Wednesday, August 28, 2019

CLAR Illumi Max 300 Light Review

"Light turns the ordinary into the magical" – Trent Parke

If you haven't noticed, I'm obsessed with lights right now.   Small ones, big ones, portable, cumbersome, hard, soft-- I've got to shape me some light.  I want a light that does everything.  Fit into a backpack, be hugely powerful, be accurate, silent, battery-powered.  Of course, no light can do everything, so you end up with a library of instruments to choose from.

Enter the CHAR Ilumi 300, a two-thousand watt equivalent LED at an amazing price.  This light challenges me in more ways than I’d like.  So let’s get into it.

CLAR Illumi Max 300 LED Light

The CLAR Illumi 300 comes in three parts:  a light, controller unit, and power brick.  It also comes with a case that is, quite frankly, excellent, and a remote control that is cheap but functional.  It uses a Bowens mount for accessories.  You can power it with a V-pack battery, though they have to be huge, and it can be controlled via DMX.

What’s stunning about this light is that you get all these features and 2K watts of power for just $400.  That’s less than half the cost of the competition.  So how does it perform?

First, it’s as powerful as it says.  At one meter, it comes in at roughly 18,000 lumen, putting it on par with the original Aputure’s 300D.  It’s controllable in 10% increments, which is a little crude in theory but finite enough in reality. I don’t have a professional color meter, but my phone app rates it at 5400 Kelvin.  It’s also claims a CRI of greater than 96, but I don’t have a way to accurately test this. I did shoot a white card and analyze the color balance, and I was surprised to find it perfect.  My RGB was 246, 246, 246.    So that CRI is probably spot on, too.  The bottom line is that LED chip technology has been getting better and cheaper, making lights like the CLAR Illumi possible.

Noise is always a big concern with lights.  The CLAR is fairly quiet.  It has fans in both the light and the power brick, and between the two of them it’s audible but not intrusive.  Given that you’ll probably position the CLAR farther away from your subject than other lights, I don’t think fan noise will be a problem in 95% of the situations in which you’d use this bad boy.  For the other five you’ve got noise reduction.  One of the few shortcomings in the design of this unit is that the power cord is long, but the cord from the power brick to the controller is just 6 feet.  That puts the brick’s fan six feet behind the light.  This should be the opposite, with the longer cord being between the two units so you can get the power brick as far away from the mic as possible, preferably in another room altogether.

So those are the positives: great power, color quality, price, and relatively low noise.

Build Quality

The negatives for this light can be summed up in two words:  build quality.  Much of the housing is what they describe as “aircraft grade aluminum” which I think is just a silly marketing name for “aluminum.”  That includes the light housing, knobs, clamp, controller body, and power brick housing. The metal on the light is fine, the controller feels pretty thin.  But where the plastic meets the aluminum really feels flimsy and brittle.  The dial on the controller compresses a bit, and the rotation is a little rough.  This feels like it will break with regular use, so I’m thankful there’s a remote that can also control the light. Overall, the build quality is a little better than the ZUMA 60 I reviewed, and the build is where the budget aspect of the unit really shows.

To add to these worries, there’s some quality control issues at the factory.  The CLAR Illumi appears to have been made specifically for Adorama, and they're aggressively moving it into the market in different formats, including flexible panels.  But with quality control issues like this, it's difficult to predict if they'll grow into even a Neewer level brand.  Though mine arrived perfectly encased in boxes and plastic, it still had a dented reflector and a bit of odd colored dust on it.

These build quality issues would normally disqualify a light for me.  My biggest concern would be showing up on set and not having it function correctly.  But the issue of build quality isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, especially when it comes to something with a bargain price.  Drop the Illumi from a foot off the ground and you’ve got a 50-50 percent chance it’ll survive.  Those are bad odds. But if you drop even the best quality light from four feet you’ve only got about the same survival rate.  In reality, there's a big difference between the abuse LED lights can take compared to the old instruments we used to use. Old fashioned lights will break a bulb that you can replace, but LED’s will break a circuit board or fan or something integral.  The Illumi comes with a great case, so it’s protected in transit. It’s only on set that you need to be concerned about blunt trauma.  So if you don’t want to knock over any light, should you be concerned that you can’t knock over this one?

A bigger worry, though, would be that the components aren’t well assembled.  Did they use cheaper parts inside, or cut corners in manufacturing?  At this price point, though, you could ask a roughly similar question of a brand light: would you buy an Aputure 300D used for $400?  The answer is probably yes, but you don’t know what it’s been through—humidity, moisture, dust, stressful vibrations and being bounced around.  Could you really trust it more?

For me, I’d say the big difference between those two scenarios is that after several uses I’d trust the Aputure completely, whereas with the CLAR by the time I trust its internal build quality, I’ll probably start to wonder about it’s longevity.

I’d trust this most in a studio.  Studios are a controlled environment, and you’ve got alternatives right at your fingertips.

In the field, I’ll probably bring a backup light, just in case—at least for the first few uses.  I don’t have anything with the same power, and it’s a pain to bring an extra light, but that’s better than having nothing if it fails.  The truth is, I’ll hold onto this light just because I’m just so curious to see if it will last.  Would I recommend it to others?  With the big caveats I mentioned before.  Buy with your eyes wide open.

 Illumi 300 also provides some highly coveted features for less than half the price of brand lights.  Or maybe I should say “logo’d” lights, since nearly everything is made in a handful of shops in China.

And this brings me to a curious observation I had when testing this light.

I’d never used a light temperature meter before, and what struck me is how many different temperatures exist at once even with natural light.  The idea that 56K is daylight is a bit misleading. By the time the light reaches your subject, surface reflections create a broad spectrum of light on different parts of your face that can vary as much as a thousand degrees. Unless you live in a grayscale world, light is never just 56K. So is it really important that daylight LEDs are 56K plus or minus 200 degrees Kelvin?  I welcome your thoughts on that.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Aputure Fresnel 2X Review: Uh-oh.

I’m not usually the first one to buy a new piece of gear.  I’ve pre-ordered something maybe twice in my life.  But when I heard about the Aputure Fresnel 2X I thought… this is the kind of design mistake I can get into.

I was really excited about the possibilities of this tool.  The Aputure Fresnel 2X is designed to fit onto any Bowens mount light and increase its output anywhere from 2 to 14 times it’s maximum.  It’s a Fresnel, which means it’s focusable, from  40 degrees to 12 degrees—at least according to the literature.  It’s a design mistake, in my opinion, because it essentially turns any cheap 60-100 watt light into a monster, able to compete with the likes of the thousand-dollar Aputure 300d.

Of course, I was wrong about that… and that’s a big problem.

Video Review

Aputure implies that this will work with any Bowen’s mount light, and to be blunt, it doesn’t.  I don’t own the Aputure 120d, the light it was specifically designed for, so I don’t know how its construction differs.  But in my tests with two cheap lights, the Zuma LED60 and the RPS Studio 100 watt light, the unit just doubled the light, increasing by one full stop.  Now that’s not bad, and it’s within Aputure’s claims, but that wasn’t the only disappointment.  On the RPS Studio, it failed to act as a Fresnel.  The beam didn’t widen or narrow—it stayed at what I suspect is about 12 degrees.  On the Zuma I did get it to open up some, but not to a full 40 degrees.  And the Zuma light had another problem: you could make out the bi-colored LEDs when the Fresnel was zoomed in.  Really ugly.

12 Degrees Will Trip You Up

Now you may think, “well, it does double the light so it’s worth it.” But the 12 degree angle is a problem.  You can’t really shoot it into a scrim or bounce card, because the beam is too small at 3-5 feet away.  To fill up the card, you have to back the light even farther, thus reducing the amount of light that reaches your subject.  This takes away the one stop of light you gained. Remember, if you double the distance between subject and instrument, you half the amount of light.  And 12 degrees is less than a third of 40. The beam is so narrow at that distance, that I suspect it will even have problems in a softbox, when used on a third party light like the Zuma or RPS. It’s also a pretty big attachment, so it’s not something I’d want to carry around if it wasn’t a flexible tool.

At this point, I’d love to see some real world reviews of the light on the Aputure products to understand whether these limitations are just for other brands, or if it doesn’t fully perform up to spec.  There’s a reason Aputure makes such a wide claim of “2 to 14 times” the output.  The design of the Fresnel 2x appears to be based on a very specific light design. I’m sad to report these findings because I’m a big fan of Aputure.  They make quality goods at a decent price.  But the Fresnel 2X isn’t something you can use on non-Aputure products, and that’s extremely limiting.  Leave me a comment if you’ve had success with the 2X on other third party lights.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Zuma LED 60: Killing the Killer Godox SL60 and the Aputure 120D

The Godox SL60 has been called the Aputure 120D killer.  But can the Zuma LED60, a lesser known knock-off, kill the Godox?  That’s a lot of light deaths already.

I was thinking about getting the Godox as a cheap secondary light, when I came across the Zuma LED60.  At $85.46 including shipping and tax I thought… why not?

You can watch the video version of this review, or keep reading....  

To be fair, I don’t own the Godox or the Aputure, so  this isn’t a comparison video.  But the questions about value are the same, so here we go.

The ZUMA is a quote-unquote "cheap Chinese knock off."  But that doesn’t necessarily mean its lower quality.  Almost everything is made in China, so Chinese companies have the option to pick and choose higher and lower quality goods to design the product—and price point—they want.

Too often, we think about the value of a light only as a key light.  For a good key, we need excellent color, silence, power, and flicker-free illumination.  Portability and ease of set up are helpful, too.  But we don’t need great color or silence on our rim, ambient, or environmental lights.  If it's not serving as your key light, the thing a secondary light has to be is flicker-free. I use a lot of different light-- large lights, midsized lights, small lights of varying quality throughout a set.  So I was willing to experiment with $85 to see if the Zuma had a place in my kit.

The Zuma is a daylight balanced LED that actually has a great form factor for this type of fixture.  It’s really small, just slightly larger than its reflector.  It’s all metal—the only plastic is the back handle and the lever.  It doesn’t require a power brick or converter.  And it’s a Bowen mount, which allows for professional modifiers. The only bummer is that the light cover is about twice the size it needs to be, taking up extra space when packed.  And there is no case for it, which might be handy.

I compared this light to my key light, the Falcon Eyes RX 24 TDX.  The Falcon is a high quality, powerful light that I personally love, despite the ridiculous power brick and portability issues.  To my surprise, at full power, the Zuma matched the light output of the Falcon Eyes.  At three feet, I metered ISO 200, shutter 60, and an aperture of 5.6 on both lights.  That’s roughly 5300 lux at 1 meter. The beam and spread are different, of course, with the Falcon Eyes being a bigger, more flattering light, and the ZUMA hard light that will require a modifier in most situations.  

Falcon Eyes 24 

Zuma LED60

I don’t have a spectrometer, so I compared the color on a RGB scope.  I filmed this with a Sony a7sii, which is notorious for color shift, so I didn’t expect perfect greys out of either light.  Sure enough, my Falcon Eyes dialed into 5600k had higher blue and green levels on the scope.  Now the Falcon is known for excellent color rendition, so I believe the uneven RGB lines is due to the Sony.  To my surprise, the Zuma had a nearly identical image.  The Falcon is a large panel, so the light fell evenly across the grey card (resulting in a flat line on the scope); whereas the Zuma is slanted due to light fall off-- not color quality.  The Zuma, in fact, is closer to perfect grey in the scope.  But in all honesty I don't know if there is "too much" red in the Zuma, due to Sony's strange color rendition... other cameras might see the light differently.

During my color test, I was standing about eight inches away from the Zuma.  I actually had to turn the light back on after the test in order to listen for fan noise.  It’s really quiet.  Professionally quiet.  Unless you've clamped your mic to the light, you're not going to hear it.

In a 20 minute heat test at full power, the ZUMA didn’t warm up, either.

The Achilles Heel of cheap LED lights is flicker.  That’s because cheap LED’s pulse at lower light output in order to reduce the amount of light.  They’re really firing at full power, and reducing the amount of light by interrupting the flow.  This means that when you shoot at higher frame rates, you can catch the dark portion of the pulse in the frame, creating flicker.  I couldn’t recreate flicker with the ZUMA. Even shooting at 10% power and 500 frames per second, I didn’t see any.  Which suggests that the ZUMA isn’t using a pulse to reduce output.  

I haven’t had a chance to use the ZUMA in a real world setting, but I was impressed that it performed so well in a studio test. The ZUMA isn’t just a solid secondary lightIt can perform as a key light.  The only real question left is durability.  Will the light hold up over time?  Obviously, the worse case scenario for any professional is to show up on a shoot and have your main light fail.  Full disclosure, this is my second light.  The first one showed up dead on arrival.  This one had an extra fuse in the box, so I suspect the first one had a dead fuse.  The light is all metal, doesn’t rattle, and doesn’t heat up, so there’s no real reason to suspect it will fail, but I can’t speak to the internal wiring and components.  

I probably won’t use the Zuma as a main light just because the $550 Falcon Eyes is more versatile… it's bi-color, and has a soft box attachment. It is possible if I was traveling and didn’t have space for the Falcon, working in hazardous conditions, or I knew I would have only a minute to set up, I would grab the Zuma one instead.  As a secondary light, I’m really looking forward to putting this little guy into play at Hurricane Images.

In sum, at $85 on Ebay, it’s hard to go too far wrong with this light.  It's powerful, silent, small, keeps its cool, and has very good color rendition. It’s a great choice for beginners and professionals who want to add to their kit.  

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Tips for Creating Addictive Content

The good fellas at Hurricane Images Inc. have posted a banger post on how to create addictive video content.  If you're part of the small business revolution, or an entrepreneur looking for video marketing strategies, it offers some starter insights into how to reach new clients, build brand equity, and generally get your stuff out there.

The major focus of the article is how to create a hook, break your content down into chunks, and find your "hero."  What stood out for me was how few companies create videos based on their tag line.  Your tag shouldn't come at the end of the video, it can be your video. 

Create Addictive Content is a short piece full of insights and worth the read.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Be Brave

There are a lot of tools we use as photographers and filmmakers, but the most common one-- regardless of whether you're a Canon, Nikon, Sony, or Pentax shooter-- is definitely the web.  So if this feels a little off-topic to you, consider what you're staring at right now.

That's right.  A browser.  Unfortunately, Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer all track and sell your user data.  And to add insult to the injury, this process slows down your browsing experience.  So I switched to Brave, the browser with the motto: "You Are Not a Product."

Amen, brother. 

They do not track your usage.  They do not allow other companies to track your usage.  And they block ads that slow you down. They even keep a tally of how many ads and trackers they've blocked, as well as how much time you've saved by not loading ads. Find them at:

This has been one of the most painless switches I could have imagined.  If you use a lot of add ons and plugins, Brave may not be for you.  In order to keep your browser secure, they don't have any.  I also still use one of those other crappy browsers for YouTube and Google searches, just to make sure they can't someone infiltrate the system.  But since we're on the topic, stop Googling stuff.  Use DuckDuckGo.  They don't track your searches.

Yes, your email company is still tracking you, as are Facebook, Instagram and others, but at least this cuts down on the sheer volume of data you're handing over to marketers.

Still don't believe that this is a topic for a photography blog? Look at the photo credit (lower left hand corner) for the top image.  If you don't know Serge Ramelli, you should.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Production Hack: The Foam Washer

Okay, this is a simple hack, even dull by most standards, but it's the hack tool I use more than any other.  Because it's almost always attached some piece of gear, and it actually works.

I had connections that slip.  Turn. Droop.  Fall off.  Too many 1/4 inch screws don't have sufficiently sticky pads to keep things from slipping/twisting/spinning.  When I attach two pieces of equipment together, I want them to stick.  In place.  You know, like a locking washer would do.  But we don't have locking washers in photography, we have pads that harden and become smooth.  So here's a $7 solution.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Hurricane Images Interview Demo

In the beginning I thought demo reels were a waste of time-- both as a producer and a viewer.  Showing just the best bits, there's so much more that determines whether a video is good-- story, editing, and performances.  As a photographer, I would post links to the top 20 images from a single wedding, so that couples could get a real sense of that to expect.

But lately I've decided that they do have some purpose.  Yes, there's showing your very best bits quickly and concisely, but more helpful I think is to show "boring" things in interesting ways. 

Unless your interested in the subject matter, interviews are pretty boring.  But they're also the centerpiece of many commercial videos and documentaries.  They're vital to Kickstarter/Indiegogo/MicroVentrues campaigns, tutorials, and company intros.  If you're a business owner, entrepreneur, or artists, you should be paying close attention to the quality of the interview technique.

We created our Interview Video Reel so that prospective clients could quickly see what our work, and learn a little bit about what makes an interview stand out from the technical standpoint.