The idea of continuous lighting is incredibly appealing—create your lighting solution without having to predict the effects of various strobes and light modifiers, and adjust your settings and solution on the fly. Thanks to the rapid increases in LED technology, the pricing has plummeted while performance and power have increased.
The result has been a rush to market from a whole variety of companies, with various results. Much of this is driven by the video double-duty most photographers do these days—continuous lighting has the benefit of being a solution that works as well with video as with stills. Not every company has created products that can stand up to professional use, unfortunately, with many featuring flimsy parts, poor ergonomics and a low amount of power.
That’s not the case with the Litepanels Astra 1×1 Daylight LED panel, which is a premium product (but still at a relatively affordable price). For just under $1,200, the Astra is (according to the company) four times brighter than the previous model and provides a high-power lighting source that runs on AC power or batteries, and can be controlled remotely (with optional gear).
There are a number of important design features on the Astra, including dual cooling systems, vents that don’t blow dust into the fixture and comfortable surfaces for adjusting the position of the light that doesn’t require touching the hot surface. There are several models in the Astra line, including tungsten and bi-color models, but we tested the daylight-balanced unit, which is set at 5600K.
While many LED panels seem to adjust the output in steps, the Astra smoothly adjusts from 0-100%. We didn’t test the panel with a color meter, but Litepanels claims consistent color temperature across the dimmable range, and we were able to visually confirm that in postproduction.
Like most continuous lighting tools, the Astra is quick to set up and to use. Attach the light to a stand, point the panel at your scene and adjust the brightness accordingly. Also like many LED panels, there isn’t an easy way to modify the softness of the light from the panel. Even the most basic strobe system can quickly be softened with an umbrella by sliding it into the integrated slot on most flash units, or softened with a softbox or other modifier through a quick-mounting system, but with the Astra, there’s not a universal system for mounting light modifiers. The unit is bright enough to be used as a bounce light, and during testing, I alternately had an assistant hold an umbrella behind the unit or passed the light through a flag to diffuse it.
At its strongest setting, the light is, literally, blindingly bright. Point it directly at a subject, and they’ll be tearing up in no time. This can cause issues because the light, while a foot across, is nowhere near as diffuse as something that’s gone through a softbox, and each of the little LED dots are individual light sources. Used improperly, the light can create some dreadful effects, because each little, bright light has a cumulatively high-contrast effect. Thanks, though, to the power, the unit can be placed farther away than most LED panels, resulting in a wider spread of light.
My favorite use of a panel light like the Astra is either as a balancing light or used to creatively increase contrast. LED panels are excellent for balancing out the light from a window or other diffuse source or when used to create a high-contrast lighting solution. I paired the Astra with the Leica M Monochrom (see our camera test in this issue) and the results, even with the light on full-power, are excellent, with the non-lit side of a subject’s face falling into darkness. It’s a great tool for low-key lighting solutions.
There are accessory light modifiers from Litepanels, too, including a diffuser for around $250 and a soft diffusion gel for the front of the unit. We didn’t have those tools available, but using a pop-up reflector/flag provided the same effect and the result was much more pleasing. For the most flexibility, it would be great if the light came with barndoors, in order to precisely determine the falloff, but perhaps once lighting solutions get that complex, traditional (and flexible) studio strobes should be used.
The portability of the unit when coupled with the portable power pack is a big plus, though it’s not an inexpensive one. The unit requires a V-Mount or Gold Mount plate, with prices ranging from $100 to $300 for the mounts, without including the cost of the battery packs themselves.
Still, the versatility of a sub-$2,000 portable, bright and AC-power-free lighting tool can’t be dismissed. The Litepanels Astra is certainly one of the most powerful and reliable tools available. When shopping for a 1×1 LED panel, it would be hard to beat the performance and value of the Astra.
Contact: Litepanels, litepanels.com.
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