"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.
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 QualityThe 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.