As an architectural and interiors photographer, I own more lights than I even want to think about. Pelican cases full - hot lights, speedlights, monolights, color balanced bulbs, and modifiers to go along with all of them. Lowel recently released the very polarizing GL-1 Hotlight to much controversy: people mocked it or loved it. And truth be told, I was one of those who was on the bandwagon of laughing at this thing. You mean to tell me that you want to sell a glorified drill with a flashlight mounted on it for $700? But beneath the surface, this little light is so, so much more.
For the purpose of this piece, I'm going to be discussing the uses of this light in the context of architectural photography. If you're a wedding or portrait shooter, there are tons and tons of resources already out there regarding this light, many of which can be found on here on Lowel's youtube channel and website. There are plenty of example images and how-to guides, but since there is a dearth of information regarding this product in the world of architectural photography, that's what I'll be focusing on. The other reason for that is the fact that I probably couldn't shoot a halfway decent portrait or wedding shot if my life depended on it, but that's neither here nor there, so I'm not going to talk about what I don't know a thing about.
SOME BACKGROUND INFORMATION...
For years, I have been perfecting my twilight exterior and interior shots, which are mostly made by some combination of light painting and photoshop antics. My go-to tool for this style of shooting was a couple of speedlights - as seen here. The reasons for this were many:
-I liked their portability
-I'm clumsy, I drop things, they are cheap and easy to replace
-They put out just enough light to get the job done
-I'm lazy and didn't want to learn a new method for light painting
However, there are also a few negatives that come along with using speedlights...
-Lack of serious power for big projects
-The ability to see what I was lighting before I lit it
-The ability to see how the surface would react before I lit it
-Remote triggers can act up when shooting around water/near complicated buildings
So they have been an imperfect solution, but one that I've been okay with. Over the years of using speedlights, I got pretty darn good at predicting how they'd react when lighting architecture with them. I had my methods down to a science, and it was pretty repeatable. I learned to live with the quirks and went on delivering my pictures to clients as I always had.
That is, until I found myself stumbling through the vendor booths at WPPI in Las Vegas this March with some of the Fstoppers crew (I'm not really sure how an architectural photographer such as myself winds up at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International convention, but I digress). We were walking through the tradeshow, checking out products when I saw Brian Marcus, a New York based wedding photographer, giving a demonstration of the Gl-1 light at the Lowel booth. Tens of weddings photographers huddled around, seeming to be pretty interested. I'd seen the GL-1 online, and, like many others, sort of chuckled at it. Zach Arias famously said "it looks like a drill, because you're getting screwed." But seeing it here, in the flesh, for the first time was eye-opening. It seemed to be the perfect tool for what I'd been doing with speedlights. I'm going to go on the record here and say that no, you're not getting screwed. At all.
I could see where my light was going, I could focus the light, it had a perfectly-sized spread and beam for residential architecture photography, and didn't require cables like conventional hotlights. The lack of cables was one of the big reasons I like using speedlights - quick and easy to move outdoors, no hassle, no photoshopping, and not a lot of fuss involved in shooting with them, unlike bigger Arri hotlights which required yards of extension cable, were hot as a warm day in hell, and pretty heavy to lug. I'm a one-man show and the less I have to set up and tear down, the better.
I immediately went out and picked one of these lights up, in the hopes that it would make my life a bit easier. And I'm very happy to say that it did.
HOW I USE THE GL-1
So, like I said, I've been using speedlights to paint light on architecture. Pretty simple. But where does the GL-1 come into all of this? Instead of having to sort of 'wing it' with speedlights, I use the GL-1 to place the light exactly where I want it with no guesswork. The other thing I really REALLY like about this light is the ability to create a long-duration 'brushstroke' of light, so to say. Whereas speedlights are a quick, high energy blast of light in one spot, I'm able to take the Lowel light (as you would any hotlight) and walk along a hedge or railing or whatever architectural feature and light the entire thing evenly - something that speedlights definitely struggle to do.
GL-1 used to light under foreground roof, plants, home, etc
GL-1 used throughout
GL-1 mixed with speedlights and PocketWizards
Gl-1 mixed with speedlights, GL-1 used to light trees and foreground in steady passes
So in a sense, what we have is a sort of hotlight that's been turned into a speedlight. A speed-hot-light if you will. A hot light without the cables, cords, heat, and size, that fits in the palm of your hand.
I'll either use it in a long exposure role to paint over large swaths of a piece of architecture, or do some detail painting to mask together later in Photoshop on bigger jobs. At this point, I use it in conjunction with speedlights and monolights for the best of everything. It fills a role perfectly for me - the ability to paint light in a very detailed way without annoying cables. The added bonus of not setting fire to my hand like my Arri lights is great, as well. For large areas that require a lot of light, I still use speedlights - as they create a short-duration, high-intensity light. But when I can get away with it, I am loving the GL-1 for a long-duration light that can cover a lot of ground and do some real detail painting for me.
GL-1 mixed with speedlights and PocketWizards
SOUNDS LIKE A $700 MAGLIGHT TO ME...
Not even close. I've gotten into this argument with Lee Morris ad nauseum. I've tried flashlights for this sort of thing, and they just do not cut the mustard. The light that comes from the GL-1 is seriously high quality. It's a zoomable fresnel, which creates a near-perfect spot of light, with nearly no falloff from edge to edge, and no hotspots across the entire diameter of the light. Power is infinitely adjustable between full and nearly off, so you can light spaces large and small. There are adjustable flashlights on the market, of course - but as far as I know, there is no one flashlight that is recommended by photographers for it's great control, perfect light, and consistent brightness.
GL-1 for foreground lighting, speedlights for house
And then there's the color. Again, there aren't really any flashlights which are made to create a perfect and consistent color, it's just usually not a priority when compared with sheer power. Not so with the GL-1. I looked at the light through a spectroscope and the light produced by the GL-1 is absolutely perfect throughout the entire color spectrum AND through the entire power range. What that means is that the GL-1 produces a light that doesn't favor any part of the visible spectrum; so you'll get an even and consistent color of light on whatever it is you're painting. Fluorescent energy efficient bulbs and LEDs, for example, will show very choppy results through spectrometers, and as a result, they're notoriously difficult to color balance for and a lot of colors don't play nice with those light sources. While the GL-1 outputs a warmer temperature of light, correcting it in post is so simple due to that great consistent color.
GL-1 for everything
GL-1 for trees, speedlights and PocketWizards for house
So while you may be tempted to use a flashlight in lieu of the GL-1, you'll be quite frustrated. The even spread of light, the adjustability, and the great color consistency probably won't be found in any flashlight. Is that worth the extra $600 to you? Perhaps not, but when it comes to delivering great imagery with minimal fuss, I'm okay with that.
You also get the threaded filter mount on the front, something that no flashlight to the best of my knowledge has. With it, you're able to gel the light and modify the light with a couple of modifiers from Tiffen. They claim that more are in the works - I'm really looking forward to seeing what they come up with, as I'd love a sort of mini-softbox for interiors detail work.
It also comes with a 1/4 20" mount on the bottom for affixing it to a tripod or lightstand, which is great for video light or using it as a hot light when lighting a space. Again, not a huge feature, but a nice convenience and something else that sets it apart from your typical X-million candlepower flashlight.
If you are regularly shooting architecture and are already using a combination of hotlights and flash, this might be a great tool for you to try. It mixes the advantages of hot lights (long duration, fresnel focusing, instant feedback, easily controllable color temps) with the ease of use and portability of speedlights. No cables, no heat, great color. While it may struggle to put out as much power as some of the bigger hotlights, it can certainly hold its own, and at night this may be all you need. If you're looking to get into using hotlights and are already using flash (or no lights at all) this might be a great solution for you, as well. The learning curve is a bit steeper than with speedlights (that means it's a bit easier), but you may run into issues with correcting the warm color temperature if you're not already familiar with gelling and mixing light sources. This is also a great tool for someone looking to get into serious lightpainting in any application - as the versatility of this light far surpasses that of cheaper flashlights commonly used in this genre.
-Great, consistent light
-Long battery life
-Infinitely adjustable power
-Focusable beam, from wide to narrow
-No heat as is typical with regular hot lights
-Very simple, easy to learn
-Build quality could be slightly better - I cracked the tabs that held the battery in. Truth be told, this could have just been me being a moron
-Could be more powerful...lights could always be more powerful!
In the future, I would love to see Lowel release an update to this light where we can adjust the color temperature of the light right from the handle or similar. I would gladly pay $1000 for that - imagine a hotlight with the portability of the GL-1 and a wide spectrum of colors at your disposal! I'm salivating at the thought...
The GL-1 is available from B&H for $699 with free shipping, and accessories are available from Lowel's website. For more information, check out the GL-1's information page here.