The problem with incandescent on-camera lights is that they’re inefficient and draw a lot of power. The byproduct of this is that they produce a lot of heat. This creates a problem in a studio environment, where you are trying to balance the heat levels so your talent doesn’t melt and keeping the air conditioning off so your audio technician doesn’t complain. With on-camera lighting, the heat from a single light isn’t likely to affect the room’s temperature, but the additional power requirements mean that the camera operator needs to carry large batteries, typically expensive lithium batteries or heavy lead-acid batteries.
When I first started producing videos, I filmed a lot of weddings and social events, so an on-camera light was a necessity. I started out using the heavy but versatile Lowel Pro-light. What I liked about that light was that it could be powered by either DC or AC when I changed bulbs. Unfortunately, the light was way too heavy for a camcorder (nonshouldermount) when used handheld, so I relegated the Pro-light to AC duty only and bought a smaller Frezzi Micro-Fill. It was much lighter than the Pro-light, but the throw pattern of my model was fixed on-spot. As the industry moved from 4:3 to widescreen, I found that the center-spot throw pattern was often missing my subject or leaving me stuck with center-framing my subjects. Ultimately it was the weight of the lead-acid battery that convinced me to move to a much lighter LED light as the waist belt-mounted, lead-acid battery was heavy enough to give me tummy aches.
LCD4Video provided me with two Fuzhou F&V Photographic Equipment Co. Ltd. models to review: the LED R-3 and the HDV-Z96. If you’re not familiar with F&V, it is an emerging Chinese manufacturer of photo and video equipment. Litepanels provided me with the Micro and MicroPro. Let’s see how these LEDs compare.
The LED R-3 model was the most similar in form to traditional on-camera lights in that it has a round lens and is longer than it is wide. What makes it different is that it is an LED model, and like all LEDs, it doesn’t produce heat and operates at a much cooler color temperature than the 3200K that incandescent bulbs produce. Featurewise, it has a pair of barndoors, a diffusion filter, and a warming filter that mount around a rotating lens ring. The orange warming filter changes the light output to match incandescent lights, which is useful when there are other light sources to contend with.
The R-3 model I tested is powered by L Series Sony batteries, which is nice because I have several smaller batteries that came with my Sony video cameras that never get used since I equip them with larger batteries. The R-3 is also available in a Panasonic battery model. The light attaches to the video camera’s cold shoe with a fixed plate that can rotate. Unfortunately, the R-3 was the only model that did not tilt, which was limiting. At $120 it was the least expensive model in this roundup.
Litepanels has two similar models, the smaller Micro and the larger MicroPro. The Micro has 48 LED lights and is powered by four AA batteries, while the MicroPro has twice as many LEDs and requires six batteries. Both ship with a warming gel, a 1/4 warming gel, and a diffusion gel. As an alternative to AA batteries, both models can be configured with one of three DV battery plates that allow you to use a Sony, Canon, or Panasonic battery, or a 5-12 or 5-16 volt DC source using an optional AC power adapter. I did not review the optional power configurations.
On my Micro, the gels can be mounted on the front of the filter holder, which has three clips on the sides and bottoms and a small plastic strip on the top. Unfortunately, I found this very difficult to use because the top strip prevented me from sliding the small filter in place. I prefer to unclip the filter holder and mount the gels between the filter holder and the clear plastic lens. The Micro doesn’t have a filter holder in which to store filters when not in use, although the MicroPro has a rear storage clip. The Micro model I tested (below) was a 2009 model. The shoe mount tilts but does not rotate, although this model has since been reconfigured and now comes standard with a micro ball head shoe mount that allows both tilt and rotation. Unfortunately, this new ball head has a long arm clamp that doesn’t even clear the bottom of the light, so tightening the ball level is more difficult than it should be.
I also understand that in newer models Litepanels has changed the gel mount to the same system found in the 2010 model of the MicroPro (below), which is a two side-clip system with notches to prevent vertical movement of the gel.
Both LP models are dimmable from 0% to 100%. The Micro has a street price of $270, and the MicroPro’s street price is $400.
Our final LED light came from LCD4Video and is the F&V HDV-Z96 LED. Because it has a thicker bevel, it appears larger than the Micro, although it actually has the same lens size. Despite this, F&V packed in twice as many LEDs as the Micro. The Z96 is only dimmable from 25% to 100%, although the lowest part of the range is hardly useful anyway. I did find that although the light does not flicker under regular operation, it does flicker when you are adjusting the light output with the dimmer.
For power, five AA batteries are required, or there is a built-in Sony L Series battery plate. Alternately the Z96 can be powered by a 5.8V–16.8V DC adapter.
One of the key differences between the Z96 and the Litepanels models is that, in the Z96, the thick plastic diffusion and warming filters connect with high-powered magnets. This is the fastest and easiest system to use as the filters seemingly jump in place with a confident snap.
The shoe mount is well-designed with an easy-to-grip knob (rather than an arm) that allows both tilting and rotation of the light. Although the Z96 comes in only one size, multiple lights can be connected together with the supplied multilink bracket. At the time of this writing, the Z96 was selling for $250 at LCD4Video.
One of the things I was looking for was the throw pattern from each of the lights. I wanted the light to be as even as possible from center to edge, while at the same time being sufficiently bright. I tested each of the lights against a plain wall in my darkened studio at a distance of 4' and 8'. At 4' the LED R-3 had a noticeable hot spot in the center, surrounded by a bright ring. I wasn’t too surprised by the circular throw pattern on the LED R-3, as the lens is round, but when I lit up the Micro and it also had a round throw pattern, I was a bit surprised. The Micro did have a hot center spot, but it wasn’t as dramatic a hot spot. Because the throw pattern is not wide, it was only able to light up about half of my widescreen frame. The larger MicroPro was able to light up the entire frame although it too suffered from a perfectly round hot spot in the center and the light fell off very sharply to the edge of the frame. Surprisingly, the least expensive of the rectangular LED models, the HDV-Z96, was the top performer for even light output. Rather than a hot center and a dramatic falloff, the HDV-Z96 had a relatively even center and a linear falloff at the top and sides. Overall, this pattern is the easiest to use when filming people, as they don’t disappear into the shadows when they step outside the hot center spot of the other models. The results of the 4' throw pattern test are shown below.
I repeated this test at 8', and the LED R-3 benefited by the additional distance. Its hot spot was less intense and larger. Its light output levels were enough to bring the IRE past 100% in its center, which was brighter than the Litepanels models that came in at 90 and 70 IRE with my Sony HVR-Z7U at F1.6 with 0 gain. The Micro still had a bright center spot that was larger than at 4', although the light output was a lot lower and less dramatic than the MicroPro, which had a brighter center spot and dramatic falloff. The HDV-Z96 was again the top performer because it had a larger area in its middle section than the other models and a more gradual and linear falloff. So although it brought the wall to the same IRE level in its center as the MicroPro, it had a much larger and more pleasant hot spot. You can see a sample of the 8' test results below.
I tested all the lights bare, without the gels and diffusion to show the throw pattern at its most dramatic. Using gels and/or diffusion will both soften the light and lower its output. I used to think that having a daylight-balanced light, such as an LED light, is a disadvantage as most indoor lighting is incandescent. However, in low-light situations, which is when you are most likely to be using an on-camera light, there isn’t as much ambient light that you need to match anyway. As long as you white balance to your light, it doesn’t matter much what color temperature your light is.
Having said this, don’t assume that all LED lights with and without their gels output the same color light. When I manually white balanced my Sony HVR-Z7U to the light from the Micro and MicroPro, they both came in at 5200K, which is slightly warmer than the 5600K that is considered daylight balanced. The HDV-Z96 produced a noticeably bluer light. My manual white balance came in at 6500K, which is more similar to an overcast day than clear skies. The LED R-3 was very similar at 6400K. With their respective warming filters, the Litepanels and MicroPro LED lights were still 300K–400K warmer than the 3200K of an incandescent bulb and the HDV-Z96 was 400K cooler than tungsten.
So how does the HDV-Z96 manage to produce a more even and brighter light than the larger MicroPro? Well, I’m still at a loss to explain why the Litepanels lights are producing a perfectly round throw pattern when they are rectangular in shape and 1.5 times wider than they are tall, but I’m sure it has something to do with the reflective backing on the HDV-Z96 model that acts as a reflector to both increase and diffuse the light. Whatever it is, it’s working—the HDV-Z96 costs less than the Litepanels models and outperforms them in design, features, and performance.
Shawn Lam (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005–9 and the Video 07. He won Creative Excellence Awards at WEVA 2010 and 2008 and an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award at Video 08.