In the Field: Switronix TorchLED TL-50
Posted Jan 30, 2009

As a wedding videographer, I’m on a never-ending quest for the perfect on-camera light option for shooting receptions. For me, the perfect on-camera light needs to have the following features:
• It must have an onboard battery so I don’t have to wear an external battery somewhere on my body.
• It must be color balanced to 3200K for indoor use.
• It must be bright enough to illuminate a full zoom close-up of details from around 10'–15'.
• It must not create hot spots when using a 16:9 aspect ratio on full wide shots.
• It must provide soft, balanced lighting when shooting full wide shots.
• It must have a price point around $300.

The lights I have used in the past are the Sony HVL-20DW2 (Sony 10/20), the Frezzi mini fill, the Litepanels LP-Micro, and the NRG Varilux 100W dimmable. While the Varilux is obviously best at 100W, it is also dependent on an external battery or power source, as is the Frezzi mini fill, so these two options are not in the running for my perfect on-camera light (even though both meet some of the other criteria). That leaves the Sony 10/20 and the Litepanels LP-Micro as well as a promising new contender, the Switronix TorchLED TL-50.

In this article I’ll compare those three lights to see how they stack up against one another and to determine if any of them fits the bill as the perfect on-camera light for wedding receptions. Figure 1 (below) shows all the lights used in the test.

TorchLED, Litepanels, Sony

First Impressions

My first impression of the TorchLED (Figure 1, below) was a good one. It’s built with high-quality components, and the casing is all metal and feels substantial. It feels rugged and up to the task of on-camera lighting. One thing you will notice when you first see the light is that the front has no protective glass or lens over the LEDs.

Switronix TorchLED

Switronix’s Ross Kanarek told me this is because any type of glass or lens will reduce the power of the light if placed in front of the LEDs. Switronix wants to give the user the option of getting the maximum power from the light. The company does include a snap-on lens covers in clear, diffused, and 3200K color as well. The LEDs are recessed from the outer edge of the light, so unless you take a direct hit to the light, they will be fine.

The persistent issue with this light (and most bright LED lights) is that they are all 5600K color temperature. This poses a problem for most receptions, since what light we do get at a reception is generally 3200K indoor color temperature. Another small problem is that there is no cold shoe mount on the camera. You will need to purchase a small 1/4x20 to shoe mount adapter (such as the Delvcam available at B&H) along with the light.

The TorchLED TL-50 is a 30W LED, so by specs it should stack up favorably with the other two lights in our comparison, which are both 20W models.

Battery Power
Another great feature of the TL-50 is that the power comes from an onboard internal (but easily swappable) lithium battery. Switronix claims a 2.5-hour runtime at the full 30W output. As soon as I got the light I fully charged it, turned it on full power, and let it shine at the wall. I am happy to say that the runtime for me was well beyond 2.5 before I started to see it fade. There is a battery meter on the back of the light to show you the battery status. Green indicates good, yellow means getting low, and red signifies that it’s just about used up. When the red light came on I noticed the light starting to fade, but this was after more than 3 hours of nonstop full output. That will get you through most of a reception.

You can purchase an extra battery from Switronix as well, and it takes about 2–3 minutes to replace. The outer cover of the light unscrews, and the battery, along with a small plug-in, slides out. Plug the new battery in, screw the light back on, and you are good to go for another 3 hours.

The fact that the light is an LED also means that it remains cool to the touch—it is not a burn hazard like many halogen lights.

How I Tested
Now let’s get started with the test. I tried to be as scientific as I could to control the variables of the test. For my test I went to our local church in the late evening and set up a stand with a copy of EventDV as the test subject, since it had some color, detail, and white in it. I measured 15' from the stand and set up my Canon XH A1 on a tripod at that location. I chose 15' because that’s about as far as I would zoom from at a typical reception; any further and details might not be visible.

During the test I ran the Canon A1 at 12db gain and no ambient light. It was much darker than any reception venue I have worked in. Under most circumstances I try to keep my gain at 6db for clarity, but due to the darkness I opted for 12db. Figure 3 (below) shows the setup (note that I had to use a flash to get the picture).

Low-light test with Canon A1

How the Lights Performed
I tested the three lights on full wide to determine the quality of light and the size of any hot spot that might appear. The Sony 10/20 is 3200K balanced, but the Litepanels LP-Micro and the TorchLED are 5600K, so a 3200K gel would be needed in most circumstances. All my test results reflect the lights with the 3200K gels installed for proper white balance (unless otherwise noted).

For my first test, I shot with all ambient lights off, just using the on-camera lights. With no lights on, my magazine was not visible at full wide zoom. With the LP-Micro it was barely visible in the white areas of the magazine cover. With the Sony 10/20, the magazine was visible, and a few details of the background were visible as well. The TorchLED provided about the same amount of visibility and detail as the Sony 10/20.
The LP-Micro had a very pronounced hot spot that filled about half the screen, and it fell off rapidly from the edges. Both the TorchLED and the Sony light had a bigger area lit (about two-thirds of the shot), and the light faded to the edges a little more smoothly. The TorchLED on full wide had a hot spot, but the 3200K gel also diffused it some. The subject was more evenly lit and didn’t have harsh edges like the Sony.

In the shot set up in Figure 4 (below) I pointed the light at a wall to check the hot spot. As you can see, the Sony (middle) is slightly better on full wide by a very small amount.  Both the Sony and TorchLED (bottom) are superior to the LP-Micro (top) in this shot. If you don’t need the CTO gel and can run the TorchLED with no gel or diffuser, it’s much brighter than the Sony or the LP-Micro, but you will get 5600K temperatures. It is a little harsher as well.

Litepanels, Sony, TorchLED

Shooting at Full Zoom With the TL-50
Full zoom is where I really wanted to test the TorchLED, since much of my main reception shooting is getting tight shots of details during the first dance and other special moments. From 15' away at full zoom, of course, nothing was visible with no light. When I turned on the LP-Micro, I could make out a little bit of the white portion of the magazine cover (without the 3200K gel it was slightly better). With the Sony 10/20 at full zoom I could make out the cover, the logo, some text, and the colors on the magazine were evident. With the TorchLED at full zoom I could see about the same details, text, and colors as the Sony 10/20. Remove the 3200K gel and you could see even more detail, but again, you have the white balance issue.

When our company films a reception we have an indirect light up on a light stand near the DJ (I use my Varilux at about half power). This really gives our second camera, the wide shot, a nice amount of light for a good image. I have a small on-camera light to punch up the details for my close-ups. For fun I put the Sony 10/20 on a table off to the side to simulate indirect light and the image with the TorchLED at full power was very good. This tells me the TorchLED is going to fit into my workflow quite nicely.

Interpreting the Results
From this test it appears that the TorchLED with the 3200K gel and Sony 10/20 are about even in output. If you run the Sony light with no additional diffusion then your assumption would be accurate.
However, many videographers run a diffuser (such as a Lumiquest softbox) on the front of the Sony 10/20 to soften the harsh light. This is going to drop the output of the Sony light well below what the TorchLED provides with the 3200K gel.

The Perfect On-Camera Light?

So does the TorchLED qualify to be my perfect on-camera light? Remember my previous requirements? Let’s see how it did.
• No external battery: The TL-50 has an onboard lithium battery yielding a runtime of more than 3 hours at full power.
• Color balanced to 3200K for indoor use: The TL-50 is color balanced to 5600K, but it includes a 3200K gel in the kit. Using the included gel it fits the requirement.
• Bright enough to illuminate a full zoom close-up of details from around 10'–15': I was able to view details and color on full 20x zoom from 15' away. It was a little dark, but colors were there—the same quality as the Sony light.
• No hot spot when using a 16:9 aspect ratio on full wide: There was a hot spot in the center, but it filled more of    
   the screen than my LP-Micro did. It also didn’t fall away
   on the edges as much as the LP-Micro did.
• Soft, balanced lighting when shooting a full wide shot: The 3200K gel added some diffusion to the light, and wider shots had a nice softness to them.
• Price point around $300: Here’s the great part. The TL-50, including the 1/4x20 to cold shoe adapter, sells for around $280. If you need more than 2.5 to 3 hours of light, add on an extra battery for about $79, and you won’t run out of light. The battery is proprietary so you can’t get generic versions.

The TorchLED is the closest thing to a perfect on-camera light I have been able to find, including the sweet-spot price point. It doesn’t match all my criteria, but it comes closer than any other light I have used. Sony makes a 50W LED powered by the Sony camcorder battery, but the price point is near $500.

In talking with event videographers from around the country, I find that the $300 price point is what most shooters are looking for in a light. The $500 Sony is just too pricey for the budgets of many videographers.
The TorchLED packs many features and more power than I’ve seen in other readily available on-camera lights. It should be available for purchase either before this review is printed or shortly thereafter. Of the lights I have used it is the best fit for my workflow but still not perfect. The quest continues, but things look a little brighter where I am now.
        
Philip Hinkle (philip@frogmanproductions.com) runs Madison, Wis.-area video production company Frogman Productions. Co-founder and vice-president of the Wisconsin Digital Media Group, he won a 2008 WEVA CEA Gold in the Social Event category and a 2006 4EVER Group AAA Diamond, and he spoke at the Video 07 & 08.