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Underwater Video Light Review - 2013

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Underwater Video Light Review - 2013

This article represents the current state of the art in video lighting and will be updated on a continuous basis as new lights are released. Last updated April 2013.

In the past five years, there has been a revolution in underwater video lighting thanks to rapid advances in LED (light emitting diode) and lithium ion battery technologies. The net result for underwater videographers is brighter lights, with smaller footprints, and a more affordable cost. Gone are the days of heavy battery pods, dangling cables, and expensive HID bulbs. Today's lights feature integrated batteries and light output that used to require surface supply. There are more choices than ever as well. This article will review the results of these advances, breaking down the best video light options on the market for the underwater shooter.

The 2013 lineup of video lights tested.

Video shot with Video Lights

Lighting this video in the Cenotes took just about every light in our arsenal. On the housing itself, Backscatter owner Berkley White shot with Gates VL24s while his model carried a variety of lights including Sola 2000s, Sola 4000s and Gates VL24s.

Berkley used Gates VL24s for the wide angle shots in this video, and used the spot function on Sola 1200 lights to isolate his subjects while shooting macro.

While the Sony RX100 is an amazing camera, this video would not have been successful without the use of a pair of Keldan Luna 8 video lights that were used in every shot.

Photos shot with Video Lights

Little Cayman shot with <a href='' class='standard'>Gates VL24</a> video lights by Sterling Zumbrunn

Taken with Gates VL24 video lights. One of the keys to success when shooting stills with video lights is finding subjects that are either static, or moving extremely slowly. Unlike shooting with strobes, shooting with high shutter speeds is generally more difficult, and motion is not frozen as effectively.

Cuttlefish lit with video lights by Sterling Zumbrunn

Taken with two Keldan Luna 8 Flux lights. Video lights are not necessarily a replacement for a strobe which output an order of magnitude more power. But the highest end lights in our tests are getting close.

Video Light Testing Methodology

We decided to test all of the major brands of video lights that we sell to see how they perform. Most manufacturers publish a lumen rating that is taken directly from the specs of the LEDs used in their lights, but we have found that the real world output is far less than that, making comparisons on paper meaningless. We did our own testing to find out how all of the video lights that we sell stack up against each other based on exposure values. Most lights are bright in the center and fall off to the edges. Lumens measures overall light output, not the change in intensity from center to edge. For example, you might assume a 4000 lumen light would always be brighter than a 500 lumen light. However, if you put a Sola 1200 in spot mode (rated at 500 lumens in spot) for macro shooting, it is much brighter than the Sola 4000 in the center of the beam. That’s why we decided to test these lights by measuring their exposure value from center of beam to the edge, as it better illustrates intensity and coverage in real world use.

Test Results (click to enlarge)

All lights were tested using a light meter, with the room lights off, and the meter 18 inches from the face of each light. This distance was closer than our strobe tests, because the output from continuous beam lighting is a fraction of the power generated by an instantaneous strobe burst. This also translates into practice, as video lights must be much closer to the subject than strobes while shooting underwater. We tested to calculate what aperture would be achievable at ISO 100 and 1/60 of a second (the most common shutter speed for shooting 30p video).

We measured the intensity of the light at center, 12 inches out (66º), and 18 inches out (90º) to simulate the effectiveness of these lights to illuminate the entire field of view while using a wide-angle lens.

Interpreting These Results

As expected, the most expensive professional lights - the Gates VL24s, Keldan Luna 8s, FIX Aquavolt 7000s, and Light and Motion Sola 4000s are not only the brightest, but are also the most even across the field, maintaining good intensity even at 18 inches from center. This is critical for lighting wide angle scenes, such as when using a fisheye lens on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. The Sola 1200 in spot mode has incredible intensity at the center of its beam, making it a great fit for macro shooting where wide coverage is not as critical. Read on for our thoughts about each of the lights we tested.

Entry Level Video Lights $149 - $279

Inon LE550W
Inon LE550-W ($149)
Powered by 3 AAA batteries, the Inon LE550-W is an extremely affordable dive light that can be used as a focus light on any type of still camera rig. For use in video, due to its relatively narrow beam, we'd recommend using a pair of these lights and sticking with close-up subjects.

Ikelite Pro 8
Ikelite Pro V8 ($249.95)
The Ikelite Pro V8 is an extremely affordable, compact video light that features a special optic lens to give a 45 degree beam that is free of hot spots, making it suitable for shooting macro subjects. It is powered by eight C cell batteries providing 10 hours of burn time.

Light and Motion <a href='' class='standard'>Sola 500</a>
Sola 500 ($279)
The Sola 500 has been one of our most popular lights over the past few years. It has a very attractive price point, and a bright, wide beam. Unlike the previous two lights, the Sola 500 features an integrated lithium-ion battery that makes maintaining the light a breeze. With no user o-rings to maintain, charging the light is as simple as plugging the charger directly in, and there are no additional batteries to buy, saving a fortune over the lifespan of the light. The Sola 500 works great as a focus light for still cameras, and it can be used for close-up video with any kind of camera system from a GoPro to an SLR.

Mid-range Video Lights $699 - $950

<a href='' class='standard'><a href='' class='standard'>Sola 1200</a></a> video light
Sola 1200 ($699)
The Sola 1200 has been one of our most popular mid-range lights over the past few years, largely due to its capability of switching between spot and flood modes. In flood mode, the Sola 1200 is in the middle of the range of all lights we tested, but in spot mode this light shows incredible intensity, the very hightest brightness. This is one of the lights we typically recommend for shooters with compact cameras, as it is a great match for everything from a GoPro to a point and shoot.

<a href='' class='standard'>AOI RGBlue System01</a> Underwater Video Light
AOI RGBlue System01 Underwater Video Light ($750)
The AOI RGBlue is the newcomer to this group of video lights. One of the features that distinguishes this light from other lights in this form factor is the interchangable battery modules that are great for those trips where you plan to do multiple dives between access to charging. The battery and light heads are waterproof, so no worries about water entry when changing batteries. The light includes a 60 degree condensing lens for creating a tighter beam. The AOI light will be forward compatible with new light and battery modules. While the AOI RGBlue is less powerful in the center of its frame to a comparably priced Sola 1200, it's characterized by its incredible eveness across its beam. It's just as powerful as a Sola 2000, when measuring at the edges of their beams.
<a href='' class='standard'>Sola 2000</a> Video Light
Sola 2000 ($799 Flood Only, $899 Spot/Flood)
The Sola 2000 hits a sweet spot for price and performance, outputting the brightest light of our midrange lights at the center of its beam. It's available in two versions, one that has flood only, and a brand new version for 2013 that features both spot and flood for just $100 more. Either version is a great value for the amount of light you get, and this is the light we typically recommend as an entry level option for SLR shooters.
<a href='' class='standard'>Ikelite DS-161</a> Movie Light
Ikelite DS-161 ($949.95)
The Ikelite DS-161 is an excellent strobe, putting out beautiful even light, thanks to its cicular flash tube. But the marquee feature of this unit is its "Movie Light" functionality, with a built in 500 lumen LED unit. While we love the concept of a hybrid stobe/video light, our testing showed that the LED light portion of the DS-161 is extremely narrow, and really only suitable for macro.

Professional Video Lights $1599 - $2138

<a href='' class='standard'>Sola 4000</a> video light
Sola 4000 ($1599)
The Sola 4000s have an impressive power output for their size, weight, and cost. They are the most affordable of the high-end video lights. With seven different power settings, they're a great option for dimmer coldwater environments, as you can dial down the power to match the ambient light. On the downside, they feature an integrated battery which means they need to be charged after running out of power. With a runtime of 50 minutes on high, this can be an issue for serious vidoegraphers needing to shoot for hours a day.

<a href='' class='standard'>Fisheye Aquavolt 7000</a> video light
Fisheye Aquavolt 7000 ($1999.00)
The Fisheye Aquavolt 7000 puts out an incredible amount of light in a small footprint. Like the Luna 8s and VL24s, they feature interchangable batteries making them a great choice for multi-dive shoots. One of the Aquavolt's niftiest features is its adjustable power dial and LCD readout that updates the light's remaining runtime based on the current power level. On the downside, these lights are quite negative in-water, making additional flotation a must.
<a href='' class='standard'>Keldan Luna 8</a> Flux
Keldan Luna 8 Flux ($2099.99)
While not the brightest light in our testing, the Keldan Luna 8 Flux produces an incredibly even beam, and features interchangable batteries that are affordable and dead simple to swap in the field. Unique to all of the lights we tested, the dome on the front of the Keldan Luna 8 works similarly to the dome port on a camera housing, meaning that these lights are able to achieve the same angle of coverage underwater as they do topside. This allows them to easily cover the field of view of a wide angle lens, and their modular design ensures that components can be upgraded as technology advances.

<a href='' class='standard'>Gates VL24</a> Video Light
Gates VL24 ($2137.50)
The Gates VL24s have been one of our favorite video lights for the past two years, owing to their beautiful bright light, incredible coverage, and neutral buoyancy. Expensive spare batteries are one of their very few downsides. Sadly, these lights are currently off the market but we are looking forward to Gates offering an updated version in the near future. Watch this page for more information.

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