There are plenty of power-sipping LED lights that you can mount atop cameras, but very few have enough punch to fill up large spaces, or cut through daylight. Litepanels finally has such a light in the Sola ENG. It's powerful, controllable, and in some cases, a little loud.
I've needed an on-camera light for a while. I owned and rented little Litepanel Minis and Micros, but they were never powerful enough to cut through strong daylight, or, in a darker space, to throw light a long distance (a dozen feet or more). But then Litepanels introduced the Sola ENG at last year's NAB ($675 list, but closer to $550 in the real world), and it looked like a great solution.
Litepanels Sola ENG.
It's about as bright as a 250w tungsten light (according to Litepanels) but thanks to its LED tech, it draws a minimal 30w. It's also fairly cool to handle, so you won't burn yourself trying to dim or focus it while looking through your eye-piece.
It's daylight-balanced, but ships with a tungsten filter (along with diffusion) for indoor use.
You can focus the Sola's fresnel lens from 10 to 70 degrees, without taking your eye from the camera's eye piece. Just reach up there, and twist the big rubber ring that's around the middle of the light. You can't miss it.
You can dim the Sola from 100% to zero without a noticeable color shift. Just twist the smaller dimmer ring on the back of the light â again, without having to look away from your eye piece.
It's not the lightest of lights, weighing 1.3 pounds when you throw in its barn-doors and swivel mount (a MicroPro weighs about 10 ounces for the light alone, minus mount). But I've found 1.3 pounds still fairly tolerable when set atop my Varicam.
It draws power from a D-tap, so no need to worry about charging batteries, or extra battery weight (provided you use it on or near the camera).
Though its list price is $675, you're more likely to find it for $550, which isn't cheap, but not bad for an on-board LED light. For instance, a Litepanels MicroPro costs $369 on Amazon, but isn't nearly as strong or focusable as the Sola ENG.
Unfortunately, the Sola didn't start shipping until November, so it took a while to actually try it out. But now that I've had some time to work it with it, I can say it's a powerful, fairly energy-efficient and very controllable camera light… but with a couple of hangups.
Here are some impressions:
The Sola ENG definitely has punch. With its beam spread to 70 degrees, you'll get about 34 footcandles at 6 feet. Compare that to the Litepanels MiniPlus (flood model, about $700), which gets 13 footcandles at the same distance, and a Litepanels MicroPro, which gets 28. But neither the Litepanels Mini or Micro can go from flood to spot like the Sola ENG can. If you spot the Sola down to its 10 degree minimum, you'll get 40 footcandles at 12 feet. That punch was enough to add some fill to interviewee's faces while I shot man-on-the-street interviews in daylight. On another job, I was shooting someone coming up a steep, long staircase with a skylight at the top. A PA pointed the Sola at the bottom of the staircase, where the skylight's effect was weakest, and was able to fill in that darker area to balance it better with the top of the stairs. You just couldn't do that with smaller, less powerful LED lights.
Actually, the Sola feels a little overpowered when you're indoors, particularly in dark spaces. If you're shooting indoor interviews with people a few feet in front of you, you'll definitely have to dim the Sola down and possibly slip in a diffusion filter. If that kind of dark, indoor work is what you do most, you'll probably be better with a smaller light that draws less power. But personally, I want a light that can handle a variety of jobs, and would rather have too much light than too little.
Litepanel MicroPro at brightest setting
Sola ENG in flood setting (70 degrees)
Sola in spot setting (10 degrees)
Battery Life and Battery Options
They don't call it the Sola ENG for nothing. It's primarily designed for ENG cameras, with the light drawing power from the camera's battery via a 2-pin D-Tap. If your camera doesn't have a D-tap, then you'll have to add that support before working with the Sola ENG.
If you want to use the light off-camera, you can always buy a battery plate with a D-Tap built in, and plug the light's coil into that. Of course, that's another $100+ plus to add to your costs.
As for battery life, Litepanels says the Sola draws about 30w an hour. I couldn't measure that precisely, but I did run the Sola at full power on my P2 Varicam recording in AVC-Intra 100 (which is supposed to use about 42 watts) and running off a 90 watt Dionic HC battery. I was able to run the camera/light combination for 55 minutes before the camera's battery indicator hit 0% and it started beeping loudly. If that's not practical for you, you might consider the 9w draw of Litepanels' MicroPro, or one of the smaller lights from other companies.
There was one disappointing aspect to the Sola ENG, and that's its on-board fan. Here I was, thinking that LED lights ran cool by their nature, but the Sola ENG proves me wrong. Just turn it on, and you'll immediately hear the fan rev up. And while I wouldn't call the Sola's fan loud, it definitely picks up on my Varicam's on-board microphone. For an example, check out this audio clip I recorded.
Also, the Sola's fan noise can get louder than what my recording captured. The fan doesn't seem to rev when you dim the light up and down, but it does start to rev once the light has been running for a few minutes at full power. It revs up louder than what you hear in my recording, and after several seconds, tends to rev down again until starting a new cycle several seconds later. During those higher revs, I could definitely hear the fan standing 6 feet away from the camera.
But the fan noise doesn't have to be a deal killer, since many shooters only capture audio from boomed and wireless mics, with their subjects standing well out-of-range of the Sola's fan. On the other hand, I have a very wide-angle lens, and sometimes stand within a few feet of my interviewees. In these close-encounter cases, if the environment is otherwise quiet, I think even a boomed or wireless mic would hear the Sola's fan, at least at its higher rev.
My guess is that the Sola's fan will not be an issue for a lot of projects, but anyone using the Sola on a regular basis will still run into a case or two when they wish their Sola was more quiet.
A Couple of Other Hitches
There are two other small annoyances that seemed a little awkward as I used the Sola.
First is how the Sola handles its tungsten and diffusion filters. To keep filters in place, you have to first attach the Sola's barn doors (and extra .15 pound), and then slide your filter into the corners of the barn doors. It would have been nicer if the light could accommodate filters without the barn doors, and even better if the two filters could be attached to the light, and simply rotated into place without having to take the camera off your shoulder.
Slide your filter into the corners of the barn doors.
Secondly, as I mentioned before, you turn the Sola on by twisting its dimmer dial. That's fine, but the light turns on at full brightness, and can blind anyone standing in front of it, waiting to start their interview. Litepanels said they designed the light that way so a shooter can strike the light as quickly as possible. But personally, I'd much prefer to turn the light on, and dim it up to whatever level I need.
A New Sola ENG On the Way
There's one last thing to consider before you buy the current Sola ENG. Before finishing this review, I did a quick fact-check with Litepanels and they told me that they're working on a modified Sola ENG that will let you swap out its coiled D-tap cable and replace it with a battery mount, so you can power the light off-camera. It will also have some kind of connector for attaching the Sola to a light stand. Apparently, this version is coming "soon", although there's no word on price. If you want a more convenient way to use the Sola off-camera, then you may want to wait a little longer, and see what this new product brings.
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary cameraman. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more information, go to www.varicaminla.com
At NAB 2012, Litepanels part of Vitec Videocom, a Vitec Group company, introduced the Croma on-camera LED lighting fixture, the Inca Series tungsten balanced LED Fresnel fixtures, the Sola 4 Daylight Balanced LED Fresnel and the Sola ENG Flight Kit. The company also offered a $100 rebate on the purchases of the Croma variable color temperature LED light and the Sola EMG LED Fresnel lighting fixture.
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