NFS Review: Strahlen ST-100 LED Lights
Last month, I had a chance to talk with Andy Waplinger, the founder of Strahlen, about his brand new LED lighting solution, the ST-100 series of lights. Since that time, I've had the opportunity to not only have some hands-on time with the prototype ST-100's, but to formally review them, and shoot with them on a personal project. Needless to say, the ST-100's and I became quite close during the few weeks that they were in my possession, and I have quite a few thoughts to share about these unique lights. So, let's get to it.
In our interview last month, Andy talked about his reasoning behind founding Strahlen, and the philosophy of the lights themselves. Even though the LED lighting market is already fairly saturated at this point, when Andy went to find a new set of LED's for his freelance filmmaking business, the products he encountered seemed to fall into three different categories: they were either too expensive, poorly built, difficult to modify, or some combination thereof.
And thus, Strahlen was born, an LED lighting company by filmmakers, for filmmakers. Their goal is to combat the above problems by providing products focused on durability, flexibility, and value. The company's flagship line of products, the ST-100 series of lights, is now looking to make its way out into the world through the magic of crowdfunding.
Before we get started with the review, here are the basic specs of the ST-100:
Color Rendering Index:
Tungsten | Daylight | Bi-Color
Bowens S-type | 3" Magnetic Attachment
Baby mount (5/8")
16.5" x 7.5" x 5.5"
90-305V AC, 47-63Hz
One year limited
For review, Andy graciously sent me the 3 individual models of the ST-100, the Tungsten (ST-100T), the Daylight (ST-100D), and Bi-Color (ST-100B). The two single-color lights were equipped with the Bowens mount for cheaper Bowens/third-party accessories, and the bi-color model was equipped with both a Bowens mount and a Chimera mount. Also included in the package of lighting goodies were various modifiers, from a basic softbox (octobox) and grid reflector, to the magnetically mounted dome diffuser and fresnel attachments.
Upon opening the case and pulling out the bi-color model, my first impression was something along the lines of, "Holy #$%! this thing is a beast!" The phrase "Built Like A Tank" is thrown around quite a bit in product reviews, but in the case of the Strahlen ST-100, it is literally the only fitting description of how these lights feel in your hands. They're crafted entirely out of aluminum, and there isn't a trace of plastic on the exterior of the lights. Just from holding one, you can immediately tell that these are not only built to last, but they're built to stand up to years of tough abuse.
I immediately fired up the three separate models and I freaked out momentarily as the tungsten model didn't strike immediately when I flicked the switch. The light came on at full blast after about a second or two. This brief delay was also present in the two other models. Initially I just wanted to see what kind of output they had, and I wasn't disappointed. At first glance, these lights all have an output that seems equivalent to or just slightly less than a 500 watt halogen open-face head. Also, the tungsten models have a slightly lesser output than their daylight counterparts. It's barely noticeable, however.
One thing to mention before we move on is that I was a bit thrown off at first by the color of the tungsten LED's, both on the single and bi-color models. It came off a bit warmer than I was expecting, and there was a slight reddish hue that seemed present in both of the tungsten lights. It could have been my eyes playing tricks on me or the color of the paint on my wall being slightly warmer than usual, but it left a little bit of doubt in my mind as to whether the tungsten models would play nicely with other tungsten lights. More on that later.
One of the first things that struck me about the ST-100 is that the mounting bracket (in order to mount the lights to a stand) is actually not permanently fastened to the light like it is with most lights. It comes as a separate L-shaped bracket that simply screws onto to the side of the light, and this mounting point acts as the pivot for tilting the light up and down. I'm actually quite fond of this design, because it makes packing the lights down into small cases much easier.
Once you fly the lights up on a stand, they feel and handle much like the medium-sized fresnels, open faces, and par cans that you would find on just about every film set. They're sturdy and well-balanced on a stand, even with large modifiers attached to the front of the light. Frankly, they act just as they should in regards to getting them set up. No surprises here.
Operation and Light-Modification
The ethos of the Strahlen lights is simplicity, both in form and function. As such, the controls on these lights are far simpler than some of the higher-end LED options out there, like the Arri L7 series, which features an absurd amount of color options. The only two controls on the single-color models are a basic on/off switch and a knob for dimming the lights, which takes the ST-100 from full power down to 10% with absolutely no color shift or flickering of any kind. The bi-color model only has one added switch that flips the light from daylight to tungsten mode instantaneously.
Even though the bi-color model switches seamlessly between the daylight and tungsten diodes, there is no way to have both on at the same time and mix them together at various levels in order to dial in exacting color temperatures. Many cheaper LED's are able to accomplish this feat (with varying results), as are many of the high-end LED solutions. But the ST-100B only has the two modes of operation, daylight and tungsten. If you want anything else, you'll have to gel the lights, which isn't a big deal.
One of the most important aspects of lighting is modification. Therefore, the single best feature of these Strahlen lights, in my opinion, is how flexible they are in terms of modifiers. If you're heavily invested in Chimera equipment, or if you've got barn doors or off-brand softboxes for an Arri 650, then you'll feel right at home with the ST-100. Within 30 seconds of flying the light, we had it equipped with barn doors and a sheet of 1/2 diffusion, and it was ready to roll. Needless to say, it fit right into everything we already knew about lighting, because we didn't have to learn a new proprietary system. The Chimera mount is an optional add-on for these lights, but it's well worth the $75.
Because Chimera equipment is straight-up expensive, the ST-100 also comes equipped with a Bowens mount. Personally, I hadn't used the Bowens mount prior to reviewing these lights, but the accessories like the 60 degree grid reflector were quite simple to mount to the lights and they provided a great result. A little bit of research revealed that Bowens mount modifiers are far more affordable than their Chimera counterparts. If you're looking to modify on a budget, Bowens seems like the way to go, and the ST-100 supports those accessories right out of the box.
Then come the magnetic modifiers. The modifiers that I received with the kit were a 60 degree fixed fresnel lens and a dome diffuser, which turns the open faced ST-100 into a bare bulb source with a near 180 degree spread of soft-ish, even light. These modifiers attach to the lights, the single-color models anyway, simply and they do what is intended. However, attaching the magnetic modifiers to the bi-color model is a bit awkward as they're clearly not designed for a light with the two diodes right on top of one another. The modifiers do attach, and they work correctly, but it just feels awkward and a little unstable.
Overall, the ST-100's are wildly versatile in terms of light modification, which is a sizable part of good lighting. By forgoing any kind of proprietary modification system and implementing two massively popular modifier mounts, the ST-100's are built to work with the modifiers that you already have and are comfortable using. And even if you're not invested in any modifiers, the fact that the there are multiple systems by which to modify these lights means that it'll be easy to find any type of modifier you need in just about any price range.
However, the lack of some kind of mode to blend together the daylight and tungsten diodes on the bi-color model prevents the ST-100 from being as versatile as some of its far more expensive brethren, like Arri, Nila, and Litepanels. With that said, tungsten and daylight balances will get you to where you need to go 95% of the time, and when you need to match the color of ambient light in some place, there are always gels for that exact reason.
All in all, the ST-100's are incredibly versatile, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a situation where a set of Strahlens wouldn't be a highly effective tool.
Noise and Heat
One of the problems that plagues many of the cheaper LED lighting solutions these days, especially some of the cheaper Asian-made products, is fan noise. Most of these lights use a combination of methods, an internal fan being the most common, in order to dissipate the heat from the high-powered LED's. As many of us have found out the hard way, fan noise can literally ruin the audio from a take, which makes lights that have noise issues practically unusable in any situation where audio is paramount.
So how do the Strahlen ST-100's compare to some of their noisier counterparts? To put it mildly, they blow away the competition in terms of fan noise. Even after an hour and a half of continuous run time, the bi-color model was as quiet as the moment that it was turned on. I literally had to put my ear an inch away from the light to even notice light hum of the fan. Frankly, the ST-100 was so quiet that I doubt that even the most tedious of sound mixers would notice it on a set.
Heat really isn't much of an issue for most modern LED sources, and the ST-100's are no exception. The aluminum body is always cool to the touch, and very little heat is emitted from the front of the lamp. However, the magnetic modifiers can get a little toasty when left on for awhile, but that's to be expected when they mount so close to such a powerful diode.
How They Look - Color Performance
When I took the ST-100's out for a spin, there were a few things that I wanted to test, the most important of which is how they would work in mixed lighting conditions. In the past, I've been really disappointed with how cheaper LED's dealt with mixed lighting, as they sometimes induce a slight color shift that can make nice lighting look sickly and uneven in terms of color.
Unfortunately, we only had a set of basic Arri tungsten fresnels at our disposal, so this review can't speak to how the Strahlen lights mix with daylight sources like HMIs and plasma. Our setup was a simple one, consisting of a basic three-light setup, with a key, fill, and a hair-light as per the overhead below.
This video was shot with a Canon 60D with the latest version of the Marvels picture profile. Lenses were a vintage Japanese 135mm f/2.8 for the closeups and a 14mm f/2.8 from Canon for the wide-angles. All shots with a tungsten key were balanced at 3200k and all shots with a daylight key were balanced at 5600k. These shots are all straight out of the camera with no color correction of any kind applied to the footage.
So here's the comparison video, which shows how the Strahlen ST-100's stack up against one of the most common and reliable tungsten sources available, the Arri fresnel.
Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/85100428
Having used several different cheap LED options in mixed lighting conditions over the past few years with pretty questionable results, I'm sold on the ST-100's and their ability to play well with others. The mixed lighting scenarios with a tungsten key all looked very clean and balanced to my eye.
With that being said, the shots with a daylight key all come off with a slight yellowish tint, and much of the life is drained out of the model's skin tones. I did not have this problem when using the Strahlen ST-100's for a personal project the next day, when I used only the two daylight balanced models. Some possible reasons for the disparity in my results are operator error (a poorly done manual white balance), the fact that our shooting space was rife with natural daylight and tungsten practicals, or perhaps the colorimetry of the Marvels picture profile doesn't react well to those specific lighting conditions. Whatever the reason, something is definitely off with the daylight balanced shots in this test.
Overall, however, the Strahlen LED's performed admirably in mixed lighting scenarios with Arri fresnels, especially with a tungsten-balanced key light.
Pros and Cons
Like any piece of gear, the ST-100's have both pros and cons. They're listed below:
- Build-quality: The ST-100 is built like a tank, and it will take whatever beating you throw at it. End of story.
- Output: These lights have a relatively high output compared to many lower end LED's, and with cameras becoming more and more sensitive, a set of lights like the Strahlens could provide you all of the light that could possibly need for interior situations.
- Versatility: The fact that you're not tied to any proprietary modification system means that you can keep money in your pocket by using the modifiers that you already own, or if you have to buy new modifiers, the Bowens and Chimera mounts will provide you with all of the flexibility you need to purchase the right modifiers in your price range. This is the most legit feature of these lights. They're built to work around you and the modification equipment that's already on the market.
- Color Reproduction: Unlike many lower-end LED's, the ST-100's are right at home with other sources in mixed lighting scenarios. There's no nasty green-spike or color shifts, and the color feels entirely natural while producing very clean skin tones.
- Price: At $1,000 and $1,400 ($200 less through the IndieGoGo campaign) for the single and bi-color models respectively, these are not necessarily budget friendly lights if you're strapped for cash or just starting out. They are aimed at professional users who would otherwise be forced to spend considerably more for products from the likes of Arri, Nila, or Litepanels. However, although the initial price of these lights is high, they do represent a tremendous value in that they'll likely last you for the rest of your working life. So it's really a matter of the initial price vs. the ultimate value. How you choose to look at that quandary should depend on your individual needs.
- Weight and Size: Despite the fact that I love how the ST-100's are built, these lights are incredibly bulky and pretty heavy. Even with their decently high output, they are much bigger and heavier than I would prefer. However, Andy has told me that the finalized product will be 4 inches shorter and about 2 pounds lighter, which should make the ST-100's a bit more manageable.
- No Color Blending on Bi-Color Model: A good portion of bi-color LED's have the ability to mix the two diodes at different levels in order to dial in temperatures between 3200 and 5600. Not the ST-100B, which is a shame, because it's really the only thing holding these lights from being the most wildly versatile lights in their price range.
- No Battery Power: Many of the high-end LED fixtures can't be powered by battery, but that doesn't stop me from wishing it were so. With a relatively tame power-draw, it's not inconceivable that the ST-100's could run on batteries. I believe that's one of the major features that the Strahlen team is working on.
- Magnetic Modifiers on the ST-100B: The magnetic modifiers (fresnel lens and dome diffuser) work like a champ on the single color models, but they don't quite fit properly on to the face of the bi-color model, because the two LED lighting elements are placed above one another. That's not to say that you can't attach these modifiers to the bi-color, because you certainly can, but it just doesn't feel quite right.
The Strahlen ST-100's are incredible lights, and they have just about everything that I look in an LED lighting solution, with the exception of fine color adjustments like you would find on some higher-end LED's like the Arri L7. With that said, the bi-color model, with its Bowens and Chimera mount, is one of the most versatile lights that I have ever used in terms of modification. Add to that the fact that its color rendition allows it to play very nicely with other lights, and it becomes clear that the ST-100's will fit into just about any lighting setup you can imagine.
The major setback for the ST-100's will certainly be the price. LED lighting is booming right now and various companies are competing heavily with the creation of new LED products. With some of the Asian manufacturers really stepping up their game and offering high quality lights at reasonable prices, the ST-100 is going to be a hard sell for many people with their base prices $1000 MSRP for single color and $1400 for the bi-color model.
However, where the Strahlen lights absolutely excel is in their versatility and their ruggedness. You would be hard-pressed to find any lighting solution this well-built and rugged for anywhere near the price of the ST-100. After spending three weeks with these lights, I'm convinced that they will survive a lifetime of use, even in the most abusive of conditions. So, the initial price of the ST-100 is a bit misleading considering that these lights offer a tremendous value over the course of the light's lifespan. If you're just looking for a set of cheap LED's to get by, the Strahlens most definitely aren't for you. But, if you're looking to invest in some lights that will be with you for many years to come, then the Strahlen ST-100's are certainly worth the consideration.
All in all, Strahlen delivers on their goal of providing a product with durability, flexibility, and value, and that's no small feat.
Now it's your turn to tell us what you think of the Strahlen ST-100's. How do these lights compare the other LED lighting solutions that you've used? What additional features would you like to see in these lights? Let us know down in the comments!