DIY Light Stick for Photography
NOTE: You will be working with electricity here. Be careful. Or ask someone else to help you if you are unsure of anything. I cannot take any responsibility or good or bad things you do to yourself or others if you try to make these light sticks. Be warned...
I've seen a lot of interest in "light sticks," such as the Ice Light from Westcott recently (here is a video review of the Ice Light done by my friend Tobin Smith). And a few days ago another friend posted on Facebook asking for a source for fluorescent light tubes that only had a wire at one end, which he could use as props in a photograph.
I am not usually a DIY (do it yourself) type of person when it comes to lighting equipment, but that question got me looking around for a way to do it. While I didn't come up with what he needed/wanted, I did get an idea for a way to make an inexpensive light stick. These are not quite the same as the Ice Lights. The Ice Lights are battery powered (rechargeable), so are much more portable than my light sticks. And the Ice Lights have a dimmer control on them. My lights are constant full power. I showed these to Ben Wilmore yesterday and he suggested that a Pulse-Width Modulator (PWM) dimmer switch might work, but for now I like them as is, and the dimmer would probably cost more than the lights.
The parts for the light stick come out to about $25, and the assembly is pretty fast and easy.
I started by finding 2' LED lamps that are made as replacements for standard fluorescent tubes. The advantage of the LEDs is that they are more durable and they don't require a ballast. The ones I found are on from LED Wholesalers on Amazon.com.** THESE APPEAR TO BE NO LONGER AVAILABLE I have not found a replacement yet. If you find one, please leave a comment. Thanks! This tube is from the same supplier and looks like it would work, but I have not personally tried it: http://shop.ledwholesalers.com/index.php?route=product/product&path=36_65&product_id=180
In addition to the tube (I bought two), you will need some lamp/zip cord with a standard household plug on one end (for my first one I simply took an old extension cord and cut one end off), gaffers tape, a pair of wire cutters/strippers, a soldering iron, and some solder. For extra convenience, you could also add an inline on/off switch.
The tubes ship in protective cardboard tubes that I used to finish them off and cover the electrical connections—don't want to electrocute anyone with these things! If you want to be more fancy, you might look into some pvc pipe/tubing for the end caps.
Please note that these instructions are specifically for these LED tubes. There are other tubes that have different electrical connections (I've seen 4-foot tubes where both the live and neutral wires connect at one end of the tube, not at each end).
Start by splitting the lamp cord. Then solder one of the lamp cord leads to one of the posts on the LED tube. It doesn't seem to matter which one of the post you use. I wrapped the lamp cord lead around the post and then soldered them together. As Russell Hay points out in the comments, for extra safety you can wrap the connections with a heatshrink tube (slip it over the wire before attaching it to the lug, then slide it over the connection after soldering and heat it to shrink over the connection). THANKS, RUSS.
I then split the rest of the lamp cord the length of the tube, and cut off the end, leaving enough cord to solder to the lug at the other end of the tube. Take note that the tube has a built in shield/reflector so that light only comes out one side of the tube. Run your wire along the back end of the tube behind this shield. Use your wire strippers (or other tool of choice) to bare the end of the cord you cut, leaving enough bare wire to wrap around and solder to the lug on the LED tube.
The hard part is pretty much done now. All that is left is cover up the exposed electrical parts and pretty it up.
For this prototype I simply cut off some pieces of the carboard tube the LED tube came shipped in. For one end I just slipped the section of carboard tubing over the end of the lamp and taped in place with gaffers tape. You can probably use duct tape, too, as the lamp won't get hot and melt it. This will still leave the end of the cardboard tube open, exposing the wires, so I took one of the end caps from the shipping tube, slipped that over the cardboard tube, and taped that into place.
For the other end, I cut a 4-inch piece of the shipping tube and slipped the plug end of the wire through it, slipped it over the end of the tube, and taped that into place.
Again, this leaves some wiring exposed, so I stuffed some tape into the open end as extra insulation, then covered the open end with tape, and wrapped an extra piece around to help secure it.
Now comes the test. Make sure there are no exposed electrical connections and plug the cord into the wall socket. The tube should light up brilliantly and be ready for use.
If everything is working you might want to do some cosmetic work, such as taping the cord to the back of the reflector/shield to keep things tidy. And, as noted at the beginning, you might want to consider using something more rigid than the cardboard shipping tube to make the end caps stronger and more attractive.
One last thing you might consider is to add an on/off switch. There are a variety of different in-line switches you can add onto the power cord. You can find switches at your local hardware, home improvement, or similar stores. Just follow the included instructions for your particular switch.
Here are some images photographed with the lights. I have not yet done any tests on the white balance, but it looks like they might be slightly on the green tint side, which can easily be correct in raw images using the tint slider in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. They also make for very nice black & white images. ..
UPDATE: See gray card/color checker samples at the bottom of this post now.
Let's see some of your photos taken with the light sticks (yes,
plural, they are easy and inexpensive enough to make at least two of
them). Below are the first few images I took using one stick hand held on one hand while I operated the camera with the other hand (Canon 5DmkIII with a 50mm lens at f/1.8)...
Thanks for watching!
** This is an affiliate link to Amazon.com. If you purchase this item from Amazon I will get credit for the sale and may earn something from the purchase.