Light Painting With An LED Light Panel

The Crest House on Mount Evans

A little while back, I decided to try an LED Light Panel in my night photography.  I'd seen a few mentions of people using them in night photography circles and when I saw night photography friend Royce Bair's comments about them in his e-book, I knew I had to give it a try.
Now that I've used it for a while both on my own and in the night photography workshops I teach together with Darren White, I've found it to be a great addition that allows us to do a few things we weren't previously able to do.  As a result, it's now a required part of my light painting toolkit.

F&V Z96 LED Video Light

What Did I Buy?
    LED Light
        F&V Lighting Z96 UltraColor LED Video Light - $159
    Mini Tripod
        Joby GorillaPod Original Flexible Tripod - $12
What's Special About This Light?

Joby GorillaPod Flexible Tripod

  • I like that I get a neutral gentle light from the Z96 that looks really good in pictures
  • I like that it includes a diffuser and a warming layer that attaches to the light with magnets
  • I like that it's dimmable which allows me to balance my lighting with the night sky
  • I like that it's High CRI which means is will give more accurate colors than most LED bulbs
  • I don't really care that it flashes to let me know it's running out of battery power

How Has It Helped?

Pine Tree Arch in Arches National Park

Predictable Light in Super Long-Exposure Images
It's not too hard to get consistency in light painting with hand-held flashlights in 30 second exposures.  I don't often do it perfect on the first try but it's easy enough to get what I want if I show some patience.  On the other hand, trying to do that in a 30 minute exposure where you get it right on the first try is very difficult.

That's where the low light setting that works for a 30 second exposure also works well for a 30 minute exposure - and that's the beauty of the LED Light Panel.  All you have to do is set the intensity low enough to match the intensity of the other objects like the Milky Way - usually the lowest setting.  Position the light off to the side so you get plenty of shadows and depth and you're ready to shoot. 
So in the past, it was tough to properly expose the foreground in a super long-exposure image.  Now we're happy to say that we're able to overcome this issue - thanks to the LED Light Panel.

Consistent Foreground Lighting Across A Wide Panoramic Sequence
I have some more experimenting in this area but I think there's some benefit in allowing for nightscape panoramas by providing consistent fill-light in the foregrounds below the night sky.  Clearly, this is more helpful in times where moonlight isn't available to do the job.  And when the foreground is close enough to illuminate, I've found some benefit to rotating the LED Light from the same position to coordinate with the direction I'm shooting.

Shark Fins in Arches National Park

The problem is that when a panoramic sequence has an underexposed foreground, most panoramic stitching programs will struggle with combining them.  I've found that the best answer is to properly illuminate your foreground so that the panoramic stitching programs will have a better chance of finding matching content.

So while I've tried to light paint panoramic sequences with a hand-held flashlight, I've found that doing it consistently is more difficult than it looks.  So while the LED Light is certainly not a perfect solution and it deserves more testing, I think it's been working pretty well for me so far.

I think the better answer for panoramic sequences would be to just have two (or even three) of them to cover a wider area.  In this direction, it can be helpful to run both a primary and a secondary light to keep the shadows from getting too dark & noisy.

What's Up With All Those Lookalike Knockoffs?

F&V Z96 LED Video Light

I bought what I'm pretty sure is a real F&V Z96 knowing there are a whole bunch of cheaper knock-off alternatives out there.  In-fact, I've heard it can be pretty difficult to tell the real thing from a fake - there are that many in the market.  In general, the cheap ones that are significantly less are probably a knock-off.
Is a knock-off bad?  One feature that I've heard mine includes that the knock-offs don't is the ability to flash when the light runs out of power.  For me, that wouldn't justify a more expensive light and that points me toward another look at the cheaper alternatives.  That said, I do like the High CRI bulbs my light has and I'd probably look for that again.

Would I Buy The Same Light Again?

John Moulton Barn in Teton National Park

LED Light technologies change pretty quickly so it's not uncommon to see prices come down and it's good to see it's come down a bit.  But at $159, that still feels a little expensive.  In the end though for all the times I've been able to use it and all the times it's stood in as my primary light source, I have to give it a lot of credit.  It's helped to produce some great images!
So while I like to keep an eye on the alternatives, as of October 2015 I think I would still go ahead and buy another F&V Z96.  My EagleTac Clicky is usually within reach as my secondary light but my favorite tool for light painting out in the field is my Z96 LED Light panel and I've been very pleased with the results I've seen from it.

Yes, I would buy it again.