Video / Hands-on Review

Hands-On Review: the Litepanels Caliber LED Fresnel 3-Light Kit

         

For the last two months I’ve been living out of a truck, couch surfing, and traveling all over the western USA. I’m a professional filmmaker and photographer, so for me that means constantly working on a laptop at Starbucks, shooting lots of outdoor adventure and landscapes, and being able to get the best images I can while maintaining as small a kit as possible. This can be rather tricky some days!

Shooting video interviews is standard practice for the promotional and documentary films I make– they serve as the backbone for all of the incredible stories and help drive drama and emotion into the edit. As such, when I’m not working out of a studio or I’m traveling, renting a lighting kit is usually my go-to option. Light kits are bulky, heavy and, in general, don’t travel that well.

I never considered that I could take a light kit on the road with me that would be small but powerful enough to shoot interviews with until I came across the Caliber Fresnel kit.

What’s the Caliber Light Kit all about?

The Caliber Fresnel 3-Light Kit is made by Litepanels, one of the first major players in LED lighting for video production. I’ve used the company’s previous products many times, and the Caliber lights are right on par in terms of build quality and reliability. When I first used them, their small size surprised me right away. They don’t weigh much (about 1 pound!) and, size-wise, they are about 9 x 3 x 3", or about the size of a bottle of water.

The fixture itself is a fresnel (pronounced “freh-NELL”), which means it has a lens built into the front of the light for focusing the light beam from wide to narrow. This allows you to create a very hot spot, or flood the light to illuminate a much wider area. With the Caliber, this is as simple as twisting the front of the fixture. In case you haven’t used fresnels, the effect isn’t the same as using barn doors on a light; in fact it’s very different. The control you get over your lighting by being able to craft the beam and manipulate shadows and beam intensity is something to use in tandem with barn doors, and this versatility is something I’ve come to appreciate in my lights.

The Caliber is daylight balanced, so it comes right out of the box ready to add light in places that are already receiving some spill from daylight ambience (this happens all of the time in corporate or educational interview locations). There is a dimmer to dial-in the intensity, with a knob that controls the brightness of the output. Just around the corner is a power button, as well.

"...an interesting feature of the Caliber lights is their ability to utilize your everyday AA batteries to power them."

Speaking of power, an interesting feature of the Caliber lights is their ability to utilize your everyday AA batteries to power them. In a pinch or when working in the field, that’s an awesome option to have. (The batteries my large LED panels use weigh about five pounds each, while six AA batteries likely weigh around 5 ounces for the whole pack!) There is, of course, the option to power the Calibers from a wall outlet, but be prepared to carry extension cords in your kit, as the wire on the AC plug is only three to four feet long. While we are on the subject of power, be warned that if you decide to power it with AA batteries, the power output will “be cut in about half,” according to the documentation that comes with the light kit. This is a bit of a letdown, but understandable once you’ve seen the kind of power this light will emit when plugged in.

The kit, as a whole, comes packed into a small bag, except for the single light stand that is included. This confused me at first, because why include the stand if you can’t pack it? After scratching my head for a moment I realized that I could simply tuck that stand underneath the carrying handles! This works well enough, but be careful when packing for long car rides, as the stand would be rather unprotected.

In lieu of three full-size stands, this kit comes with three flexible mini-tripods, kind of like Gorillapods from Joby. There is also a single ball-head shoe mount, so you can place one Caliber on the one stand this kit provides. 

With all three lights, power supplies, barn doors, and flexible tripods, the kit weighs about 15 pounds. Not bad for all of the light output that kit is packing, but how does it perform? I was based in a friend’s home in Denver for a few weeks, and had the chance to shoot an interview segment where I put the Caliber LEDs to the test.

Shooting an Interview with the Caliber Light Kit

I booked a meeting room in a local library to shoot the interview of a rock climber, discussing a recent climb she had made. The room had windows on one side with blinds that only lowered, not blocked, the ambient light. Since I’m traveling, the accessories I had with me were severely limited, but with some creative setups, I was able to achieve the look below:

I wanted to use the ambient spill as a fill light, so I positioned the setup close to those windows and used the black side of a flex fill reflector to flag and craft the amount of spill.

I then focused on getting a good key light, which would be the most important light for making my interview subject look good. While the Caliber is definitely bright enough to be a key light, the quality of that light, even when flooded all the way, threw shadows that were too harsh for my taste. I didn’t have any diffusion materials with me, so I decided to use a white flex fill to bounce the light, creating a much softer, even light across my subject’s face.

The bounce really cut down on light output though, so thankfully I could spot the Caliber onto the flex fill, which increased the intensity quite a bit while still retaining a soft quality. Even at 100%, though, I had to move the key and bounce very close to my subject to get close to acceptable exposure levels. The final shot was still a little underexposed, but I felt that due to some of the dramatic stories my subject would be telling, that a lower-key look would work just fine. I think in the future I need to keep a small pack of diffusion in the kit so I don’t have to bounce and lose as much intensity. It would be awesome if they came out with a softbox for the Caliber in the future!


With the key looking good and the ambient giving me the fill I wanted, I moved on to the hair light. Since I didn’t have any extension cords with me (the library gave me one of theirs to use, which was set up for the key light and slider I was using) I had to power the hair light with batteries. A note of caution—be careful with the type of AA battery you use! I had some Duracell batteries with the tester strips, and they fit very tightly into the Caliber. It was difficult to remove them, so be sure to get Lithium batteries that don’t have that test-strip label.

I added one of the included plastic warming gels to this light so it would add a spot of warmth to my subject’s hair. I flooded this light for a softer quality, and I dialed the intensity down easily to around 50% while using the barn doors to craft the angle so it wasn’t spilling elsewhere.

I mounted this light with the flexible tripod on a video tripod I had on hand. This worked OK, but tweaking the angle ever so slightly was difficult, as the flexible tripods aren’t the most precise.

For a background light, I just wanted to splash a little light across the back wall from a low angle. Luckily, there was a power outlet right there so I could plug in my third Caliber. With the beam set to full flood, I added a blue color gel and used the barn doors to create an edge while keeping light off an obstruction that might have added unwanted shadows.


The barn doors are extremely useful, but in a more controlled, blackout environment, be warned that they do spill a bit in the small space where they mount. Black wrap would be your friend to cover that up!

Conclusion

The Caliber kit delivers! It’s a quarter of the size of my normal kit, and a fraction of the weight. I wish it included some diffusion inserts like the color gels, but that’s easy enough to get on your own. I’d recommend getting two more of those ball-head shoe mounts, and if you carry a spare tripod that has a ball head, use that instead of the included flexible stands. If you couldn’t tell, I’m very particular about my lighting so I constantly tweak and make minor adjustments, which can be difficult to do with those. Since the power cords are short, I’d also suggest adding two or three 25-foot extension cords to the kit if you can fit them.


With extremely limited gear options, I was still able to light my interview the way I wanted. Most people wouldn’t know the difference between this and an interview where I had a full-size kit at my disposal, which is says it all. I often point out that it’s the person using the tools, not the tool itself, but it’s only made possible by having something that is extremely versatile and can output enough light to work with, and the Caliber Light Kit definitely brings both of those to the set.

Mike Wilkinson is a quirky, award-winning multimedia director who is the head honcho of Wilkinson Visual. Mike has been working in production for more than 10 years as a shooter, editor, and production consultant, from directing documentaries overseas and editing feature length digital films, to shooting live sports and doing travel photography.

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Thanks Mike for this! Love the tip about spotting in the flex to increase output. One thing I should mention (that isnt very intuative) is that the Kit stand can be strapped in the back of the kit but youre method of tucking them into the handles works just as great. :)

Nothing I love more than a tiny light source and a meaningless tracking shot. Seriously. Why? Were you reviewing a rail system, too?

You hit it right on the nail.

BH, you can do better.

Excellent look and info, Mike and BH.  Your critics seem to miss the whole point of the demonstration.