Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pleasant Surprise with the Ice Light Alternative

I have no doubt the folks over at Wescott won't be pleased with me, but then I'm sure they saw this coming.  With any popular new "invention" in photography, it's inevitable that a Chinese knock-off version will appear (let's face it, most of the original versions are made in China anyhow).  Over the past few years, Chinese manufacturers have seen the benefits of making these knock-offs with quality in mind, and become savvy at avoiding copyright issues.  So how does the "Magic Tube Light"-- or MTL 900 II-- compare to its $450 progenitor?  First off, I bought mine for $115 shipped.

I'll start by admitting I've never handled Wescott's Ice Light, so a direct comparison is unfair.  But light has it's own baseline for comparison, and that is something we can examine.

Superficially, the Ice Light is considerably more handsome.  The MTL 900 II (marketed under various names) looks a little plastic-y, and it is.  But it has surprising heft in the hand and feels well-built. The 1/4 inch screw mount on the bottom is the one component that gave me pause.  I'd rate it a 7 out of 10 in terms of sturdiness.   I expect, though, with care it will hold up just fine.

The MTL 900 is approximately the same size as the Ice Light (IL).  It has 298 LEDs compared to the IL's 72.  Obviously, the LEDs are individually weaker, but together they produce 1600 lumens of daylight balanced light.  The original Ice produces 1200 lumens, and the updated version II produces 1600.  Both units are dimmable, with a 73 degree angle of light.  The angle and quality of light the MTL 900 produces is similar to a gridded 24" softbox: you have to keep it close to your subject, so the light is soft with a bit of directionality or bite.  Both brands will last about an hour at full brightness.

While the Wescott is clearly superior in terms of looks and finish, our Chinese friend has a couple of advantages over the Westcott.  The most important is the battery-- it uses a common rechargeable Sony battery that costs about $10 on ebay. You can buy a couple and have hours of working light.  The MTL also comes with a remote, which while handy you'll probably never use.

If all this sounds exciting, there's a very important caveat and it applies to both the $450 Ice Light and it's $120 Black Sheep: the amount of light and what that translates into in real life.  1600 lumens isn't a lot.  In real-world terms, with the MTL 3.5 feet from the subject, my camera settings are shutter 125, aperture f/5.6, and ISO is 500.  Obviously, you can open up your lens farther, but for single portraits the depth of field is already pretty shallow and for couples anything less than 5.6 is a hazard. It's also a continuous light, which means that balances room ambient and key light is difficult given how little power you have to work with.  Both the Ice Light and the MTL are best suited for indoor/studio and night time portraiture, and perhaps a little punch or fill outdoors during the day.

Limitations aside, I was pretty impressed with the MTL900 II-- enough that I immediately purchased a second unit and a pair of barn doors ($30 for the knock-off version versus $40 for the Wescott).  Indoors, the light is small, quick to set up, and can produce some lovely light.  The barn doors add great functionality, and the quality of light is interesting.

A couple of little quirks:  you can run the MTL on AC, but if the battery is low it won't go to full brightness until it recharges to some unspecified level.  The amber, 3200k filter is a nice additional, but it would have been so much smarter to have the piece half clear, half amber so that you simple rotate the filter rather than remove.

What's it look like in action?  Here's a portrait done with two MTLs (positioned above and below as you can see in the catch lights).  The lights are on stands with ballheads positioned for the horizontal.  It's a two minute set up and knowing the amount of light it produces (and thus my camera settings) the first shot was a keeper.


  1. Where did you order barn door for mtl II 900? Could you share a link via e bay? :)

    1. Hi Boskombo, I checked on ebay and that seller no longer has them. But these knock-off versions from China all tend to be pretty similar. You might try: The price has dropped to $18, which is a pretty safe bet. IMPORTANT NOTE: The barn doors don't fit that well: they're too loose. I glued a little padding to the brackets that clamp around the light and they fit great now. However, I find that I need to tighten the little screws that hold the flaps of the doors frequently. When they loosen, they tend to flap on their own, rather than hold their position. Relatively minor complaints, really, but you should know before you buy.

  2. Two questions. 1) after having the light for about a year, are you still satisfied? 2) what stand/attachment did you use for your light? Thanks!

    1. Hi Nikki,
      I'm still using my MTLs, so that says something. I'm sometimes frustrated that the color is slightly tinged - it's not always apparent but sometimes I have to adjust the color temperature in post. If I were buying today, I might wait and see how people like the Yongnuo version ( I use a regular light stand with a tripod ball head. The light is heavy enough that you can't use a super-cheapy ball head, but a $20 one does well.