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Review: Litepanels Sola ENG Lighting Kit

For the past five years LED camera lights, with their high brightness at short range and low power draw, have been all the rage. The earliest LED lights looked like a miniature bank of stadium lighting. About two years ago we started seeing new higher-power "Kree" LEDs the let manufacturers build smaller profile casing resembling more traditional on-camera lights. During the past two years I've been using one such light, the Comer CM-LBPS1800, extensively. Unfortunately, it hasn't been the most reliable and I had to replace it once, which sent me looking for an alternative. The Comer works off either Sony "L" series Lithium-ion batteries or from the Anton/Bauer power tap. It has a flip-down lens that allows for a longer throw, and a 3200K flip-up filter and barn doors on the left and right.
The Sola ENG, like the Comer, has barn doors on the left and right and the Anton/Bauer power tap, but that is where the similarities end. The main structure of the Sola ENG is about the diameter of a soda can, but not as long. There are two rings that control the light: the one in front controls the focus of the beam, the one in back is the dimmer (see the diagram, below). Both rings look and feel completely different, and both are rubberized. The barn doors/filter holder is a flexible metal square that clips on to the front of the light.

The camera mount screws into the bottom of the light. It is, in my opinion, a little over complicated. The articulated ball joint is too complicated for an on-camera light. A simple "elbow joint" for bending forward or back, like on the original Litepanels Micro, would be less complicated and easier to use. Why a cameraperson would need to turn a light away from the camera's subject is beyond me. The Sola ENG is powered by the Anton/Bauer power tap (otherwise known as a D-tap), available on many full-size camcorders bodies, Anton/Bauer battery plates, and directly from some batteries. There is also an optional AC power supply for use on a light stand.

Testing Sola ENG in the Field

The first real-world shoot I used it the light on was getting interviews and B-roll for a nonprofit organization. I mounted the light on my Sony HVR-S270u, a full-size HDV shoulder mount camcorder, in the accessory shoe. I also put the diffusion filter in the filter holder. I powered it from the Anton/Bauer tap on the right side of the body, below the handle. A switch on the opposite side of the camera allows you to sync the light with the record button. This is a wonderful feature and will save you a tremendous amount of power if, like me, you forget to turn the light out yourself. Running both the camera and the light off the same battery will bring down your battery runtime by 1/3 to 1/2, depending how bright you run the light. As I expected, I found the Sola ENG to run much better with my Ni-Cd Anton Bauer Trimpac and Pro Pac than with my (five-year-old) Li-Ion Dionic. At least with the Ni-Cd batteries you get a warning before the camera dies. With the Li-Ion it just cut out, but that was after three hours of on-and-off use. If you plan to use it off the same battery as the camera, then Ni-Cd batteries are a better recommendation. I haven't tried Anton/Bauer's "Hytron," Nickle Metal Hydride (NiMH) formulated batteries, but I've read that they are also good for using to power both, and weigh less than the Ni-Cds.

The nonprofit shoot was fairly low key. The first thing I needed to get used to was the feel of the power and focus rings. As expected, it is easier to adjust them when the camera is on a tripod than when it is on your shoulder, but with some practice, I got used to it. The only other thing I needed to get used to was the shortened run time on the batteries.

My second shoot with the Sola ENG was a bit more involved. It was an ENG shoot for Fandango/NBC covering the opening night of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1. I got shots of the "Twi-hards" camped out for hours and standing in long lines, as well as all the festivities going on in the theater, including look-a-like actors dressed as the film's stars during their wedding scene and posing for pictures with fans. Also walking around were Fandango's mascots, which were people dressed in giant paper bag puppet costumes. The costumes were impossible to see out of and each mascot required a handler to direct them through the crowd. At one point a mascot, made to look like a beach bum with shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and giant starfish as hair, whipped around quickly, catching the Sola ENG in a dangling starfish and sending it crashing six feet to the floor. The producer and PR people had looks on their faces that said, "Oh crap. That light looks expensive. Don't tell me we're going to have to pay for that." Before anyone said a word, I picked it up to inspect it and found no damage at all. After remounting and plugging it back in, the light worked exactly as it had before. The Fandango staff breathed a collective sigh of relief and so did I. I'm guessing the rubberized focus and dimmer rings but also the more flexible plastic structure of the unit protected the light from the fall. If it had been the more brittle Comer CM-LBPS1800 that fell, I wouldn't want to bet on whether it would have survived without a few cracks or major dings.

I liked using the Sola ENG very much. It was easy to use and rugged when it counted. There were only a couple things I had issues with, including the aforementioned ball-joint mount. The other thing that isn't ideal is the light's fan. It makes some noise that some may not welcome. It's not a lot of noise, but if I were using it on a prosumer camera, where for some reason I was only using an on-board, built-in mic on auto or high gain, it might pick up some noise. As most pros will be using wireless or directional mics, the fan is really a non-issue. In looking and listening to my footage I didn't have any noise from the light.

Overall, I think the light works well and is rugged enough for tough ENG use where it may get literally bounced around. For this reason, the Sola ENG, which also comes with filters, adapters and a carrying case (see sidebar, left), shines above the now crowded field of on-camera, LED lights. The fact that it has the form factor of a traditional light, with the lower draw of an LED, will make many ENG/run-and-gun shooters pretty happy to have it in their kits.

4 Comments

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  • Steven Kallevik

    Don’t believe the hype that it can hold up in rain because its electronics are not sealed in any way mainly because they get hot which is why there is a fan (that gets fairly loud – definitely cannot have a mic anywhere near the light).

    Maybe I am biased because I have had 2 of 3 Sola’s die on me within the first 3 months, but there is no way getting around the fact that these lights are very flimsy and made of cheap parts. Technically, I have had 3 bad lights but I live with the loud fan while my 2nd Sola sits in its bag because its fan completely died (making ALL 3 Sola’s I have owned that have had bad fans). The 3rd Sola was returned within a week due to its bad fan. Oh yeah, also I have had 2 barn door rings snap so I had to rig up something to hold one in place.

    On the flip side, my Dedo LEDzilla is in perfect working condition like the day I bought it, which was the same time as the Sola’s (Dec 2010). I bought the Sola’s to replace the Arri 300w Fresnels I had on order because the Sola’s are roughly 240w so close enough to the Arri. However, the Sola’s are no where near color accurate and produce a blueish-red tint when the camera is set to 5600k (used on an EX3 all the time plus an EX1 and quite a bit on light stands with an F3). For $600, Litepanels cut a lot of corners to get something this powerful in a small package, which explains why they do not hold up in any serious production workflow. From what I have heard about other Litepanels products, poor build quality is common.

    CONCLUSION: buy something else.

    • http://twitter.com/unitedphoto UnitedByPhotography™

      As mentioned hype shouldn’t be the guidance of buying a new product.

  • http://twitter.com/unitedphoto UnitedByPhotography™

    Many thanks Steven Kallevik for the note of caution every that glitters isn’t necessarily gold and its the same with all new technologies. Sold and promoted on hype with the exclusion of the reality.

  • http://twitter.com/unitedphoto UnitedByPhotography™

    Good to know the Litepanels Sola can be perfectly suited to real life applications and user experience as well.

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