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Production Equipment Reviews: LED Lighting & Light Panels (a working review)
(Review update for 2015)
Velvet Light 2, Lite Panels, Cool Lights & Kelvin Tile
Professional lighting is of course not just about illuminating a given area with light, it's what sets the feel or mood of a shot and, so often within smaller productions, it's either poorly executed or neglected altogether. Over the years we have used a range of units to suit a given project including the first commercial LED Panels to hit the market. As of 2015, there have been many new developments from Arri, Dedolight and Velvet Light.
This first part of this review dates back a few years and some products mentioned have seen upgraded models since, however much of the information should be of value to those looking at LED lighting. The last paragraph deals with the beautiful Velvet Light panel we purchased at the end of 2014.
At the beginning of 2008 our increased workload required frequent air travel with many shooting conditions with no mains power source, we decided it was time to take a look at the emerging LED lighting products of the day.
For our needs, our portable LED lighting kit would need to suit the following requirements:
We wanted a high quality on-camera light suitable for fill lighting and could also be easily used as a fill light handheld, on a stand or just positioned where needed.
We wanted small portable lighting panels that could come close to matching the quality of an Arri 650w shot through a softbox without the need for bulky attachments.
All units would need to be both battery (preferably V-Lock) and mains powered.
All units would need to be easy to transport by air.
Of course, as with any professional product, build quality, performance and, of course, easy replacement of spare parts would be expected, and as with most products we purchase, the kit should be part of a modular system that would grow with our needs.
Velvet Light 2: (Rain Proof)
I did not know what to expect with the “Velvet Light” LED Panel because there was no real world working reviews on them. So far it’s only been used in our small studio for chromakey interviews and on a small number of location jobs.
First of all – it certainly appears well made and should withstand the usual rigours of professional use. While the unit has an opal diffuser giving it a diffused light source, I would say that the unit still displays a very silky quality of light which is very nice. We have also used it shot through another opal space frame we have, and it’s beautiful for lifting shadow-less light levels within a room set.
Dimmer and colour controls appear smooth and consistent. We are still to do tests on various batteries to see how long they last.
We were surprised by the actual light output! – This is without doubt a serious piece of lighting kit! Must look into getting an egg-crate / barndoors for it. The unit we purchased comes complete with mains transformer and double V-Lock battery operation.
So far – we are very pleased with it and look forward to seeing how it performs on a range of jobs.
This company needs little in the way of introduction in regard to their professional high quality LED lighting products and since our demonstration the company now offers a whole range of LED solutions. Our first demonstration was with the Lite Panels Micro, the smallest of their product range. While I can of course see a use for such units for various applications, for our needs it was just too limiting in size. Although made of plastic, they are not cheap, and while the use of AA batteries is a nice touch for those out of the way location shoots, we were quick to dismiss the Micro. While the company now has alternatives, cheaper offerings continue to flood the market place.
The Lite Panels Mini Plus:
The Lite Panels Mini Plus on the other hand is a different story, when purchasing the one head kit, it comes with a very useful Noga Arm. Available in 5600K or 3200K, flood or spot, the Flood 5600k is the most popular. Made of plastic and metal, it is fairly robust in construction, complete with dimmer control, rechargeable battery pack, lasting approx 2.5 hours on full power, battery power indicator, D-Tap cable to camera or battery plate, useful diffusers, CC gels, and other bits and bobs all in a plastic case.
The quality of light is quite soft even without any diffusion, however for our purposes, we use various configurations of diffusion screens and CC gels for interviews, for a soft quality of light, and a nice sparkle to the eyes. The unit is quite heavy once the battery is fitted (don't need it if your using the D-Tap) however, it's really not that noticeable when the camera is on your shoulder. When not using it on-camera, we love the ease at which you can carry it around in a jacket pocket to be used to lift shadows, create lighting effects or alter small areas with contrast issues, and all within seconds. In some of the accompanying pictures you can see the Mini Plus being used out in the rain where light was quickly needed to light up the inside of a mixing machine. Of course, little units like these are fabulous when abroad as we were able to lift areas of shadow with ease. In fact the Mini Plus has so many uses, it goes with us everywhere. Is there a down side, yes, unfortunately these kits are not cheap and the price will put many off. For those with the budget, who are looking for the benefits these units bring, you will be joining a long list of cinematographers, documentary makers and news crews who have fallen in love with them. Once again, cheaper alternatives have since been coming onto the market place and so there are options available.
The Lite Panels Mini Plus Battery (We do not like!):
NOTE: There are strict charging instructions for the battery pack and so this should be noted if you intend to purchase one.
Over time, we did notice our battery pack holding less and less of a charge until it had to be replaced (they are not cheap), we decided to forego a replacement battery and purchase the double battery adapter fitting allowing standard camcorder batteries (Sony NP-F750 x2) to be attached which last as much as 7 or 8 hours on full power! While this is not as elegant as the mini battery, we refuse to purchase products that are poor value. Using the standard camcorder batteries has many advantages for us. We already use these to power audio mixers and we can utilize the same charger instead of having to carry two types.
The Lite Panels 1X1 (basically a 12"x12" flat panel) is a very nice unit and is part of a whole modular build set up. Well made, with dimmable control, colour temperature control, mains, battery, V-lock or AB brick options as optional extras. Our tests were very simple, basically we set the Lite Panels off to one side of our mannequin model, and put a reflector on the other – it took seconds to do and the results were most pleasing. Dropping an optional extra diffuser into the sliding frame of the 1X1 gave as expected, a very gentle light quality, similar to that of a softbox and with minimal drop in light output. The unit did not weigh very much and would be easy to transport by air. The 1X1 does not come with any barndoors, in fact it doesn't come with anything! and once you total up all the additional extras you may require, the price may give you a shock!
When we viewed the Lite Panels 1x1s when they first made their appearance, we felt cost was prohibitively expensive for our requirements at that time. But with constant travel overseas and the ever increasing costs / hassle traveling with equipment, we needed a lighting solution that was lightweight, small, V–lock battery operated, a quality light source, cool in operation, capable of lighting the inside of a small room or cave enclosure and a pleasing quality of light for interviews using HD broadcast cameras. It appeared the Lite Panels 1x1 was the only modular solution for our lighting needs and we were poised to purchase 2 1X1 panels when a new product came over the horizon.
Cool Lights LED600:
Richard Andrewski is the man behind the US Company Cool Lights and has gained himself a reputation for producing good quality lighting products at very reasonable prices.
Richard was most helpful and we kept in regular contact via email as he brought his new panels into production in January 2009. Although smaller than the Lite Panels at 8"x8", these Cool Lights LED600 panels have similar features but with the addition of removable barndoors and all at a fraction of the cost of a fully kitted out Lite Panel 1x1. Available in 5600k or 3200k, flood or spot, we ordered 2 x 5600K flood models fitted with V–Lock battery fittings (optional) and a T bar for connecting the 2 panels together.
Build quality, I must be honest and say that I was not really sure what to expect, but I was very pleased to see that these units are well made, the square frame and barndoors being made of metal with the rear panel made of 1mm powder coated sheet aluminium. The unit has a dimmer control for overall dimming; a selection of switches to cancel out various rows of LED lamps giving greater control over the way something can be lit.
Richard told us that they designed the LED600 to output more light, and while perfectly within technical specifications it does mean you need to be careful about placing certain kinds of filter screens in the front slots that would impair ventilation, as the units do run that little bit warmer than other LED panels.
As soon as the panels arrived we did a battery test. Fitted with one fully charged IDX 7s V–Lock battery we got one hour and ten minutes before the unit died. There was no perceptible light drop as the battery neared its end. We immediately put them to the test at an industrial location shoot and we were very impressed with their performance – in fact, we could not believe the amount of light output, and so very useable, even without any diffusion. Of course the portable battery powered panels enabled quick placement with the greatest of ease, however for the longer shooting sessions we powered the units by mains. Where we required a softer light source we either pulled the units back to spread the light or used the dimmer control. As with the other LED brands there is a slight green tint and as you get into the lower range of the dimmer the light quality does appear to warm a little. In a real working environment and with the excellent cost of these units this is not a problem in most circumstances and can be easily corrected by CC gels on lights / camera if needed. After a number of days shooting in industrial environments we were very happy with them. At the end of each day the units were given a light wipe down with a clean cloth and quickly packed away.
With both panels mounted on the T–bar and used in either a vertical or horizontal layout, the quality of light source is very much similar to a typical long soft box feel, which is one of my favourite lighting fixtures.
During trips to France and Israel recently we used the LED600s to great effect. In one location we were deep underground in a cave system with no light whatsoever and we conducted an interview with an archaeologist with such ease. Humidity was unbelievable, and all our equipment was soaking with condensation. The LED600s performed fabulously. At another location we had to follow a presenter around a dimly lit building and our producer carried a diffused light panel just ahead and off to one side of the individual giving us a really nice looking quality of light. We did many interviews in fields, cellars, offices, hotel rooms and such like, and the LED600s and our Mini–Plus did a fantastic job – I don't even want to think about how we used to do these jobs.
Of course, as there is virtually no heat generated with LEDs, with some interviews lasting 3 hours in a small space it is a great feeling not to have hot smelly tungsten lighting to deal with.
The light quality is different from a conventional Arri 650/1k with softbox set up, it has a sharper feel to it, taking a white balance off a white card gave us very good colour balance without any need to CC filter the LED600 (however we have made up our own little set of filters to deal with such occasions that may arise). Skin tones were very pleasing; however this may be down to the way our standard workhorse production camera, the XDCAM HD422 PDW–700, deals with this as I can say I never liked the way the PDW F350 dealt with skin tones.
During chromakey tests, placing two LED600 panels either side of a chromakey screen for a head and shoulders shot was easy to set up and gave a good even light source within minutes. Richard has since brought out further LED products including bi–colour LED panels and a nifty collapsible soft box attachment for the LED600s.
Great Job Richard. Keep up the good work.
Kelvin Tile (Fitted with barndoors):
Imagine the Lite Panels 1X1 complete with barndoors, opal diffusion built–in, colour temperature control throughout the range, mains and V–lock battery options as standard and you have pictured the Kelvin Tile.
A seriously nice product with similar output to the 1X1 it had a beautiful quality of light which, of course, would be down to the in–built diffusion panel. The ability to dial in any colour temperature to match surrounding light sources was so easy and quick. Of course, this sort of technology comes at a price, but what a great tool for those who are in need of quick set up times with all this type of technology has to offer. While a good bit heavier than a 1X1, due to the control panel at the rear, it is still very portable. The barndoors added quite a bit of weight, and, to me, their effect was minimal. In regard to travelling you could easily get 2 light panels 1X1s into the same bag that would hold one Kelvin Tile. It really is down to what you need. However, now that Lite Panels has a colour temp control on its 1X1 panels and Cool Lights has a Bi–colour range, this could be a serious blow for the Kelvin Tile, particularly when the Lite Panels model is part of a modular system that can suit so many configurations / applications.
While at this present time, LED lighting is not an answer to every lighting need; the technology continues to improve with Arri, Dedolight, Lightpanels and Velvet Light manufacturing beautiful lighting units that just get better and better.
With energy costs rising and health and safety regulations mounting, LED lights use a fraction of the power used by conventional tungsten units and mainstream studios are now being refitted with banks of LED panels. News crews are finding LED panels a breath of fresh air, documentary teams on the move are able to set up quicker and add greater production value. Even those in front of the camera are requesting the use of cool LED lighting.
You know the saying, "Time is money" and it is here that LED lighting really makes a difference. For our work we find we can travel lighter, we can light our subject matter quickly and effectively regardless of location environment. The products are people friendly, environmentally friendly and we love them.
Stewart Menelaws (Director of Photography)
You can read some more in-depth reviews on XDCAM products by choosing from the review links below.
"You can also read interviews Stewart has done for "The Producer magazine".