Building your own LED lights

- May 18, 2018-

We all love to tinker and make DIY modifications to equipment we buy, but that’s a far cry from building something from scratch. Would you attempt to make your own LED lights? I personally wouldn’t, but that’s probably because I’m not a DIY sort of guy, but some people are.

When a good friend of mine Jeff Cooke invited me over to check out his homemade LED lights I was of course sceptical. With so many affordable LED lights on the market, why would you want to build your own? This was a question I posed to Jeff, and his answer simply was “Price and utility.”

Building your own LED lights certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s not only time consuming, but you also need to know what you are doing. It’s not like you are working off a set of instructions, everything is trial and error. Jeff has been using homemade LED lights for the last few years so I thought it was a good idea to take some photometric measurements and have a look at what he had actually done.

Before we get into the results I asked Jeff a series of questions about his DIY LED lights.

Why did you decide to build your own LED lights?
Two reasons mainly: Price and utility. For factory-made lights, the price is usually around $1000 for a 1×1 unit. Utility – the factory made lights are heavy and bulky (except for the wave of flexible panel lights coming out lately) The lights I built can be flown out on an arm on a light stand easily. They can even be taped to the wall or ceiling if needed. Plus a third reason: I like making things and experimenting.

How did you come up with a concept of what to build and what type of lights you needed?
I found a shop in Akihabara (Tokyo) that sold a variety of LED tape I hadn’t seen anywhere else. That remains true to this day. The LED’s are tightly packed and very bright. From a distance, they look like a solid line rather than a series of dots. I bought some and experimented with them. I made some panel lights by applying the tape to some aluminium sheets and I made some sticks using meter long aluminium extrusions. For my key light, I wanted a large source so I velcroed two panels together and attached a large sheet of diffusion over the front. The big floppy hunk of diffusion gives the same quality of light (except bigger and softer) as a heavy, $400.00 softbox attached to a factory panel.

How long did they take to build?

A panel takes an hour or so to build. Measuring the tape and applying it to the panels or extrusions is the easy part. Next, comes the soldiering. I haven’t soldered anything in quite a while, but your technique gets better, the more you do it.

Were they complicated to make? Could anyone do it?
They don’t require a whole lot of skill. The lights, themselves, can look quite awful, but it won’t affect the quality of the light that they emit.

How much do you estimate did it cost to build?
One of the panels costs around $140 USD, and a stick around $50 USD.

Have your DIY lights evolved over the years?
I’m always trying to improve them. Everything is modular. I have bags of power supplies with power cables. I made the power cables long so the light can be high on a stand without the power supply hanging in the air halfway down the stand.  I can hook multiple power cables together, if needed. I also made splitter cables so I can power more than one lighting unit from one power supply. Another benefit of having long power cables is that it eliminates the need for many extension cords.

Have you been happy with the results you get from the lights?

I am very happy. I made the type of light I need for the purpose I have. A large surface area for key light and a long stick for a backlight that covers the hair and shoulders to separate the subject from the background. I also have a stick light mounted vertically on the stand that supports my backlight to put a little kicker on the cheek. This also gives a nice rim on the shoulder and if the subject is female,  a nice highlight on side of her hair.

Things I would like to improve: I haven’t found a dimmer that doesn’t cause a nasty flicker yet, so for now, I have to use the inverse square rule for now. The lights aren’t bi-colour, but I find daylight to be what I use most. Usually, I’m shooting in an office or room with windows so the daylight works well. I have tungsten panels too and they don’t take up much space in my bag, so I use them when I need to. I could pack have a dozen “kino-flo” size lights into my bag if I wanted to.

What are the limitations of using your lights?
They can only be run off mains power and I don’t have any way of dimming the fixtures. I tried building some dimmer units but I found that they just caused the lights to flicker. Of course, there are no off the shelf softboxes or accessories, so anything I need, I have to build or create myself.

What do clients think or say when you pull them out on a job?
They are often corporate clients that comment on how professional the lighting set up looks. They are usually surprised and impressed when I tell them they are “homemade”. (which always shocks me)