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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...

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.)

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.

(And yes. I know what the top photo looks like.)


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