Monday, October 28, 2013

Off-Brand LED Studio Monoblocs: Wouldya? (I Did.)



So you're used to using flashes without modeling lights. How about modeling lights without flashes? Yes? No? Maybe?

My project for 2014 is video-based (no spoilers, please) so I found myself shopping for video lights in the form of LED monoblocs. If you've ever considered taking the plunge, read on...
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A Little Backstory

I knew we'd have to gear up a little before shifting into video mode, so I went on a bit of an shopping spree. First off was a pair of Nikon D600s (I know, I know). But I am not using strobes for this).

Second was some cine glass. These are de-clicked aperture ring lenses with geared focusing, smooth, quiet, etc. We went with the Rokinon Trinity of Speed Lenses: 24/1.5, 35/1.5 and 85/1.5.

(Verdict: Ho Lee Crap are those lenses sweet. If you are shooting DSLR video and have not tried them, you should. The fact they cost a small fraction of the Nikon/Canon OEM glass is icing. We'd be using them if they cost the same. An absolute joy. And with a Vari-ND filter, we can shoot wide open in full sun at 1/50th. Win.)
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Finally, we bought the pair of LED monoblocs which are the focus of this post. I had nixed CFL-based lights in favor of LEDs for a variety of reasons (CRI, efficiency, dimmable, etc.)

Then I did some quick looking around and saw there were basically two camps:

1. Name brands, but omg pricey, and
2. Brands you never heard of, but could afford.

I decided to compromise and buy two, 100-watt Fotodiox LED monoblocs ($344 ea., shipped). I have some other Fotodiox gear, but this is mostly lens shades and a small strip soft box. But they did not seem to be total crap, so what the heck.

Plus, unlike most upstart brands, Fotodiox actually has a two-year warranty for these guys. So okay, they are putting their money where their mouth is (YongNuo, white courtesy phone, please…)


An LED Monobloc



Basically, they are 100w LEDs. Which means they are much brighter than, say, a 100w quartz or incandescent bulb. 7600 lux at one meter, if that means anything to you. Feels like somewhere between a 500w and 1000w quartz bulb, except for they are daylight balanced. Sort of a poor man's HMI, if you will.

It's bright for a continuous light. But this is nowhere near as powerful as even a speedlight, as far as working apertures at normal portrait distances. It's continuous, so you can buy aperture with shutter speed. But still, don't let its size fool you into expecting anything remotely approaching, say, an Einstein 640.

It takes Bowens-mount mods and comes with a parabolic reflector, a shower-cap diffuser, and mounts for light stand/umbrella. Oddly, you cannot use the supplied reflector with an umbrella unless you drill a hole in it first. But this is the least serious of the design flaws in that it is at least fixable.

There is a separate transformer/power control, and the required cords. The head and power supply are both fan-cooled, but quiet enough to easily use with video assuming you are mic'ing separately.


The Good

The quality of light (color temperature and color-rendering index) is pretty decent. It's +/-300K from daylight, and a CRI > 85. I have not put a color meter on it, and I assume there are some frequency spikes somewhere. But to our eye the quality of light isn't a problem.

They absolutely cannot compete with full sun — not even in close. But they're certainly good enough to use for typical indoor video like talking heads, etc. You could not wash a big room with it. You'll need more horsepower for that.

But what about still portraiture? Could you use them for that? Yep, you could. And reading the new Heisler book has gotten me a little more tuned to using continuous lighting for some of my still people work. (Not changing horses here, just being flexible.)

At first I was a little put off by the fact that the transformer/controller boxes are separate. But having used them, I appreciate getting the weight off of the stand and that they are easily controlled from camera position. So that's turned into a plus.

Speaking of that, they are dimmable in 100 steps, from full power down to zero. Color does not seem to shift during the dimming, either. So by using two (the mantra: one for shape, the other for detail) we can easily just eyeball the contrast range off the back of the camera/histogram and dim them to taste.

And these things are cool. Not as in hip, but cool to the touch. You can gel them any way you like, and know they won't melt it. Or burn your mod. Or your fingers. Nice.

My friend Dave Bittner, a professional video guy, took one look at them and was immediately smitten. He's generally pretty up on this stuff, but LED monoblocs are new and things are moving fast. And I think it is more of an HDSLR thing, whereas he shoots dedicated video.

As far as mods, we bought two inexpensive Fotodiox-brand, Bowens-mount softboxes and the pair is serving us well. We're also using a pair of 3x6" Rosco LitePad HO + units for close-in/accent lights.


The Bad



They are, well, humongous. The Amazon photos do not convey their size, and we were a bit surprised when the box arrived. The photo above shows it in context with my X100s, but does not include the similarly sized controller box/power supply. Not very heavy, but their size makes them clunky to transport. And the included reflectors (more on those later) are similarly huge.

In fact, for a location kit, the sheer size would be enough to be a strike against. I'd be more likely to opt for Lowell Tota-Lights (quartz bulbs) and travel with less bulk. Only issues would be heat generated and power consumption.

And let's talk about the instructions. Oh wait, we can't. Because there aren't any. Not a single machine-translated word. Just a light in a box. Really, Fotodiox?

Now, I can turn on and dim a light without instructions. But some documentation — something — woulda been nice. No spare parts ordering, no warranty info, no nothing. What I have is a PDF of the Amazon page with the 24-month warranty listed and my order date history. Not exactly confidence-inspiring.

But until they go belly up, I suppose that is only a theoretical problem. Still, it would be nice to have an address for spare parts or something.


The Ugly

All of the above "bad" is merely annoying to me. But there is one thing that is just absolutely stupid and, IMO, unforgivable.

You get the sense that these might be some sort of repurposed units, originally designed for something else. Because they have a great, protruding LED dome that disperses the light in a 180-degree beam. Almost exactly like the unified tube-and-modeling-light of the Einstein 640 strobes. Nice.

Then they bury that bulb, recessed deep inside the Bowens mount. W.T.F.

That's right. Say goodbye to your beautiful 180-degree bare-bulb throw. It's all buried in add-on Bowens mounting material.

Seriously, Fotodiox? That's like receiving a kickoff deep in your own end zone and running it back to the other 1 yard line. And then fumbling. To the opposing kicker.

C'mon, guys. You are marketing to photographers. Can you really be this clueless? It's like, the bare bulb was awesome and then you neutered it by building a wall around it:




Sure, maybe it is a pre-existing thing and you slapped an aux Bowens mount on it. Cut the R&D costs and sell it for $350. I get it. But damn, make a shim ring and get the bulb out there past it. Kinda the same reason I was never for a moment interested in the Profoto D1s. Same weirdness.

As is, the supplied reflector is near useless because the bulb is at the bottom of a shallow coffee can at the back of it. Ugh. The bulb literally sits in a hole, surrounded by an inch and a half of metal tube that happens before the reflector starts.

The predictable result: much of the reflector is basically not doing any work. And costing a ton of efficiency. This entire reflector should be reflecting light, instead of the thin donut ring you see here:




It still works okay with the soft box. But it could have been soo much better. And brighter, as you are not choking off the bulb with the mount, before the internal baffle and soft box knock it down yet again.

It's such a forehead-slapper that I might try to remove the add-on Bowens mount and have a machine shop stick a (flush) Einstein/AB mount on there. Then, frankly, the light would be worth twice as much.

But as-is, it's the Fotodiox Close-But-No-Cigar LED Monobloc. And to be fair, it's a good light if you are using soft boxes — for video or still work.

But it could have been sweet.

C'mon, Fotodiox. You can fix this. Fix the mod bracket. Or shim the bulb. Something. You're so close.
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(And yes. I know what the top photo looks like.)



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32 Comments:

Blogger joel said...

Wouldn't the LED light be recessed because LEDs are highly directional whereas virtually all other lighting types are omnidirectional? i.e. having it stick out might even lose the thin ring of reflected light. Could be wrong here, and it sounds like even if I'm not the design is a bit flawed.

October 28, 2013 8:42 AM  
Blogger Sam Powers said...

Man David, that bulb is buried in there!
I'd def go for a gear hack here. For the dollar I don't think it would be too difficult to get that bulb forward of that housing some.
How was PPE, seems it was a great one this year.

Thanks

Sam

October 28, 2013 9:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Henrion said...

What about Jinbei EF-200's? Being somewhat of an old-time continuous light guy, I've had my eye on these. I'm just looking for a sucker, eh... nice guy to try them out first.

They seem to be totally self-contained, although they look a bit bigger than the Fotodiox. Probably no 2-year warranty and you have to get them from China. But hey they're twice the wattage of the Fotodiox and you can get them in either daylight or tungsten balanced. The downside is that they're about $500/each.

October 28, 2013 9:52 AM  
Blogger Per Rutquist said...

Second the request for a review of the Jinbei (either the 100 at the same price and light output as the one you reviewed, or the 200, with twice the power for about $500).

Looking at pictures, the LED of the Jinbei seems to be positioned correctly w.r.t. the Bowens mont. That is: the LED will be at the focal point of the reflector.

October 28, 2013 11:04 AM  
Blogger Tim Kamppinen said...

I was thinking that it might work fine with an umbrella (aside from the extra spill) but then I looked at the photo without the reflector mounted and it looks like the reflector mounting apparatus would still block the light...

October 28, 2013 11:30 AM  
Blogger Sohail said...

David, if you ever get a chance to, give the P360 from Fiilex a try. Incredibly high CRI (up to 97 in some cases), takes Profoto accessories and is only slightly longer than the palm of your hand. Dimmable and color-adjustable from 3000K to 5600K. More expensive that Fotodiox, but higher-quality...

October 28, 2013 11:42 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

Have you considered Lupolux ? Expensive but very nice..
http://www.lupolux.com/photography/products.html

October 28, 2013 2:45 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Joel-

There is a diffusion dome attached that solves that issue.

October 28, 2013 2:49 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Tim, Per-

I have heard some horror stories from Jinbei gear. So one would expect to potentially rely heavily on their factory warranty. How long is it?

October 28, 2013 2:50 PM  
Blogger Anthony Curtis said...

David,

With the price difference of those Rokinon lenses, would you recommend them as still image lenses too or are they directed at only Cine use?

Tony

October 28, 2013 2:51 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Anthony-

They make still versions of the lenses for about the same price. You can always grab one from AMZN and send it back if you do not like it. Have not shot still, love them for cine.

October 28, 2013 3:47 PM  
Blogger adsky said...

The SMD Led chip is just like a flat coin, it will never be 180 degree throw from a single chip (not mentioning 360 like with conventional filament or flash tube etc), I think the widest throw can be is around 130 degree but bear in mind due to linear nature of SMD the light will always be hottest on axis and getting weaker with the angle. Of course what they should have come up with and to get to your point, would be if a number of smaller SMD chips were arranged on a tubular or spherical shaped carrier for a bare bulb characteristics.

On another note, SMD definitely the way to go for many reasons like lifespan, power efficiency, luminance and colour consistency, temperature etc. Also because led are dc powered you can easily hack a portable power pack using old car batteries for little cost or nothing.

I have some commercial spotlights which I'm planning to use for portraits (thanks to heisler at London gpp last month) once I figured mounting them and dimming electronics.

Thanks for a great post David

October 28, 2013 4:13 PM  
Blogger Darrell Noakes said...

These are definitely something to keep an eye on, but not quite ready for prime time for me. At CRI 85, I'd be just as happy to go DIY with the hardware store T8 fluorescent light fixtures I installed in the laundry room (yeah, maybe not super professional looking, but it gets the job done - and it's amazing what you can do to dress something up to look like it belongs in the studio or on location). We're probably not too long a wait for brighter monoblocks using GB-R LEDs for CRI closer to 100. By then, manufacturers will probably get the message that the light source has to be out front, not recessed way in back. I suppose those would be more costly, too, but the improvements would be worth the value for me.

October 28, 2013 4:24 PM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

Well as far as the mod sucking... use your MacGyver skillset to get what you want. I'm Interested in your cine lens purchase... going to look at that fir My 5DIII.

And you know that your Einstein's make for great light when on model...you can dim and use color balance.

BTW welcome to the other deep hole expenses for toys

Spinnaker

October 28, 2013 5:53 PM  
Blogger Dilip said...


I put together my own 500W LED lights at very reasonable prices, but I understand the DIY route is not the way to go for the vast majority of people.

I seriously question the D600 for video though. The D7100 and D5200 are the only Nikons that provide good moire/aliasing minimized video. The 5d3, especially with the raw video hack, is definitely the way to go if full frame is a must for video.

October 28, 2013 6:27 PM  
Blogger Darrell Noakes said...

I was hoping that people would keep those Rokinon lenses a secret. They are some darn good glass and are surprisingly durable, given the price. I find that the focus marks on the barrel are more of a rough suggestion than anything else, and could just as easily been left off. Perhaps that will improve over time. Whether the still or cine versions, those are some excellent lenses for the money. Heck, you could get a cine and still version of each, just to cover your bases, and still come out ahead compared to the cost of the big name manufacturers. If I were Canon or Nikon or any of the established third party lens makers, I'd be worried about my future.

October 28, 2013 6:54 PM  
Blogger Larry Vaughn said...

I have some Fotodiox fixtures. One takes 9 cfls, the other 16.

I could use some of my photoflex softboxes with the 9 cf one by letting the rod stick out from the end a bit, and adjusting with the softbox velcro.

But the switch zapped and smoked, and where do you get parts?

16 cfl's all bunched up block each other. I made a 10 cfl octodome that worked better, by spreading out the lamps for wider coverage. The big lamps put out more light if you place them sideways.

October 28, 2013 9:15 PM  
Blogger Larry Vaughn said...

I have some Fotodiox fixtures. One takes 9 cfls, the other 16.

I could use some of my photoflex softboxes with the 9 cf one by letting the rod stick out from the end a bit, and adjusting with the softbox velcro.

But the switch zapped and smoked, and where do you get parts?

16 cfl's all bunched up block each other. I made a 10 cfl octodome that worked better, by spreading out the lamps for wider coverage. The big lamps put out more light if you place them sideways.

October 28, 2013 9:32 PM  
Blogger K10W said...

I imagine someone with your McGuyver skills David would be able to bring the LED forward perhaps so it sits forward. One of the custom light guys (none flashlight) on likes of CPF may be able to help such as recommending a similar sized but longer heatsink or machining you a part.

Strange timing as been looking at getting a Jinbei ef100 which is similar since I can use all my Bowens s fit mods from my strobes for video work which I'm getting into. The Jinbei LED sits forward and not recessed FWIW but it's colour is not perfect 5600K.

Be interesting to see if you manage to make this perfect, hopefully the manufacturers will take note either way. Can't wait to see whatever you're working on, intriguing.

October 29, 2013 1:28 AM  
Blogger K10W said...

on a DIY note 18650 packs with right driver hooked up to something like these things http://www.fasttech.com/products/1609/10005855/1451106-50w-4500-lumen-warm-white-led-emitter or brighter are pretty cheap way to go although equal build quality takes more skill.

October 29, 2013 1:35 AM  
Blogger Tim Henrion said...

@David Hobby,
According to ThePhotoGadget, Jinbei warranty is "Electronics parts are 2 year warranty, bulb or capacitor is 1 year or 100,000 times. Misuses are not included." If you buy from ThePhotoGadget (the only place online I can find that has the EFL-200 tungsten balanced version), you send it back to ThePhotoGadget for service (in China).

So basically for this light you get 2 years on everything except the LED lamp, which is one year.

October 29, 2013 8:23 AM  
Blogger Ami Siano said...

Dear Mr. Hobby,
Great review !

I personally would rather work with tungsten or halogen light (much cheaper and simpler) where I can easily mount umbrellas on it etc. Or rent a nice LED 1000 W where I can change the color temp. on the fly.

I have 2 external dimmers for any use which work excellent.

I think this unite was really build as a flash monoblock with poor adjustments.

October 30, 2013 12:41 AM  
Blogger Bohus Blahut said...

Hi there, everybody! My name is Bohus, I'm the guy that you see in all of the Fotodiox videos. Thanks to The Strobist for the review of the LED-100! We're proud of this new light - we've even won an award from Pop Photo for it, so it's an exciting time at Fotodiox.

It's always great to know how customers are using Fotodiox products, and to hear about improvements that you'd like to see. It's still early days on this style of LED light, so as we evolve this kind of lighting instrument we definitely want to hear what all of you have to say.

If any of you have questions, I'm happy to help out and answer what I can. Also let me add a few words to clarify a few questions I saw already above.

Fotodiox is located in the USA, and next year we'll celebrate our 10th year in business in the states. We have a 30,000 square foot warehouse just north of Chicago. When you call, you'll speak to our live sales staff, and you'll get in-country tech support whenever you need help.

In addition to a 2 year warranty on all products, there is also a 14 day money back guarantee. that means you can have some hands-on time to make sure that the gear you get from us is right for you.

We're all really proud of the LED-100, and the new worlds it's opening up for a lot of photographers. We're working hard, and we're listening to what you have to say.

Let me know if I can help with anything else.

October 30, 2013 2:14 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Bohus-

Thanks for the comment! Although, I will admit to being a little confused at Fotodiox being classified as a 10-yr-old US company:

http://fotodiox.en.made-in-china.com/company-Yuyao-Fotodiox-Photo-Equipment-Co-Ltd-.html

I do think it is cool that you warehouse stuff in the US, and offer a two-year warranty. The latter is of critical importance to photographers.

You left no contact info, but I will write to you via your (US) website to give you contact info through which I'll be happy to offer more specific suggestions on how to make your 100w LED a much better product.

Thanks again,
david

November 01, 2013 2:49 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Bohus-

Also: if you have a 2-year warranty, give me some documentation for it. And maybe an address to send the unit back if there are problems. And perhaps some instructions. Anything.

That was so much of a manufacturer's ball drop it was comical. But not really.

November 01, 2013 7:34 PM  
Blogger Frenchman said...

The price of those lights make the IndieGoGo LED Cube light looks like a bargain (of course I read about them AFTER the campaign closed). Will you be able to compare the two and of course look at the "always ready" high sync aspect of the flash there too?

November 02, 2013 9:04 AM  
Blogger William said...

David,

The first thought I had was to "decommission" some solar garden lights. What you want is the pointy reflector that takes the up-shining LED and spreads it horizontally. That, at the right distance from the focal point of the reflector should spread the LED light to a larger section of the reflector and even out the light fall.

Regards,
Bill

November 05, 2013 12:34 PM  
Blogger David Sikes said...

As a videographer who is dabbling in photography and strobe lighting to enhance my video skills, I love the video-centric vibe of the beginning of this! We use the Rokinon 24 cine and I'm a big fan. It has issues wide open and the distance measurements are absolutely worthless for pulling focus as a 1st AC, but it's hard to complain at that price!

Could my favorite photo teacher and blogger be diving into videoland? One can only hope.

November 08, 2013 10:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Yeah, but Lupolux doesn't exist in the states. The only place where I saw it for sale was in Germany (and online, other places in Europe). But it is a kick ass HMI with good construction and price.

November 10, 2013 7:52 PM  
Blogger Chad Johnson said...

I found the Fotodiox LED to have an unacceptable magenta cast. I posted my review here: http://www.comartlab.com/blog/review-fotodiox-100wa-56-led-light-comparing-color-kino-flo/

November 26, 2013 9:30 PM  
Blogger Chad Johnson said...

I found the Fotodiox LED to have an unacceptable magenta cast. I posted my review here: http://www.comartlab.com/blog/review-fotodiox-100wa-56-led-light-comparing-color-kino-flo/

November 26, 2013 9:31 PM  
Blogger Craig M. said...

Yeah. Fotodiox LED is not known for RGB balanced light. Hence the price. BTW. Color meters don't read led light correctly.

December 27, 2013 10:57 AM  

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