Why You Need to Shoot With Flexible LED Panels: Fstoppers Reviews the SOONWELL FB-21 Bi-Color LED Light

Before I even get into this review, I just want to state that I absolutely love flexible LED light panels now. I have properly been missing out on how brilliant they are. From now on, anything I shoot in a studio environment will be shot with a flexible LED panel. 

There are a couple of reasons as to why I love flexible LED panels. First of all, the ability to change the temperature of the light is incredibly useful. Admittedly, for the most part, I tend to shoot at 5,600K; however, having that ability to warm up the light can be so useful at times, especially if you're trying to be creative with color. With flash, you have to mess about with gels if you want to change the temperature of any light, and that's always been a bit of a pain to deal with. LED panels allow you to change the color, and you have the ability to see in real-time how it affects your image. The second reason I love these types of lights is that they remove a lot of the guesswork when you're shooting. When you're shooting with cameras like the Sony a7R III or pretty much any current mirrorless camera, you're able to see the exposure in the viewfinder before you take the shot. This is simply not possible if you're shooting with flash, but with LED panels, you know exactly what the light and exposure will look like before you press the shutter. This massively reduces the amount of time you spend trying to figure things out before you take your first shot, and I absolutely love that about LED lights. 

In a previous article, I reviewed the F&V Z100VC soft light. I personally love the quality of light this panel produces; however, it does have a few issues, which are mostly its size and weight. Recently, a company called Soonwell asked if I wanted to review their FB-21 light, and I'm very glad I accepted this review. 

Build and Design

This is probably one of the biggest advantages of the Soonwell light. The flexible nature of this panel offers several notable benefits, which are some of the main reasons why I absolutely love using it. First of all, the light itself is incredibly lightweight. This is super useful, because moving the light around is incredibly easy. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you're on a long shoot and you normally have huge flash heads to move around on heavy light stands, it really starts to add up. The lightweight nature of this LED panel is a great advantage for me, because it also means I can use a smaller, more compact light stand, thus further decreasing the overall size and weight.

It terms of build quality, all the cables feel very robust and well made. The connections all feel secure. In the actual package, you receive two rectangular sections that manage and regulate power to the panel. The first section houses all the controls and can also accommodate V-mount batteries. The fact that you can attach batteries to this light allows you to use it on location far more conveniently than say a Godox AD600. The reason I say this is purely due to the overall size, weight, and compact nature of the light. The second rectangular section is there if you prefer to power the light from the wall. This does increase the number of cables you have laying around, and I would have preferred if you could simply power the light from the wall via the controller. This would have been a much better solution; however, I get the feeling this could have been technically difficult to produce reliably. 

The panel itself also has a reflector and diffuser housing unit, along with the bracket that attaches to the back of the light and allows you to get a soft, even light with the ability to directly mount onto most light stands. In my view, the light is pretty harsh and a little ugly in most situations without the diffuser section attached. For this reason, I haven't used it for any of my work without the diffuser section. Although the diffuser does reduce the output slightly, it's well worth it considering the difference in light quality. 

Portability

This is hands down my favorite light due to how portable it is. Sure, it can take up to about five minutes to set up and dismantle the light, but that's a minor price to pay. Not including the light stand, I can comfortably pack this light into my Lowepro Flipside backpack with a Sony a7R III, the Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8, the FE 28mm f/2.0, and the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8, not to mention a bunch of accessories and tools required for post-shoot relaxation. 

The light packs down incredibly small, and although it does come with its own carry case, personally, I like to keep my hands free and pack as much as I can into a backpack. Previously, I would carry a large light like the Godox AD600, and although that is a brilliant light, it's much heavier and takes up much more space in the main compartment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to suggest one is better than the other, as they're very different and have their own respective advantages and disadvantages. This specific point or comparison is only to discuss the portable nature of each and the fact is that the Soonwell LED panel is much easier to carry and transport. 

Light Power and Quality

I'm thoroughly impressed with how bright this light can get. When I'm filming a YouTube video, I normally set the light to 2% of the total output. This is more than enough when filming indoors at ISO 200 and f/2.0. If you're shooting indoors, this light is more than capable of almost all types of photography. I'd say the only kind of photography this light would not be suitable for would be high-speed photography where you have any fast-moving subjects. For example, food photographers who are dropping ingredients would probably be better served with a flash. The thing I love about this light is the fact that it mimics window light extremely well, and due to that, you get more of a natural look to the images. 

Shot at 1/200 s, f/1.8, ISO 100

With flash, I find that images can look a little harsher on occasions even when you're diffusing the light. Flash also tends to render images that are sharper, but that, in my view, tends to add to the harsher look. It's kind of like when you're filming and you have your shutter speed too high. There's a reason why so many filmmakers still prefer the look of 24p, and that's how I would equate the look of using an LED panel in comparison to flash. Once again, I'm not trying to suggest one is better than the other, as it depends on what and how you're shooting; however, I do really like that more natural look that an LED panel can produce. For this reason, I highly recommend you shoot with a continuous LED light. 

In terms of power output, the image below was shot at the ISO 100, 1/100 s shutter speed, with an aperture of f/5.6. With those settings, I'm able to get what the camera believes to be a well-exposed image at 100% power from the light. The great thing about continuous lights is that if you do require a brighter exposure, you can simply decrease the shutter speed. This is a big advantage over flash, because changing the shutter speed with flash does not really impact the exposure. Of course, you can change your aperture when shooting with flash; however, that will change your depth of field, thus changing the kind of image you produce. This is one of the other reasons I love shooting with LED panels: anytime I need a brighter exposure, I can simply increase the shutter speed. Of course, this may not work in more dynamic shooting environments. Ideally, you'll want to be shooting on a tripod and remotely triggering your camera if you are shooting longer exposures. 

Understandably, this light is probably not the light I'd recommend if you're shooting outdoor in somewhat bright conditions. Unfortunately, it simply isn't bright enough to allow you to shoot at faster shutter speeds. For this reason, it's mostly one that I use indoors. If you're shooting outdoors in bright situations then a flash is probably the best option. This is especially true if you're using high-speed sync. 

Colors

I've found this light to be quite consistent for video, especially when going through the power range. I didn't notice any difference in color depending on the power setting, which I think is extremely valuable. Based on my understanding, LED panels tend to be far more consistent when it comes to their color across the power range, especially when compared to flash. Colors are extremely important to me, and for that reason, I think this is another advantage these types of continuous lights have over flash. The other brilliant feature that panels like these have is the ability to change the temperature. This, as mentioned above, is extremely useful if you're using multiple light setups and trying to be creative with colors. 

In the image above, I corrected the colors based on the X-Rite ColorChecker SG Digital. When shooting at 5,600 K on the light, the colors were a little bit warmer compared to what they should be when corrected. The difference was -400 on the temperature and +10 on the tint. It's important to remember that this is not a scientifically perfect test and simply a guide, as opposed to being exact results.

The only actual negative point I have for this light is the fact that when you're shooting at 5,600 K the power output is lower by about a 1/3 of a stop compared to anything below 5,600. Essentially, if you're shooting at 5,550 K, then the light will be slightly brighter than it is at 5,600 K. This isn't a huge issue, but I would have preferred if the brightness didn't change at 5 600 K, because I believe that is the most popular temperature. 

What I Liked

  • The light quality is very similar to natural window light, and it's simply stunning. 
  • The portability of this light is incredibly useful. 
  • The ability to power via battery and mains gives you added flexibility. 
  • Makes workflow super easy, barely an inconvenience. 

What I Didn't Like

  • The light loses some of its output at 5,600 K. 

Final Thoughts 

The main reason why I love shooting with these types of lights is speed and workflow. With strobes, you have to mess about with triggers, channels, and gels, and it can get a little tiresome at times. With LED lights, I simply switch them on and shoot as though I'm using natural light. It's so much easier and simpler in terms of the shooting experience, and I really enjoy that. Don't get me wrong, I don't think LED panels replace flash by any means, because each has their strengths and weaknesses. I just find the ease of use with LED panels to be something that can't be overstated. This is especially true when shooting with a mirrorless camera, because through the viewfinder, you'll know precisely what the image will look like in terms of exposure and white balance before you press the shutter button. This makes it incredibly easy for you to quickly make adjustments and not have to take lots of test shots before you're satisfied with the setup. Finally, there are two main reasons why I highly recommend the Soonwell FB-21. First of all, it's very well priced, and I think it's properly reasonable. The second reason is that it is, in fact, a brilliant light source both in terms of usability and quality. I now use this light for almost all of my indoor shoots. 

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17 Comments

Leigh Miller's picture

Light..is light.

Why would we "need" to shoot with flexible led panels..

What is becoming of this site...

Usman Dawood's picture

Come on man you know better.

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

i shot with LED in 2 years. You got more control. What you see is what you get! I also use flash but i love using LED.

Ryan Stone's picture

These panels look useful, do they exhibit banding with electronic shutter? At what shutter speeds + panel power?

Also, when did you switch to Sony? Why not the R? For your architectural purposes, the R has more resolution, much better wide and tilt shift options, and the Sony IBIS wouldn’t matter if your architecture stuff is tripod based. The R also has very comparable dynamic range, especially past base ISO.

Raymond Craig's picture

"the R has more resolution"
If you're referring to the Canon EOS R isn't that 30.3MP? The Sony A7RIII shoots at 42.4MP.

Usman Dawood's picture

I don’t shoot any of my architectural stuff with the Sony. I still use my 5DSR or medium format on occasions.

Sue G's picture

" From now on, anything I shoot in a studio environment will be shot with a flexible LED panel. " Limiting yourself to LED flat panels as the only studio light is dimensionly flat and very narrow.

Usman Dawood's picture

I didn’t say the only source of light or exclusively.

Sue G's picture

" From now on, anything I shoot in a studio environment will be shot with a flexible LED panel. "
Read your qoute from the article ..

Usman Dawood's picture

I did. I didn't say with just an LED light source and nothing else, I mix lights all the time. Speedlights are super useful for adding little spots of light.

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

always hard yo work with bi-color. thats why i work with just one kind of kelvin in the studio. :)

Jim Bolen's picture

Yep, me too. I have everything dialed in nicely from studio to computer.

How is the contrast rendering index on those LEDs? In my experience, LEDs always have low CRI, and thus render images with inaccurate colors, missing colors, or low-quality colors--particulary the reds and browns and yellows. It is quite difficult to find high CRI LEDs from major diode manufacturers.

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

mine have over 92 cri, so if thats bad for you iam happy with it :)

Jim Bolen's picture

Mine too, but I made my own LED lights from Super Bright LED's. CRI is around 93.

Andy Tyler's picture

Hey Usman, any idea where you get these here in the UK?