Essential Gear: the Mountable Light

Ever see a news crew on the street at night? (The one in this picture looks weird; they’re just German).  You’ll notice that the news camera almost always has a mountable light blasting the reporter out of the darkness– it’s a small light that slips into the “hot shoe” slot on top of all video cameras, big and small.

The mountable light isn’t just for reporters.  Last year I shot an episode the reality series “Killer Robots,” and the producers asked that all shooters equip their cameras with a mountable light.  While not a perfect solution for a poor lighting situation, just a bit of direct light can magically “pop” your subject from the background.  And you want your subject to pop—it eliminates flatness, adds depth, and depth adds drama.   Mountable lights range in proce (and quality) from $50 to $500.  For the money and easy transport, they’re an essential part of any OMB kit. (There are also some other uses for the light, which I’ll get into in my next post.)

To demonstrate, below are two frame grabs of Killer Robots drivers.  The first was shot by another shooter, who opted not to use the light, or their batteries had died.

The frame below is from my camera, equipped with a LitePanel Micro ($300), the most common mountable light out there.  It’s the same robot team in a later round, and can see (pre-color correction) how the subject pops just a bit more with the extra light.

However, there are a few drawbacks to the Micro.  First:  it comes with two filters, for indoor and outdoor, which can easily be lost.  Second, it has few options for any lighting situations other than 3200 (pure standard lightbulb) and 5600 (pure sun).  Lastly, no matter what the lighting situation, it also has a weird hint of fluorescent, which is never flattering, and requires color correction.  Just look at my frame above for evidence.

When I was in LA a few months ago I popped (get it?) into Samy’s Camera to see what the experts could do for me and my tight  budget.  (If you’re in New York, pop into B&H Photo).  The kind staff recommended their own proprietary light, with which you can dial in specific color temps to match the white balance of your camera.  And it retails for about $200.  I bought it.


I’ve been happy with the light—it’s faster and easier to dial in a color temperature rather than fiddle with filters.  However, after testing it, I was surprised to find that the preset color temps are all off by 25 percent!

So if you buy this, or any mountable light, be sure to test the color temps before you light up your subject.  They range in price from $50 to $500, and remember, you get what you pay for.

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