At my studio, we invested in a pair of Litepanels Astra bicolor LED lights. These panel-style lights consist of an array of multiple diodes (like a whole bunch of little light bulbs) spread across a housing about 12 inches square. They don’t use a lot of power so they’re really energy efficient and even can be run off a battery. They’re really bright, comparatively, but they don’t put off a lot of heat, either. And because these, like many LED panels, consist of multiple-colored diodes, they can be adjusted from daylight to tungsten white balance, or anywhere in between, with just the twist of a dial. Also, because they’re constant light sources, they’re great for photographers who want to shoot video, too.
These are just a few of the reasons why LED panel lights have become so popular with so many photographers and videographers. But what about the drawbacks? Before you make such an investment in new equipment, it’s good to know the limitations of this unique, game-changing light source.
High Cost Per Lumen. Okay, “expensive” is a relative term. But when you equate the actual light output to the cost of the light source, LEDs are pretty expensive on a per-lumen basis. (You’re paying for all those other tremendous benefits, listed in the first paragraph.) That means that for less money you can buy brighter lights—ones that aren’t of limited usefulness when deployed in full sun. While LEDs tend to offer plenty of output when used indoors, in open shade or even with bright indoor window light, their relatively low output makes them less useful on outdoor locations in sunlight.
You Can’t Cut Them. It was a film production grip who first pointed out to me that, when it comes to shaping light with flags and cutters, LED panels are particularly difficult to work with. Namely, you can’t “cut” them and produce a hard-edged shadow. And it’s not just that the edge transition of the shadow is feathered, it’s stair-stepped, too. Because all those little light-emitting diodes each act as their own individual light source, the edges of a shadow produced by an LED panel are clipped, jagged transitions from shadow to light. In many instances this may not be a problem, but if you’re the kind of photographer who puts a lot of effort into shaping and cutting lights, consider this LED shortcoming before you buy.
Limited Modifiers. The world of strobes—the industry-standard commercial photographic light—is filled with literally countless types of light modifiers. From umbrellas and beauty dishes to grids and softboxes, there’s a light modifier for every whim when it comes to strobes. Not so, unfortunately, for LEDs. LED panels aren’t quite soft enough for general-purpose portraiture key lighting (as a softbox might be), and they’re not quite hard enough to take over for a pinpoint light source when that look is needed. Their odd, nonstandard shape and relatively recent arrival on the scene also mean there’s not yet the wealth of light modifiers that photographers want. This means that an LED panel, while great for certain things, isn’t yet ready to take over for strobes when it comes to daily use.
There are a lot of advantages to LED light panels and a couple of drawbacks. As long as you’re prepared to deal with the challenges, you’ll likely be very happy with your LED light sources—as I am.