Using coloured LEDs as modelling lights for your strobes

Mar 13, 2019

Jake Hicks

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Using coloured LEDs as modelling lights for your strobes

Mar 13, 2019

Jake Hicks

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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This is the second part of a three-part series of articles on LED lights for photographers. Part 1 looked at the pros and cons of commercial level LED lighting for photographers so if you missed it, here’s a link – Do LED Lights Have a Place in Your Kit? – Part 1: Pros & Cons.

In this weeks article, I aim to test a selection of cost-effective, coloured LED bulbs that can be used in your strobes instead of regular tungsten modelling bulbs. Are they any good? What creative options can they provide to us? And is it worth spending a little more to get some decent ones?

What are coloured LED bulbs?

These are coloured LED bulbs that simply screw into regular lighting sockets. These could be in your lamps at home, they could even be in your ceiling lights, but more importantly for us photographers, we can screw them into our strobes in place of our regular tungsten bulbs.

These coloured LED bulbs can replace your regular tungsten modelling bulbs in your strobes. Simply remove the old bulb and screw the new ones in

What’s wrong with my current modelling bulbs?

These LED bulbs aren’t to replace your old tungsten bulbs, but instead, they offer an additional creative tool to use as and when you need to. The reason you may want to consider using these is due to their ability to offer you thousands of colours at your fingertips. Some of the cheaper ones offer a handheld remote with a small selection of colours to choose from, but the more expensive LED bulbs give you access to thousands of colours via an app on your phone.

Choosing the colour you want on these LED bulbs is as simple as downloading the free app and tapping the colour you want

The Contenders

To test the viability of these coloured LED bulbs, I decided to get my hands on a few and see how they compared. I’ll be looking at what’s worth getting and what’s worth ignoring? I’ll also advise on what to look for if you decide to get some and any limitations that I foresee cropping up if you get them.

Mr. Cheap

Our first contender is the cheapest of the cheap, and there are some good reasons for this low price. Firstly this one comes with a remote that can control the bulb. This has limited options but includes 15 basic colours as well as strobe and multi-coloured party effects that have no interest to us photographers.

The details are as follows:

  • RGB+White LED Bulb
  • 7.5 watts
  • 400 lumen
  • 6000-6500 Kelvin
  • Dimmable: Yes
  • Cost: £4.99 per bulb
  • No additional items needed to operate

Mr. Best of Both

Next up we have a slightly more expensive coloured LED bulb, but with a little more money we now open up the world of adjustability via a smartphone app. This particular bulb (along with many others in this price range) offers you the ability to play with thousands of colours and all you need is a smart device with the free downloadable app and access to wifi to use it.

The details are as follows:

  • RGB+White LED Bulb
  • 10 watts
  • 900 lumen
  • 2700-6500 Kelvin
  • Dimmable: Yes
  • Cost: £14.99 per bulb
  • Access to wifi is always required plus you’ll need a smart device with the free app installed as well

Mr. Posh

Lastly, I will be testing the Phillips Hue. These Hue bulbs have been around a long time now and Philips were likely the mainstream instigator of bringing these bulbs and their colours into our homes a few years ago. As a result of this experience in the market, they’ve had time to improve and refine their design and their newer generation bulbs are far superior to their original release model. As you may expect, these Phillips LED coloured bulbs see a jump in cost. On top of a marked increase in cost per bulb, Hue bulbs also need access to a smart device to operate, access to wifi, but more importantly, they need an additional hub to operate them as well. This additional hub is not cheap, but you only need one of them to help operate all of the bulbs you have.

The details are as follows:

  • RGB+White LED Bulb
  • 9.5 watts
  • 800 lumen
  • 2200 – 6500 Kelvin
  • Dimmable: Yes
  • Cost: £44.99 (although these bulbs can be bought separately, you’ll need a Hue hub to operate them so a starter pack of two bulbs and the hub is your base purchase at around £140.)
  • Access to wifi is always required plus you’ll need a smart device with the free app installed as well.
  • At least one Phillips Smart Bridge Hub is required to operate all of your Hue bulbs at a one-off cost of £49.99

An important note on lumens, watts and how it relates to LEDs

As a photographer, you’ll likely already know that there is seemingly a million and one ways to measure light, and terms like ‘equivalent’ power get bounded about like we all speak science-teacher.

If you’re a strobist like me, then you are most probably familiar with the term watts when it comes to describing power. For example, your strobe probably has a power of around 200w-1000w. Our old tungsten lightbulbs were also measured in regular old watts too and you most likely had a 40w-100w bulb hanging from the ceiling.

All makes sense so far right? Well how come when we see watts in relation to LEDs, they seem woefully underpowered. For example, we might see a household LED bulb labelled with 7.5w.

If I wanted to sit in the near darkness of a 7.5w bulb, surely a candle gives off more light than that right?!

Well, this is where ‘equivalent’ powers get used so that we understand the power more clearly. For example, we may pick up a 7.5w LED bulb and it may say ‘60w equivalent’. The reason for this is that those energy efficient bulbs or LEDs have a higher luminous efficacy resulting in more lumens per watt…..stay with me!

Still here? Once again, there are far smarter people than me out there who can explain it to you, but in reality, we don’t need to understand it, just know that this is what’s happening and here’s a handy chart to show some rough translations in power for your reference.

Lumens to watts converter and its incandescent equivalent. Note: Incandescent is any lamp with a filament that gets hot and emits light (tungsten bulb)

Coloured LED Bulbs with photography in mind

Before we get stuck into the tests and conclusions, I think it’s important to remember that I’m looking at these bulbs with the specific intention of using them for photography and not as they were perhaps intended which is domestic use in the home. The reason I make that stipulation now is that my conclusions are heavily swayed by the situations I’ll be considering them for, like using them with lighting modifiers in my strobes, not as a colour night-light in the kids’ room.

The specific features I want to be looking at with these lights are going to be power and colour.

The more power the better when it comes to these bulbs because for us photographers that means we don’t have to use extremely high ISOs that will introduce unwelcome noise into our shots.

When it comes to colour, I want to be looking for how many colour options I have, how consistent that colour is and how ‘clean’ that colour is.

Clean is a pretty loose term when referring to colour but I’m watching out for muddy colours or colours that are noticeably contaminated by other colours. LEDs, especially cheaper LEDs, have a tendency to have a green tinge to them and this makes for those muddy and sickly looking colours you often associate LEDs with.

The Test

In the actual test, the strobe reflector dish was not attached and the coloured LED bulb was in place of the regular tungsten modelling bulb

To keep things simple, I set this up in a studio environment where I could eliminate any other ambient light from interfering and I set it all up on stands and tripods to keep things as fixed and as fair as possible.

The strobe was set up about 40cm away from a white wall with no reflector dish attached and with the LED bulb in place of the regular modelling bulb.

The camera was then set up about 145cm away from that and then they were both set to about 1m in height off of the ground.

Camera Settings

To keep things visually obvious, I kept the same camera settings throughout the test. They were as follows:

  • Lens: 28mm
  • Shutter speed: 1/60th
  • Aperture: f4
  • ISO: 400
  • White Balance: 4550 Kelvin

The Results

Mr Cheap (no-name brand)

First up we tested the Mr Cheap £4.99 no-name brand LED bulb.

So first off we can see that with those camera settings, these bulbs are very dark. Now, of course, I can open up the aperture or boost ISO to improve that brightness, but I wanted to show their 7.5w power in relation to the other lights as being considerably darker.

Also, we can see a very limited colour range on display here and that is due to our very limited choices via that remote this bulb comes with. In reality, this bulb comes with red, green and blue and some variances in brightness between them. As a result, colours like yellow that are normally the brightest colours when it comes to coloured light was awful here as the bulb struggled to mix two very dark red and greens to get yellow. Consequently, this bulb produces very muddy colours outside of the standard red, green and blue options.

Mr Best of Both (Smart Life Bulb)

Next, we have the slightly more expensive Smart Life coloured LED bulb.

Below are the corresponding settings I had applied in my free Smart Life app.

Thankfully with this 10-watt bulb, our brightness is greatly improved compared to the previous 7.5w bulb and this is very usable at these camera settings without introducing too much noise via higher ISOs.

Next is the colour options and colour rendition. With the Smart Life app is was incredibly easy to simply click on the colour you want. My only feedback on this is that although nearly every colour imaginable is available to you via the hue and brightness options, selecting it is not as easy as you might think. For example look at the light blue and green colours being displayed on the app in relation to the actual colour being displayed by the bulb. Like I said, I could nearly always find the colour I was looking for, but it was more trial and error over simply ‘clicking’ on the colour I wanted. Other areas of concern were the reds and yellows.

Lastly, the Kelvin range on this bulb is not bad but again, a little fiddling with the options will provide better results over simply clicking what you think will be best. For example, the first image here is a result of max Kelvin and max brightness whereas you get a far cleaner white colour at 50% Kelvin as we can see in the second to last shot. It is nice to have this Kelvin function on a cheap bulb like this and if you wanted a warmer look then it is possible, I’m just not convinced it’s very accurate.

Mr Posh (Philips Hue)

At the top end of the coloured LED bulb spectrum in terms of cost, we have the Philips Hue bulbs.

Below are the corresponding settings I had applied in my free Smart Life app.

So again here we have a brighter bulb at 9.5w. It’s not quite as bright as the Smart Life bulb but still very manageable. Beyond the power though, the thing that was immediately obvious to me was the incredibly clean colour this bulb produced. Looking at the vignette of colour was amazing and you can see that the extra time they’ve spent to craft a unique bulb shape has paid off. That unique Hue bulb shape spreads the light evenly, even though the source of light is being projected from the base of the bulb. If you look at the Hue bulb shape again, you’ll notice it’s slightly flatter on top. Couple this with an incredible piece of diffusion glass and these bulbs are ready to display colour in the best way possible.

Beyond bulb design though we have the actual colour rendition itself. So what I’m referring to here is how the bulbs display the colour you’ve chosen on the app. I’d argue it’s far from perfect but it’s certainly very good. Most of the colours I pointed to on the app display a very similar colour on the wall. The Hue bulb also managed to display a very impressive range of colours and the difference between the reds, pinks and purples for example was excellent. Again it did struggle with the yellows as all LEDs seem to do (LEDs usually have to mix red and green light to get yellow. This often results in very sickly yellows as a consequence) but the Kelvin range seemed excellent. I felt that the warm and cool lighting options available via the Kelvin seemed surprisingly accurate too. Overall this was an excellent product and clearly deserved to cost more than the cheaper counterparts.

Conclusions

I think it’s impossible to argue that the Philips Hue was indeed the far superior product in terms of colour, but there are caveats to its top-dog status. First off, it’s considerably more expensive. Not only for the cost of the initial bulb which are £44.99 each! But you also need a hub before even a single bulb will work. You can buy the hub separately but realistically you’ll want to be buying them together and a started pack of a couple of bulbs and hub will set you back £140. Now granted this isn’t much in terms of cost to us photographers when it comes to lighting, but will you be using these very often? I have to say that due to their very low power output, no, you will not be using these very often. That’s not Philips’ fault either as they are designed for the home, not studio lighting.

The Philips Hue bulbs are great, but you can’t use them without their hub.

So when would you be using any of these bulbs? Well for me, I see them as having a place in your bag for certain locations. I know I’ve shot in situations where I could have swapped out the existing location bulbs and I could have had access to any colour I wanted and maintained the natural feel of light in the environment. Of course, the Philips Hue would do a great job at that….. but it needs that damn hub to operate them. Granted you could take the hub with you too, but that then needs power and an outlet on location and it’s yet another thing to take. Conversely, the super-cheap bulb requires no wi-fi or hub, but alas they are so weak they are borderline useless to us photographers.

For me, the best of both is the Smart Life bulb as it’s a happy medium. It’s actually the brightest of the bunch and it has pretty good colour options. Granted the colours you tap on the app aren’t displayed by the bulb, but with a little tweaking, you can usually get the colour you want. Plus, it doesn’t need a pesky hub to operate them. If I was setting up these bulbs in a permanent studio space then I’d definitely go for the Hue, but for occasional use here and there and sometimes on location, I’d get the Smart Life.

Thanks, as always, for checking this article out, I certainly appreciate it. Feel free to ask any questions below and I’ll do my best to answer them as quickly as I can.

About the Author

Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page, follow him on Instagram and sign up to the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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2 responses to “Using coloured LEDs as modelling lights for your strobes”

  1. Jason Ridgwell Avatar
    Jason Ridgwell

    I haven’t quite used mine for the purpose above (background colour fill once) but i use Lifx Bulbs in my room which are brighter (11w, 1100 lumens) and work with just the wifi (Self AP and connected to local wifi point) thus no “Hub” need. The app’s colour selection menu is maybe not quite as large as Philips but plenty generous. Same price per bulb as the Philips (£45). Connects with Apple and Alexa too, which might be fun / useful in the studio.. “Alexa, change fill light to green” :)

  2. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
    Kay O. Sweaver

    This article is not at all what I expected. You talk a lot about the individual bulbs and their abilities, but not very much about their actual photographic application. I think that’s because the photographic application is quite limited. Most of these are simply way too under powered to be of much use in photography, and those that are are expensive enough that it starts to make sense to just get an RGB light designed for photo/video work.

    As a practical light that you can endlessly manipulate maybe these have some utility, but the CRI is still pretty suspect. I don’t see any real point in replacing a strobe’s modelling light with one of these.