A small, affordable light that really shines

It fits comfortably in your hand or atop a compact camcorder. It can output a broad swath of light tweaked for a desired color balance. It packs a nice punch if you need it or a reasonably smooth wash if that is your fervent desire. It's the new Croma LED from Litepanels – a small investment at around $600 street price that pays huge rewards.

Unlike the many less sexy bits and gadgets in your basic pro kit, this versatile LED light will find many uses, from shooting talent in the predawn hours on a ancient bridge in Prague to candlelit folk singers in the Hazaribagh section of Old Dhaka. I used the Croma recently for exactly that.

The conditions outside an austere mosque in the Bangladesh capital, densely packed with locals, can only be described as dark and gloomy. The Bangladeshi drummer and his wife posed a challenge because as much as my UK-based director demanded that I shoot with existing light, there was in fact very little of it. She didn’t really seem to care, however, preferring to toss the problem back at me. "Didn't you say your new camcorder (the Panasonic AG-HPX250) was fabulous in low light? I replied, "Well, uh, yes. That's right, but low light doesn't mean no light.

The call went out for candles, lots of them, to hand out to the crowd, forming twenty deep around the performers. Of course even with the lit candles spread liberally about the frame it still left the task of filling the performers’ faces with a color-correct frontal light.

That's where the new Croma, with its finely tweakable intensity and color temperature, entered the picture. In this case I feathered the Croma off the singer closest to camera, the surging crowd around me tugging at my sleeve demanding their turn to view the scene through the camera viewfinder. Under such pressing conditions a simple compact light is essential, and the Croma, owing to its great versatility, was the perfect choice.

The Croma facilitated this difficult setup of two folk singers, providing a pleasing frontal key suggestive of the candles placed around the scene.

The Croma is a fabulous low-cost unit for use, especially in low light conditions. I also found it useful for teaching lighting craft at local schools and universities, as it is an excellent tool for demonstrating the rudiments of genre. Savvy filmmakers know they must, above all, establish the genre of their work from the very first frame – is the work a comedy, drama, a tale of horror or a story of suspence? Audiences need to know! We often use music, title design, framing and composition, to accomplish it but in most cases we rely on lighting, specifically the direction of light to immediately suggest the genre of one's story.

The Croma, owing to its size, color range, and versatility, can be the key (no pun intended) to delivering a filmmaker's fundamental visual cues. In a recent lighting seminar at Pathshala Media Academy in Dhaka, my students varied the angle and direction of the Croma around an actor, evoking horror when directed from below, for example, or suspense when angled from behind or above.

The direction of key light can go a long way to communicating genre to your audience. For educators the Croma helps convey this point well. Photo Credit: Ihtisham Kabir/BRAC University

While most filmmakers will find the Croma useful for a wide variety of tasks, some shooters may object to the unit’s overall build quality, specifically, the poorly designed latch for the battery compartment door. A sturdier, more secure mechanism should be adopted in the second-generation Croma version, an improvement that would immediately transform the Croma into an undeniablly first-rate product. This is a US-made product, after all, assembled in Los Angeles; the quality of construction must be first-rate in order to compete effectively with the cheap Chinese knock-offs almost certain to follow.

Still, despite this one shortcoming, the new Croma will almost certainly find wide acceptance among a large segment of craft-conscious filmmakers. The quality of the LED light array is very good, and not at all blue or pointy, as is the case with many cheaper LED units on the market.