Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Z96 LED Light Panel for Night Photography

The Z96 LED Video Light can be used as both a main (key) light and a fill light by adjusting
the dimmer switch. The key light is on a stationary light stand 100 feet to the left, and the fill
light is on a light stand 40 feet to the right.
(Single exposure of Zion's "Little Tree" - Zion N.P. ~ © Royce Bair)
The versatile Z96 LED Light Panel was designed as both a video light for camcorders and as a light for DSLR photography, where it is placed above the camera on the hot shoe. However, I have found it to be an excellent light for stationary light painting in my astro-landscape night photography. I've used it at distances up to 500 feet to light many landscape features.

Stationary Light Painting. Flashlights and spotlights are often used in light painting, but their narrow beams require considerable "painting" skill to overlap each stroke of the light "brush", in order to make the light even. The Z96 has nine rows of 16 LED lights (96 total), producing more of a flood light pattern (about 65º beam angle). This broader light source allows me to place the light on a light stand, tripod, or more often than not, just on the ground, leaning against a rock —pointing towards a landscape feature, and leaving it unattended.

The Z96's broad angle of coverage makes a great unattended fill light, to soften or lighten the harsh shadows created by a stronger main light. Often, that main light will be a handheld, moving spotlight. Sometimes, I'll use two Z96's —one set on full power, and the other dimmed as the fill light, similar the the top photo in Zion National Park. In other cases, I'll use it as the only artificial light source, like I did in the Temple of the Moon photo, below.

The top photo has no light painting. The bottom photo is lit with one Z96, placed 500 feet
to the left of the 270 feet high monument. (Single exposure of the Temple of the Moon,
Cathedral Valley, Capital Reef N.P., Utah ~ © Royce Bair)
The advantage of unattended lighting (or "stationary light sculpting", as I like to call it), is that you can concentrate on making other adjustments to your image, such as composition. Stationary lighting also allows one to do time lapse photography, where every frame must have the same lighting, or the video will flickr. It is also useful in panoramic night scenes where all the images must have the same foreground lighting, if they are to match when stitched together.

The Z96 LED Video Light Panel is very compact. It come with a screw-on adjustable
mounting head/bracket and two magnetic snap-on filters (dollar bill not included)
Compact and Adjustable: The Z96 is extremely compact (5 x 1.8 x 3") and adaptable. It comes with an adjustable mounting head or bracket that allows slide-on mounting to a DSLR hot shot or to any 1/4" treaded device, i.e. a tripod or a light stand. It also comes with two magnetic snap-on filters —one is for diffusion and the other is an orange filler that converts the 5600º Kelvin LED lights to 3200º K. I usually leave both the diffusion and the orange filter on the Z96 for my NightScape photos. That's because I typically shoot my images with a 4000º K White Balance. This gives my skies a slightly bluish hue and the 3200º K light sources gives my foreground subjects and slightly warmer hue that contrasts nicely with the night sky.

Back and front view of the Z96 (pocket tripod no included)
Variable Light Intensity: The Z96 has a maximum light output of 800 Lux (at 1 meter). The dimmer switch on the back of the Z96 allows 0-100% light intensity. This is probably my most used feature. Except for long-distance landscape features, I rarely us this light panel at full power. For features that are less than 100 feet away, the light intensity is usually dimmed to less that one-half or one-quarter strength. That's because it doesn't take much light when you are using high ISO's in the range of 3200 to 6400 to photograph stars as points of light.

Power and light duration: Because LEDs are low consumers of electrical power, the manufacturer claims the Z96 can run for about 70 minutes at full power, using five AA batteries as a power source.  

Low Power Warning: If you have the Z96 dimmer switch set to full power and the batteries do not have enough strength to power the lights at that intensity, the lights will begin to flicker (go on and off), giving you notice that you must dim to a lower intensity. This annoying feature is actually a benefit to maintaining consistent exposure control . It lets you know that you don't have enough power to maintain that light intensity and camera exposure (very important in video recording and time lapse photography). If you are doing a time lapse, you'll want to read below and make sure you have the proper power source in order to maintain a consistent light intensity and avoid the flicker warning.

Alkaline vs. NiMH: In my tests, fresh AA alkalines typically last about 20 minutes, at full power, before the Z96 started to flicker. If one sets dimmer at 1/2 power, the lights will run for about 45 minutes before the unit starts to flickr. Set the dimmer at 1/4 power and it will run for about 1.5-hours before you get a flicker.

7.4 volt NP-F770 Lithium-ion battery
To avoid the flicker or constant re-adjustment of the light intensity via the dimmer switch, I use rechargeable NiMH batteries. I have found that NiMH batteries give me a more consistent power source than alkaline batteries (I use the 2300 mAh Energizer rechargeable). Alkaline batteries start out strong, but slowly weaken over a two hour period. The NiMH AA's start strong and remain at peak output for about 45 minutes (three times longer than alkaline), then quickly weaken near the end of their power. If you set the dimmer stitch at 1/2 power, you can get about 2-hours of consistent (flicker-less) light using NiMH batteries.

Lithium-ion Batteries: A Sony style 7.4 volt NP-F770 lithium-ion battery can be snapped on to the outside of battery compartment door and give you full (non-flicker) power for about 3-hours. At 1/2 power, the light will remain consistent for about six hours. This is a great option for long time lapse sequences.

Various LED Light Panel Brands: Litepanels was the original company that started making LED panel lights back in 2001. Their original 96 LED design sold for $400. Today's 96 LED Litepanels Micropro design sells for $350.

F&V Lighting is another quality manufacturer of panel lights. F&V makes the Z96 LED Video Light. Over the last 10 years, F&V has invested heavily in applying the advancements of LED technology to photographic and video applications, i.e. LUX/mAh efficiency and color rendering (CRI). I bought my first F&V Z96 Video Light through Calumet (labeled as their model CF9020) for $199. It has been a very reliable unit. Until recently, F&V has continued to sell the original Z96 ($169). This unit is currently being replaced by the Z96 UltraColor ($199), which has a higher color consistency (a CRI of 95).

BUYER BEWARE! These two units look exactly the same, except for the Calumet branding label
on the left unit. The Calumet was made by F&V, but the unit on the right is a Chinese counterfeit!
Both have the same "HDV-Z96" model number in the top left and the "Made by F&V"
molded into the bottom right of the units.
BEST Chinese Knock-off for less than $100: There are many Chinese panel light knock-offs at much lower prices, some even at the $20-$40 price range, and you might be tempted to buy one of these units. I even found a high-quality knock-off for about $95 that looks exactly like the F&V Z96 (I have two of these, in addition to my Calumet branded original). It even says that it is made by F&V, but the unit does NOT have the low power warning circuitry (light flickering), nor is its light color temperature the same as the authentic product. I contacted F&V and found out that their Z96 is one of the most counterfeited lighting products on the market because of its popularity and length of time that it has been in the photo marketplace!

NOTE: You might think that not having the power warning circuitry (light flickering) may be a plus, because the annoying flicker (on and off) would ruin a time lapse sequence, and you'd be right. But, having your foreground feature become darker (as the light intensity diminishes) would be just as annoying in your final time lapse video. However, if you never plan to do time lapse (or star trails), nor do you need exact color rendering (not as important for night landscape as it is for portrait and wedding photography), then this high-quality $95 counterfeit might still be a good fit for you. (The two I have do an excellent job for night photography, albeit their light color rendition just a touch more pink or magenta than the original unit.)



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