Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lights! Camera!

For several years I had two borrowed photographic light stands in my shop. I used them for taking photos, holding up backdrops, and sometimes as task lighting for things like sanding or finishing where a raking light at just the right angle is necessary for the best results. Then last month I had to return the borrowed stands, and realized I didn't want to shell out the money for this. Which is just for the stand, mind you, not this too.

So, until I can afford to splurge on that kind of gear, I decided to jury rig something out of stuff I had on hand. My “jury rigs” have a way of lasting for years, so whatever I made needed to be fairly durable and it had to work well. With a bit of head scratching and a couple of false starts, I came up with this, which I'm pretty pleased with:

Keep reading to see about the process of building it. If you don't want to click through and read, here's one key nugget of information buried back in there: the screw on a standard tripod head, and the corresponding threaded hole on the bottom of your camera, is just plain old 1/4-20. (At least, here in the U.S. I can't speak for Europe or Asia)

For the stand, as you can see, I'm using a small, cheap tripod of the kind you can get for about $30 new at a big store. Watch and you can get one for spare change at garage sales and thrift stores. These tripods are relatively flimsy and are only meant to hold the weight of a portable digital camera, or a very compact video camera. On the plus side, they're very adjustable and very light. They won't go quite as high as the borrowed light stands, but they'll do the trick and nobody wants to steal them.

The light is a cheap clamp-on worklight from a big home improvement store. Sometimes these are also sold as “brood lights.” The best features are the reflector and the socket. An old electrician told me to spend a few extra bucks for the ones with porcelain sockets instead of plastic. The spring clamps on these never work for me. Actually the spring clamps work fine, but the ball-and-socket that comes with them is so flimsy I can never aim the lamp in any direction other than straight down. We aim to fix that with the homemade bracket.

The bracket has two main parts: a steel “corner brace” from the hardware store and a piece of 4/4 hardwood about 3” by 10”. I looked for a nice piece of wide angle iron (or aluminum), but the widest available at Ace was 1-1/2”, so I went with this,

 which has the advantage of not needing to be hacksawn to length. Initially I thought I could just use a 1/4-20 nut on the screw protruding from the baseplate on the tripod, but it turns out that screw is too short. There's also a spring-loaded nipple on the baseplate which is meant to keep a camera from rotating without permission, so I decided to keep that feature operational by letting the nipple stick into a screw hole. I measured the distance from the screw to the nipple, 

then bored and tapped an appropriate hole in the corner brace. I couldn't find my tap handle, so had to make do with a vise grip. 

As a result, the threads aren't at a perfect 90 degree angle to the body of the angle, but as you can see from the pictures, they're close enough. And just as planned, the nipple is lodged in the screw hole:

The wood gets a hole the size of the lamp socket, which is 1-7/8”. My 1-7/8” hole saw handled the maple just fine, but unfortunately the hole is just a hair oversized, so I used some friction tape to make the socket big enough to fit the hole tightly. 

Another option would be to do what you see in this picture, so that tightening the nut makes the wood squeeze the light more tightly. (I've now made two of these. Both versions work well.)

With the wooden plate ready to receive the lamp, I screwed it to the corner brace,

 got the lamp nice and snug in the wooden plate, and screwed the whole assembly to the tripod. 

And I was ready to go. As a treat for saving so much money, I went down to Showcase Photo and Video and bought a replacement compact fluorescent bulb for the fancy lights I linked to at the beginning of this post. Its color output matches the high-CRI fluorescent tubes well enough that my hands won't be varying tones of yellow and purple in future blog entries.

Revision, 3 September 12: here's a photo from my first session with the new light stand. I'm pleased with what the new stand can do, and the only change I'd make would be to add more height.

Revision, 23 January 2016: I have revisited this topic and made a light-to-stand connection I consider more efficient. Check it out at this link.

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