The Joy of Tungsten: Exploring Fresnel Lights for Still Photography

The Joy of Tungsten: Exploring Fresnel Lights for Still Photography

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.

 

Looking to sculpt definition and pop those highlights? Hard light is the key.

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. 

Shot in front of a mirror with Fresnel as the key light (slight left) and a blue-gelled and gridded strobe from camera right.

 

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.

 

Fresnel light with barn doors set very narrow. With camera white balance set to tungsten, fall-off becomes blue.

 

(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.)

Log in or register to post comments

22 Comments

Jon Wolding's picture

Tungsten fresnels (and pars and whatever else) are great when you've got a lot of room and a/c...

And by A/C I'm sure you mean Air Conditioning, cus those puppies get hot.

Kendrick Howard's picture

I've been experimenting with them and absolutely love the light but the trouble I have is when lighting the face the models always have a difficult time with the intensity so i get a-lot of squints. How do you handle that? I'm using 650 watts halogen bulbs.

Jean Claude's picture

Try a hotshoe flash on a bracket. A hotshoe flash works on the same principle; "bulb" moves in and out, and the front element is essentially a miniature fresnel lens.

But to answer the question, hot lights aren't really meant to be used close-up and on-axis.

Check out the George Hurrell doc "Legends in Light" if you're interested in shooting portraits with fresnel light. Lot of great ideas there.

Andy Kochendorfer's picture

Kendrick - You generally do not want to use a dimmer, as this will change the color temperature of the light, but you can usually find lower wattage bulbs for the same fixture. Try www.bulbman.com.

MATTERS OF LIGHT AND DEPTH, by Ross Lowel of Lowel Light fame is the finest book on lighting you will ever get. It is about light, feeling and interpretation, not forumulas.
Lowel makes hot lights that keep on working for decades, are not expensive and easy to work with. No, I don't work for them nor do I sell them.

Jon Wolding's picture

Other than the Rifa, I absolutely despise working with Lowel lights!
I've been burned and pinched numerous times by Totas... stupid friggin' design... and the Omni isn't much better. And those crappy stands? Yeah, no thanks.

But, hey... maybe his book is good.

Steven Gould's picture

Stellar work my friend. Hope to see some more articles soon.

Edgar Maivel's picture

Love this light, and while it's not practical solution for the work i do, i've adapted profoto cine reflector kit with set of different lenses to my workflow...

Spy Black's picture

Yeah, Fresnels are awesome but the heat is unbearable if you don't have the room and/or cooling available to compensate. I still have my two Fresnels that I picked up back in the 90s, 6-inch and 3-inch units. I would love to be able to replace the halogen bulbs with LEDs, even if they're not as bright. They're really handy in product photography, especially when shooting glass, translucent objects, and jewelry. Hopefully someday I can access direct drop-in LEDs for those lights.

Matteo Bertozzi's picture

Great article and amazing pictures!
I love fresnel, I use them all the time. the only downside is that they get very warm, very quickly but the upside is that in winter you can use them not only to light your pictures but also as heaters for your studio :D

Do you find shooting Tungsten limits F stop values while maintaining a low ISO and Adequate shutter speed?

Jean Claude's picture

If you want 100ISO, you're not going to be able to shoot at 1/1000. At least not with a 2K fresnel, which is the max power you can run off a standard "household" power outlet. If you want high shutter speed/low ISOs, you'll need stronger light output, but be ready to blow some fuses!

Max Meisselmaus's picture

Very interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I shoot still life with tungsten bulbs and soft shadow edges have been my unflinching obsession. This has made me think there could be another way. Always good to shake up one's assumptions.

One issue, though. You say that tungsten gives a blue fall off. It does, but only when there is also cool ambient light in the room. If there is no other light than your tungsten, any shadows that show some colour (ie are not completely black) will be neutral, as the only light colouring them is the light that you have set your white balance to, ie the tungsten. So, not completely untrue, but needs some clarity for those of us who wield cameras in darkened rooms.

Jean Claude's picture

The blue fall-off happens when the camera's white balance is set to tungsten. Anything not struck with the tungsten's light will be cool/blue. Minimal ambient light will accentuate that. And cool ambient light most definitely will.

Max Meisselmaus's picture

Ah, you will only get shadows of a different temperature if you have some light of a different temperature in the room, otherwise everything is just going to be darker and lighter shades of the light temperature, as that is the only light enabling anything to be illuminated and seen. However, as hot lights are usually pretty low power, even a tiny bit of daylight can make a difference in the shadows. I wonder if that is what is causing the effect?

Lane Shurtleff's picture

For anyone looking for fresnels, I found them on craigslist a few years back. They're older DeSisti stage fesnels, I think I got 4/$100. i use Profoto, so I cut the back out of one of them, removed the sliding focus stage and reflector, and mounted a Profoto speedring with rivets to the back of the housing. the great thing is, because profoto uses that sliding focus mount, I am able to adjust the beam angle quite nicely. PLUS, NO HEAT!

Anonymous's picture

Fresnels are alive and well. Just ask a theatrical lighting designer. Here is one source: http://www.altmanlighting.com/product-category/fresnels/

DeSisti just came out with a bunch of LED fresnel lights that are great, you can basically run 4-5 of them off of a 20amp circuit.

hmmm...seems nice...but i just came here for the Finch-Picture #POI xD

Jean Claude's picture

Thanks! Got to shoot Mr. Emerson (with fresnel!) for his publicist a few years back. Very cool gentleman.

Hensel strobes inside Arri housing/lamp:

A german company (HENSEL) which we usually work with has a dedicated fresnel housing made by Arri (also a german manufacturer of film lamps).
We have not used it yet but it works like a normal strobe. So the heat is manageable. And you don't need a heavy pack (if it is an HMI lamp) and cabling in front of the lamp which is usually involved in those Arri fresnel lamps.
The model light is tungsten not LED as in some of their strobes - so some heat may be generated. But it is way less than in the "normal" lamps without a strobe.

If you want more information you can find it here (although it is in german):
http://hensel.eu/katalog/de/f-spot-3000-rundstecker.html#!prettyPhoto
http://hensel.eu/katalog/de/f-spot-6000.html

They have 3000 Ws and 6000 Ws.

I have seen one in the rental facility. It is good build quality from Arri mixed with strobes from Hensel.

Another alternative - which you only find in film rental houses - is an Arri fresnel with LED lights.