Affordable LED Lighting for HDSLRs

© Matthew Jonas 2010

Finding affordable LED lighting solutions for HDSLRS seems to be impossible. There are lots of cheap options but very few affordable choices for full featured LED lighting…or so I thought. A couple of weeks ago I began a quest for an upcoming shoot that would possibly require a little bit of on-camera lighting. Actually if I was going to see anything at all it would be necessary. I will be shooting video inside a mine. So I turned to the internet and started shopping.

My requirements for an on-camera LED lighting solution were as follows: a dimmer switch to vary the output, small and light enough to fit on camera, must use a widely available power source and has to accept gels. I was really surprised at the search results. Almost everything that was recommended by professional shooters started at around $300. Wow. That seemed a little steep considering that I have seen multi-LED flashlights for a couple of dollars near the impulse buys section at Microcenter.

The Litepanels MicroPro seemed like the best option for my needs. It featured a dimmer, ran off of AA batteries, was hot shoe mounted, had a 9 watt output and came with a diffusion gel, 3200k gel and a 1/4 CTO gel. Unfortunately, it would greatly exceed my budget (which was as cheap as I could get, who am I kidding?!) at around $400. The smaller version called the Micro didn’t seem like it would output enough light for me but was much closer to my budget at $275. It had many of the same features but a much smaller size but only a 3 watt output.

I then checked out the iKan iLED 155 kit. It featured a dimmer, low power consumption, gels and was camera mountable. It was priced around $350 and included a variety of accessories that the Litpanels model did not in the base price. However, it was powered by camcorder batteries and required 2 which also added to the weight. It was also the largest of the LED lights I had seen.

On to the next search. I checked out Sima, Dot-Line, Bescor and a couple of other cheap on-camera LED makers. At around $100 these were much closer to what I could afford. After searching out specific reviews of the units I was most interested in I walked away unimpressed. There were several themes that came up in many of the reviews: flickering (which would almost completely rule out video work), cheap plastic construction (which was mentioned about the litepanels as well) and awful color temperatures. Fantastic. I guess that is probably why a $300 LED light costs $300.

I had pretty much given up my search and was about to order a Litepanels when I found the CN-126 LED Camera Light. Not quite as catchy as Litepanels MicroPro or the Ikan iLED but not the worst product name I had ever come across in my career. It featured 126 LEDs, 7.6 watt output, a dimmer switch, diffusion gels, an on-camera mount and could be powered by both AA batteries or camcorder batteries. It was only $50. Yeah, only $50. It couldn’t possibly be worth looking at for that price. I figured for that little I could afford to resell it on Craigslist if I didn’t like it. In a worst case scenario I could just throw it in the closet and blog about what a piece of shit it was and how you should only recommend it to people you hate.

© Matthew Jonas 2010

Boy was I surprised when I received it. I expected it to be a glorified LED flash light. It was anything but.

© Matthew Jonas 2010

Features. The 126 LEDs are bright, close to the 5400K color temp and flicker free. The dimmer is effective allowing the light to be cranked up or down.

© Matthew Jonas 2010

The Light I purchased came with three gels: 1 clear diffuser, 1 32ooK diffuser and an odd purple colored diffuser. It wasn’t listed in the description so I don’t know what the color temp is supposed to be. The diffusers are made of plastic and feel strong enough to withstand being pulled in and out of the light. On video shoots, I will most likely use a combination of the clear diffuser plus a custom-cut gel from a larger piece that can be purchased in bulk. A little gaffers tape will hold everything together.

© Matthew Jonas 2010

The outside of the light is also made of plastic. It feels flimsy and I don’t expect it to last through to many shoots. Though, compared to the more expensive Litepanels it feels eerily similar. The arm that mounts to the camera is extremely cheap and unstable feeling. The screws that mounted both the foot and the arm to the light were loose in the unit I received. I had to get a screw driver and tighten both of them to keep the light from wobbling on the camera. The knobs that are used to reposition the light are plastic and fail to properly tighten the light in place. There are several very thin metal washers between the outside of the knobs and the arm. I pulled out all but one of these and reversed the foot and now the light actually stays in one place on the camera.

© Matthew Jonas 2010

The light also features a battery tester on the back. From what I can tell so far, its not very accurate. As soon as you turn the light on, a full set of batteries will register 75%. If you turn the light off and retest they will register at 100%. I will primarily be using the Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable AA batteries. My hope is that they will last at least an hour at full power.

Conclusion. The construction of the light is exactly what you would expect for $50. I don’t anticipate it to last very long once I start shooting regularly with it on camera. The quality of the light is not what you would expect for a $50 light. The white LEDs are even, flicker free and although being a little green in color, close to 5400K color temperature. The color cast is easy to correct with widely available inexpensive gels. It’s like having a very small softbox on top of your camera. I will most likely buy a couple of these and mount them on light stands for interviews.

Would I recommend it for daily use? Maybe, although I’m not sure it would hold up. However, for the price of one professional LED light you can buy several of these. For professional on camera use I would still recommend getting something a bit more expensive and a bit better built. For a budding amateur film maker or casual shooter its worth the $50.

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