Lights that Work for Photo and Video

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One of the leading trends in digital cameras over the past few years has been the development of advanced video capabilities in mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Features that could once only be found in costly cinema cameras now come standard in still cameras targeted toward hybrid photo-video content creators. Accompanying the interest in cameras able to create high-quality stills and videos has come a demand for lights that can be used for both purposes.

While on-camera flashes and strobes have long been the standard for photographers, the short duration of their flashes makes them virtually useless for video applications. In a pinch, built-in modeling lights can help, but for photographers getting serious about video, continuous lights are the best option to create moving and still imagery. This article will help you decide what kind of continuous light will work best for your needs.

LED Lights

When LEDs first appeared on the market, they were treated with a healthy, earned dose of skepticism. Often suffering from poor color reproduction, uneven beam patterns, and high costs, they were skipped over for tungsten or fluorescent lights by most videographers. However, LEDs have come down in cost and improved in quality a great deal in recent years, making them a popular choice for beginners and professionals alike.

High-end LEDs are becoming increasingly common sights on film and television sets.
High-end LEDs are becoming increasingly common sights on film and television sets.

Choosing an LED light can be an overwhelming experience. The seemingly endless variety of shapes and sizes can make it difficult for beginners to know where to start. The first question to ask yourself is how narrow or wide you need your light to be. Generally speaking, LEDs (and other continuous lights) break down into two main designs: spot or flood. As their name indicates, spotlights will provide a concentrated light source, while a floodlight will cover a greater area. If you are primarily shooting portraits, still life, or trying to isolate a subject or detail, a spotlight will serve you best. If you are lighting larger subjects or trying to fill a room, a floodlight will be more useful. The key spec to consider is beam angle. The greater the value of the beam angle, the wider the spread of your light. Be aware that as beam angle increases, falloff will become more noticeable toward the edges of your light. This can create uneven lighting scenarios if poorly managed.

Monolight-style LEDs can be used with the same modifiers as strobes.
Monolight-style LEDs can be used with the same modifiers as strobes.

If you are looking to approximate the shape of light you would get from a strobe, choose a monolight-style LED. One of the nice things about these types of LEDs is that they can be fitted easily with the same modifiers available for strobes. If you already have a collection of modifiers, you can likely adapt them to fit your LED and shape your light the way you would with your strobe.

Fresnel LEDs allow you to control the beam angle of your light.
Fresnel LEDs allow you to control the beam angle of your light.

If you are looking for a way to control the beam angle of your light precisely, choose a Fresnel LED. Fresnel lenses have been around in the film industry long before LEDs and are used to refine the spread of a light. Fresnel lenses can also be added to compatible monolight-style LEDs to narrow beam angle and amplify output.

Light panels come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Light panels come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Light panels have become popular choices when a specific shape of light is desired directly from its source. Whether you need a large rectangular panel to light a set or a circular “pancake” panel to provide natural catchlights for an interview subject, there is likely an LED with the right size and shape on the market. There are even panels that can be folded or flexed to achieve specific effects or fit into tight spaces. One potential drawback with light panels is that modifiers are less shareable between models than monolight-style LEDs, since they are tailored to the size and shape of each light.

Handheld light tubes, such as the Nanlite PavoTube II, are excellent all-around lighting tools.

Probably the most popular shape of LED lately has been the ring light. Long a staple of makeup artists and vloggers, LED ring lights have become increasingly common video conferencing lights because they provide flattering light when used up close to a subject’s face.

One of the benefits of LED lights is that they can be extremely compact and portable. On-camera options attach directly to your camera’s shoe in place of a flash. Many can also be mounted on tabletop tripods if you need extra light for your webcam. Perhaps the most flexible small light sources are handheld light wands/tubes, which can direct light exactly where you need it to be either by hand or mounting.

Floodlights are perfect when you are trying to cover a wide area.
Floodlights are perfect when you are trying to cover a wide area.

Finally, on the widest end of the spectrum, floodlights work well when you need to light a large environment, such as a room or nighttime scene outdoors. Many models incorporate barndoors into their build and/or can be paired with modifiers like softboxes or managed by scrims or flags when necessary.

Once you have decided on the type and shape of LED best suited to your work, there are a few technical and practical attributes you should take into consideration when narrowing your selection. First, check the CRI (Color Rendering Index) and TLCI (Television Lighting Consistency Index) of the light. These indices measure the accuracy of your light’s output. CRI is a measure of a light’s ability to reveal the color of your subject to a human observer compared with natural light. For best results, stick with a CRI between 95 and 98. Anything below a CRI of 85 will likely lead to headaches when reviewing your footage. TLCI measures the accuracy of a light source for camera sensors. Similar to CRI, aim for a light with a value between 85 and 100 to make your life easier in post.

Bicolor LEDs give you the option of changing the color temperature of your light.
Bicolor LEDs give you the option of changing the color temperature of your light.

LED lights can be daylight balanced, tungsten balanced, offer bicolor output, or produce full RGBWW light. Bicolor lights offer flexibility when navigating environmental light between daylight and tungsten. However, it is important to note that because the individual LEDs are multiple color temperatures, the overall output is lower compared to tungsten or daylight-balanced LEDs. For creative applications, RGBWW LEDs can produce the widest range of colors and effects without needing gels. Like bicolor lights, output is typically lower for these lights by design, making them less powerful than comparable daylight- or tungsten-balanced models.

One of the major benefits of LED lights is their portability. Aside from coming in compact sizes, most LEDs can also be battery powered. This simplifies setups by eliminating cords and allows you to work on location without worrying about outlets. It is always a good idea to purchase an extra battery or two so that you always have a backup in rotation.

Some LEDs offer flash modes to more closely approximate strobe lights.
Some LEDs offer flash modes to more closely approximate strobe lights.

Other features to consider when choosing an LED include remote control so that you can make adjustments off-unit, strobe/flash effects that boost output for still images, and video lighting special effects.

Tungsten and HMI Lights

Before LEDs, tungsten and HMI lights were the go-to choice for photographers who needed a continuous source that could be used for video. Both are still common sights on film and fashion sets. Tungsten and HMI lights both incorporate pressurized gases into their bulbs to produce extremely bright and accurate light.

Tungsten lights have a long history in filmmaking.
Tungsten lights have a long history in filmmaking.

Tungsten lights are the best cost-to-power option available. However, this benefit comes with considerable caveats. Tungsten lights consume a lot of power and get dangerously hot. Not only can you burn yourself by accidentally touching a unit, your talent will feel the heat of the light. Even when cold, you should never touch a tungsten bulb with your bare hands because the oils from your skin will cause it to heat up unevenly and potentially explode.

Tungsten lights come as open-face or Fresnel designs, depending on the shape of light that you need. They are dimmable with the proper accessories and their 3200K temperature can be adjusted using gels. Because of their considerable power consumption, working indoors with household outlets can get tricky, and working outdoors requires a generator.

HMIs can be very powerful and very expensive.
HMIs can be very powerful and very expensive.

HMIs are extremely powerful, accurate, and expensive. They are not a practical choice for most applications unless you are working with a serious budget and knowledgeable crew. HMIs are daylight balanced and are often used to mimic the sun as a light source for films. All of the caveats that come with high-powered tungsten lights also apply to HMIs.

Fluorescent Lights

Prior to LEDs, fluorescent lights were the top choice for videographers who wanted to avoid the heat of tungsten while still achieving a consistent, bright light source. We aren’t talking about the fluorescent bulbs you can buy at the hardware store. You will need to use high-CRI, color-correct bulbs designed specifically for photo/video lighting.

Fluorescent bulbs come in a variety of color temperatures, depending on your requirements, and can take the form of a single bulb or array of tubes. For still applications, light banks of fluorescent tubes are popular choices for headshots and other tight portraits. Fluorescent lights are also excellent choices when you need an even, soft light to cover a large area.

Do you shoot stills and videos? What kind of lights do you use? Share your experiences in the Comments section, below!

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