From small camera-mountable units to larger studio setups, LED (light-emitting diodes) lights are “cool” in more ways than one. The incredibly compact fixtures are designed to produce very little heat while consuming very little power, making them a great green choice, as well as an excellent long-term lighting solution, with average life spans that outlive the fragile bulbs of traditional lighting solutions by decades.
LEDs produce a soft, natural light that’s unwaveringly flicker-free, with minimal color shift. This makes them particularly well suited for both photography and videography because the efficient and easily controllable nature of their construction makes them simple to control through relatively small circuitry, which results in their tiny size, diminutive weight and consistent output.
On most LED units, the total amount of illumination can be dialed in from 0 to 100%, which you can see in real time, unlike strobes. Bicolor models are capable of switching or mixing daylight and tungsten color casts, while a few professional LED lighting panels like the Zylight IS3 LED Light Kit ($2,499 estimated street price) shows what the technology is truly capable of, providing total control over hue, saturation and intensity for an extremely colorful range of lighting from only a single fixture. The White Mode in the IS3 also offers a massive adjustable color temperature range of 2500K to 10,000K, while a typical strobe requires a selection of gels that must be swapped out as needed.
The challenges? Although LEDs have been around for 50 years, mainstream use of the technology is comparatively new, so while very inexpensive LED solutions are available, the tiny lights are still much more expensive than traditional fixtures. Another consideration is that many older-generation LED lights and lower-end solutions use hundreds of small, inexpensive bulbs that can produce uneven shadows and a heavy green cast, so check buyer feedback before making a purchase. And output is still limited when compared to the more powerful burst of a strobe, so the nature of LED lighting is easily lost in regular daytime sunlight.
The upside is that technology is improving at an exponential rate. The heavy demand for a light source that can be used with both stills and video is pushing its growth, so exciting LED lighting solutions are being announced on a regular basis.
Just like a typical flash, smaller LED units often can be positioned on the camera or off, and their size and low power consumption make them easy to handhold for playing with directional lighting. Unlike a flash, LEDs don’t pack enough power to bounce off of ceilings or walls, though, and their output can make them tricky to work with at longer distances, so plan on positioning them fairly close to the subject.
The Litepanels Croma is a unit that can be handheld or mounted to a hot-shoe via an adapter. A twin setup of daylight (5600K) and tungsten (3200K) LED bulbs can be mixed together for working with ambient lighting conditions, both inside and out. Thanks to a minimal draw of only 9W, six 1.5V AA batteries will power the unit for 1.5 to about 6 hours, depending on the battery type, with an equivalent output of 40W-90W. An optional AC adapter is available for powering the unit from a standard outlet. The Croma weighs three-quarters of a pound, and the 6x4x2-inch dimensions and battery operation make it an ideal choice to add fill to a subject. List Price: $615.