CN-900 LED light: a solid, affordable alternative to LitePanels

Every since I learned about LitePanels a couple years ago from Werner Herzog (who used them shooting Cave of Forgotten Dreams), I’ve wanted to own one. But the price tag approaching $2,000 has been a deterrent. Luckily, a lot of other companies have begun making LED lights over the past couple years, and some relatively inexpensive, quality alternatives have begun to appear on the market.

A couple weeks ago I learned that LitePanels is attempting to create a monopoly on LED lighting for itself, which would ensure that LED video lights sold in America will continue to be overpriced. Seems they own one of those vague, overly broad patents that the patent office hands out like candy nowadays, and they have the money to enforce it (it can cost as much as $5 million to defend against such patent claims, forcing even large corporations like Sony to settle out of court when faced with such action).

What’s intriguing is that the LitePanels cases are being heard in Texas Eastern District Court, which Ira Glass recently reported on in an expose story about patent trolls on This American Life, When Patents Attack.

But I digress. The LitePanels patent case has achieved at least something positive: it’s spurred me to purchase an affordable alternative while they’re still available. I recently purchased the CN-900 LED light, which is available on Amazon for about $450, after watching this review. I’ve had an opportunity to use the light on a project, so I’d like to add my observations.

The conference trailer I just finished for the upcoming Seattle Interactive Conference was a great opportunity for me to try out the CN-900 LED light. We shot 6 interviews with VIPs on tight schedules, making it essential that we set up quickly to get the job done. We asked for 20 minutes to set up our lights, 20 minutes for the interview, and did our best to stick to that. The easy transport and fast setup time of the CN-900 light was a big part of how we stayed on time and made the interviews look good.

Here’s a frame grab from each interview (key light was CN-900 in all cases):

Key observations about this light:

  • It has a serious green cast, which is easily removed by using the included minus green diffusion, or by using 1/2 minus green gel
  • It has a CRI of 75, which at first glance might seem to be too low for professional use. The low CRI is the biggest downside of the light in comparison with the LitePanels, which advertise a CRI of 90. But the fact is, without a side-by-side comparison, I’m hard pressed to say these images don’t look great. The color correct easily and are easy to balance with other daylight sources at 5400K native balance.
  • If balancing for tungsten, the included orange diffusion filter is too yellow and is useless. Use a CTO gel instead, and be sure to add 1/2 minus green to remove the aforementioned green cast
  • The frame is totally solid, made out of metal, not plastic, and it’s just as thin as LitePanels

As reported elsewhere, the AC power cable is a real design flaw, because the weight of the DC converter hangs and puts stress on the connector when the light is on a stand. The solution is low tech and simple: form a loop out of the cable about 6 inches from the tip, and fasten with gaff tape. Then, hang the loop on one of the stand’s knobs, relieving pressure from the connector. See photo below:

What’s great about the CN-900 is that it can be battery powered – by the same Tekkeon myPower ALL Plus MP3450i Battery (5-19V) that I use to power my audio bag. Yes, the CN-900 comes with a Sony V-mount plate, but V-mount batteries are twice the price. The Tekkeon is just under $140. And I’ve discovered a few tricks about how to get the most from it.

Use velcro strips to attach the battery to the back of the light. Be sure to set the correct dip switch voltage (15 volts for the CN-900 LED) before powering up your unit.

If you power the CN-900 at full blast, it will run for just under 30 minutes on a full charge (27-29 minutes in my tests). Then the light will abruptly shut off, going from full power to nothing without any dimming beforehand. But what’s intriguing is that the battery shows half to 1/3 power remaining at this point. It seems that powering at full power for half an hour causes the battery to overheat, triggering the shutdown, even though there is quite a bit of juice left. After letting the battery cool for a minute, I was able to switch the light back on at half power, and it ran for an additional 40 minutes. So as long as you don’t need full power, you can get a lot of time out of this battery. It takes 3.5 hours to recharge the Tekkeon.

Update: Traveling with CN-900 LED lights

Update: V-mount battery powers CN-900 for more than an hour

Update: How to color match a pair of CN-900 LED lights

13 thoughts on “CN-900 LED light: a solid, affordable alternative to LitePanels

  1. Arthur

    hey Dan thanks for this review. I’ve been lugging around an arri kit around to different locations, and as mostly a solo outfit it’s been a pain for quick run/gun situations, so I’ve been looking at a set of CN900s or litepanels 1×1. Are these still working out good for you? Any issues since the review? I’ve had bad experiences with knock off products that aren’t name brand, and ended up spending more money buying the knock off and then having issues with it and buying the brand name anyway. So I’m wondering if these are sturdy enough for lots of different situations and if they can survive flying/driving.

    1. Dan McComb

      Hi Arthur,
      These are definitely sturdy lights, and they look and feel professional – you won’t be embarrassed to set them up on a set or location. I liked my first one so much that I purchased a second one that is the same size. They are built with an all-metal housing, and the yolk, which supports their weight, is completely metal and solid with a sort of sand-blasted finish. My only concern about build quality with these units is the power supply: unless you modify how it hangs, it puts too much weight on the weakest point of contact – the place where the power tip plugs into the unit. I outlined my simple solution above, which involves taping a loop in the power cord, the take the weight of the power supply off. As long as you do that, you’re all set.

      There is one other theoretical problem: If these units stop working for any reason, or you drop one and need to have it repaired, there’s really no one to complain or send it to after the 30 days or whatever short period it is that Ebay guarantees your purchase for. I’ve had no problems, but I do worry about the possibility. But then again, the alternative is to pay nearly $2,000 per light, as opposed to $400. For me, that makes it a risk worth taking.

  2. Arthur

    Thanks Dan. That is one of my main concerns – the lack of support/warranty (the other being the durability since I’d have to lug them around from place to place). I’ve just had a fair share of having poor quality items in the hopes of saving some cash so I am trying to avoid that again. What kind of stands do you use? I am trying to minimize my run n gun kit significantly, and was thinking of using some older compact stands i have that I used for flash photography, but not sure if i need something more durable. Also have you found the need for a light meter for the work you do? BTW, The trailer you posted looks very good! It’s what made me consider these over the litepanels

    1. Dan McComb

      I generally agree with you. In my experience, it’s often a better strategy to buy the right tool once than the wrong tool twice. But LitePanels are attempting to stop other companies from making LED panel lights, and that pisses me off. Why not make the best stuff, more affordably than anyone else, and win that way? The whole point of patents was to encourage competition, not stifle it. I hate companies that play this game. So I’m voting with my pocketbook and choosing not to spend any of my lighting dollars with LitePanels because they choose engage in that type of anti-competitive behavior. Also, it’s clear as day that LitePanels is price gouging. Come on people, $2,000 for a 1×1 LitePanel? What planet are you from?

      I used Smith-Victor light stands. I have 6 and 8-foot models, and they work great. Very light weight. I also have c-stands that I use for flying the lights, and a wonderful Manfrotto combi-boom stand that’s a bit awkward to pack around, but very light weight. All of these work great.

      Thanks for checking out the trailer – I’m in the thick of editing the film now, at the really fun part where it’s actually taking shape after months of fumbling to find the through line.

  3. Arthur

    I’ve read about the whole patent thing and was a little put off from purchasing from the company, but wasn’t sure if there were any viable options (apparently there are). Is there an update about the case that you know of? I couldn’t find anything recent.

  4. Dan McComb

    The most recent news I can find is from last August.

    Regarding other viable options, there in fact are some reputable companies that are producing LED panels, at least for now (although that could change if LitePanels prevails in their efforts to shut down competition.) Here’s a couple worth looking at:

    Lowel Prime: (these are tungsten only)

    $1056.50 for Dedolight Feloni:

    $836 for Ikan ID 1000:

    If I were going to spend $2k on a light today, I would spend it on this:

    This light would give you a lot of options that panels won’t give you, such as far longer throw and focusable beam, as well as easy fitting onto soft boxes. I want one of these!

  5. Arthur

    Cool thanks! That lowel looks pretty interesting but doesn’t look like it’ll be back in until feb. I already have a few arri fresnel/open face lights and while they are superb in build quality, they’re a major pain to lug around from location to location, which made me start looking for portable LED options. I found some time to watch Caleb’s review and that further solidified my choice for the CN900. I still need to build up my prime lens set so I think I will put the money on the glass and try the CN900. Thanks for your help!

  6. Jeryy

    Great post Dan!
    I have a couple of questions:
    Did you use any diffusion on these for the interviews?
    And what other lights did you use and how did you use them on these interviews?


    1. Dan McComb

      Yes, I did use diffusion on most of them. I buy Lee white diffusion in 1/2 and full strength. I get mine from my local camera store, Glazers, where they sell it by the foot. I find the full strength is best, but also reduces the light power quite a bit, so I use the 1/2 when I need to keep the light level as high as possible. You could probably get away with this kit, although the 12×12 is on the small side – I cut my sheets about 24″ long by 16″ wide.

      I clip the gel to the top barn door using two wooden clothes pins (c47s, as they are called in the industry)

  7. Pingback: V-mount battery powers CN-900 for more than an hour | Dan McComb

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