Why it Might Be Time to Upgrade Your Video Lights
By Kevin Palmer
As an imaging enthusiast, there is a very good chance your dive/camera closet has at least one, if not several, video lights of various ages and quality. Perhaps you had a focus light you hoped would also pass as a video light, but discovered that one light on a close up subject threw some really harsh shadows. Maybe you were excited about shooting video with your camera, but those lights that seemed so bright at the dive show, just did not bring out the colors you had hoped they would. Or perhaps you have two video lights but struggled with the "headlight" effect of two sharp edged circles of light that just didn't look very natural.
We have all been there and video light specs have long been misunderstood and misrepresented to varying degrees. The good news is that there have been few segments of the underwater imaging equipment industry that have made such consistent progress and improvements as underwater lighting. Today's video lights offer power and quality that was hard to imagine a few years ago and at a better price as well. So what difference do these lights make to the average shooter? A well-chosen video light makes us look like we are a better videographer than we are, or put another way; elevates our imagery to what we are capable of.
It is worth reviewing some basics before diving into the models available as things are not always as they appear in the promotional lighting specifications.
Lumens: The most widely promoted rating of a light's power capability is presented as lumens. It is worth noting this is not independently verified. The manufacturer is basically saying "Trust Me" in many cases. The most reliable numbers are going to come from manufacturers who have agreed to the ANSI FL1 standard for compact lighting. The lights we will review here all adhere to these standards, but it is worth mentioning there are some popular manufacturers who don't and their specifications have proven, well... "creative" at best.
What these numbers don't show (even when correct) is whether these lumen ratings are maintained throughout the duration of the run time. Less expensive lights tend to have falling output as the battery charge runs down.
CRI: Color Rendering Index is a measure of how accurate color is rendered against a standard color scale. Higher is generally more accurate, but anything in the neighborhood of 82 or higher is considered "good". But we are underwater shooters. Every foot of water we shoot through (going toward the subject and bouncing back to our camera - light has to travel both ways) reduces our CRI considerably. High CRI is great for macro and perhaps working in fashion with models up close, but not so critical for someone filming sharks 6-10 feet away.
Color Temperature: This is an aggregate of the color spectrum in the light and rated in degrees Kelvin, IE: 5000K. A lower number is "warmer" light. A higher number is "cooler" light. Extremes in either direction are not pleasing to most viewers and again, every foot of water changes the Kelvin ratings as water filters the light spectrum.
Angle of Coverage: This is a very important rating that is sometimes grossly inflated by some manufacturers. Especially when you see "180 Degrees" in the specs. Yeah right. Some manufacturers use "in air" ratings and quote where the last glimmer of light is - how useful is that? The widest angle of coverage is achieved by a domed port over the front of the LED. Flat glass in front of the LED will narrow the angle of coverage by over 25% underwater - just like the glass on your mask or a flat port on the front of your camera housing, A dome on the light allows it to spread wider and softer underwater making for more pleasing coverage.
Battery Run Time: It is a consequence of engineering and battery capacity that almost all lights run somewhere in the 50-60 minute range at full power and longer at lower power settings. That means if you need longer run time, buying a more powerful light will give you that ability as you adjust the light to lower power to meet your needs. In general, it is a safer bet to buy more power than you think you need - you will almost always end up using it.
What follows are our picks for high quality lights categorized by relative power, size and price.
Best lights for compact rigs and moderate price point
This is a great compact light with lots of advanced features: 100 power settings for precise control, optional remote control capability, interchangeable light heads, user changeable LI-Ion batteries and live runtime remaining display regardless of your power setting. Most importantly, it delivers it delivers its 4000 lumens through a removable dome port. 120 Degree coverage (in water). CRI of 90. 5000K
Light & Motion Sola Video Pro 3800
This light is great for those who want a quality light with super simple features while offering a heck of a value at its current pricing. For most people, 3800 lumens will be the minimum they will want to work with for video that has a subject more than a foot away and since the light only has three power settings, adjustments and runtime will be a bit more limited. But Light & Motion has been making reliable Solas for a long time and with the included domed LED port, this light is a lot of bang for the buck. 110 degree angle of coverage in water.
The Hydra 5000 is a bit more of a "do-everything" light than the other video lights in the is category, so it makes some compromises. The light features plenty of power, though it is a bit bigger and heavier than the Fix or Sola. With its built in spot and red light mode (even blue mode), this light would suit someone looking for a focus/video crossover light. This is a light that has a flat glass plate in front of the LED, so the coverage is not going to be as wide or forgiving as a video light with a domed lens on the front, but the price point and versatility can make it an appealing choice. 100 degree beam in wide mode. CRI 90 5000K
Mid Size Lights with Excellent Output and Performance
Keldan has long been the class leader in this category though the competition is improving all the time. The lights are simple to operate with many power settings and have live run-time display regardless of power chosen. Keldan was one of the first lights to incorporate a dome to the LED port and the wide, soft, even light has won accolades throughout the imaging industry. The other admirable feature of these lights is they are by far the smallest and lightest 10,000 lumen light on the market. They are only about 3oz negative in the water and less than that with the optional float mount. With this much power in a small light, the 4X runtime at full power is a bit shorter than some at around 35 minutes, but the user changeable batteries are small and easily changed between dives. These are great lights for almost any size rig and small enough for the person who wants to carry both strobes and video on the same dive. 110 degree beam in water. CRI 85. 5600K
Kraken Solar Flare Mini 12000
This is a new light on the market from a respected brand at an extremely reasonable price. The Solar Flare Mini strives to replicate some of the Keldans specs with similar output and angle of coverage. From a design perspective, Kraken has set different priorities than Keldan. The light is larger than the 4X and considerably heavier in and out of the water (it is about one pound negative in water). In exchange for the extra size and weight, the 12,000 lumens run for about 60 minutes - longer the the Keldan 4X. There are also only five power settings vs nine on the Keldan, but the light does offer a lot of performance for the price. 120 degree beam. CRI 90. 5000K
Professional Quality Lights for the Demanding Image Maker
If you watch much underwater Discovery Channel (Shark Week, etc.), you will undoubtedly see numerous underwater filmmakers pushing there underwater camera rigs around with a set of bright fuchsia Keldan 8X video lights prominently mounted. There is a reason for that: The quality of light is about as good as it gets. The 8X lights come in two primary versions. The high output version has 18,000 lumens and a CRI of 85. The High CRI version has 15,000 lumens and a CRI of 92. These lights look identical to the Keldan 4X lights with about 2.5" of length added for the larger batteries. Like the 4X models, the 8X are remarkably light weight in the water for there relative power output. All Keldans are rated to 200 meters which is twice the depth of most other lights and makes them very popular with tech divers. 110 degree beam angle in water. CRI 85/92. 5600K
Light & Motion Sola Video Pro 12000 & 15000
The top of the line Sola video lights have a lot to like. These high output lights come with either a dome port or flat port at the same price, but most shooters will prefer the the dome port for wider, smoother lighting. Like the Sola Pro 9600 they evolved from, these lights sport a bright OLED data display and easy power controls in micro steps. These are sealed battery lights, but the bodies and heads are interchangeable, so you can carry extra charged bodies. There are also land use light heads available. These lights are very well made, but somewhat larger and heavier than the Keldan lights.
Need Even More Powerful Lighting?
With outputs in the 30,000-35,000 lumen range, these lights occupy pretty rarefied territory and are generally special order. If you need help with lighting for a special project, we are happy to assist with recommendations that might best suit your needs.
Reef Photo also stocks a number of rental Keldan lighting options and offers a "try before you buy" rental program for those who want to test drive some options first. Please contact us for more information about rentals.