The low-down on LEDs — the affordable constant light source that’s an essential addition to any photographer’s kit
Over the past decade, light-emitting-diode (LED) technology has come into its own. As a lighting technology, you will find LEDs in everything from tiny indicator lamps in devices to large-scale interior light fit-outs and external signage. In addition to brightening our everyday lives, LED panels are increasingly finding favour as a light source for photographers.
Traditionally, the first step for photographers looking to experiment with introduced light has been flash lighting. Built-in camera flashes can give a rudimentary indication of how a scene can be changed with introduced light, with an entry-level external flash unit being the logical follow-up. But, as technology evolves and becomes more affordable, other options open up in the form of constant lighting.
While flash lighting fires very brightly for an extremely short span of time to coincide with the camera’s shutter, constant lighting stays on, well, constantly. This has previously been the purview of film and video, as a scene being recorded obviously has to remain consistently lit for the duration. On film sets, this has been traditionally achieved with powerful tungsten lights that produce a bright, continuous light on set. Tungsten lights are a fine option for your average big-budget film, but they are power-hungry, expensive, and run extremely hot, and are not the kind of equipment a small-budget production can often use.
So, alongside the rise of the independent film industry, a category of cheaper, more convenient constant lighting sources has emerged. And to the fore comes the ubiquitous LED.
An LED panel has a number of advantages over the likes of tungsten lighting rigs. It is a lot smaller, lighter, and more portable than the cumbersome alternatives, which can be very appealing to a production that has to move a lot or has limited space to operate from. Being a far more energy-efficient technology, LEDs run on less power and don’t reach the dangerously hot temperatures a tungsten bulb can. This means less need for batteries and no need to worry about gloves (or accidental burns) when altering the lighting set-up. LED panels are also, in general, a lot cheaper than tungsten lights.
These advantages hold equally true for still photographers looking to get creative with lighting. For one, the realms of video and still-image production increasingly overlap. Professional photographers are frequently asked to create video footage for clients along with still imagery, and a shoot lit with constant lighting can seamlessly move between the two.
But even without considering video, there are advantages to lighting stills with constant LEDs. When a scene is constantly lit, the effects of the light are immediately obvious and can be tweaked and experimented with in real time (as opposed to only showing up with the brief firing of the flash). This allows the photographer to arrange and adapt the scene in much the same way a film director would.
Powerful yet portable
While large powerful LED panels have become available as professional video lighting alternatives, the flexible technology has also allowed the creation of smaller units of professional quality, at an enthusiast-friendly price. Such convenient panels can easily be used to enhance natural light, fill details lost in shadow, or cast striking catchlight in the eyes of portrait subjects.
The rub is that, as the technology becomes more affordable, many budget LED models may not be up to the task — they can be of inferior build quality, flicker inconsistently, be insufficiently powerful, or create unwanted colour casts in images. It’s important to choose a product from a high-quality reliable brand, such as Manfrotto’s Lumimuse series of LEDs.
the manfrotto lumimuse Designed with the needs of both professionals and enthusiasts in mind, these units are smaller than a smartphone and charge via USB, so neither light nor additional batteries will weigh down a gear bag. Though sturdily compact, the little panels punch well above their weight grade: the entry-level three-lamp Lumimuse 3 LED has a respectable 220-lux output, while the top-tier eight-lamp Lumimuse 8 goes up to 550 lux.
But light output alone is not enough to distinguish a light source for photography. The light needs to be of superior colour accuracy, so as to faithfully reveal the colours of a scene and the all-important skin tones of its subjects. The ‘colour rendering index’ (CRI) is a measure used to assess this character. The highest possible value is 100, and a discerning photographer will seek to use a light source of no less than 90CRI. The Manfrotto Lumimuse models all boast output greater than 92CRI.
The Lumimuse series also introduces a host of other creative features, to give the user real flexibility in light options. A snap-on filter mount allows the insertion of up to three different filters at a time, which can alter the diffusion and temperature of the light. Each model also comes with dimming features: the Lumimuse 3 and 6 have three stages of brightness, and the Lumimuse 8 offers four. The LED units also have a standard 6.4mm thread, so they can be positioned atop tripods or lighting stands, or fixed to the camera via a hot-shoe mount. Of course, they are slight enough to be handheld with ease as well.
A modest addition to any kit bag, a good LED unit will open up a wide array of creative options for constant-light shooting.
For more information on the Manfrotto Lumimuse series, visit manfrotto.com, or head to your local photo retailer.