The Future of Lighting: LED vs. Fluorescent vs. Incandescent

If there's one constant in this world, it might just be that technology is always changing. The second you feel as if you may finally have a handle on it all, it changes so much that you have to just about start at square one. The same goes for lighting. Lamp technology has changed so much in recent years that knowing which ones to include in a kit has become as difficult as solving world hunger. That's why we're going to look at some of the newest and best light fixtures for incandescent, fluorescent, and LED and give you some tips on which lights work best for every type of video production. Though we can never show you the exact lighting kit to buy for your needs, hopefully we can point you in the right direction. Incandescent Unfortunately, there is precious little to say that would make incandescent bulbs look good. They produce a lot of heat and guzzle power like a Hummer guzzles gas. These features don't bode well for the incandescent's future, but there is one redeeming quality: incandescent bulbs are still the brightest lamps money can buy. They are also some of the cheapest fixtures on the market today. If you need something that can compete with the strength of the sun or light the inside of an entire house, then incandescents and HMI's are really the only way to make it happen. Though I do my best to be good to the environment, I have to admit that I still use incandescent PARs like Smith Victor's A80 or Lowel's Omni and DP as the backlight in my three-point lighting setups. I just find it too hard to get the rim light strong enough while still keeping the fixture out of the shot using any other type of lighting fixture. Also, for background washes, I still use a Lowel Tota light with a 750W bulb or a Cool-Lux Hollywood Soft Light with a 1000W bulb. These fixtures combined with gels and cookies give me the light intensity and look I need for backgrounds in larger scenes. Lighting the same scene with fluorescents or LED lamps would require several fixtures, making it more difficult to get wide shots without stands in the frame and of course, making it more expensive too. The other advantage of using incandescent-style bulbs is that I can dim the lights without ballasts by using a heavy-duty light dimmer available from any home improvement center. This makes light dimming affordable, but does change the color temperature of the light when dimmed. However, I am usually able to live with the results. The most affordable incandescent lights on the market right now come from Lowel, Smith Victor, and Cool-Lux which sell great interview lighting kits for a good price. If you're looking for lights that industry professionals use most often, both ARRI and Mole-Richardson offer some high-quality lighting kits as well. Depending on what you'll be using these lights for, there should be a light amongst these manufacturers that fits your needs. Fluorescent On the other hand, fluorescent bulbs produce very little heat and draw less than a quarter of the power of similar incandescent lights. They are generally very soft lights and tend to look great as key lights for interviewing subjects. The biggest problem with this lamp type is that they can't be dimmed by a simple variable resistor dimmer. Since fluorescents work by using bursts of electricity to fluoresce gas inside of a tube, cutting down on the amount of electricity to the fixture will either make the light blink or turn off altogether. This means that the only way to dim fluorescent lights is to use a ballast which makes the fixtures fairly large and cumbersome. That's why these kinds of lights are typically used in studios rather than field work. We actually use fluorescent lights from Kino-Flo such as their 4-Bank and DivaLites to light our green screen and subject in our studio. That being said, companies like Kino-Flo have been hard at work putting together systems, like their Barfly, that are easier to use in the field. These kits usually have fluorescent lamps with ballasts built right into the unit along with hard cases to withstand the frequent abuse of using lights on the road. In fact, many major networks are now using fluorescent fixtures for their studios since it saves so much on cost and generally casts a pleasing soft light on their anchors. Some of the best fluorescent light fixtures can be found at Kino-Flo and FloLight, who have been in the industry for a while. You can also check out Videomaker's review on the Kino-Flo Barfly to see for yourself what these fixtures can do. LED Of all of the lighting technologies, the most promising is the LED. LEDs are an answer to many of the problems gaffers had with incandescent light fixtures. LEDs are small, lightweight, produce almost no heat, draw very little power, can be dimmed without changing color temperature, and can even go between color temperatures at the flick of a switch. With all of these features, it's no wonder that LED fixtures seem to be the Holy Grail of video lighting. The only real problem with LEDs are their limited light intensity. Even the strongest LED lamps fall woefully short of the amount of lumens an incandescent lamp can throw on a subject. That's why LEDs are most often used as key and fill lights in interviews, and on-camera lights since the fixtures can be placed close to the subject in these situations. With the way technology advances in the world of LEDs, I can only imagine that it's just a matter of time before these lamps begin to equal those of incandescents. In fact, some companies such as LitePanels with their Sola, and ARRI's L-Series Fresnel concept are now making LED fixtures that are just as bright as similar incandescent fixtures. Even so, LED light fixtures are hard to beat for field shooting. They are lightweight, can take a decent amount of abuse, and can run off of battery power for long periods of time due to their low power consumption. Lights like these have become very popular at trade shows and events where lighting is usually less than ideal and space is limited. This last year at CES, I saw dozens of people using LED fixtures like the LitePanel 1×1 with an external battery pack for quick interviews and product shots. Many energy conscious studios and buildings are using them too. The White House Press Briefing Room saw their energy consumption drop 95% after using LED fixtures. Even prime time television shows such as Fox's 24 used LEDs to light parts of their set. Though only a handful of companies once sold LEDs, most brand name manufacturers have jumped on the LED bandwagon. Kino-Flo's website has a coming soon page for LED lighting kits, ARRI now sells LoCaster LED fixtures as well as hybrid LED kits, FloLight sells Microbeam LEDs in both a small and large form, Mole-Richardson has a MoleLED concept light that is soon to be released, and Lowel introduced their Blender which can switch between indoor and outdoor color temperatures. Videomaker has also had the privelege to review some of the more interesting LED lights over the past couple of years including the ARRI H-2 "Hybrid" kit, and the LitePanel 1×1 Bi-Color light, both of which are dimmable and can switch color temperatures. Though many of these lights can be more expensive than their incandescent counterparts, the flexibility and energy savings they give is almost always worth the cost.

Dan Bruns is an award winning cinematographer and editor.