Lighting Setup: How to light your portraits with £50 LED tubes

Mar 29, 2023

Jake Hicks

Jake Hicks is an award winning editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website.  On Jake’s Facebook page, you can also tune in for a live stream every other Tuesday night. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book.

Lighting Setup: How to light your portraits with £50 LED tubes

Mar 29, 2023

Jake Hicks

Jake Hicks is an award winning editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website.  On Jake’s Facebook page, you can also tune in for a live stream every other Tuesday night. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book.

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Lighting Setup: How to light your portraits with £50 LED tubes

In the last year or so, I’ve experimented with and tested a huge range of LED lights. From the $15,000 Panalux film production monsters to the versatile Godox S-fit compatible heads to the incredible Rotolight panels. But this week, I take a look at the other end of the pricing spectrum as I play with the very affordable PixaPro RGB tubes (50 GBP).

Pixapro rainbow series 320 degrees RGB LEDs

That is correct, that isn’t a biscuit crumb on your screen, that is indeed a decimal point between those 9’s!

I know for the most part you’ll see me sharing somewhat advanced lighting setups and with that often comes multiple lights and with multiple lights comes many, many nights where you can’t afford to turn the heating on! Not this time though, as this week’s article looks to show you what these very impressive and somehow very inexpensive LED tubes can do. But spoiler alert, I do use four of them, so maybe only one night where you have to wear a hat and scarf to bed!

have the LED tubes so close to the subject
The basic premise for this shoot was to have the LED tubes so close to the subject, that they’d actually appear in-shot. But that can present certain issues…

The Lights

This isn’t strictly a review of the lights, but more an overview of what they can do as I share my experience after I worked with them on this recent shoot. If you’re interested in all the detailed specs, you can find all that via the Essential Photo website here Rainbow Series 320-Degree RGB LED Neon Light Tube

Rainbow Series 320-Degree RGB LED Neon Light Tube

What’s different about LED Tubes?

320 degree spread of light
These tubes have a 320 degree spread of light with only a small shadow area at the back where the LEDs are actually mounted.

I know LED tubes have been on the market for many, many years now, but I’ve actually never used any. I’ve used LED strips recently, but not tubes. So what’s the difference? The core attribute of LED tubes is that they spread light all around them. Most lights throw light straight out in front of them and this is great for directing and controlling the light via various modifiers, plus, by throwing all the light forward, you really maximise the brightness of the bulb/s within. But tubes spread light all around them and these PixaPro tubes here boast an impressive 320 degree spread! In fact the only area that they don’t spread the light, is that tiny dark strip on the back of the tubes where the actual LEDs are mounted.

For my shoot idea where I wanted the actual lights to appear in-shot, this was very important as not only did I want the tubes lighting the model, but in doing so, I would likely see the back of the lights from where I was shooting and I wanted to be able to see this light from everywhere, not a dark shadow of the back of a light.

One other important distinction straight away is that I went for the 120cm long tubes. These are what I’d recommend if you were interested in these tubes, as although the shorter 90cm are cheaper, you only save a little money whereas the longer 120cm offers a brighter tube for your money due to their increased size.

PixaPro LED Tube Light Controls

LED Tube Light Controls

All the PixaPro tubes come with a basic remote that enables you to access all of the tubes features and that includes the 12 standard colours including white, brightness adjustments, strobe effects and all other manner of coloured animations for all of your horrendous TikTok needs!

A couple of nice features include 32 levels of brightness which enable you to really fine-tune exposure if needed and although having them set to max brightness at all times is likely going to be your default, certain LED colours are brighter than others at max output. Having that adjustable brightness of each colour can certainly help to keep colour exposures even in a single shot.

Also, another convenient feature is the ability to lock a specific remote to a specific light. That way, when all of your tubes are on set, you can adjust each tube separately with individual remotes without affecting them all at the same time.

Lastly, I was pretty impressed at how long these lights lasted on their internal battery. I was shooting for several hours at full power and none of them ran out. The only downside is that they do take several hours to charge. This isn’t a huge deal, but seeing as you can only really use them on battery power, you definitely need to check they’re fully charged prior to starting as there is no battery power indicator on the lights that I’m aware of.

Last minute edit: Individual LED Bulb Visibility

I’m just adding this last minute edit as I was asked a good question on my FB Page about the LED bulb visibility. The question came up as the poster, who currently owned different LED tubes to these, was disappointed with how visible the LED bulbs were in their own tube lights. If you’re not sure what that means, then it refers to the individual LED bulbs being visible through the frosted housing surrounding them when the lights are on.

These tubes produce a very clean and even
These tubes produce a very clean and even light with only rare instances where I could see the individual LEDs within.

I actually encountered very little of this and I did not have to ever edit or blur any of the tubes individual LEDs in any of the final retouched shots from this shoot. You can see in the iPhone pics above that the tubes appear very clean along the entirety of the tubes and in all of my BTS shots, I only really found the LEDs to be visible in a couple of them. I will add that I think the only reason they’re even appearing here is due to most smartphones inherently HDR’ing every image it takes to limit any clipping the user may unintentionally create.

In conclusion: In normal studio use, I never encountered a time where the individual LED bulbs shone through the frosted housing.

Initial Shoot Idea

As I mentioned above, I had an idea for a photoshoot that involved these LED tubes for a while. The idea itself wasn’t too complicated, but this setup did have a slightly unique element in that it would include the actual lights in the final shot. Having lights appearing in-shot (on purpose) and so close to the subject is unique in that it presents some interesting factors to consider, namely the drop-off of light.

Practical Application of Light Drop-Off (skippable)

The following few paragraphs are fairly nerdy, so if you’ve yet to have your morning coffee, feel free to skip this.

If you’re not sure what I mean by light drop-off, then basically it means how fast the light diminishes from bright to dark. For the most part, many of you are likely very familiar with the dreaded ‘inverse square law’ as a way to determine light drop-off. The inverse square law states that light falls off by a factor of 4, so if you double your distance from the light source you’ll receive a quarter of the light.

inverse square law diagram

To many of you, this will be very foundational knowledge, but achieving this in reality is fairly tricky due to not only bounced light, but because the inverse square law applies to omnidirectional lighting and a single point of light, which in reality does not exist. That being said, for the most part, the ISL (inverse square law) applies to many regular light bulbs as they are small enough in relation to us and they throw light all around them which is very similar to a flash tube.

Where we can get into trouble, is if we start to apply the ISL to larger light sources like LED panels and LED tubes. These light sources throw light thanks to many, many smaller bulbs and essentially create a mini wall of light compared to a singular bright point.

I do find it slightly funny that the inverse square law is something many of us photographers hold as ‘gospel’ and a core tenet of our craft, yet it’s more built on theory and lighting in a vacuum rather than practical application. For example, NASA can’t use this seemingly foundational principle of physics as it’s simply too flawed. Yes, the light from the moon follows the inverse square law, but that’s because it’s a tiny point of light in relation to us on Earth. As we get closer to the moon and its surface fills our vision, the inverse square law simply falls apart.

It’s worth keeping that example in the back of your mind when it comes to light drop-off and pay close attention to the type of light you’re using and how it’s modified before it hits your subject. All of this will dramatically affect how the light looks and it plays a huge role in the seemingly esoteric ‘quality of light’ idea you hear so much about. Plus, I haven’t even begun to include the parameter of collimated light yet… but I’ll leave that for another day.

To give you a very rough example of how light drop-off compares light to light, take a look below at a very simple visual.

Light drop off from a regular point of light strobe with reflector
Light drop off from a regular point of light strobe with reflector dish
Light drop off from a regular point of light strobe and bare bulb
Light drop off from a regular point of light strobe and bare bulb
Light drop off from an LED panel
Light drop off from an LED panel
Light drop off from an LED tube
Light drop off from an LED tube

Note: The above example exposures were measured by pointing the light meter directly at the light. This is why similar exposures above may look different as you’re seeing the bounced exposure from the adjacent wall. I want to be clear, this isn’t the greatest example as I’m only reading the light in a strait line at varying heights for the purposes of this test and it’s tricky to simulate 3D space with a 2D image, but hopefully it’ll help visualise what I mean when discussing light drop-off.

The very rough example above shows what I mean by light drop-off from varying sources. The inverse square law is a very loose guide and it rarely applies in practical application on set due to bounced light and using varying modifiers to control the light. In fact, you can see here that the bare-bulb flash head readings are all over the place the further from the light you get due to the increase in bounced light, hence why you’re seeing brighter numbers towards the outside compared to middle.

The one constant in these shots is the light meter reading of f5.6 at 50cm from the light itself. From here you can see how dramatically different the light drops off for these various shaped light sources.

If nothing else, I want you to pay close attention to how the light drops off from that LED tube. This drop-off is extremely even from top-to-bottom which makes this light incredibly easy to use on-set due to its very consistent exposure across a very large area. Look at the exposure values 50cm above and below the centre; they’re exactly the same, down to a 10th of a stop!

For example, think how even the light would be across a subject’s body if one tube was placed on one side mere inches away from it. Now compare what that same shot would look like if you placed a strobe that close to a subject. One side would be blown out whereas the other side would practically be in shadow. Strobes are great, but they are especially useful when brought further away from your subject, so if we want a light source in-shot and extremely close to the subject, the LED tubes are perfect.

Working with Lights in Shot (welcome back)

If you skipped the section above, the conclusion was that the LED tubes will be the ideal lights to have in-shot and close to the subject, due to their very even drop-off of light thanks to their larger surface area. This will be perfect as I aim to have these lights mere inches away from my subject which simply wouldn’t be possible with other lights without blowing out the highlights.

Holding the Lights In-Shot

This may seem obvious, but I needed a way to actually hold the lights in-shot and in an aesthetically pleasing way. Balancing them on the end of the bookcase just wasn’t going to cut it. The LED tubes themselves are simply naked white tubes, they have no mounts or brackets, and they have no stands or fixtures so I needed to come up with a way to hold them in-shot and it needed to look good whilst doing it.

Rainbow Series 320-Degree RGB LED Neon Light Tube attachments
It is worth noting that these tubes do also have custom-built attachments for both vertical floor mounts and even light stands, but they weren’t suitable for the look I was after.

I’m sure there are many ways of suspending these tubes in-shot, but let me share how I held mine. Initially, I used clamps and primary among them are the very popular crab-clamps. These worked to a point, but the clamps simply applied too much pressure in two precise areas that ultimately ended up crushing and squashing the plastic tubes which was noticeable in-shot.

micro clamp - a big no no

Once I understood the problem, I looked at a solution that would apply even pressure all around the tubes, thereby reducing the look of them being crushed. The simplest solution I found to this was from plumbing brackets that hold pipes to walls.

rubber lined munsen ring

These rubber-lined Munsen rings I found were a perfect solution. They applied even pressure and easily held the plastic tubes at any angle without crushing and misshaping the tubes. Plus, seeing as they aren’t designed specifically for photography, they aren’t stupidly overpriced either!

So I’d found a way to hold the tubes, now I just needed to find a way to attach them to a stand. Again, I tried various methods and I originally tried to get thread sleeves to allow a regular 1/4” photographic spigot to screw directly into these. This did kinda work, but it wasn’t snug enough and there was too much play in the connection for a firm attachment.

Once again, I went back to the plumber’s toolkit and looked at how they attached Munsen rings to walls. As usual, Occam’s razor kicked in and the simplest and most obvious solution was the best in the end. A simple threaded metal rod was all that was needed.

Jake hicks RGB LED tubes

This is a pretty simple solution, but just be mindful of the thread size in relation to the base of your Munsen rings as they can vary. For example, the base of my Munsen ring was ‘M8’ (8mm), so I needed to purchase M8 threaded rods. The only other consideration is the rod length. I went for the 55mm long ones here and for my setup and clamp which follows, these were perfect.

mounting lighting tubes with threaded metal rods and rubber lined Munsen rings

Finally, I just needed to attach all of this to my stands that would be appearing in-shot. I opted for my shiny silver C-Stands as they not only reflected the lights but have an industrial aesthetic that matched the look I was after.

I simply inserted the threaded rod with the tubes attached into the C-Stand grip-head, and I was done. This allowed for complete omnidirectional control of where I placed the tubes in-shot and they were rock-solid on the C-Stands as a result.

mounting lighting tubes with threaded metal rods and rubber lined Munsen rings - C stand and apple

It’s starting to come together now and even as I took these iPhone shots of the setup, I was getting excited at just how damned sexy some of these colours were looking as they were reflected in that industrial silver!

The Setup

Ironically, this is the simplest part! Why? Because the entire lighting setup is actually present in every photo!

Long-time followers of my -Technique Tuesdays- will know that I always diligently build a 3D diagram detailing every aspect of the shoot including light placements, model, styling, backgrounds and anything else that even tangentially has anything to do with the final image.

In fact, I’m so practised in this workflow now that I systematically started to build a 3D model of the lighting design just like I always do. It wasn’t until I’d gotten halfway through this process before I realised it was pointless! Why? Because to see absolutely everything that is involved in this setup, all you have to do is look at the final images!

Final Images

As a full-time professional artist, I have the predisposition to be generally unhappy with my own work. This is just part of being a creative and I long ago came to terms with it and learned to embrace this self-inflicted negativity as a catalyst to want to improve.

But with all that being said; holy crap I LOVE how these shots turned out!

As I said, I’m ordinarily pretty hard on my own work, and that’s fine, but even as I was taking these shots, I knew I was onto a winner! I think I ultimately retouched twice the required amount of final shots from this shoot as I loved so many of them and this is just a handful of the finals here. I’ll get the full set up on the front page of my site soon. Again, another sign of how much I love them.

But let’s get into the nuts and bolts of these shots and look at some of the finer details. Below I’ll address problem areas I faced, things to keep in mind whilst shooting, camera settings and ultimately, limitations and tips on working with these LED tubes.

Camera Settings

  • CameraNikon D850
  • Lens24-70mm f2.8 / 105mm f2
  • Shutter Speed1/125th
  • Aperture0
  • ISO400
  • Kelvin – 5500K
  • Focal Length – 105mm / 70mm

Elements to Consider

Lighting in 3D

As is very apparent by now, all of the lights used in this setup are actually visible in the final image. Sure, you may have had the occasional light in-shot before, but ALL of them? It’s unlikely, and the reason for that is in part due to the light drop-off I discussed earlier. Most lights are simply too powerful to have that close to the model and sure you can turn their power down, but by doing that, you lose the spread of the light. So again I’ll say that having all of your lights in-shot is rare and doing so brings up some areas to be aware of.

One of the biggest challenges I came across when using LED tubes this close to my subject, was dealing with light in 3 dimensions.

Yes, all light is present in 3D, but here I mean that the same light (tube) may be lighting the head in front as well as the leg behind due to its size and closeness to the subject. Most lights don’t have this issue and normally you can break lighting down to a key, fill and hair lights for example, but here your lights are so large and so close, they’re illuminating the front and behind. It’s tricky to explain until you start playing with them yourself, but just be prepared to play with not only the height of them but the angle and rotation at which you use them to cover certain areas of the body. All of this is further compounded by the fact that these tubes are emitting light in 320 degrees around them. Again, this is a fairly unique issue, but a very interesting one to work through.

Background

mounting lighting tubes with threaded metal rods and rubber lined Munsen rings
These aren’t the final colours I used, but in this early test image, you can see my dark background at the back here and how it helps to make the coloured tubes stand out.

For my setup, I opted for a very dark background to make the colours of the tubes really pop out from the surrounding darkness. Bringing the subject off and away from the background will also ensure that none of the light reflects off of the background too.

Atmosphere

I’m sure it’s obvious to many of you, but my final images shared here contain some haze, smoke or even some form of lens filter to add a sense of depth and atmosphere to the images. I did experiment with a variety of smoke, haze and filters and they all worked to some degree. My advice is to try and see what works for you and if you don’t have a smoke machine or are unable to use one, a lens filter does a very good job emulating the hazy look too. Try some bloom filters or diffusion filters like a Cinebloom, Black Pro Mist or even a Low Contrast filter like I used.

Fashion

Styling (as always) is actually a huge consideration and it plays a very important role in how the final images will look. I bought a shiny black trenchcoat for this shoot as I had a very specific look in mind when I was setting this up, but other shiny items will also work. Be mindful to avoid anything that absorbs too much light like cotton and other matte fabrics as the model’s shape and form will simply be lost in the darkness.

Limitations

To those that scrutinised the camera settings I listed above, you may have raised an eyebrow at the ISO value. Yes, these images were all shot wide open at f2 and with an ISO of 400, but this wasn’t an aesthetic decision, these LED tubes are very close to the subject and this is still the exposure values I’m getting. The LED tubes are not bright like the flashes you may be used to. These LED tubes were at max brightness and although I personally don’t have an issue shooting wide open at ISO 400, many of you may be put off by this.

Some of you may have older cameras or even cameras not particularly great at dealing with higher ISO values, but for the most part, nearly all of you with have a modern enough camera that it’ll have no problem with ISOs up to 1000 and even beyond.

The modern ISO topic is something I’d like to discuss in more detail at a later date, but I think for many of us, high ISO values are a scary realm to explore.

20+ years ago when we shot film, anything above ISO 100 was taken under the banner of ‘artistic’ and anything above ISO 800 needed to be printed in black and white just to ‘save’ it. But these are foreign concepts to young photographers today. They don’t associate higher ISOs with images that appear to have the surface of the moon overlayed upon them, higher ISOs are simply a method with which to achieve more light and most modern cameras can do this with ease today.

My point here is that yes, these LED tubes from PixaPro are very cheap compared to their more expensive counterparts, but with that comes weaker power outputs. I just did a quick search and, although I’ve never used them, the very popular Pavotubes are a very established LED tube brand. As I mentioned, I’ve never used the Pavotubes myself and I’m sure they are excellent lights, but they are 10 times the price of the tubes I’m using here. Of course, there are many factors to consider like colour consistency and colour control and choice and it’s not simply about comparing output alone, but if you wanted to dip your toe into LED tubes as I did, and you’re willing to shoot at higher ISOs to do so, the PixaPro tubes are a great first choice in my opinion.

Rainbow Series 320-Degree RGB LED Neon Light Tube - 49 GBP vs Nanlite pavotubes - 535 GBP

Closing Comments

Ultimately I am over the moon with how these final shots turned out. Yes, we are discussing how I ended up creating these shots and you’re seeing all the bumps-in-the-road I faced to make them, but with photography, the journey rarely matters. Our audience only cares about how the final shots look and I think both me and my audience are happy with how these landed and I think I’ll be adding this setup to my regular rotation for the foreseeable future.

Brightness Limitations

As with any new lighting technique, I learned a lot along the way whilst shooting with the actual light source in-shot and yes, as usual, I MacGyvered a solution that I think worked perfectly for the look I was after. The biggest issue beyond actually affixing the lights was of course their brightness, and the power output of these LED tubes is certainly something to be aware of.

When shooting anything in low light like f2 and ISO 400, we need to be extremely cognisant of any other ambient light in the room. Many of you following my work on here may well be used to working with flash in bright studios, but these LEDs simply cannot be used in bright rooms and a tightly controlled environment is needed to make the most of these lights. For the most part, closing the curtains or simply waiting for the sun to go down will be more than enough to secure some very cool-looking shots, but I do think it’s worth being aware of this if you’re looking to pick some of these up for yourself.

Are These LED Tubes Worth Purchasing?

At the start of this article, I mentioned that Essential Photo had loaned me these LED tubes to play with. I am required to return them now the shoot is complete, but I think I’m going to buy my own ones anyway. Do they have limitations? Sure. Do they offer something extremely unique? Absolutely and that’s why I’m going to buy some. No, I’m not going to replace any lights I already own with these and I may only use them once or twice a month for that very specific look I’m after, but I’m certainly willing to lose a couple of stops of light to save myself £2000 in the process!

If you were looking to try some LED tubes yourself, then these very inexpensive tubes are an obvious first step. LED tubes, powerful or not, create a very unique look due to their light drop-off and although I doubt they’ll replace the lights you currently own, there’s a reason you’re seeing more and more tubes like this hitting the market every year. The light drop-off I discussed at the start is a very real factor in why so many people like the look of these, but it won’t be for everyone, so like I said, if you want to see for yourself, 50 quid isn’t a huge risk to take in my opinion.

I’ve already shot with these tubes in several shoots in recent weeks that I’ve yet to retouch and share. If you’re interested in seeing more examples of these tubes in action, be sure to follow my work on socials in the coming weeks.

 Izzy.S from MOT models
Featured model: Izzy.S from MOT models

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Jake Hicks

Jake Hicks

Jake Hicks is an award winning editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website.  On Jake’s Facebook page, you can also tune in for a live stream every other Tuesday night. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book.

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One response to “Lighting Setup: How to light your portraits with £50 LED tubes”

  1. Dave Jennings Avatar
    Dave Jennings

    In the article you mentioned being able to
    ” Also, another convenient feature is the ability to lock a specific remote to a specific light. That way, when all of your tubes are on set, you can adjust each tube separately with individual remotes without affecting them all at the same time. ”

    How did you manage this? I cannot get the remotes to sync to an individual tube 😞