Left: The Arri M18. Centre: Elinchrom Scanlite. Right: Lastolite RayD8.
If you’re venturing into HD video capture, you need to get familiar with continuous lighting. BJP tries out three of the best options at different price points, from a powerful new HMI priced several thousand pounds to a lamphead for under a hundred
The latest lamphead from The Arri Group – the M18, designed for still and moving image capture – delivers a powerful 1800W of continuous, daylight-balanced illumination, yet is compact enough to take on location work. At 10.5kg, it’s also relatively lightweight for an HMI, and despite being similar in size to the Arrisun 1200, it’s claimed to deliver 70 percent higher light output. What’s more, it can be plugged into a standard mains powered socket.
I tested the M18 with the German maker’s new 1200/1800 Universal Ballast, which connects the lamphead via two cables to mains power and regulates the electrical current. It has been designed specifically for Arri’s new class of 1800W lamphead, and can now calculate detailed data from the light, such as the length of cable being used. Its main control panel is very straightforward, with four main controls that include a power button and switch, a dimmer, and a dial to select 50Hz, 60Hz or flicker-free options. There are also nine LED indicators displaying information such as the temperature of the ballast and what lamp is connected, as it can take either a 1200W or 1800W lamp.
Connecting the ballast to the M18 is also simple using the head to ballast cables that are plugged and locked into place. But while the M18 is comparatively small compared to other professional HMI products, it still needs a solid support, so a stand like Manfrotto’s Avenger Super Wind Up 29 is a necessity, otherwise it can be hung from the ceiling. Once the M18 and ballast are set up and connected to the mains, it takes a few minutes for the lamp to warm up to full power output and the correct colour temperature.
The lamp itself has a shiny silver reflector inside that helps make the cast of light very efficient, and a protective clear lens on the front, which makes the head feel very well constructed, and it is weather resistant to IP23 standard (which indicates that it can be used in most rain, with the exception of vertical wind or spray driven precipitation). The head is fixed to a bracket that has a large 28mm spigot, so it needs an appropriate stand for support. It can be rotated to point straight up or be pointed down at 90°, and it has cross cooling so that it is safe to operation at any angle. Importantly, if you’re filming, it is near silent in operation, thanks to a design that cleverly disperses heat without using a fan.
For photographers who aren’t used to operating an HMI as powerful as this, it can take a while to get used to the extremely bright light, and you need to take sensible precautions. Looking into it directly is like staring into the sun, and the beam of light produces a heat that can be felt meters away, so both subjects and studio paraphernalia, such as polyboards, need to be kept at a safe distance to avoid wilting under the temperature.
The direct illumination cast from the M18 is very crisp and produces well-defined shadows. The intensity of light can be adjusted from a spot setting of 20° to a flood setting of 60° without spreader lenses. The lamphead is compatible with a host of Arri light shapers, including four-leaf and eight-leaf barndoors, and a spill-ring attachment (planned for the not too distant future) to deliver a tighter beam. Softboxes from companies such as Chimera are also compatible, and it is worth noting that speed ring adaptors are available, and the accessory brackets are the same size as existing Arrisun 1200 lamphead. Unusually for a continuous lighting product, it is possible to turn down the power by 50 percent or reduce the power by a half or full stop by using an Arri wire scrim that does not affect the colour temperature.
The M18 is ideal for when you want to keep things simple, using it as a solitary one light wonder. However, it’s often not practical to use as a front light, when shooting people for example, as it makes them squint, so diffusing and bouncing the light off a polyboard, wall or ceiling helps create a beautifully even and distinctive cast of illumination that is difficult to replicate with other forms of lighting. The 1800W output is powerful enough to bounce around and fill a room to create an even illumination that is perfect for full-length model work. It is also very useful for shooting subjects such as children, who move around a lot, where precise lighting is not practical and where you have to take split second opportunities without the limitation of having to wait for a flash to recharge.
It is also very consistent, with a precise colour temperature output of just over 6000K, which means it can be combined with daylight without any trouble. The new 1800W bulbs should last around 750 hours and can be easily changed in a less than a minute.
The power is impressive, and anyone used to using the Arrisun 1200 will immediately notice the difference. You can shoot with a high f stop and fast shutter speed with a comparatively low ISO setting, making it ideal for capturing HD video alongside stills. The latest array of professional DSLRs means photographers can use ISOs below 3200 without the image degradation concerns that previous cameras produced. The HD Video capabilities mean a product such as the M18 is even more relevant.
I used a Nikon D3s and shot at ISO800 to attain an aperture of around f/8 and shutter speed of 1/200s after positioning the M18 around five metres away and bouncing the light off a polyboard. A major benefit of using a continuous light source when photographing models is that I could shoot a very fast frame-per-second burst as the light does not need to recharge, unlike a flash unit (see the table of results for full performance details). I also recorded an HD video using the camera, and the power and spread of the M18 provided an ideal lighting for my model to move freely across the studio on a standard sized Colorama background (see the video below).
Elinchrom’s Scanlite Kit, made up of three heads, is touted as an affordable all-in-one solution for both photographic and video lighting. I tested a configuration that comprises a 300W, 650W and a 1000W head, a few spare bulbs, three 16cm reflectors and a case with a padded foam interior for all three heads to fit in, priced under £820. It also includes three stands and a handy bag that can be carried over a shoulder.
A Scanlite lamp could easily be mistaken for a flash head, similar in size to an ELinchrom D-Lite, but it’s much simpler in layout, with just a solitary on/off switch on the top. Its plastic outer shell feels reasonably robust, and there are ventilation holes at its rear to help keep it cool with the help of an internal fan. It uses halogen lamps that should have around a 75 hour lifespan, and they are easy to replace and swap over. A frosted Pyrex dome is fitted in front of the bulb to help diffuse the cast illumination.
While each kit head comes with a dish, it is well worth noting that Scanlite lampheads can take all Elinchrom light shapers, which secure into place with the same bayonet and breech-locking ring, but take care using attachments such as softboxes as continuous lights emit higher temperatures.
It takes just a few minutes to set up the three 240V heads that all come with a standard plug and run off mains electricity. Continuous light lampheads often have a scant array of features and the Scanlite is the perfect example of this, as it doesn’t even have a dimmer function. You can switch it on and it is ready to use instantaneously, and once it is turned off it should be cool enough to handle and pack away in less than 10 minutes. To adjust the power you have to go back to basics and either move the lamphead closer or further away from a subject, attach a light-shaper or put something like a trace screen in front of it. Alternatively, the 1000W head also accepts 650W and 300W bulbs.
Once the Scanlite is plugged in, a cooling fan comes on immediately, which can create an audible hum, particularly when the three lampheads are running at the same time. This might prove a problem if you’re recording audio alongside video, of course, although in my test their noise wasn’t picked up above the ambient sound of the studio.
Once in use, the warmth generated from a Scanlite becomes apparent in around a few minutes. There is an overheat protection function (a thermal cut out) should you need it. The colour temperature of the lampheads, at around 3200K, is much lower than daylight, so they can be used to warm up a mixed lighting set up or on their own, and it’s worth dialing in the correct Kelvin rating to avoid any casts.
There are a number of reasons why a photographer might use continuous lighting of this ilk, although they are likely to be mostly related to still subjects, such as products and room sets. But thanks to the high ISO and HD video capabilities of modern DSLRs (such as the Nikon D3s that was used in my tests), capturing stills images of people and shooting AVI files are now just as applicable. I shot at ISO 1000 to attain the desired aperture and shutter speed setting of f/8 at 1/250s, while the model was positioned between 1.5 and 2.5m from the three lampheads. The same lighting and camera settings were used to record an HD video (see below) and proved easily powerful enough to light a head and shoulder shot of the model.
Overall then, this is one of the best value continuous lighting solutions on the market. The lampheads themselves feel well made and should withstand regular professional use, and the halogen lamps are inexpensive to replace. They are straightforward to use, and provide a punchy quality of light when combined with the reflectors included in the package. But, should you tire with that, there are a plethora of compatible light shapers with which to try out different effects.
The Lastolite RayD8 c3200 is aimed at the budget-minded photographer, with a single lighting head priced under £100, or less than £300 for a kit that comes complete with a pair of lampheads, reflectors, 500W bulbs, light stands and two PVC 80cm umbrellas. I, however, tested the head that comes with a standard 21cm reflector on its own, and swapped the tungsten bulbs for a colour corrected 85W fluorescent bulb.
First impressions are good. The D8 head looks pretty functional and well put together especially considering the price. It is small, compact and weighs just a few kilograms. However, its size more than doubles when the extension tube and reflector are fitted to accommodate the large size of the spiral tube fluorescent light bulb. (The extension tube is not needed when using the tungsten bulbs).
Operation is child’s play, with a single switch on its rear that glows red when it is on, powered directly from mains. There’s no dimming function or any other features, which for this type of light would be superfluous.
Once in operation, two of the key benefits of this head and bulb combination becomes apparent – it’s near total silence, and the fact it produces very little heat. In fact, the temperature generated is so low that the reflector can still be handled, even after the lamp has been left on for hours at a time, making it ideal for shooting subjects such as food, flowers or people.
Lastolite claims that the spiral tube fluorescent light bulb should deliver a daylight Kelvin reading of 5200. In my tests it wasn’t far off, with a marginally warmer 5950K reading, so like Arri, it can be seamlessly mixed with normal daylight. The downside is the lack of power. This can be overcome by boosting your camera’s ISO setting, but when I shot some headshots, I still had to position the lamphead close to the model. Fortunately, the lack of heat means it won’t toast the sitter, but even when it’s within a metre I had to adjust my camera settings to ISO 1000, shooting at 1/125s at f/4.
More power is available from the tungsten lamps, but these come with their own issues regards low colour temperature and heat. The Lastolite gear is designed to cope with the latter, however, as the bundled reflector is made from a glass fibre and nylon body that is claimed to withstand years of high temperature operation at around 50°C temperatures.
And while a lack of light shapers is a limiting factor with many continuous lighting systems, the Lastolite range offers plenty of choice for an entry-level product. An umbrella can be fitted under the lamphead, and the S-type bayonet fitting means it is compatible with Lastolite’s softboxes, reflectors and umbrella box range of products. I used the basic lamphead, dish and spiral tube fluorescent light bulb combination and thought the light punchy without being too harsh, which certainly gives portraits a distinctive look, especially when a shallow depth-of-field is used.
Overall, the RayD8 gives buyers bang for their buck. It is not pretending to be a comprehensive continuous lighting solution, but for simple product and food photography it will more than pay for itself.
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