Technique and Gear
This project has always been one of an evolving and iterative nature. I never knew more than a step or two where it was going. I started off with very dim, constantly flashing LED strobes and hand held film cameras, and then kept adding, improving and tinkering with everything. Between the hardware and the software tinkering, rarely do any two photo-shoots use the exact same system. Let's take a stroll through it's history:
This shows an early, hand operated, spinning camera mount, and my Dad's old Olympus OM-10 35mm film camera.
At that time, I was focusing, advancing the film, opening the shutter, spinning the camera and controlling the flash rate all by hand. As I got more ambitious, I thought it would be nice to have some of that automated for me. I built a camera platform that was rotated by a stepper motor.
The control box, which I started calling the Strobo-Dingus, used PIC chips and solid state relays to synchronize the camera movement with the strobe flashes. I also built it so that it could have two independent channels of strobe flash. The whole thing was triggered by the camera shutter.
This set up allowed me to experiment with timing and composition for quite a while. Then I thought I'd add an additional axis of rotation for the camera. As seen below, in addition to revolving, another stepper motor makes the camera pan left and right. Also notice, by this time I had switched to digital cameras.
I ran with that rig for quite a while, tweaking the electronics and programming, improving the lights, etc. It was all built on top of a sturdy video tripod, but it was a pain in the ass to change it's height, which was often necessary with my technique. I made a wheeled platform, with a vertical mast made from speed rail. Then I mounted a linear actuator to that and put the whole camera platform on the actuator. Now the camera platform could be raised and lowered with the push of a button.
Time kept passing and I kept tinkering. Eventually, I decided it was time to build an entirely new Strobo-Dingus from the ground up. I used Arduino boards instead of PIC chips. I made it so I could have 6 lights on 3 independent channels. And now the Strobo-Dingus controlled everything: the lights, the camera rotation and the camera shutter. I just program and set everything, compose the shot and press the magic button.
I tried to make the new unit neat and tidy, but I immediately went to tacking things on and tinkering and making it a mess of tangled wires. Now lets take a look at the LEDs. Around the year 2000, there was a big breakthrough in LED technology. First blue LEDs, then white, then exponential increases in brightness. These advances made this project possible, and it advanced in parallel with LED technology. Below are some LEDs that I have used.
The little speck on the left is a single, bright white LED. It uses about 60 milliwatts of power. Moving right, you can see a couple of arrays I made with those. Next, the strips and the circle, are Philips LumiLED units. The circle uses about 15,000 milliwatts or 15 watts of power. The yellow square is what I use now. It is a high density array made for streetlights and such. It uses 100 watts. According to my sketchy math, the yellow square is around 2000 times brighter than the individual LED on the left. The big black cylinder is the final package, with a heatsink and compound optics, mounted on a stand. I say "final", but of course next week I'll decide I need to tweak something.