There are plenty of sources that will give you photogenic hard light. The sun comes to mind, obviously. Even a bare bulb strobe. But there’s something magic about the light that pours out of a traditional style tungsten Fresnel.
If you’re a videographer/filmmaker, chances are you’re more than familiar with these ubiquitous lights and all that they can do. But a surprising number of still photographers have never bothered to check them out. Probably assuming that they were just for movie making. If that sounds like you, I highly recommend checking out what you’ve been missing.
Fresnel lights are named for the French inventor who came up with the idea of a focusable light source. As a half-French photographer, I pronounce the name with a silent “s” (fru-nel), but I’ve also heard it pronounced with the “s” (frez-nel). Both are apparently acceptable. I’ll try not to judge you if you choose the latter.
Fresnel lights are called such because they shine through a Fresnel lens. The lenses were originally developed for light houses. They’re also used in Klieg lights (those lights they shine into the sky at movie premieres. Or to signal Batman).
The other part of what makes a Fresnel focusable is that the bulb itself is on a track-like mechanism that moves forward and back. This is controllable via a knob or slider on the outside of the light. They’re often labeled with a range from “flood” to “spot.” Why would you want to focus a light in photography? It’s actually the shadow’s focus that’s important. And a Fresnel light set to flood will give crisp, perfect-edged shadows that rival the sun on a mid-November afternoon. And in this case, you can put those shadows wherever you want.
If you’ve ever shot with a bare bulb strobe and been slightly disappointed that your shadow edges were doubled or just not as sharply defined as you’d hoped, try a Fresnel. You can slice butter with these shadows.
If you’ve ever admired the work of George Hurrell, you’ve been admiring the work of a Fresnel light master. The man produced consistently beautiful results using 2-3 of these lights that still inspire today.
In my studio, we keep several Fresnels on hand. There’s a couple 1K Mole-Richardsons, as well as some 650s. But my absolute favorite is the Bardwell & McAlister 2K hot light. As many folks are switching to more modern style lighting and LED alternatives, it’s become easier and easier to find great used deals on these lights.
You’ll have to consider that tungsten light is very warm, both in ambient temperature and color temperature. So keep some gloves handy for adjustments and some blue gels for color correction. Or try playing in-camera with your white balance. The interesting part about this approach is that anything not illuminated by the light itself falls off to cool blue.
If hard light kind of scares you, a Fresnel might be the perfect tool to get you over the fear. You’ll feel like a god, wielding the power of the sun itself. Or at least enjoying a light source that has been a staple of image-making for over 100 years.
(Although the bulbs are still available for the lights mentioned above, the lights themselves are practically antiques. You aren't likely to find them anywhere but eBay or Craigslist. But here's a link to something comparable on B&H.)