimmer and right for brighter. So easy! By the way, the heat-sink fins on the X40 are no joke. Leave it on max output for ten minutes and you'll barely be able to touch them!

Here are the three larger ones in their respective dim "moonlight" modes. The triple-LED one at the top is, of course, the X40...


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