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Photography

Introduction to LED Panels for Photography and Video

Small LED panels for use with DSLR cameras offer a lot of power in a small package
Small LED panels for use with DSLR cameras offer a lot of power in a small package

LEDs are not only taking the space of tungsten and fluorescent lights in our homes, they have also gained extensive use in photography and video. This is largely due to the advantages they present when compared to, for example, tungsten, which was the dominant type of light source for many years in studios. 

Advantages of LEDs for Photography and Video

LEDs have an advantage not only because they need less energy to offer the same amount of light (LEDs convert 90% of their energy into light, while tungsten only achieves between 10 and 20%, transforming the rest in heat). They are also, because of the way they work, safer to use in places you would not even dream of placing a tungsten light. This means LED lights are easier to use when it comes to the use of gels to control colour temperature, or for creative purposes: they don’t burn the gels... and don’t burn your hands when you touch them.

LEDs are also better when it comes to photographing people or sensitive materials—like food, for example—because you can place them closer to your subject without having to worry about the heat making it uncomfortable for the person being photographed, or reheating the dish being photographed. 

While they do not take the place of flash, LEDs can, sometimes, be used instead of flash, and they offer the advantage we usually associate with continuous light: they offer an ongoing view of what the light will do to the subject photographed, and immediately reflect any changes in the light's position and intensity.

Placed away from the camera a LED panel is an optimal portable and controllable light source
Placed away from the camera, an LED panel is an optimal, portable, and controllable light source

The initial price of LED panels, when the first models appeared in the market, was so high that only some would even think about buying them. LitePanels, one of the pioneers in the use of LED lights for video and photography, would ask up to $500 for its Micro Pro Hybrid, a portable LED panel for DSLR users. This panel offered what at the time seemed like an interesting feature for a continuous light for shooting video: a flash mode for photography, with the LED offering a strobe-like burst with an output 400% brighter, or two stops of light. It looked like the best of both worlds in a small case, but the limitations of the flash, both in power and in control (as there is no TTL metering), made it less versatile than a real flash.

One LED panel and small reflectors allow a lot of options when it comes to photographing small objects
One LED panel and small reflectors allow multiple options when it comes to photographing small objects

From their humble beginnings, LED lights grew to become the pervasive light source in cinematography and photography. LED panels have grown in size, while prices have come down, year after year. Better technology has allowed for more power and better control of the colour temperature of LED lights, which has contributed to spreading their use. With more people interested in trying them, it was only obvious that the growing market would attract more companies, and, as had happened with LED light bulbs, cheap LED panels from China flooded eBay and other markets. Those uncalibrated light sources didn’t help much in terms of recognition of the capabilities of LEDs, and somehow created the idea that cheap LED panels were not good.

Fast forward a couple of years and the landscape is completely different. LED panels are more affordable and the technology has evolved, making it easier to get good enough lights at a fair price. 

Comparing Different LED Panels

I tested several LED panels for this article, ranging from a $500 LED panel from the early days of the industry (and no longer available for purchase, a sign of how fast things have changed) through to a one-year-old LED panel, sold for $200, and a $75 model launched recently. 

This is not a scientific test but a practical one, trying to find out if the differences between differently valued panels justify investing extra money in the more expensive ones. I focused on small, portable panels, usually built to be placed on the hot shoe of a DSLR camera for video, as these seem to be the models most readers will look for.

Small LED panels are usually conceived in a way that makes it possible to mount them together, to create bigger panels. So it makes complete sense, for indie photographers and videographers working alone or with small crews, to buy small panels and expand their light system as needed. That’s one of the great aspects of these small, portable suns you can take everywhere.

Light painting with a LED panel A compact camera and a long exposure 15 seconds did the trick
Light painting with an LED panel. A compact camera and a long exposure (15 seconds) did the trick

How LED Panels Work

Before we continue, let’s look at what a small LED panel is. It’s usually a rectangular box with an array of LEDs on one side and an opening for the battery compartment and placement of the controls at the back. Small panels use six AA cells to provide energy, the time of use depending on the power of the light and the type of cells used. 

They’re usually available in Daylight (5500-5600K) or Tungsten (3200K) balance, sometimes with adjustable colour balance, through controls on the more sophisticated (and expensive) models. On simpler models, the supplied filters—a warm-up and a daylight-to-tungsten conversion filter—allow for an easy adaptation. Some models also offer the choice between spot and flood configurations. Big LED panels, which are out of the scope of this article, also offer variable beam angle adjustment and a vast panoply of accessories associated with the control of light in cinematography and photography.

Small LED panels usually come with a means to attach them to the hot shoe of a DSLR, so they sit right over the lens and cover everything the user points at. But nothing stops users from placing these small LED panels anywhere in the scene, to get more creative effects in terms of light, and this works both for video and photography. 

Uses of LED Panels

The fact that the panels are continuous light sources makes it easy to set them up and evaluate what the result in the image, be it a single shot or a sequence of video, will look like. While they may not be very powerful, the fact that they can be placed close to the subjects makes them very versatile, and not only in the studio. As they are extremely portable, you can use them outdoors, for anything from portraiture to nature photography. 

They work extremely well for flower photography, for example, to open shadows, or to get a spot of light on one area and leave the rest dark—the kind of things you would otherwise do with a flash, but can accomplish just as easily with a small LED light, again with the advantage of immediately seeing what the effect will be.

Being able to place the LED panel away from the camera, as you would also do with a radio triggered or IR flash, is another bonus to consider. With a small tripod or light stand and/or a JustinClamp with a hot-shoe extension, it is easy to place your LEDs where you want. Once you get used to the amount of light your LED panels give, it becomes second nature to place them close to where you want for the effect intended. And you can always control the quantity of light emitted, besides being able to adjust your exposure in camera. Again, LED panels will not make flash obsolete, but they surely are something to include in your photography kit.

Evaluating the Light Produced by LED Panels

Are all LED panels created equal? Well, no, but the times when you had to spend a lot of money to get good light from these systems are something of the past. And even then, as technology was incipient, users would find that colour temperature was treated wildly, as it, to some extent, is treated today. It’s still a bit of a Wild West when it comes to LED panels. Suddenly you discover that Daylight has different meanings to different people. Fidelity in colour is not completely achieved, and that’s a characteristic not only associated with cheap panels. Still, we’ve come a long way from the early days, and if you do need to reproduce colours 100% faithfully (whatever that is), there’s a whole world of choice out there.

Two LED panels used to give light shadow and shape to an amphora at a museum exhibit
Two LED panels were used to give light, shadow and shape to an amphora at a museum exhibit

When it comes to colour fidelity, the industry grew under the idea that the lights with the highest CRI (Colour Rendering Index) were the only ones acceptable for photography and video. So manufacturers started to print the information on the package of their LED panels. With a reference value of CRI 100 considered as optimum for colour reproduction—read our article, A Guide to Using Consumer LED Bulbs for Photography and Video, to know more—only LED panels with values from 80 upwards were even considered “good”.

People keep looking at CRI values as an important reference for photography and video, but the truth is that even CRI does not seem to work as a good indicator for LED lights. When it comes to light bulbs, it has been demonstrated that some LEDs with a CRI as low as 25 can produce white light that actually makes object colours appear more vivid, while LEDS with CRI high scores render some saturated object colours, particularly red, very poorly.

This led to the creation of a technical committee to study the problem and create a new standard. The Color Quality Scale (CQS) was developed and presented, in 2010, by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) from the United States, but no agreement about the new definition has been reached. So CRI is still used as a reference, even though the old norm, created more than four decades ago, for other types of lighting, is not the best standard to use with modern technology. That's because sensors from digital cameras react differently from emulsions, and the lights used in modern days represent a challenge to the system.

CRI has many flaws, and that’s the reason why television crews are moving on to the TLCI (Television Lighting Consistency Index), which seems more appropriate to the specific environment of television, although it is not an approved international standard. Tests run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also revealed that there are problems with the use of LED lights in motion film, so CRI may be on the verge of extinction. Does it still make sense to use it as a reference when buying LED panels, then?

The original images not edited from the 3 LED panels used for this article
The original images, not edited, from the three LED panels used for this article

Trust Your Eyes

While we do not have an answer to that question, we do have a good advice to readers: trust your eyes. This means that when buying LED panels you should be able to test them, and probably return them if they do not work for what you intend. Finding a retailer that accepts that kind of deal may be difficult, but it can be worthwhile. Or maybe you can bring your own camera and colour checker to the shop, and create temporary conditions to test some of the models you’re interested to buy.

Besides trusting your eyes to detect whether the yellow on your LCD looks like the yellow you know, you should also have some faith in your camera’s sensor and software. In fact, today’s sensors and software can do magic with colours, especially if you shoot RAW (well JPEG works too, to a certain extent, but that’s another theme altogether...). Shooting RAW means you can adjust the colour temperature in post-processing, suggesting that you can, almost, “have any colour you like” if you know how to adjust the sliders in your software. 

Does this mean you can take pictures without even thinking about what you’re doing? No. You should always try to adjust to the conditions you’re photographing under, mainly because the image you’ll see in your camera’s LCD—which is a JPEG from the RAW—will give you an idea of the final image in terms of colour. Although we have access to some fantastic tools, it makes sense to keep working cautiously in the field, so that when we get home we have the best files to work with.

What this means is that with modern sensors and the sophisticated software we have today—and that includes even some free software you’ll find around—it is possible to use LED panels that are a bit off when it comes to colour, and still manage to adjust everything to what your eyes see as correct when post-processing.

The Test Results

For this article I tried, as I said, three different LED panels, with prices ranging from $500 to $75. They were:

The LitePanels Micro Pro Hybrid is a pioneer when it comes to LED lights for DSLRs. The Manfrotto Spectra LED is a very well-designed, slim box, and the most recent, the Phottix VLED, is a chunky, box-like LED panel. 

They all are calibrated for what is said to be daylight, but LitePanels works at 5600 Kelvin, Manfrotto’s at 5000 and Phottix at 5500, so there’s a slight difference between the results obtained with each of them. Although they offer different light outputs, for this test I adjusted exposure so as to get similar results with each of them—a medium exposure—as the aim was to check whether colours were much different between the three. I set the colour temperature according to the value of each LED panel.

The same images see picture above edited in Camera RAW and Photoshop
The same images (see picture above) edited in Camera RAW and Photoshop

I photographed some perfume bottles and shells, and finally a selection of fruits over a grey background, which is the image shown here. There are differences, obviously, but they are smaller than you might expect: the LitePanels image has a bit of a magenta cast, while the Phottix one goes towards green. 

The most important conclusion of the test, though, is that with some tweaking at the post-processing stage, the final results are very similar, after adjustment. I opened the images in Camera RAW and finally edited in Photoshop, simply to get the white and black at their correct positions, or thereabouts!

Viewing small images online does not help to make a final decision, but this should give you an idea of what you can expect from these systems, that somehow represent very different levels in terms of pricing. So you know which is which, let’s state that number 1 corresponds to LitePanels, number 2 to Manfrotto, and Phottix is number 3. Which would you choose?

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