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