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DIY LED Light Panel

DIY LED Light Panel
Not long ago, we updated the overhead lights in my studio, replacing the fluorescent fixtures with LED light panels. Not only are LED lights much more affordable and convenient than fluorescent tubes or incandescent bulbs, but they’re also much more energy-efficient.

As the electrician was prepping one of the units for the ceiling, I took note of how impressive it was. Quite thin (just half an inch thick) with a clean profile, it struck me that this large 2-by-4-foot panel would make an ideal key light for still portraits and video shoots. A quick Google search revealed just how affordable the light would be, and with that, I was inspired. Rather than shelling out several hundred dollars for a proper LED studio light, I could do it myself for a fraction of the cost.

DIY LED Light Panel

After a bit of research, I decided to purchase an EiKO slim LED panel, model SLM24-50/C5/850. It’s a 50-watt, 5000k panel measuring 2×4 feet and weighing 14 pounds that cost me only $110 including shipping. It’s a self-contained unit that, once wired, is ready to go. The biggest challenge is turning it from a ceiling-mounted fixture into a light that can be affixed to a stand for studio use.

I considered several options for mounting the fixture, but in the end, I decided on the simplest: I’d use heavy-duty adhesive to mount a baby plate to the back of the fixture. This way I would have a standard 5/8” stud affixed to the light, which could easily be mounted to the grip head of a C-stand.

To do this, I purchased an Avenger 6” baby plate for about $15. Marking on the back of the fixture in pencil, I measured from each corner to determine the center.

DIY LED Light Panel

Before affixing the plate, I removed a small portion of the thin plastic coating from the back of the fixture, then lightly roughed up the surface with sandpaper in order to provide better adhesion for the glue.

I decided that if anything could securely hold these two pieces together it would be Gorilla Glue. I’ve had tremendous success with the product before, and so far so good with this fixture. (Two-part epoxy would be another likely candidate for a heavy-duty bond.) Following the instructions provided for the glue, I lightly dampened one surface prior to applying a thin layer of glue to the other. Then, I positioned the baby plate and clamped it in place, using heavy sandbags for the necessary pressure to create a strong bond. After 24 hours, I removed the weights and picked up the light by the baby plate’s stud. Next, it was time to wire up the light.

DIY LED Light Panel

Before we proceed, first a word of warning. If you’re unfamiliar with wiring a light fixture or basic electrical wiring and safety practices, please don’t attempt this. Instead, consider farming the task out to a professional electrician. For skilled hands, it should be an easy task that—even factoring in the cost of professional help—is still considerably less expensive than high-quality LED studio lights.

I chose the simplest approach of a non-dimming on-off switch—namely because I knew I would typically want all the power this light can provide, and to avoid any pronounced flickering issues with a dimmer. (More on flicker in a moment.) Wiring the light to a standard 16-gauge electrical extension cord with an inline switch is a lot like wiring any old lamp or light fixture. If you know how, it’s easy. If you don’t, have a professional do it for you.

DIY LED Light Panel

Next, I mounted the light to a C-stand, and weighted the stand with a sandbag for stability. Plug it in, turn it on… et voila, it works!

So what’s the catch with a light like this? The biggest worry is the connection between the fixture and the baby plate. I don’t like having a system in place where failure would be catastrophic, so as a backup I affixed a steel safety cable to the back of the fixture and connected it to the plate. This way if the glue were to ever fail, the light won’t fall to the floor—or worse, on a subject. Instead, the safety cable will hold it in place.

DIY LED Light Panel

The other tradeoff with a light like this, as you might imagine, is that you’re losing some of the functionality of a high-end professional LED panel made explicitly for video. Feature-wise this includes bi-color capability for dialing in a precise color temperature. It’s also a lower CRI light, which simply means it’s less color accurate. The higher the CRI, the more consistent the color temperature. This fixture is 80+ CRI, compared to a 95+ CRI found on a high-end studio light. You get what you pay for.

LED lights, like fluorescents, flicker. The best ones—the expensive models designed for professional video production, for instance—minimize flicker. But inexpensive household or commercial ceiling lights like this do have flicker that can be an issue. It’s not visible to the naked eye, but it could require adjustments when shooting video. And when shooting stills, I saw subtle exposure changes from frame to frame caused by the flicker. Whether for stills or video, the faster the shutter speed, the greater the chance of visible flicker.

DIY LED Light Panel

All that said, the light is certainly functional and economical, and it looks great for a lot of uses. If you wanted to match the 5000k color temperature to daylight, you could simply add a light, cool-blue gel to shift it toward true daylight. The fixture is available at 3500k, which would more closely match true tungsten sources and can be made perfectly tungsten with the addition of a 1/8th CTO gel. Even my 5000k fixture can get down to tungsten color temperature with the addition of a half CTO, though this would cut the light’s output a bit as well.

In the end, I spent less than $150 to get a nice, big, soft LED light source that works great at a fraction of the cost of the real deal. It may not be perfect, but it’s a fun project that works well.

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