The flash of a strobe is intertwined so closely with the identity of a photographer that it has always been the signal in entertainment that a character is a photographer. Think, for instance, of film-noir dramas, where a news reporter catches a shot of a mobster—their Speed Graphic camera is always seen with a large, round Graflex flashgun popping in the face of the criminal. When a movie depicts a politician at a modern-day press conference, the click of a motordrive and the pop of a flash signify that they’re in front of the media.
Just because the strobe has been iconic doesn’t mean that it’s always the most useful lighting solution. Thanks to rapid advances in LED lighting—driven largely by the enthusiastic adoption of the low-energy light technology in homes and commercial settings—studio and location lighting options using LED lights are more varied, more powerful and less expensive than ever.
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Cinema and video production have always been illuminated by “continuous” lighting—light sources that provide a constant output and don’t flash to light the subject, for obvious reasons. HMI lights are the most popular type of continuous lighting in motion work. They’re very bright, but also heavy, hot and expensive.
LED lights are, by comparison, very light and very affordable, though they don’t produce nearly the intensity of light that HMI units do. That, for a lot of photographic applications, isn’t an issue, as still cameras have a lot more latitude (literally and figuratively) than video cameras when it comes to dynamic range and sensitivity.
An LED (light emitting diode) works via the movement of electrons through a semiconductor, in an incredibly complex process that would take pages to describe. Simply, though, electrons are moved through a material that causes them to lose photons (light) as part of the process. That loss of photons from the diode results in light emitted from the surface.
Original LED lights weren’t very powerful; the diodes could only emit the faint light seen in alarm clocks of the 1980s. But as the electrical mastery of these designs improved, so, too, did the amount of light coming from them. Unlike a traditional bulb or an HMI arc light, LEDs are hard to damage, because there’s no filament or pole to disturb. That makes them more durable, as well. Also unlike a traditional bulb, it takes very little energy to make photons do their trick in a diode.
The result is a market awash with new options and new designs, and this opens up new possibilities to the photographer, and especially to the photographer who’s also doing video work. Using continuous lighting takes a different technique than using strobes and gives LED light some unique advantages and disadvantages.
Direction And Intensity Of Light
Unlike traditional lighting, where light is distributed evenly outward from a filament, LEDs are mounted on a circuit board and usually cast light in a much more limited range. The larger a light source is, the softer it is, and LED light is made up of many small diodes. Without diffusing the light, LED light can be harsh and directional. While each LED might not provide a significant amount of light, added together they can be quite bright.
A photographer needs to place the LED unit close enough to the subject that the output of light falls where you want it with sufficient brightness, but at close distances, the multiple LEDs don’t have a lot of room to spread out. If not used carefully, LED light can produce a harsh look.
One positive side of this limitation is that most people can tolerate being near LED lights without being blinded. At full intensity, many LED units are too bright to be looked at directly for an extended period, but most people can stand being lit from the sides without squinting—something that’s good for portrait work.
Another nice thing about LED lights is the cool running temperature of the elements. LED lights don’t kick out nearly the heat of any other light source and can be placed quite close to a subject.
Seeing Where It Falls
Because continuous lighting is, well, continuously on, it’s possible to see exactly what a lighting solution will look like without having to pop any test flashes. If there’s shadow on a model’s face before the shutter is released, there will be a shadow on that model’s face when capturing an image. If something is too bright or too dark, you can adjust it before you capture your image.
You can also, with many LED lights, adjust the color temperature of the light it produces, extremely useful for matching existing lighting. Photographers can use LED lights when shooting location portraits to provide the same color temperature fill light as the room light, which makes for a better-looking image and a photo that’s easier to correct in post-production.
Shaping The Light
While there are any number of light modifiers for strobe lighting and adapters available to convert modifiers from one brand to fit the mounting brackets of another brand, that’s not the case with LED lights. The first reason for this is that LED panels are usually large and flat, and there’s nothing approximating a standard size. With LED panels, there are small panels, large panels, wide panels, narrow panels, etc.
Additionally, because LED panels don’t throw nearly the light quantity that strobes do, light modifiers like umbrellas would decrease the amount of light. There are some modifiers available from some of the light modifiers, but they’re largely things like barn doors and colored gels.
Another issue with the shape of the LEDs is that to throw a lot of light, they have to be big, and that leads them to be difficult to transport. That said, a single light panel with a battery pack, like those available from Litepanels and Fotodiox, among others, are lighter than battery-powered strobes and will operate for hours versus the few hundred shots of a monolight.
Even a year ago, the number of light manufacturers making professional-quality LEDs could be counted on one hand, but this burgeoning market is seeing tremendous growth.
ARRI, the legendary cinema equipment manufacturer, was one of the first companies to make a crossover product in the SkyPanel. The SkyPanel name comes from the video studio ceiling rack mounting that’s so common in TV production. Expensive compared to other systems (expect to spend $4,000 and up), the SkyPanel kicks out an incredible amount of light and is an excellent choice for the studio doing a mix of still and video work. These units are unbelievably bright and can be controlled by remote.
Kino Flo, also popular in the video production world, makes some incredibly bright panels, including the Celeb, Diva-Lite and Select lines. Priced around $2,000 and up, these lights are also designed mainly for the video or still production studio.
A more affordable, and more flexible, system for photographers is the Litepanels Astra line. The Bi-Color unit (so named because it can switch between daylight and tungsten color balance) comes in below $1,400, and at 1×1 foot, it’s big enough to light any studio scene and bright enough to provide fill in daylight shoots. This year the line grew to include a “soft” model that has built-in diffusion so users don’t have to attach modifiers.
Manfrotto’s compact line of lights, which includes the Spectra 2, MicroPro2, Croma 2 and LYKOS, are “powered by Litepanels” LEDs and are great for use on top of a camera, mounted on a tripod or handheld by an assistant. The most expensive model, the LYKOS Bi-Color, produces the same amount of light as the Astra 1×1 in a $500 package you can hold in your hand.
We recently reviewed the 18-inch Fotodiox Pro Flapjack LED C-700RSV (digitalphotopro.com/gear/
lighting/fotodiox-flapjack-review), which, like the Litepanels Astra 1×1 Soft Bi-Color, has a diffuse glow. It produces a soft light by bouncing the LEDs toward the rear of an internal reflector. The result is a bit less intense light, but one that’s soft and perfect for filling in shadows. Priced around $550, the Flapjack is very affordable, as are the smaller units in the lineup. An LED ringlight is also available and provides battery-powered illumination from around the barrel of a lens.
Several companies are making LED lights with a more “traditional” shape. Zylight, for example, has LED Fresnel lights that look for all the world like the equipment you’d find in a production studio or on stage. The Zylight F8 line starts at around $2,300 and runs to around $3,500. The company also makes a series of more “traditional” panels, some of which use the company’s HD-led that puts multiple LED elements into a more spaced-out pattern.
F&V Lighting (formerly a Calumet product line) offers LED panels in traditional shapes ranging from $1,000 to around $3,000, but mostly in the range of about $1,600. For a time, the company was offering a kit of three K4000 1×1 panels for $1,050, though it’s reporting the kit as “back ordered” on the site at press time.
Westcott, which has some ingenious LED solutions, offers a Westcott Basics LED kit comprised of a standard light fixture with a light-stand base and its 64-LED bulbs that can fit into any standard “Edison” socket and costs about $35. Another unique solution is the Flex Bi-Color and Flex Daylight mats, which come in sizes from 10×3 inches up to 2×2 feet and come mounted on flexible mats, which can be draped or curved around objects to throw an even light from a variety of sides.
Westcott also makes the Ice Light 2, an LED that looks like a light saber and is perfect for general on-location lighting and highlights. Also available are the more traditionally shaped LEDs in the Skylux line, a $1,000 solution that throws a huge amount of light in a small space.
Finally, Light & Motion, a company more familiar to scuba divers and mountain bike riders who venture out at night, thanks to its excellent line of compact light solutions, produces the Stella line of “single-point” LEDs, or “spLED,” that packs an enormous amount of light into a small chassis. The Stella Luna’s small size makes the lights adaptable to a range of compact modifiers, and the lights are incredibly bright. The $2,000 Stella Pro 5000 LED light is bombproof, and a brace of these units could light just about any remote location.
The Future Of LEDs
Each generation of LED lights has been brighter and more affordable than the last, which means that just a few years from now the LED market will be filled with intensely bright lights in a variety of shapes. The current range of LED products is more than enough for the creative photographer to light scenes from.
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