My first LED panel light, the Cool Light CL600. While it had several advantages over the Arri Fresnel’s I was used to, mainly heat and power draw, its output and color accuracy weren’t as good.
Lighting in 2020 has come a long way from where it was just a few short years ago. The choices we have today in different styles, builds and fixtures are varied and deep. There are lights for almost any need and at any price. Digital technology still hasn’t conclusively solved every lighting problem that LED lights have though. Many of the early challenges with LED lighting revolved simply around output—the first generation of LED instruments simply didn’t have much output. Their color accuracy was suspect as well. Unlike the tungsten heat generators that most of us were using a decade ago that had extremely accurate color reproduction, LED lights tend to not have the same full-spectrum color reproduction that tungsten lighting has, although with each new generation of LED technology, the color reproduction, CRI and TLCI measurements have continued to improve.
My Generation One LEDs
My first LED panels I ever bought were from a company called Cool Lights. These early 1×1 panels appealed to me simply because I was looking for an effective way to light interviews in smaller rooms without heating up the room to unbearable levels. I liked the way my tungsten Arri Fresnel’s made talent and skin tones look, but I often had to shoot in people’s smaller offices and conference rooms, and the heat that they Arris generated was becoming unbearable.
The upside with the Cool Lights panels was that they had just enough power to punch the lights through diffusion to reach adequate output levels for an interview. They caused no change in room temperature and they used far less power than my tungsten lights did. If you never had the experience of lighting with tungsten instruments, you’ve probably missed out on the fun of blowing a circuit breaker. The issue was that often when setting up tungsten lights, the amperage draw for putting more than one or two instruments on one circuit would exceed the outlet’s rated amperage.
Often in homes and even in offices, it’s not clear which outlets are on which circuit, so it was a normal and not fun part of lighting with tungsten instruments that we’d occasionally trip the circuit breaker, requiring locating the circuit breaker box, resetting the circuit breaker and rerouting lights to better distribute the power load. This was often a time-consuming hassle. The Cool Light panels solved this issue instantly, so just for the reduction of heat and power consumption, they were a win.
Where they lacked was in color reproduction; they had a green spike in their output that required a full-time minus green filter and, frankly, skin tones looked okay but not as good as tungsten lights. I also noticed that the falloff of the light occurred at a much faster rate with the LED lights than with tungsten. I’d have to place the lights very close to the talent to get the kind of output needed. This can become challenging in how you frame your shots and choose your locations.
My Generation Two LEDs
A few years ago, I decided that my older LEDs, the Cool Lights panels, were fading in output. I measured the output with my light meter and a specific distance, then checked it a few weeks later and sure enough, the lights weren’t dead but as they aged, the output levels were fading. I realized that I needed to invest in a few new LED panels to replace them. I did my research and found some interesting LED panels from a new company called Aputure. The new lights I was taking a good hard look at were called the LS-1S Lightstorms. The output and design of these lights were intriguing as they had about three to four times the output of my Cool Lights panels and these lights were much more color accurate on top of that. One other feature that I thought would be handy was that the lights were controllable by a small wireless remote that came with the lights. I could wireless turn on or off any light in my setup and raise and lower the light’s output level as well.
The Aputures came with a set of attached barndoors for better lighting control. My old Cool Lights had separate barndoors that fit into a channel on the light body. It worked, but the barndoors were a bit loose in the channel, so adjusting them always felt a bit noisy and clunky. I also had four Chimera soft banks that I wanted to utilize with the Aputure Lightstorms, but the issue, at least with the small Chimera that I wanted to mount to the light, was that there was no existing speed ring that would fit the Aputure. Undeterred, I enlisted a friend of mine who’s a talented welder to help me design and fabricate my own speed ring that would fit the Aputure, allowing me to keep using my expensive, well-loved Chimera light banks with these new lights.
After some trial and error, we finally came up with a design that would fit onto the Aputure and successfully stretch and fill the Chimera with light. I also have a Medium Chimera Softbank that measures 3 by 4 feet. It’s too large to fit onto most lights and too heavy for the light to hold at a specific angle, so I mount that Chimera on its own huge speed ring and then I mount that speed ring onto a C-Stand knuckle on a C-stand, then I place one or two of the Aputures on their own light stands and nest them into the speed right on the light.
It works—I’ve used this setup for several interviews for a couple of documentary films that I’ve shot, but it’s a clunky and hardware-intensive setup and a pain to actually move the Chimera and its C-stand as well as one or two light stands every time I want to flip the key source or nudge it over to the edge of the frame. One of the problems with using LED panels with a soft bank is that LED panels, with hundreds of 5mm LED bulbs, are inherently an inefficient endeavor. It’s hard to wrap the rear panels of the Chimera around the light, so you tend to get a lot of output bleeding out the rear of the setup. Most importantly, using the LS-1S or two of them with a Chimera requires a lot of hardware in the form of a C-stand as well as one or two light stands.
I’ve been studying the newest trends in LED lighting, which seemed to be pointing me to a Chip on Board (COB) light. What is a COB light? As you know, LED panel lights mostly utilize rows of individual 5mm bulbs or, in the case of a few LEDs like my Kamerar Brightcast panels I reviewed here last year, utilize SMD (Surface Mount Diodes) technology. COB technology utilizes essentially what’s one large source rather than dozens or hundreds of small LEDs. The advantage is greater output from COB and the ability to utilize a Fresnel lens to turn your COB instrument into a Fresnel light. This allows you to use the light as a spot source, make slashes using the barndoors and, in general, gives you more options than an LED panel.
My Generation 3 LED
After studying the market and the latest COB light offerings, I finally arrived at a list of features I was looking for in a single instrument:
- High output
- Wireless remote control
- Color accurate
- Quarantine-friendly cost
I watched a few YouTube videos with early adopters and the Godox VL line looked encouraging. I had considered some other COB lights, which looked promising as far as specs and performance, but the cost was more than I was comfortable spending during the year of quarantine. Work has been scarce this year and revenue has been down, so I wanted to buy a light that didn’t cost a lot but was well built and would last while offering a lot of light output.
Enter The Godox VL Series COB Lights
The Godox VL300 seemed to check off all of these boxes pretty well based upon reviews and tests I’ve been looking at. Normally, I like to rent lights, cameras, lenses and other relatively expensive gear before buying, but the Godox VL300 was so new that I couldn’t find one to rent. I ordered the light from Amazon, figuring that if it didn’t perform as advertised, I could always return it. My fears were put to rest the day the Godox arrived. I mounted it onto my American Grip medium light stand and fired it up. The light was quiet. The fans kicked on after the light had been on at 100 percent output for a few minutes, but I really couldn’t hear them unless I put my ear right next to the bottom of the light and even then, the fans (yes, there are two of them) were exceedingly quiet.
I checked the light output using my Sekonic light meter and found that the light was giving me a little over 7,200 FC at one meter. The included barndoors were of good quality and easily attached to the reflector. I tested out the included wireless remote, which functioned perfectly. A week later, after checking its long-term function by leaving the light on for four hours, I used the light as my key source for a series of training videos we were shooting for a client. I utilized the light through a Nice Photo Parabolic 45-inch softbox with a 40-degree egg crate to keep the light from spilling onto the wall behind the talent.
Even with the key located a good 10 feet from the talent in order to not encroach into the frame of the wide-angle shot in the three-camera shoot, I only had to run the VL300 at about 55 percent output. Keep in mind that this softbox had two layers of diffusion mounted as well as the egg crate, which normally cuts perceived output by about 20 to 30 percent and I still had plenty of output left. This was the result I was hoping for in buying a more powerful key source. Even my two Aputure LS-1S wouldn’t have had the same output levels.
The only drawbacks so far with the light are that the color leans a bit toward magenta. I shot a white card and chip chart, and it was easily correctable in editing. The VL300 utilizes the same awkward separate power supply, control box and multiple cables set up as my Aputure LS-1S. This setup makes the light head smaller and lighter, which makes it easier and less ungainly to have mounted high up in the air at the end of a light stand, but the downside is that setting up the light is messier and requires more time and more cable clutter.
The control box comes from Godox with a built-in hanger that allows you to easily hang it from a light stand tie-down, but you still have the AC power supply on the floor and an additional cable from the control box to the light head. I’m used to this setup since my Aputures have the same, but it’s not as clean as having the power supply built into the light itself. As far as the magenta bias, COB lights veer more toward green as they burn in and are used more, so I suspect that eventually this light will lose its slight magenta bias and it’s a very slight bias, not a drastic one.
I’m very pleased with the Godox VL300. It came with a very nice soft case that gives you a good place to keep all of the pieces needed to make it work. The cost, $750, was exceedingly inexpensive when you consider that its nearest competition costs about 40 percent more and actually offers a bit less output. I think Godox has a good future in video lighting; they also offer two less-powerful versions of this COB light, the VL200 and the VL150, which cost $549 and $399 respectively. All of the VL line utilizes the Bowens mounting system, which makes the speed rings and rod systems used in most video soft boxes seem clunky and primitive in comparison.
Overall, the Godox seems like a pretty good deal. It may not be the absolute best light on the market, but for a quarantine-budget instrument, it’s an amazing value and gets the job done with efficiency and ease of use.