Photogenic Digilight Tungsten Light Units

The combination of the frosted glass globe and the large 14" spun aluminum reflector created a nice soft directional light source with good snap.
Photos © 2001, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

When a photographer hears the name "Photogenic Machine Company," he or she immediately thinks of small rugged AC-powered flash units used primarily by portrait photographers. Photogenic Powerlights have been around for decades, and have established an enviable record of durability. While the newer monolights like the sophisticated Powerlight 2500DR offer all of the modern bells and whistles, Photogenic has largely stood for simplicity.

A few years ago when digital imaging started to bully its way into the pro photography domain, one of the hot new technologies was the scan back. I've written about backs from Dicomed, Better Light, Phase One, and Kigamo in past issues, and if you recall, a scan back needs a lot of continuous lighting. (Since it actually scans the "film plane" of a 4x5 camera and produces a big, sharp detailed image.) That means put your flash packs and heads away and break out the hot lights.

A Flash World
While a tiny handful of modern photographers prefer and use hot lights as creative tools, for the most part it's a flash world we live in. Scan back owners had to go out and find some sort of continuous light source that would give them decent exposures with their new digital backs. A few manufacturers came to the rescue, most notably Photoflex with their inexpensive and efficient Starlite units. I own and use a few of these with the excellent Photoflex Silverdome light banks and it's a terrific setup.

Here's an ad I shot with the Digilights. The strap was shot with the light undiffused. Notice the nice sparkle but smooth falloff.

One of the problems with the Starlite and most other existing hot lights is that they are purpose built. The Starlite is designed for use with softboxes, and most movie lights like Arri, Colortran, and Lowel Light weren't really designed to work with softboxes. What to do if you're a working pro who needs light heads that can work both with reflectors and softboxes? Years ago I found some old Balcar tungsten heads that would do the trick, but they were relatively light duty and over the years I've had to have them modified with heavy-duty lamp sockets and cooling fans. Today if you'd like to outfit your studio with such a beast you've finally got a brand-new, well-engineered solution--the new Photogenic Digilights.

The Digital Party
Now, of course, Photogenic is coming a bit late to this digital party. While scan backs continue to offer the only true digital replacement for large format film, they have largely been replaced by high-resolution single and multi pop backs like the Kodak DCS Pro and Phase One Lightphase and H20. Since these backs as well as newer higher resolution SLRs from Nikon and Canon work just fine with studio flash units, the whole idea of hot lights as "digital lights" is somewhat archaic. That said, let's take a look at these excellent lights in the context of general photography.

Rugged Build
As with most Photogenic products the new Digilights are built to withstand the abuse that pro photographers can dish out. The housing of the unit is largely aluminum, including a solid aluminum casting for the front of the housing, aluminum side panels, and an aluminum mounting plate for the lamp socket. The two features that make these lights especially appealing to commercial photographers is the inclusion of the standard photogenic reflector mounting system and an integrated cooling fan. The reflector mount means that reflectors, softboxes, and other light modifiers can be securely snapped on or off in seconds. The fan means that the unit can run for long periods of time in an enclosed softbox without building up a dangerous amount of heat.

While the Digilights are called "1200" and boast a maximum capacity of 1200w, they ship with a standard FEL lamp, which is 1000w. Since I already own quite a few FEL equipped cine lights I knew that when I inevitably burned out a lamp I could replace it with a widely available bulb.

As you can see Photogenic includes the same frosted glass envelope with the Digilights that they include with their flash units, and the quality of light is just gorgeous.

Safety First
Photogenic flash units have traditionally been used by portrait and school photographers, and because of that experience, Photogenic seems keenly aware hot tungsten bulbs might be a hazard. Besides the cooling fan that keeps the bulb at a reasonable temperature there is a frosted glass safety sleeve that totally encases the bulb. In fact, if you don't attach the safety cover the unit will not operate. Now you're fairly well protected in case someone accidentally comes in contact with the front of the light head. It's a clever idea and really a must for a unit like this. Does the frosted glass globe diminish the light output? Well, of course--anything that comes between the lamp and the subject will knock down some of the light output.

Comparing the output of the Digilight 1200 with a 1000w Colortran cine light, the Colortran is about 2/3 of a stop brighter. However, the quality of the light with the glass cover in place becomes extremely nice. The units that I had a chance to use came with the classic Photogenic 14" spun aluminum reflectors. These are the units favored by old-fashioned portrait guys for their combination of reasonable softness and good "snap" when shooting to color negative film. To get a similar lighting effect required me to put a sheet of Rosco Tufflux diffusion material in front of the Colortran reflector. Now the meter showed the Photogenic in the lead by 1/3 of a stop.

Two Options
The two units offered by Photogenic are similar. The 1200 has a fixed bulb position while the 1200F is a fully focusable unit. The amount of focus is pretty limited, but it does allow you to get the light source in the correct position for different reflectors. If you plan to use different sized reflectors then the 1200F is a must. For a softbox-intensive studio like mine the 1200 was just fine.

At Work
Once I had both units fired up I put them straight to use. I was in the middle of shooting a series of ads for a European manufacturer of highly styled jewelry and watches. The company, Teno, had just introduced a line of stainless steel watches rimmed with diamonds. The client wanted a shot with plenty of detail on the face of the watch, every diamond on the rim brightly illuminated and sparkling, and a nice amount of texture on the band. To get the sharp-est, crispest image I decided to use my Dicomed scan back on a Cambo Ultima view camera. Since the client was looking for me to provide a finished CMYK image burned to a CD-ROM, I had the freedom of capturing separate exposures that I could "Photoshop" together later.

With a rear mounted handle and an efficient cooling fan these lights are a pleasure to use around the studio. You should never have to touch a hot surface when working with the Digilights.

First, I shot the watch itself. For this I put the two Photogenic units in Chimera softboxes and angled a white reflector up from the bottom of the watch. This gave me excellent softness but just enough specularity to reveal the pattern of the stainless steel. The Photogenic units worked exceptionally well for close-up work, since their cooling fans kept the units from overheating when covered by the Chimera banks. I got a nice f/22 exposure with a 2:15 sec scan. Color balance was spot on 3200Kelvin, so I was able to use my existing white balance settings.

Next, I exposed for the diamonds. For this I used my custom-made circle of Plexiglas into which I set the watch, which was hot glued to a wire armature. I used two Photogenic 1200 heads with reflectors and two small Lowel Omni hot lights to perfectly illuminate the plexi ring. The resulting image was a perfect diamond shot, though now the watch face lacked "pop."

The last shot was the strap, which on the Teno watches is a textured strip of black rubber. I tried just about every combination of softboxes, reflector cards, and mini spotlights. No luck. In almost every case I wound up with lighting that was either too harsh or too flat. Finally, I tried the Photogenics with the big aluminum reflectors. That seemed like just the right compromise. I was able to get a nice amount of texture on the strap and just enough softness to avoid looking like a spotlight. I got a nice fast scan and got to work assembling the ad.

My experience with these lights was terrific. There still are plenty of uses for hot lights in any photographer's arsenal. Besides the obvious application of the high-end scan back owner, the ever-burgeoning population of megapixel digicam owners are looking for a way to generate some professional lighting effects. While cameras like the Nikon CoolPix 995 and Canon G1 can sync to studio flash units, issues like flash sync voltage, limited f/stops, and the real desire to see the light before you shoot make hot lights "hot" again.

With the glass globe installed the unit looks for all the world like a strobe head. Notice, however, how the light stand tightening clamp hits the body, limiting the sturdiness of the unit when holding a heavy softbox.

I shot a few pictures with both my Canon D30 and my Canon G1 and found the Photogenic lights produced perfect neutral results when set to "tungsten." The joy of lights like this is that my teeny point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot S100 was now a viable studio camera. I found that even when sporting a Chimera softbox I could get a decent exposure, certainly enough light to hand hold for nice sharp images. In fact, since many digicams are sharpest in the blue layer, shooting tungsten produces the sharpest, crispest images possible. (Since a tungsten setting increases the gain of the blue channel, a side effect of this will usually be more noise.) After hours of shooting the back surface of the Digilights was still cool to the touch, which shows the efficiency of the cooling fans.

The Photogenic Digilights are serious professional hot lights that, for once, are custom designed for still photographers and not for cine/video guys. I found almost nothing not to like, except for the awkward and somewhat flimsy light stand mounting clamp. The handle for the clamp can't turn all the way around, since the body of the light interferes. A slightly shorter handle would fix this problem.

At $399 for the 1200 and $459 for the 1200F, these are not inexpensive units. Given their construction quality, softbox capabilities, and effective cooling fan, those prices seem very, very reasonable. For portraits, fashion, product work, or even digital photography, lights like these make a lot of sense. While these would have been the hot ticket three years ago, I think there are still a lot of photographers who appreciate the simplicity of constant lighting. Short of super-expensive HMI lighting, these units are really the most practical for photographers.

For more information, contact Photogenic Professional Lighting at (330) 758-6658; fax: (330) 758-3667;