May 3, 2011 - The BIG Light

The BIG light

One of the first things anyone notices when entering my studio for the first time is "the big light." That's not really surprising. I'm reasonably certain it's the biggest softbox in central Missouri - maybe in the whole state. The diffuser screen is 25 feet by 5 feet, and the light is about 3½ feet deep, hanging from an I-beam a little over 13 feet above the floor. It's really big! It's lit by 23 halogen bulbs totaling about 5,000 Watts (it has three dedicated 30 Amp circuits). I don't use it a lot, but when you need it, nothing else will do. This is especially true when shooting cars in the studio, where the light gives that nice highlight running the length of the car (below, left). It also gives a great fill light for video work.

77 Corvette shot in studio - note highlight

So where do you get a light like this? You don't. I designed and built it. The frame for the shroud is built from sweated ½" copper pipe which is held up by three steel cables on each side running through the top pipe, basically like a big suspension bridge. These cables, tensioned by turnbuckles, hang from two electric winches, allowing the light to be raised and lowered, and raked to light either of two large cycloramas (hard sweeps). The winches, and thus the whole light, slide on a steel I-beam affixed to the ceiling.

The light shroud and diffusion screen are made from inherently fireproof theatrical fabric, with the shroud hung from hooks on the copper pipe frame, and the diffuser affixed by velcro to the shroud. The top of the light, where the lamps are located, sits on top of the copper frame and is a frame of 2"x2" lumber stiffened by steel channel. The wood frame and hardboard is protected from the heat of the light by foil-backed fiberglass insulation board. There is lots of air flow from a six inch gap between the shroud and the top (with an aluminum light shield extending out from it), and further enhanced by two six-inch duct fans to help draw away the heat.

End view, with shroud off and lights off End view, lit and with shroud Top view, showing construction details

Each of the 23 halogen lights is mounted on a stove-top burner drip pan which serves as a light (and heat) reflector, directing the light down towards the diffuser without actually focusing it. The drip pans are bolted to round cake tins, which are in turn bolted to the top, providing further heat insulation. All told the light probably weighs about four hundred pounds, yet it is easily moved by just pushing it. Each of the two winches rides on rollers on the I-beam, like a monorail. There are two garage-door springs extending from the I-beam (on separate rollers) to the ends of the light to help keep it level and to damp out any swings or sways. And if you're wondering, it took two of us four days to build it, and the materials cost about $2000.

Lamp with drip-pan reflector Turnbuckles and support cables Winches and support beam The business end of the light

With this giant softbox, one gets very even virtually shadowless light across the width of my cycloramas. There are two cycloramas, facing each other, one white, the other black. They are each 32 feet wide and 12 feet high, and each has a 19 foot depth from the center line to the back wall (for a total 38 foot shooting depth). There is overhead door access to Broadway so that cars, motorcycles, sets, equipment etc. can be easily brought into the studio to be shot. The radius of each cyclorama is 30", allowing good elimination of the corner shadow. There is also a 15 foot by 20 foot foam-backed fabric green-screen hanging by a boom from the back of the white cyclorama. This can be mounted either way, and raised and lowered as needed.

The light from the "big light" has a white balance of 2900K (halogen), and the even fill light it provides can be "punched up" by other inexpensive halogen lights. Using just the big light, I could shoot the below shot at ISO 640, f/5.6 and 1/60 second using a 24 mm lens. Note the lack of shadows on from the six-foot stepladder because of the extremely soft light from this giant softbox! Cyclorama lit by big light

Next week, I'll probably focus on some more of the studio space, unless some of you have other ideas you'd like to see me cover. As always, your questions, comments, suggestions, or whatever are very welcome. Drop me a line at — I'd love to hear from you! Happy shooting!

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