Are LED Lights or Panels Better?

Are LED Lights or Panels Better?

There are two kinds of light sources for video: LED lights and panels. Both have advantages and drawbacks. Which is the best choice when you’re on a budget? Should you choose an LED light or an LED panel? I made my choice, but now, I have my doubts.

If the amount of ambient light isn’t enough, we need to bring our own lights. That’s one of the reasons why we use strobes. With a flash of light, we can produce our own creative way of illuminating the subject. But this doesn’t work for video, obviously. For that, we need continuous light.

When I was asked to film on location, I brought my Profoto B10 strobes with me. The built-in model light offers some continuous light. It was just enough, as long as I could keep the distance between the subject and the B10 unit within limits.

I made a small studio for video. Just a simple recording and the Profoto B10 with umbrella were perfect for the job.

I agree, it wasn’t the ideal situation for shooting video. I had to crank up the ISO to get a good exposure. When I got asked more often to video, I decided it was time to buy something that was more suitable for the job. Although the Profoto B10 worked for the few times I needed more light, I knew it eventually wouldn't be enough.

An LED Panel for a Reasonable Price

There are a lot of different continuous lights available. The price ranges from less than a hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars. I had to find something that would be good for my work without breaking the bank. That’s why I decided to buy a couple of cheap LED panels to start with.

The Viltrox LED panels in use during a video recording. The LED panels were at close range, but I still had to turn the brightness almost to full.

There was one thing that was important for me. It had to produce enough light to suit my needs, more than the model lights on my Profoto B10 at least. On top of that, an LED panel that could change its color temperature would be nice — not an RGB, but a bicolor light. The panels I bought were the Viltrox VL-S192T LED light

It sounded good: 192 LEDs that could change color temperature from 3,300-5,600 Kelvin, with 5,300 lumens. I’d read some reviews, and they were quite positive. But after I have used the panels a few times, I’m not that sure these LED panels were the best choice.

Downsides to an LED Panel

First of all, 5,200s lumen sounds great, but it turns out that the amount of light depends on the color temperature setting. Although it has 192 LEDs, it’s divided between 96 white LEDs and 96 orange LEDs. If both are at full power, the maximum amount of lumens is reached, but vary the color temperature, and you end up with half of the LEDs at a lower power to achieve the requested color temperature or completely turned off.

Bicolor LED panel up close. The amount of LEDs lit depends on the color temperature that has been set.

Although the LED panel measures 28.6 cm by 19 cm, it’s still a relatively small light source. If you keep it at close distance, it can produce a reasonable light quality, but the light falloff becomes prominent. The panel at a larger distance solves the light falloff, but the light becomes a bit harsh.

There is another downside to this kind of LED panel. If any shadow is visible behind the subject, it isn’t a very nice one. It shows a pattern because of the distribution of the LEDs. To avoid this, a diffuser needs to be placed over the LEDs, making the light more even. The downside to this is the loss of two stops of light.

The shadow pattern of the LED panel can be disturbing. I don't like it.

To get better light quality, a diffuser is needed. But unfortunately, it will reduce the output by two stops, which is a lot. Imagine when you have only half the amount of LEDs active.

I realized that this kind of LED panel has a lot of downsides, which you have to take into account. It helped me to get my shots, but it felt a bit limited. Let’s make one thing clear: this isn’t a downside of the Viltrox LED panels itself, but it's more about this kind of LED panel. I’m sure every other brand of LED panel that has a similar design will show the same downsides. Te Viltrox is not bad, even though it’s a cheap plastic product. But this is something I was aware of and the reason why it's so affordable.

During this video recording, the LED panels produced not enough light to my liking. Would a LED light with an umbrella or softbox be the better choice?

Is a LED Light the Better Choice?

The best alternative is a big daylight lamp in a large softbox, but that is not workable if you have to take the lights with you on assignment. Such a big light is perfect for a stationary studio setup. The other alternative is a compact LED light, which might be more suitable for my needs. 

I’ve seen the Amaran LED lights in 60 watts, 100 watts, and even 200 watts. It will require a diffuser of some kind, like an umbrella, a lantern softbox, or just a regular softbox. One thing is for sure: it will provide more flexibility to shape the light compared to an LED panel.

The Amaran 60-watt light with a lantern softbox.

There are a few requirements for this kind of light, though. It has to be able to work on both battery and wall socket, the amount of light it produces has to be sufficient for my needs, and the light has to be quiet. In other words, no loud fan noise.

I think a 100-watt or 200-watt light should be a good choice, especially when the loss of light by the softbox or umbrella is taken into account. But I have some doubts about the noise levels produced by these LED lights. I’ve been told how the fans of some LED lights can be quite loud or even disturbing.

A 60- watt LED light might produce not enough light. A 100-watt light is better. But I have to watch out for loud fan noise.

Both LED lights and LED panels have their pros and cons. I believe both are perfectly usable, but the situations in which these type of lights shine may differ. Looking at my experience, I now see more downsides to the LED panels. Or perhaps it’s because of my choice of a cheap panel, which would mean more expensive panels would perform much better. That said, I do believe a LED light is more suitable in a wide range of situations, and it offers more possibilities with light-shaping accessories.

What do you think? Is an LED light better compared to an LED panel? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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LED "lights"? I think you mean COBs. Both COBs and panels are lights...

What is COB?

I had the same question.
I searched on the internet. COB means Chip On Board. It's basically a bunch of LED's that are positioned very close to each other, functioning as a single light source.
It seams there are also SMD, Surface Mounted Device. This are LED's soldered on a print board.

I think a better comparison misses some of the greatest differences between COB and panel lights. I'm seeing a comparison between cheap lights and a good value option. Good panels usually set up faster, run silent, have better wrap and are more efficient. Last point is just my experience not needing an extra piece of diffusion in a softbox and not have shadows

A more appropriate review would compare the footprint differences, setup times, and the importance of integrating existing modifiers with a speed ring. LED's are still new and changing fast, but categorizations and typos make me wonder if this article was rushed.

My real question is if people use the Amarans built in reflector and what their experience with lights are. The panel lights I use are big and heavy, but their 8" footprint is fantastic and worth the AC only requirement. What 200+ watt LED do others use?