Litepanels Astra Soft Bi-Color 1x1 LED Panel: Beautiful Light, Beautiful Design

Litepanels basically created the market for LED panels, but competition has grown fierce. Good thing they’ve updated their panel technology, added more sophisticated control (including smartphone app), amped up their industrial design, raised output, and lowered price. It will still be too expensive for some, but it will definitely be well worth it for others – especially those who intend to use them day-in/day-out both in studio and on location. The Astra 1x1 Soft Bi-Color adds to the Astra family the best built-in diffuser I've ever used. 

Litepanels Astra 1x1 Soft Bi-Color LED Panel in the bat cave: beautiful light, beautiful design

Litepanels Astra 1x1 Soft Bi-Color LED Panel in the bat cave: beautiful light, beautiful design

A Hollywood DP I respect very much once said that the first job of a DP is to properly light a scene.

I’ve always been struck by that.

It’s right up there with something an editor I respect very much once said: at least 50% of any film is sound.

In other words: it ain’t just about cameras and lenses.

Touché.

I transitioned a couple of years ago to cheap LED panels. I sold off the ARRI Softbank IV  kit I’d bought when I had more money than common sense or skill and pocketed the

difference (want to know what I bought before I got into video and had even more money and even less common sense? A Profoto 7a with matching pair of heads, a pair of 3’ x 4’

soft boxes, and a 7’ Octobox something like this).

Since then I’ve reviewed four different LED panels, each one better than the last. My current favorite is Aputure’s Lightstorm series. At just $495 for their very wide (120°) and soft LS 1/2w and $695 for their more powerful LS1 variants (available in daylight or variable color temperatures, Sony V or Anton Bauer controller boxes and beam angles of 25° or 45°), these are well-built, high CRI (95+) units with built in wireless remote control.

I also had a blast (and proved that I had more money than skill or common sense yet again when I bought a PRS guitar) when I was able to try out Sekonic’s C-700 colorimeter with a pile of panels .

So I was very interested when Litepanels – pretty much the guys who created the LED panel market -- contacted me out of the blue and asked if I’d like to check out their brand new Astra 1x1 Soft Bi-Color LED panel.

Yes, please!

Shortly thereafter an incredibly robust, thoughtfully executed custom-packed package arrived – the best I’ve ever seen.

“Slow down,” I told myself. “It isn’t about the packaging.”

Fair enough.

But I am a sucker for good industrial design, a firm believer in “form follows function,” and an advocate of “but if you can make it even better looking, do it.”

Litepanels has aced it with the Astra. It’s beautiful, robust, thoughtfully engineered, and does the business. 

Let’s take a closer look.

The Details

The basic stats only begin to tell the story:

·      Color temperature: variable between 3200K and 5600K

·      Beam angle: 93° (this is different from what’s listed at B&H, but this is the correct number; the regular Astra has a beam angle of 46°)

·      Output at 1 meter: 2126 lux (daylight) 1542 (tungsten)

·      Control: rear dials for color temperature and intensity; smartphone app with optional Bluetooth module installed)

·      Weight 7.6 lbs

This is a system light. I mean that the Astra is a series of lights with various outputs, beam angles, and panels; custom yoke; user-swappable connectivity modules for Bluetooth, RJ45 DMX or 5-pin XLR DMX; a variety of honeycomb grids, gels and barndoors; and multiple power options (AC, gold mount or V-mount battery plates). It’s the kind of light worthy of consideration as the base component of a larger and more varied kit.

The Astra Bi-Color Soft strikes me as the first light to get when you arrive at this price point (more on that in a bit) because it is so versatile. I wish I'd had access to one a year or two ago when I had to mix artificial light with sunlight streaming through floor to ceiling windows for a close-up in a hotel lobby.

The Design

Kudos to Litpanels for building something so richly functional and beautiful. From the built-in fan which is already whisper-quiet (and can be turned off, although that will cut the power in half to prevent overheating – smart) to the outstanding panel diffuser, the yoke, power in the yoke rather than the unit itself, and built-in cable guides – and the easy to swap comms module (Bluetooth for one-man bands and small teams, maybe RJ45 DMX for larger studio/control room setups) -- I’ve never seen anything quite like it in the lighting world.

Come to think of it, the curves do remind me – just a touch – of the wonderful Martian ships in the original 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS.

I love the ‘50s.

More importantly, this comprehensive and cohesive design allowed a higher quality light while running noticeably cooler than anything I've ever used. And this last item means, all else being equal, a longer service life. Impressive.

The Controls

The controls are simplicity themselves. On the rear there’s a positive click on/off switch with green lamp indicator; a rotary knob for color temperature and a rotary knob for light intensity. All are within reach of one’s right thumb, so that when there is occasion to use a human C-stand, it’s about as easy as it can be. Notice anything missing? Hold that thought.

I can’t tell you how excited I was to learn that Litepanels also has an app called SmartLite to control the Astra remotely (I only tried it on my iPhone 6s Plus).

Once you’ve installed the Bluetooth module and paired the light with the phone, you can add individual devices and group them.  

Notice anything missing now? Hold that thought, too.

The Power

The cable that comes with the Astra Soft Bi-Color is long enough – like Abraham Lincoln’s famous reply to the question of how long a man’s legs should be (long enough to reach the ground) – to reach an extension cable.

Litepanels also provided me with an Anton Bauer Cine 150 battery for this evaluation, a perfect pairing to the Astra Bi-Color Soft.

Both are robust, no compromise products aimed at work-a-day pros. Both are things of beauty and engineering.  The battery plate mounts to the power block on the yoke, and the Anon Bauer tucks right in. The benefit? That stonkin' big battery is not a dead weight making it difficult to tilt and hold the panel itself.

Beautiful.

Build Quality

I didn't try to stress test these at home (I did that by accident a while back with a Sony FS7), but I have to say that the Astra was the most robust LED panel I've ever had in the bat cave (most robust light would have to go to one of the ARRI Fresnels: the lens might crack, the bulb might shatter, but those aluminum housings could take a POUNDING). Everything about the Astra screams "engineered for purpose" all the way down to the oversized, easily gripped locking knobs.

The Output

I wish I'd had a model worthy of the light.  Instead, I had me - and a toy car.

Left: my usual lighting setup, give or take. Right: with the Astra Bi-Color Soft. This is what happens when you still don't really know what you're doing with lighting or color correction; you never leave your setup in place; and then you get your hands on a Litepanels Astra Bi-Color Soft, get inspired and learn new things in the process. Same lens (Sony E 50mm f/1.8), but I'm also confounding things by using a Sony a6000 on left, Sony a6300 on right (though both were shot at 1080p 24fps).

Left: my usual lighting setup, give or take. Right: with the Astra Bi-Color Soft. This is what happens when you still don't really know what you're doing with lighting or color correction; you never leave your setup in place; and then you get your hands on a Litepanels Astra Bi-Color Soft, get inspired and learn new things in the process. Same lens (Sony E 50mm f/1.8), but I'm also confounding things by using a Sony a6000 on left, Sony a6300 on right (though both were shot at 1080p 24fps).

The light was surprisingly bright, especially given the thickness of the diffuser panel.  Eyeballing changes in color temperature and intensity (I didn’t spring for my own C-700 and didn’t have one handy), I’d have to say that it was very, very smooth with no apparent color tinging (like the green often reported in other lights and which I've seen myself).

So how good was the quality of the light through the diffuser?

Lovely. Clean, clean, clean. How clean? Well, the Astra Bi-Color Soft has a TLCI-2012 of 98 for daylight and 99 for tungsten. 

But what I saw -- without regard to stats or pixel peeping, even when displayed on YouTube -- was a better quality of light than I've ever had before in the bat cave. The best way I can describe it: smooth. Very much like the difference between hard and soft water in that you can taste it, even if you can't quantify it.

Of course, the real issue with Astra Bi-Color Soft is how well the diffuser panel works.

Simply put, it's the best built-in diffuser I've ever seen -- with the possible exception of the much more expensive ARRI SkyPanel that I looked at briefly last year during NAB.

Budget panel on the left, Astra Bi-Color Soft on the right, both 100% power, 5400K.

Budget panel on the left, Astra Bi-Color Soft on the right, both 100% power, 5400K.

But with all of this written, there’s no surmounting the laws of physics, and a 1x1 – even with a diffuser this good, the best I’ve ever had in hand – isn’t going to diffuse light the same way a 3’ x 4’ softbox does. On the other hand, if the diffuser is larger than the object being lit, it doesn't matter nearly as much. Like this:

The subject is a 1/43rd scale auto. See what I mean about not having a worthy model? All lights one meter away at full power, set to daylight. From left to right, Aputure Lightstorm LS 1/2W diffused; Astra Bi-Color Soft, Aputure Amaran HR672C diffused with EZ Box, Aputure Lightstorm LS 1/2w undiffused. All images destaturated and equalized as best I can to show actual differences in output and diffusion at the same ISO, shutter speed and aperture.  You'll only see the difference if you look really, really, really closely, but that's the point: this is an example of an object a fraction of the size of the lighting surface area. This is why a 7' Octobox is awesome for full-length images of people, and why the Astra Bi-Color Soft is awesome for interviews and close-ups of people. It's a little bit of overkill (OK, a LOT) for a toy car less than 4" long. Then again, it's not designed for that purpose.

Room for Improvement

The Astra was so bright that I really wanted to give a softbox a go.  I brought this up with Litepanels’ product marketing manager Alan Ipakchian, who told me that German company DoPchoice was on it. I’m excited – Litepanels has pretty well thought of everything else.

But with THIS written – remember that "hold that thought" – I was surprised to learn that neither color temperature nor light intensity are quantified on the unit (or in the app).  How could something so basic – and available in much less expensive units – be missing here?

As it turns out, there are a few very good reasons:

·      broadcast customers didn’t want a glow from the back of the unit

·      different measuring tools can show a variance of up to about 300K; and

·      omitting it allowed Litepanels to price the Astra even more aggressively

Fair enough.

Still, Litepanels has now received a good amount of feedback from other customers who want that precision/repeatability available to them. My suggestion? Put it in the app, and include a drop down menu which allows the operator to calibrate to different measurement tools. The app is in its infancy, but it's going to be great.

I love a manufacturer who embraces apps, solicits customer feedback and acts upon it!

The Price

With all of this goodness, the Astra isn’t inexpensive – unless you’re comparing it to LED panels from ARRI, which well you might.

The light itself (with yoke) lists for $1,800 (currently $1,620 at B&H); the V-mount battery plate lists for $165 (currently $148.50 at B&H); and the Bluetooth module lists for $149 (currently $134.10 at B&H). That’s just over $2,100 for a single light – and doesn’t include light modifiers other than the excellent diffuser that comes built in.

The Competition

As I wrote earlier, at the low end of what I’ll call damned good lights is the Aputure Lightstorm.

At $495 for the LS 1/2w and $695 for your choice of the LS 1c (bi-color, 45° beam angle) or LS 1s (daylight, 45° beam angle) it is a robust, all metal light which draws away heat through an aluminum sink and comes with battery mount and remote control. The diffuser is paper, but it works quite well.

It is a compelling proposition especially for one man-bands.

At the other end is ARRI, with an incredible assortment of LED panels and Fresnels. Their SkyPanel S30-C LED Softlight starts at $3,780, but that buys you a slightly larger surface area (14” x 11.6”), hue and saturation control, color temperature range of 2800K – 10000K, and more. Those additional features will absolutely justify the higher price to its intended audience.

Is there room between papa bear and baby bear?

Oh, yeah!

The Bottom Line

The Litepanels Astra Bi-Color Soft is a built-to-purpose variant of a no-compromises professional light family. It strike me as the perfect light for interviews or closeups with minimal futzing around in studio or on location. There is a large swath of filmmakers between broadcast customers and one-man bands whose needs are in between those two ends of the spectrum (geddit?). For them (for you?), the Astra Bi-Color Soft is a wonderful option.

Maybe it's the Audi S7 of the lighting world: more capable, more expensive and dramatically more appealing to its intended audience than the incredibly well-engineered and keenly priced Honda Civic (Aputure Lightstorm), yet much less expensive and perhaps even sporting superior industrial design to the undeniably top-end Bentley (ARRI SkyPanel), which is aimed at a different audience still.

If I were involved in weekly shooting in a studio environment with a team – but without major broadcast budget – the Astra Bi-Color Soft would be top of my list. If I were involved in weekly remote shoots focused on interviews - it would be top of my list, too. If I were doing an indie project, it'd be top of my list for rental. It's a bright, diffused light that stays cool over extended use and is easy to work with.

A Last Thought

The thing I found most fascinating of all is that each of these lights - the Astra, the Lightstorm and the SkyPanel -- is so well designed for purpose and audience that this is one of the few times where I can imagine no one would regret their choice to pay the asking price - whatever it was.

But with this written, the Astra is my new gold standard in LED panels.