Saturday, May 28, 2011

DIY Strip Light Using a Speedlight

There have been a variety of DIY "Strip Light" projects around the web for some time. A few weeks ago, I ran across a commercial version, call the Saberstrip. A very nice looking, apparently well-made product, that sells for about $135US. Of course, being the cheapskate that I am, I figured I could make one for considerably less than I did.

Let me make one thing clear first: I'm not knocking the Saberstrip in any way. It's a great idea, it appears to be robust and well made, and I hope they sell a million of 'em. But aside from the price, there were a couple of other things I didn't like about their design...for instance, with their product the speedlight flash providing the light sits completely *inside* the tube, making it a real pain to change power settings. I understand why they designed theirs the way they did -- the fully self-contained setup makes for one fully-enclosed unit, with nothing to strap on, blow away, or fall off.
So I decided to experiment a bit with making one. As it turns out, a simple version (that works very well) only requires about $5 worth of materials, and 20 minutes of time. Here's what you'll need:
- 1 cardboard mailing tube, 3" diameter and 24" length (like this one)
- a piece of aluminum foil
- a bit of spray glue (or plain old white glue)
- a piece of diffusion material (details below)

Construction is just a few steps. Take your mailing tube (sharp readers will notice that I didn't even buy a new one, I used one somebody else had sent me a poster in!), remove the cap from one end, and mark off a rectangular area to cut out for the "strip." For my prototype, I marked off a 2-inch wide, 19-inch long rectangle, leaving 1 inch at the top of the tube, and 4 inches at the bottom (where the flash head will go in), as in the picture above. CAREFULLY using an X-Acto knife or sharp utility knife, cut out the rectangle.
Once you've got the strip cut out, line the inside of the tube with aluminum foil. I pre-cut strips of foil about 4 inches tall, and wide enough to fit around the inside of the tube minus the strip cutout, test fitting and trimming them as I made them. Add two more strips, one 1" high for the top of the tube (and wide enough to go all the way around the inside), and one more 4 inches high (and again, that goes all the way around the inside). Once you've got all your strips, spray some spray glue inside the tube (I used the same spray glue I use for mounting photos -- plain old white glue works fine too, if you paint it on smoothly with a brush), then carefully lay in your foil strips. You're almost done!

The last step is to add a diffuser over the strip. For mine, I used a piece of stretchy cotton-spandex material that I had purchased a full bolt of on sale at JoAnn's Fabrics a couple of years ago for about $20. Cut a strip of material (you could also use white plastic or thin paper) just a little bit wider and taller than the strip in the tube, and attach it to the outside of the tube with rubber bands.

The 3-inch tube is just the right size for the heads of many popular speedlights (I used a Sigma EF-500 DG Super) to fit inside the tube, nice and tight. It stays on well vertically, but tips a bit when used horizontally -- I'm working on a fix for that! Stick the tube on your flash, mounted on a tripod or light stand; attach a radio trigger or PC cord to fire the flash, and give it a try.

The image at the top of this post shows the falloff pattern of my striplight, set up 4 feet from a gray background. I was quite surprised as the softness and smoothness of the light, and at the very gradual, elliptical falloff pattern -- I was frankly expecting a "straighter" and less soft light, and so was pleasantly surprised. I recruited my daughter to sit for me outside to give it a try (the photo above), and was very pleased at the soft light, gradual falloff, and angle of coverage. The shot above used just the one striplight camera-right, about 30-degrees towards the camera from the subject's side, and about 3 feet away. Exposure was 1/160th sec. at f/6.3 at ISO 100, with the flash on 1/2 power. I think I have a favorite new toy...

If you've read my previous posts about outdoor beach lighting, you know that I've had my share of blown-over umbrellas and light stands doing outdoor lighting in windy locations. One of the best things about this strip light is that it's nearly wind proof! Set up on a light stand, it has such a small wind profile and is so light that even moderate winds don't bother it at all. Clamped to the "pole" of a standard light stand (instead of mounted on top of it as in the first photo), I had it out in 20 MPH winds with no problems whatsoever. I'm sure I'll be hauling several of these to the beach from now on.

I've got some design modifications to make, including a more secure mounting to my speedlights, especially so that I can use the tubes horizontally, and some cosmetic improvements to do. I ordered 6 of the tubes linked to above, and will be making some "final" versions for studio and field use -- I'll post an update when they're done. But even my quick little prototype has me excited about this really useful light modifier that's quick and cheap to make. If you've got a few bucks and half an hour to spare, give it a try.

Oh, one more thing...the catchlights:

I'm not sure yet whether I like them or not. The 100% crop from the shot of my daughter shows what they look like in subjects' eyes. I'm a bit obsessive about the catchlights in my subjects, and I haven't decided if I like these or not yet. They're certainly unusual, and maybe they'll grow on me...we'll see :)

Here are a couple of other DIY striplights on the internet, from which I got ideas:
Box Strip Light by Nick Wheeler

Tube Strip Light by Fettucininz

Update: Just after I finished this article, one of my regular commercial clients called and needed a quick photo of a product done. Dwayne Yates of PureTech Products makes Velcro Strap products for radio-control cars, planes, etc. (but they're useful for lots of things, I use them for cable wraps, attaching accessories to lights, etc.). He had a borrowed RC car he wanted me to quickly shoot with one of his straps in place. It was a good chance to try out the DIY strip light outdoors on a product shot, and I was very pleased with the results (above)! I'm really liking this light modifier that was so easy to make...


  1. Haven't used it yet (except test flashes) but this thing is cool. I built one last weekend - takes absolutely no time to build.. great modifier from the test patterns I've shot.

  2. Thanks for the great post, I was just contemplating the building of my own strip lights and up pops your article.

    I'd like to see your solution for mounting them horizontally though, that's gonna be important.

  3. Great guide, it looks awesome.

  4. Would it be any better if you mounted a circular mirror inside the end cap to bounce the light back at the flash? Also, possibly mounting another mirror at the end where the flash goes in, with a hole for the flash head to go through? The idea would be getting more of the light bouncing back and forth, maybe making it brighter... I'm gonna have to try this out... Great idea!

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      The top cap I used was white, so it's already bouncing much of the light back down -- a mirror would reflect more, but probably not *much* more. There's so little space around the flash head at the bottom that I don't know how much a mirror there would do. If you try it out, take some pics and let me know, I'd love to post them and your results here!

  5. Excellent website. Lots of useful information here.

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  7. Thank you very much for you can share your post,the article content written very well, writes fluent,extremely is worth my study.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. made two of these today. worked amazingly! thank you!

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  15. I just made mine. I used a silicone transparent shelf liner for the diffuser. you can use the rest of the roll to make some light spheres :)

  16. Hi, guys. I made a.couple of this but the readings from one end of the strip to the other differs. Is this true with yours?

  17. This is a great idea! I have something that looks like an ICE light now but sometimes it just doesnt have enough power. making a speedlight version of it would be just awesome!

  18. It has helped me, Thank you for sharing this information.

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