It’s been interesting to watch LED’s evolution as they become more and more tailored to the needs of photography and video production. I’m not entirely sure where the idea of a square LED panel originated but it’s certainly set a precedent which many other unoriginal light manufacturers have followed. Maybe we can blame it on Vitec who I’ve never much cared for. I’m probably too hard on flat panels for someone who owns several. But the fact is, multiple, proximate light sources are almost always the opposite of what we’re looking for. Their shadows are ugly, the form factor isn’t awesome for modifiers, barn doors are only somewhat effective, they have very little throw, etc. In a more traditional vein, I’ve used and loved Mole LEDs for their color reproduction, but honestly, in 2016 I feel like the historical method of light modifiers may need updated–especially for smaller scale productions where working with lights in traditional cinematic style can be cumbersome without a grip crew. The photo/video market is presented with a variety of options which change, nearly by the quarter, and cause us to reevaluate our gear closet more than ever. As my trend continues toward minimalistic movie making, I find my demands on lighting increasing. I now need a light that I can use in multiple situations or one that affords me something unique enough to merit being carried along. For all these reasons, my interest was piqued in Flolight’s Bladelight which breaks beautifully from the flat panel tradition. Flolight has created a long and skinny, lensed LED which adds enough versatility to merit this writeup.
But first, my new favorite ball mount. If you’re already familiar with a double ball joint, please skip the following paragraph. If not, you’ve been missing out.
I apologize for beginning a review on a light with biased, philosophical musings, and then stalling once again to talk about a ball mount, but this deserves your attention. Hydrostatic arms have long been pricey solutions to a simple mounting problem, and they’ve been on my mind recently due to Matthews decision to pick up what they’re calling the “infinity arm”, a defunct kickstarter project that hit logistical hurdles. I’ve used a couple different interpretations of these simple rosette-style joint with varying success, but the idea is so simple and so promising that I keep holding out for someone to do it right. And that’s why this excited me so much–it just feels like a light mount done the way it should be. It’s a conceptually simple, physically small, double ball mount with 5/8 studs. Each joint’s position is fixed by pressure from both sides, controlled by a single rotating handle. The awesome thing about this is that you have all the versatility of a ball mount on both ends. It’s much easier to experience in person than to explain, but the ability to maneuver both joints independently, and having the mount hold so firmly as it does with a single knob control, makes it an absolute joy to use. I’m pretty sure I’m the ignorant one here who simply hasn’t run into this type of mount before, Manfrotto/Bogen sells them, but the fact that Flolight included this in the package started my experience with the Bladelight quite favorably. I’ve appreciated companies like Atomos who try to bundle useful accessories to make their products out-of-the box usable, rather than adopting a more, shall we say, “Red-like”, approach. Flolight has augmented the usability of their light by including a very complementary accessory.
The weight of the Bladelight was higher than I’d anticipated. I’ve worked quite a bit with 80/20-style extruded aluminum railing to which this bears remarkable resemblance (though the Bladelight is much more aesthetically appealing). I assume electronics and heat syncing, not to mention peripheral components like the mount and barn doors, must all contribute to the weight. But again, the quality of the double ball mount and the versatility of being able to slide the mounting plate anywhere along the length of the light make mounting it securely quite simple. The included carrying case was of significantly lesser quality.
In the field
I received the Bladelight, didn’t have time to open it, and took it to a shoot with the intention of putting the light through its paces in a variety of situations. The project was largely designed to test the capabilities of the not-yet-released Sony a6300 so the shoot was a very flexible one. I opened the Bladelight on set, did some initial experimentation based solely on my eyes and a monitor plugged into the camera, and found myself pleasantly surprised. So much so that I decided to see if I could do the shoot with nothing but the Bladelight and any practicals found on the location. It worked well. Through the course of one night, I successfully used the Bladelight in a variety of ways: as a very powerful key light in a traditional one light setup; as the source for hard shadows cast on a blank wall; with a gobo to simulate exterior light channeled through slatted blinds; and outside a window as an effects light. The light had no complaints throughout the shoot.
Usability ranks extremely high on the priority list when it comes to lighting. I’ve never been impressed with the color rendition of the very popular 100/200/300 Watt series of high intensity LEDs (you’re probably familiar with them as branded by ALZO), but their Bowens mounts makes them so versatile that I overlook some major technical flaws. When my speedlights, strobes, and LED continuous light all use the same soft/strip boxes, beauty dishes and reflectors I find the convenience trumping nearly everything else in a large number of scenarios. The option of using existing light modifiers from the still photography side on video lights was a big nail in the coffin of my incandescent kits. The Bladelight is obviously not compatible with Bowens modifiers, but the design is so useful in a large number of other ways that it’s very easy to justify bringing to a shoot. Because the LEDs are not all positioned in one big block like on a panel, the orientation of the light can be used to affect its appearance on the subject. It’s also very easy to use black wrap to cover a large portion of the LEDs if you want cleaner edges as in the shot with the horse. This brings up a good point that I haven’t explicitly mentioned: LED light sources, as complained about at the opening of this review, are inherently very small point sources. A single point source provides very crisp shadow lines which are sometimes desirable. Multiple single point sources give lots of overlapping and chaotic shadow lines which I rarely find desirable. Because the Bladelight, unlike a panel, has a different number of LEDs in its width than in its height, this can be used advantageously for edge control. If you place a square gobo between the Bladelight (in portrait orientation) and white wall, the top and bottom of the gobos shadow will be feathered while the left and right side will be crisp. Rotate the Blade light for the opposite effect.
While this may seem obvious, I’m not sure that many people will recognize the value of the Bladelight without using it. On the previously referenced shoot, the slats of the window blind gobo were oriented in line with the Bladelight for clean edges, but the offset just slightly off axis for a less uniform and more visually jarring shadow pattern. I think that Flolight’s claims are a bit erroneous–if you’re expecting this light to behave like a fresnel you’ll be disappointed. The array of LEDs in the Bladelight is not collimated by a fresnel lens. The primary benefits are that the lensing system allows control of the beam of light and that the shape of the Bladelight means any edge parallel to the longer side of the Bladelight can be clean. The other awesome side effect of this is that the barn doors can be used to shape the beam very nicely. Try that on your flat panel LED where barn doors are no more than spill control.
To call the Bladelight equal to a softbox or fresnel is a bit like using scissors on a Swiss Army knife because it’s what you have at the time. It may be a replication of the idea of the thing with some stark differences which will likely lead to frustration. While I think the marketing a little extreme, I still love the Bladelight idea and dislike adherence the LED panel paradigm. The idea of a softbox is to diffuse and scatter the light. The soft-edged shadows are a result of light coming from many different directions. The massive surface area of the light relative to the subject gives you that wrap around. Because the Bladelight is so wide in landscape orientation you do get multiple light sources across a wide field, so, yes, it is soft-box-esque in that sense, but if you really want the diffuse qualities of a softbox then expect to be putting diffusion between the light and subject–just as you would with any other light. I don’t say this to discredit Flolight, but more to emphasize that you need to know what you want and how the light works to pick the right light for a scenario. If you want something that’s soft without filtration (or any filtration provided by you at least), fluorescent’s your light. If you want something with a long throw, get your favorite flavor of par or open face. If you want collimated, “pretty” light that can also often be used sans diffusion then a fresnel can be your best bet. In the case of the Bladelight, you really can do a lot with one light.
Historically, it just seems like we use hard light a lot less than we used to. The reasons for this are probably way more than I’m aware of, but I assume these could be some motivators: cameras are more light sensitive now–diffusion reduces output and in some cases you needed all you can get; generally speaking, film has dealt with high contrast in a more aesthetically pleasing way than digital historically has; it’s harder to work with hard light to producing a “professional” look–placement matters a lot more with a hard source than just getting a gigantic softbox close to the talent. What I’m loving about the decision to built this light in this shape is that you can, even just with the supplied filtration, get the light up close for soft wrap around, but still cut its edges like a hard light. It really does give a bit of the best of both worlds.
This wasn’t meant to become “lighting 101” but the reality of today’s world is that you’ve got to be able to retain and apply a huge amount of information, all filtered through the needs of the particular project, and this light gives you options.
In the studio
Once I was back in the studio, with time to do a bit more formal testing, I measured the light more objectively. The light performed so well from a usability standpoint that I hoped it wouldn’t let me down technically. Power draw is precisely as advertised with the Bladelight, drawing 6.8 watts at its lowest setting and around 100 at its peak. My color results were very positive with a 95+ measured CRI and very close to a cool 5600 degrees with negligible variation through the dimming range.
Spectral distribution looks nice for an LED. Not unlike most white phosphor LEDs. R9 (red) also impressive with a value consistently above 90.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve been using LEDs like this one commonly sold by Alzo (though mine is from a different source) in its 100 and 200 watt incarnations. Convenience being the main motivator. Both of these, the 100 and 200 watt, have a much lower CRI–measuring in the 70s. They’re also a bit warm for my taste at more like 5200 Kelvin. There is also a loud fan noise that can be rather prevalent depending on how close a microphone is placed to the light.
I want to emphasize that I will still use my Alzo-style LEDs and the Bladelight consistently. I just do so knowing their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t fall victim to the stats like I so often do. People will say you can’t mix LEDs from two different manufacturers in the same shot because the color rendering is different. If that’s your stance, I’d say you can’t always mix LEDs from the same manufacturer in the same shot because the color rendering is different. The same people will advocate cooling the backlight a little to give the rim some punch. Guess what, you just made the color rendering different. And it worked artistically. Most would say that mixing light types for a backlight and key might be fine, “but never use two different lights on a face”. I think I’d more readily agree with that one, more genearlly speaking, but I’ve worked with a DP who mixed light technologies very visibly on people’s faces all the time–the key and fill on a face would come from two very different light types. If you’re offended by this, consider that he’s been accepted by the ASC while you, if your spending your time here, likely haven’t been. If you’re keying with the sun are you up in arms about the fact that your atmospheric fill is cooler than your key? Probably not. What I’m getting at is that, again, you really have to see what works for you and pursue it. One of my favorite phrases from the audio post world is “never mix visually”. If you’re setting your EQ based on what you think it’s supposed to look like you’re probably not trusting your ears enough. In video and photography, I’d like to advocate a new phrase: “don’t light aurally”, i.e. don’t light based on how you’ve heard you’re supposed to light. There are too many manufacturers, too many light types and too many unresolved standards for semi-amateur individuals to be able to trust the theoretical “how it should be” in the video world.
I wish plasma had caught on better, but that’s a story for another post. Plasma is not as efficient as LEDs. Plasma is about twice as efficient as HMIs which are roughly 4 times as efficient as tungsten. (Fluorescent lights are pretty similar to HMI in terms of efficiency). LEDs, however, can be 10 times as efficient as tungsten. For the flexibility and efficiency LEDs provide it’s hard for them not to be popular. No one has taken the plasma technology and put it into a housing that’s quite as practical as we’d all like or at a price point that makes it wildly successful. I like how the single point source gives you the option for very clean shadows, but the form factor can easily be housed in a fresnel fixture or adapted with a softbox. It becomes very versatile because the single point of light can be so bright–much more so than a single LED. If quality of light were the sole priority I would light with nothing but tungsten and plasma. Continuous spectrum sources simply look good and don’t throw surprises at you when it comes to color. In fact, CRI as a standard came about as a method of quantifying these “inferior” light methods against the incandescent standard. The reality of film-making and photography, however, is that more often than not I find convenience/speed the priority over quality. I once had an informative opportunity to hear from a very reputable chief lighting technician in a small group setting. He remarked that he shoots only with tungsten sources, and felt quite validated in my opinion that they simply look better, despite the competition from other lighting technologies and the large migration away from them (not to mention the legal pressure against them). This requires context, however. This guy lights small budget films like The Dark Knight and Inception, etc. Suffice it to say that there is significantly more time and money allotted to their projects where image quality is allowed to take priority. The reason I mention all of this is that the Bladelight brings new opportunities of working with LEDs which take their appeal even further. The Bladelight checks a great number of the boxes for the features I most prioritize: image quality, ease of use, and reliability. On the whole, it represents an excellent option for the majority of the world, who, like me, wants something that looks nice, performs consistently, and is convenient.
We also did a studio shoot which gave me more time to discover the Bladelight in-depth. A portion of the shoot called for a fresnel which, as I eventually discovered, had a faulty fuse connection and died on me. It’s a CDM (I don’t see a lot of point in owning HMIs) meaning I got to wait 5–10 minutes before being able to restrike the light. Again, the convenience of LEDs paid off and the Bladelight came to the rescue. The shots below are all lit entirely with the Bladelight.
I’d love some sort of independent, third party, objective light tester, kind of like a DxO for film and photography lighting. Manufacturers vary in how they spec their lights, and, given that it’s an already confusing world to begin with, it’s tough to compare lux, lumens and footcandles as well as CRI, R values (not the insulation type) or whatever new standard eventually emerges. The CRI is a relative standard established 50 years ago and which now begins to really show its age. Near the end of 2015 CIE announced support of IES’s TM-30-15 which represents the future metric for measurement, threatening to supplant CRI in an LED-driven world. With regards to output, lumens are less useful for filmmakers as we’re more concerned with light at its destination rather than its source. Lux and footcandles are a similar measurement depending on your preference for standard or metric. Both are typically more useful as they measure light at a distance. This again becomes subjective though because different lights are designed to cast very different light patterns. The Bladelight, for example, will get a dramatically different lux rating based on the positioning of the lens inside the light and the meter when measuring. So for me, particularly in the studio, the big question is: how does the output of a 36” Bladelight compare to a single, two foot Kino fixture? Placing both lights in approximately the same position, the Bladelight compared very favorably. I get equal or greater output and its nice wide throw fills the studio quite evenly.
The more I think about it, these lights are such a nice fit for a small, multipurpose studio like mine. Their profile is exactly what I need for the type of work I do. I usually shoot against a backdrop roughly 10’x10’ which I currently light with three kino fixtures. I work primarily on seamless white and green screen. What I’m terribly curious to do now is test the green Bladelights. Gelling a daylight balanced globe green for lighting a green screen is relatively common, but the benefits are a little contested. A more interesting idea, in my opinion, is gelling the light green and lighting a white wall as a green screen. It’s much easier to get even light on a wall than on a constantly-creasing green fabric in a setup like mine. The historical issues with the green-gelled-light-method have been spill from the gelled lights, reduced output, and lack of saturation. The whole point of the green screen is to create contrast for pulling a clean key. There are a great many theories, and an equal amount of dogmas, on how to do this well. My personal preference is to preserve the option of both a luma and chroma key so I have more than just color information to work with. To get a good luma key, you need one of the color channels (red, green or blue) to contrast the subject. That will form the basis of the separation matte. This means you use intensity of the light to create contrast. Add color information to this and the saturation of the light’s color is also usable for creating contrast. A big problem I’ve found with the gelled-light method is that if you turn the light up for intensity (don’t go much more than a stop over your foreground or light wrap will eat your edges) then you lose saturation. Anyone who has shot speedlights through a Rosco sample gel back is very familiar with this. So my curiosity now is how green LEDs on a white wall would perform. I like the idea of leaving my green screen up and lighting the white background wall green instead. This obviously doesn’t work for full body shots where the actor needs to interact with the green screen, but having the option is very nice. The Flolight’s form factor again becomes advantageous as I can stack a daylight one and a green one on top of each other and still maintain a smaller footprint than the daylight-only kinos.
Changing bulbs in the kinos is a pain. Unplugging the fixtures, removing twelve daylight tubes and replacing them with twelve tungsten tubes, and reorienting the lights that shifted in the process is inconvenient. Not to mention this is all done from a ladder. Imagine this: in the same size footprint as a single kino, I could fit three 36” Bladelights. One daylight, one tungsten and one green, all stacked on top of each other. I use Smart Things automation to control all my studio lighting from my phone or computer. When I want to shoot daylight I simply activate the daylight strip. With a simple keystroke or voice command I could switch from daylight to tungsten. Or to green! Flolight, if you’re reading, I’ll gladly test this for you if you’re interesting in participating.
I’ve gone into a lot of detail about my own setup at the risk of boring the reader. I hope it illustrates a point, that, while it should be self-evident, always needs called out: find what works for you. My lighting methodology has slightly evolved from asking “what does everyone else light with?” to figuring out what I like for what I’m doing and having the confidence to do what I think works. A variety of lights exist for a variety of people and purposes. You can shoot an entire blockbuster film with only natural light, so don’t expect buying “the right lights” to make the difference. While the Flolight might not give you a tremendously long throw on a big set, or incredibly crisp shadows on every axis, or incredibly soft soft-box quality light without supplemental diffusion, it’s capable of approximating each of these things so well that, when used correctly, its versatility is extremely beneficial. It’s a light I expect will see a lot of use from here on out.
- Form factor is unique and versatile
- Though it’s heavy, it mounts easily with a double ball mount and sliding mounting plate
- Efficiency and throw fill a good niche for my specific needs
- Color rendering is great for an LED
- Currently AC powered only, but it sounds like field battery power is coming