I’m experimenting more with portrait lighting, trying to dial in something that doesn’t look like a department store. One look I keep coming back to uses a single strip light. Some of the commercial versions are very expensive, and the DIY versions seem to have some inherent flaws that make them less flexible or sturdy than I’d like.
This version is my first attempt at addressing as many of these problems as I can. Total cost is about $20US, and roughly 30 minutes of time.
Ok, so I should let you know what I was thinking going into this design. It’s sure to be overkill for a lot of people, but it will hold up pretty well, and if you are careful it will even look reasonably professional.
There are two key factors I wanted to deal with immediately: total weight; weight distribution. If you do a quick web search you’ll find lots of variations that take care of total weight, but at the cost of durability. Most don’t bother dealing with distribution, instead sandbagging the stands or just having someone hold the light.
To keep weight down, I used plastic gutter. Part of the decision was also finding some nice fittings that eased assembly. I don’t have any idea whether this is a specialty brand or how widely available it is, so YMMV.
The weight distribution is handled by attaching a brass stud to the side of the light just about the flash enclosure. When using an umbrella adapter like the Manfrotto 026, this reduces both torque on the fittings as well as the unbalanced setup.
To build this, you’ll need the following supplies:
- About 4 feet of plastic gutter
- Two blind endcaps to fit the gutter
- One joint piece
- Aluminum tape
- White ripstop nylon (about 36″ x 12″)
- One brass adapter stud
- Two 1/4 – 20 bolts, one 1/4″ and one 1/2″
- Black foam core to cover the flash
- 1/4″ aluminum rivets and washers
- 2 canvas straps or small bungee cords
- 1 cold shoe mount for the flash
- Drill w/ 1/8″ & 1/4″ bits
- Dremel tool with cutoff wheel or saw for the gutter
- Utility knife to trip tape
- Scissors for the fabric
- Ice pick or awl
- Pop rivet gun
From here, the actual build should be pretty straightforward, so I’ll hit the highlights. Start by sizing the gutter into one 36″ piece and one 12″ piece. Smooth the ends and try to cut as square as possible. This will help the parts fit into the joint smoothly.
The stud will attach with the bolt through the joint piece’s mounting hole. My piece needed to be cleaned a bit with the 1/4″ drill. You may need to notch the gutter pieces to allow for clearance of the bolt.
The joint and endcaps on my stuff have these rubber gaskets, making assembly a little tricky. For the end cap with the cold shoe, I trimmed the gasket so it’s only on the sides. This makes it easier to snap on and off. The other connections are meant to be more or less permanent, so I just forced them together.
Next, use the aluminum tape to line the inside of the gutter. I started by just using three strips leaving some uncovered area. However, this let the back of the gutter glow, so for sake of completeness I ended up lining the entire interior.
If you’ve not worked with aluminum tape before, take my advice and be very careful. It’s thin metal, and will cut you (voice of experience here). Place the tape without stretching, and treat it like masking material – line it up, then fix it from one end and smooth towards the other. Do this lightly at first, then go back in passes. I used a small strip of suede to reduce friction and protect my hands. If you run the tape all the way to the edges, just go a little over and either roll it over or trim with the utility knife.
The edges of the gutter need to be smooth to keep from tearing or snagging the nylon. I used a 1/2″ wide strip of regular duct tape.
Drill evenly spaced 1/8″ holes on either side of the long gutter, about 3″ apart. Be sure to consider that you’ll be attaching fabric here, so line things up to fit. Also consider doing this with the endcap and joint in place so you don’t end up covering a hole and having to redrill.
Now it’s time to prepare the nylon. We will be riveting through the fabric, so leave enough excess to fold over a couple of times. I left about 1.5″ on each side after folding. The trick to this is putting a strip of duct tape down each edge, then folding over.
Once that is done, lay your fabric over the gutter leaving an inch or two at the top to be held down under the endcap. This is kind of tricky, but stick with it – this is where the tension and smoothness of your fabric starts to get it right. Center it up, and snap it together.
When your fabric is centered, begin placing the rivets through your fabric into the holes. Use the awl to poke holes, working both sides at the same time (if you try to do one side first, you’ll wind up with uneven tension and wrinkles). You don’t want too much tension, so keep an eye on how evenly you’re pulling. Just the right tension will leave you with a straight gutter section.
Poke a hole, insert a rivet, and place a washer. It will be tricky, so consider a little rubber cement on the washers to hold them in place while you work. If you have smaller hands, you might be able to go back and replace them with the fabric on. Good luck 🙂
Make sure to place all the rivets and washers before popping them. This will allow you to make changes if necessary without ripping or cutting your fabric.
After you’ve got everything in place, go back and pop the rivets, being careful not to knock the washers off. If you don’t use washers, the plastic will eventually give away and your fabric won’t be held on tightly.
From here on out, it should be pretty easy to figure out. The cold shoe needs a 1/4″ bolt, and I cut out a square to get to the flash controls. The reason it’s facing backwards is because I use a wireless trigger that needs to point to the open section of the gutter.
Use a piece of black foam core to cover the flash. This controls light spill and looks nicer. The bungee cords hold the foam core, and another holds the flash head in place to take stress off the plastic on the end cap.
Secure the brass stud tightly, and consider putting a thread lock compound in there to keep things from rotating while on the light stand.
The next couple of shots show the final assembly. Note I am using a Manfrotto umbrella adapter. I tried this with some cheaper adapters made of plastic, but they just don’t have the strength. This setup allows me to position the strip box horizontally or vertically at pretty much any angle.
So that’s it! Here’s the result on a self-portrait: