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Litepanels Astra Review
If you’re into lighting with LED panels at all, you must have heard about the Litepanels Astra that came out last year. Litepanels were the first in the field of LED panel lighting for video, and after being thoroughly and extensively copied over the years, they’ve now released a spiffed-up design of their original product. They were also kind enough to lend me one, and here are my impressions after playing with it around the house and using it on several shoots.
What I noticed first is how bright it was. When set to daylight-only, it’s just about two stops brighter than my old Litepanels D-Flood, or four times as bright. That’s pretty remarkable, especially since it’s a bi-color. Bicolor panels are generally accepted as being less bright than single-color panels because there’s only room for half as many LEDs of each color. The daylight emitters are brighter than the tungsten emitters because the base output of the emitter is quite blue and it requires a denser and more complex mix of phosphors to adjust that blue color down to roughly 3200K. When set to tungsten, the Astra is a stop and a half brighter (3x) than the old Litepanel.
Old Litepanel daylight flood, ISO 320, 111” (282 cm) metered at f/2
Astra panel, set to full daylight, ISO 320, 111” (282 cm): f/2.8 .8
In the spirit of research, I also compared the output to one of my other go-to panels, the Dracast 1000 Daylight 1×1. The Dracast single-color was about the same, maybe a hair brighter, but that’s not really comparing apples to apples, since the Dracast is a single-color panel and the Astra is a Bi-color, which is another point in the Astra’s favor.
Right after I got it, I put it up in my living room and banged it off the wall and took some pictures of my kids. The wall had a yellowish tint which threw things off, but shooting on preset 3200K, things looked fine. Whatever LED-based inaccuracies there may in the spectral output of this light, it was still a pleasing color to be around and the kids looked pretty good. Possibly they look a touch yellow/green, but the bounce wall is a little yellow as well.
To be more scientific about it, here are some screen grabs of tests I shot using a DSC Labs Oneshot color chart with the panel set to both tungsten and daylight output. How does the skin tone look? My skin looks decent unless you count the age spots and unshavenness, but the yellow chip on the chart looks a little green-brown, which is odd because on the vectorscope the yellow chip appears to be skewing towards red, not green. It also looks like the red chip is a little orangey, skewing a bit towards yellow.
The Astra only comes in bi-color. The rows of LEDs alternate between blue and orange, and you fade between them with a dimmer knob on the back.
This is a simple, user friendly setup, with the controls close to each other and easy to operate without looking with one hand. Each control has a different shape so you can distinguish between them by feel without looking.
Some may object that you cannot dial in a specific Kelvin color temperature, but that didn’t bother me much. You can light by numbers or you can light by eye(and monitor), and my style has always been the latter.
- Shape, ergonomics, and the yoke
The shape and ergonomics of the Astra are much improved over the traditional 1×1 panel format. Firstly, the yoke is angled forward so that the light doesn’t sit directly over the stand.
The benefits of this are that it can tilt down and not have its own yoke interfere with the beam, especially when using front-mounted accessories like a softbox. The yoke is tilted forward just enough so that when you put the light up to a relatively normal above-eye level height, you can still focus it at the subject, even with a softbox or barndoors on.
Second, the heavy bits are moved off of the panel and onto the yoke. The ac power supply brick and the external battery are mounted to the yoke where it sits on the stand, rather than on the back of the panel as is traditional. This is huge. Have you ever had the big fat battery on the back of your panel throw it way off balance so that it suddenly tilts up to the sky? That little issue is handily take care of. You can see here the battery mounting plate on the back of the yoke just over the mounting point.
A drawback to this change is that moving the power supply to the yoke seems to have left us with messy external cables! Both the AC adapter and the battery plate had a 3-pin XLR output that you plug into the back of the unit, and the unused one dangles freely, which bothered me a bit. I asked Litepanels about this and they sent me an image of the yoke with built-in clips to keep the cables straight. The panel I was using was a beta, so didn’t have the cable routing all worked out yet. The routing clips in the yoke will be good for the XLR that you are using, but it doesn’t solve the dangling unused cable issue.
I would prefer if the cables from both the battery plate and the AC adapter were hidden inside the yoke. It is a bit annoying to unplug a cable from the back of the light and plug in a different one when you switch from battery to AC power or vice-versa. Some competing panels do the switch from battery to AC just with a switch. As a product manufacturer myself, I can guess that it’s not that they didn’t think of it, it’s more about the cost. It’s always the cost.
Third, added to the yoke are two ¼-20 threaded holes on the sides of the yoke, nice if you want to add another baby stud to the side for rigging or to store the ¼-20 tiedown when using the panel in a junior receiver. These tapped holes aren’t that big a deal, I don’t see them being useful all that often, but it’s still a neat little feature not offered by the competition.
Fourth, they improved the yoke-tightening knobs, making them bigger more hand-friendly, and putting them on both sides of the yoke.
This isn’t critical, but it’s nice. The combination of the big knobs, the well-balanced light and the battery weight going on the yoke results in a pleasant user experience: quick to aim and stays focused right where you point it, with the only drawback being that there are two knobs. I do wonder if they couldn’t have made it work with just a single right-side knob. A leko has only one knob and stays put, a 1200 par has only one knob and stays put, why can’t a lightweight panel just have one knob? Still, the light was quite nice to work with, smooth and fast to focus.
Fifth, the body of the light is all rounded molded plastic with not a hard corner in sight. The plus side of this is that it’s nice in your hands, nothing to nick yourself on, and is a marked deviation from the boxy form they initiated last decade, but will this molded plastic hold up to rental house abuse? Only time will tell on this one. As well, the controls didn’t feel as durable as I would like though. The power button in particular felt a little clinky and plasticky, and the knobs are plastic and I fear they’ll get busted off when the light gets shoved in and out of bags over and over.
The gels are now slid in from the side rather than the top. I could see this being good, so hard gels won’t fall out when you flip it upside down, but I also found it a little fiddly to get gels in and out. The plane where the gels sit is below the plane of the front of the unit, so you bend the gels a little to stick them in. They’ll definitely stay in, unlike most panels where you’re putting the light away and THUNK, two hard gels fall out and hit the floor and make you look clumsy or careless. Sliding the gels in the side is an improvement over the old style.
- Other Features- cooling
The Astra has a feature that I haven’t seen on other units: a fan.
Perhaps the fan’s purpose is to extend the life of the emitters or preserve their color by keeping the temperature down, especially if they’re in a long-term installation? I don’t know. In any case, it’s extremely quiet. I had thought that that would be an issue on sets where there is sound, but the fan noise proved to be a non-issue.
The Litepanels writeup about the cooling mode says:
“Efficient thermal management with user selectable dual cooling mode
– Completely silent passive cooling mode
– Ultra-quiet active cooling mode with double light output”
The way to switch cooling modes wasn’t apparent to me, so I missed this feature when I had the light in my possession. I don’t know which cooling mode it was operating in; it was probably passive mode since the fan seemed to go off shortly after I turned the unit on. If you can leave the fan on and double the light output, that could be a cool feature, since the fan was extremely quiet and would be little trouble even on a sync-sound set. I’ll have to revisit this section later next time I get my hands on an Astra. I left it in the mode it was in out of the box for all my testing.
- But…It’s still an LED panel
The output is still the usual multiple source that you get from LED arrays. This can be objectionable, both in looking a little funny when someone has a multiple nose shadow. It’s actually worse with this unit than with some others because the Astra uses fewer/ larger LED emitters.
There’s a sheet of etched polycarbonate over the front that protects the emitters and diffuses the light to a minor extent, but the only real solution to the multi-shadow thing is diffusion set out in front of the light, becoming a new source. Diffusion right on the face isn’t really going to help much, since you can see all the emitters and they’re not a unified source. Here’s an Astra with an Airbox, making a nice soft single source with no multiple shadows.
I was pretty surprised to learn that the retail price is only 1500$. I paid 2200 each for my old d-floods back in ’07. Yes, there’s more plastic in the build than I would have expected, but it’s still a much lower price than I’d have expected from Litepanels, never known to be an inexpensive brand. It makes sense; there are so many copycat brands now, and we can hardly even call them copycats anymore! Lighting with LED arrays is now well established, and some of these latter day panel makers are doing it so cheaply and so well (c.f. Dracast). It only makes sense that Litepanels would have to bring their prices down. It’s a crowded space, as they say. I believe that the AB gold mount battery plate is an add-on for an additional 140$, as would be the optional dmx control module.
And at the end of the day, what’s my opinion? Is it a good price for what you get?
Yes! I wouldn’t be surprised if the Litepanels Astra became the new standard in rental houses, the one that customers ask for by name. It had all the advantages of a traditional LED panel, being bright, light, convenient, simple and fast to work with, battery-powered, but with some improvements beyond those basics. If I was going to buy another LED panel, I’d likely buy an Astra.
Gaffer, DP, inventor