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Tungsten vs. Fluorescent vs. LED lights: Portability and Ease of Use (Post #3 of 4)

This post is third in a series comparing the various types of continuous lights for photo and video work (it’ll definitely make more sense if you read the previous ones).

Post #1: Choosing Lights: Tungsten vs. Fluorescent vs. LED

Post #2: Efficiency (i.e., power usage) and Heat Generation

Portability

This is also something that is less important for photographers and videographers who work primarily in a studio, but for someone like me whose work is almost entirely on location, it is important. Tungsten and HMI light heads are usually relatively compact, but they are fragile; the bulbs are made of very thin glass and even thinner filaments, and can break if jostled around too much (especially if they’re cold, as tends to happen here in the northeast in winter). Also, since tungsten and HMI lights get so hot when they’re in use, at the end of a shoot they need to have a fair amount of time to cool down before being packed away or they’ll melt case fabric or padding or cables, gels or whatever else they happen to come in contact with in the bag or case… and a melted plastic power cable just sucks.

Fluorescent light heads have got to be the worst when it comes to portability. Since they don’t get hot you don’t have the issue above, but instead the bulbs are larger, bulkier, and even more fragile. My 3-head fluorescent kit is HUGE, because the bulbs are so fragile they need to be transported in individual cases (and with five bulbs per head, that means I’m carrying around 15 bulb boxes in the kit).

Definitely better in the studio: moving fluorescent fixtures is a huge pain.

Definitely better in the studio: moving fluorescent fixtures is a huge pain.

I can drive my fluorescent kit to a location, but don’t even think about flying with it… the kit is bigger than airlines’ maximum allowable suitcase size, and even if you could get it on the plane, by the time you picked it up at baggage claim all the bulbs would be shattered anyway.

And then there are LEDs… oh, blessed LEDs. LEDs are tiny, compact, rugged and oh-so-easy to travel with. Since they have no bulbs and no glass, LED panels are by far the most durable and least fragile of the lights here. Advantage, LEDs.

Speed of Setup and Ease of Use

Speed of setup is another issue that studio dwellers probably aren’t terribly concerned with, since lights that live in a studio frequently can stay set up and don’t need to be broken down between shoots. But for those of us always on the go it is a consideration. And here once again, fluorescent heads are the clear loser. Setup of tungsten and HMI heads is pretty straightforward: you put the head on a stand, plug it in, attach whatever modifiers you want to use, and you’re good to go. Takes a couple of minutes per light, tops. With fluorescent heads though, it’s a different story. In addition to all of the same steps you’d take with a tungsten head, with fluorescent lights each individual bulb (of which there can be anywhere from three to six per head, depending on the model) has to be carefully removed from its case and carefully installed into the head before any modifiers are attached, drastically increasing the setup time. LED panels, on the other hand, couldn’t be simpler to set up. You stick the panel on a stand and plug it in. Done. One of these lights can literally be set up in under 30 seconds. Advantage, LEDs.

Usability is a much more complex question (and a really important one). Here, tungsten and HMI lights really benefit from having been around for far longer than LEDs and fluorescents. The design of tungsten and HMI heads have been refined over years, and a whole universe of accessory modifiers have been developed to work with them: Fresnel heads use a lens and a moving focusing mechanism to allow light from these heads to be tightly focused into a spot or allowed to spread more flood effect. All manner of modifiers (umbrellas, snoots, gobos, softboxes of every conceivable shape and size, etc.) have been designed for these lights, and as a result they are extremely versatile. Fluorescent and LED lights, however, unfortunately are still new enough that for the most part these accessory modifiers are not yet available for them. Additionally, the design of most of these lights prevents them from benefiting from Fresnel-type housings, so their beam tends to be very wide (although a couple of companies are just starting to make LED Fresnels… take a look at these Arris). As a result, the light from panel-type LEDs and most fluorescent heads disperses quickly, so these lights tend to have short “throw” distances. Coupled with the lack of modifiers, this limits the versatility of LED and fluorescent lights. I am certain that modifier manufacturers will quickly start designing softboxes and other accessories for them, but for the time being, this leaves fluorescent and LED lights at a disadvantage.

Tomorrow’s post, the last in this little series, will look at quality of light emitted by the various types of light (the CRI), and my conclusions.

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