My New Secret Weapon: Lume Cube Panel GO LED Light Panel
Most of my work is shot outdoors under natural light. I use a flash when called for but have always hated it since it's hard to know how things will come out. Enter my new secret weapon, an LED light panel from Lume Cube.
Lighting with a strobe flash can be challenging. It emits no light until you press the shutter release, and it fires. Like a bolt of lightning, its light appears and is gone before you can tell what really happened. In the blink of an eye, you record your subject, and the light returns to how it was. If anything lives up to its name, it's a flash. The only way to see what you've captured is to review the resultant image using the camera LCD back panel.
Back when we all shot film, it was even worse, of course. We couldn't see photos at all in the pre-digital era, whether shot with a flash or not, until we had the film developed. I once shot an entire roll of Fuji Velvia at a beautiful mountain tarn near Mt. Shuksan in the North Cascades under pre-dawn light, only to later discover that there was a trailside marker sign visible in every frame. I couldn't see it under the dim ambient light, but the long exposures necessary revealed it in the slides. Digital imaging lets me avoid that embarrassment. But I don't use a flash enough to say I've mastered it, and it typically means a bit of trial and error to get what I want. I usually get there in the end, mind you, but the results are generally prettier than the process involved in achieving them.
The big problem with light is that its intensity falls off with the square of the distance. This immutable law is what accounts for the black backgrounds in many flash images. If your subject is five feet away and the background ten, this doubling of distance means that only a quarter of the light falling on your subject reaches what lies behind it. All light sources, including the sun, behave this way, but a difference of five feet is insignificant when your light source is 93 million miles away.
Flash strobes also tend to create harsh shadows since they function mainly as a point source of light. Score another point for the sun, what with the entire sky acting as a giant diffuser. Yes, you can add a diffuser to the front of your flash, but you still have the problem of predicting what the net result will be when the lightning bolt fires. Many modern flash units feature built-in modeling lights that can help you understand directionality issues upfront. Still, these are a poor substitute for what will happen when you press the shutter release, and the actual light temporarily disorients you.
The modern solution to at least most of these challenges is the LED light panel. And the Lume Cube Panel GO is a great one.
As you probably know, LED light is much more energy-efficient than halogen or incandescent bulbs, meaning that it can run continuously rather than only firing when the shutter fires. As such, you can compose your shot with the actual light source, putting the Lume Cube on a more level playing field with ambient light. The panel packs 112 high-power LEDs onto a package not much bigger than your smartphone. The unit measures 4.8 x 2.6 x 0.3 inches and weighs in at 4.4 ounces.
The rated maximum brightness is 1080 LUX at half a meter. That's more than enough light for macro work and sufficient for adding fill light over a broad area for other subjects. At 100 percent output, it's darned bright. The light has a Color Rendering Index (CRI) over 96, so it closely emulates natural light. The output is variable in five-percent increments throughout its range so you can get just the brightness you need. And better yet, you can adjust the color temperature just as easily from a warm 3200K up to a cool 5600K to match the time of day properly without messing with colored gels. It comes with a frosted white diffusing cover made from what seems to be silicone to make the light even more pleasing.
Power for the Lume Cube GO is provided by a built-in lithium-ion battery that can be recharged with a USB-C cable. Run time ranges from 1.3 hours at maximum brightness up to a whopping 16 hours at one-percent output. You'll get 2.3 hours at fifty-percent brightness. In practical use, that's more than enough for most shooting sessions. If not, it can be recharged via a standard external battery pack as with most USB-powered devices. And it works fine while charging. It's truly a luxury to compose at my leisure while seeing what the camera will see.
Current settings and remaining power are displayed on a small, built-in color LCD screen.
The unit comes with a flash hot-shoe mount that can be fastened along either the long or short edge of the Lume Cube via a 1/4"-20 threaded socket. But my preference for macro is to perch it atop a small tripod like one from the excellent Gorillapod line by Joby. This way, I get ultimate flexibility in positioning.
The Lume Cube Panel GO sits in the middle of the company's line of photographic light panels and retails for $99. At the lower end sits the $59 Panel Mini at about half the GO's size, with about half the power output. At the high-end, you'll find the $199 Panel Pro with full RGB output rather than the basic bi-color LED arrangement of their other panels. I care much more about color temperature than wild color tints, so I opted to buy two Panel GOs for the same price. Both together weigh less than my Nikon flash.
There are similar competing products from other manufacturers, but Lume Cube seems to hit the sweet spot for me in terms of functionality, performance, size, and cost. My only criticism would be that it lacks any form of remote control. I'd love it if it included Bluetooth, but this is a minor drawback.
Very highly recommended. This new secret weapon is cool.