LED Lights Shootout: Sony HVL-LBP vs. Zylight Z90
Posted May 1, 2008

The latest LED lights are taking the video world by storm, and promises of bright lights with very low battery drain have many of us excited. I’ve spent some time on recent shoots with two of the most popular choices, the Sony HVL-LBP (near right) and the Zylight Z90 (far right).The Sony light retails for around $500 at most popular professional video retailers, and the Zylight costs $875 directly from the manufacturer. This is a big difference, with almost $400 separating the two lights. There are some truly innovative features in the Zylight, and whether those features interest you or not will go a long way toward determining if this light is worth the extra cost.

In This Corner: The Sony HVL-LBP
The main advantage of the Sony HVL-LBP, from my perspective, is the fact that it uses Sony’s L series Infolithium batteries. If you are using a Sony camera such as the FX1 or Z1U, you already have batteries that will work with this unit, as well as the charger required. The lithium batteries used by this unit are lightweight and will power the light for a very long time, up to 3 hours at full brightness. In fact, I have yet to drain a full battery using this light.

The light is designed to be attached to the accessory shoe of your camera, and I’ve found it one of the easiest lights to attach and remove, thanks to the larger-than-average release dial at the base of the light. At just over 14 ounces (without battery), it tends to make the camera a little top-heavy, especially with lighter cameras such as the FX1, but there is a definite advantage to not having any cables running from the light to a battery belt.

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The light performs well up close, especially within a 10" range, but drops off significantly after that. To combat this problem, there is a built-in condenser filter that intensifies the beam, although I found that this did not work well in the widescreen format and produced a look that reminded me more of an extremely bright flashlight.

The unit is outdoor-balanced at 5600k, which causes a noticeable blue tint in indoor applications. I experimented with color gels in an attempt to change the color temperature of the light, but I wasn’t satisfied with how they significantly cut down the brightness. Since we are usually running two cameras, it definitely did not match the color temperature of any of our other lights, and it seriously messed up the color balance any time the Sony light came together with another light on the same object or person. This caused problems for us on several occasions, and it was also noticed by the photographer.

In the Other Corner: The Zylight Z90
I first became aware of Zylight when the Z90 won an innovation award by the 4EVER Group at NAB 2007. The Z90 is a huge improvement over the previously released (and still available) Z50. Not only is it four times brighter than the Z50, but it draws the same amount of power.

You’ll find the controls on the rear of the light. You can select between daylight and tungsten using the two preset buttons. Our lighting kit also includes an Anton/Bauer ElightZ and a Frezzi mini-sun gun. Since we are always shooting two or more cameras, it’s important to us that our LED light matches the color temperature of whatever other lights we are using. The amazing thing about the Z90 and the main reason I love this light so much is that you can change the color temperature by simply moving a dial from 2500k all the way up to 9000k. I have found that in the field, you never quite know what other light sources you will come into contact with—sometimes natural light in one area and tungsten in another. With the Zylight’s adjustable color temperature, I always find a setting I like, without adding gels.
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Speaking of gels, the Z90 has another cool feature that can enhance your footage. By simply pressing a button, you get full access to colored lighting effects. Want to toss a blue light onto some dance footage? No need for a colored gel; you just turn the dial until you get the color you’re looking for. While I admit that many people may not use this feature, it’s kind of fun to experiment with, and it means you don’t have to bring an entire gel kit with you.If you have more than one Z90, you can take advantage of Zylink, which allows you to link several lights together and control them all wirelessly with one control. I wasn’t able to test this feature since I only have one light, but there are videos of Zylink in action on the manufacturer’s website, and it looks pretty impressive.

An optional accessory adapter allows you to add barn doors or a softbox. I opted for the barn doors when ordering mine, and since the light is a little strong when viewed from the front, I plan to add the softbox in the future. At 16 ounces, it’s heavier than the Sony light, but the weight is distributed differently, so it doesn’t quite feel or look as awkward sitting on a smaller camera.

For battery power, you have a few options. I opted for a lightweight IDX Endura series battery belt, but there is also a D-Tap option for those who want to use Anton/Bauer batteries, and you can also buy a lithium battery directly from the manufacturer. What I really like about the Endura battery system is that you can stack another battery on the back of the one you are using in order to increase your runtime, although I must admit I haven’t had to do this with this light yet. I’m simply amazed how much more battery life I can get out of these LED lights.

figure 1 Other Comparisons
Both the Sony and the Zylight have an excellent spread, which is perfect for widescreen applications. Since switching to HDV, I had found that some of my old lights weren’t performing well, especially in wide shots when shooting in 16:9. That simply isn’t a problem with either of these lights, with the exception of the Sony operating with the condenser filter attached, but the solution to that is simple: Don’t use the condenser.

In order to give a proper comparison, I included images shot with my ElightZ, an Anton/Bauer 10 W halogen light.

And the Winner Is …
The Zylight Z90 and its smaller cousin, the Z50, are becoming very popular in the broadcast industry, even showing up at the Super Bowl, and it’s easy to see why. But the real question you are probably asking yourself is whether it’s worth the price of nearly two Sony lights to get the added features of the Z90. From what I have experienced, it certainly is.

The Sony would be a lot more attractive if it were calibrated to indoor light, but to me it didn’t seem worth the extra postproduction color correction problems that it creates.

If you’re thinking of moving to LED lighting, the adaptability and sturdy construction of the Z90 make it a clear winner.

Joe McManus (joe at fvpro.com) is co-founder of Future Vision Productions, an award-winning wedding and event videography outfit based in London, Ontario. He is the founder and president of the Ontario Professional Videographers Association (OPVA), and he was named to the 2005 EventDV 25.