The most anticipated light of the last year is the Aputure 300d. We put it through its paces to see how it holds up.
Aputure has been on a tear for the last few years, putting out lights from the tiny to the soft, and even microphones. Aputure's most anticipated unit finally started shipping last fall, the Light Storm C300d, a 300-watt LED unit that is being marketed as a 2K equivalent. We'll discuss that 2K figure below, but however you name it, the power of the 300-watt figure is what has excited potential users. No matter which unit it replaces, that is a lot of power out of a lightweight (2.6lb) LED unit, which addresses one of the primary frustrations many users have had with their LEDs. If a lack of power is your dilemma, the 300d has got you covered. We got our hands on a unit and have played with it on a few shoots, walking away very impressed not just with the light itself, but also with what it tells us about how we're going to be lighting our movies soon.
The competitive landscape
The most obvious comparable light for the 300d in terms of physical form would be something like the 100-C from Hive lighting. They both come in right around $1,000, they both are powerful LED units, and they both pack up pretty neatly into a case. The two lights are designed from nearly opposite philosophies, with the 300d going for power while the 100-C goes for control.
The 100-C focuses highly on color accuracy, using five different LEDs to create an infinite array of highly accurate colors you can control from an app or DMX board. Switch from Sony to a Canon and notice the "daylight" rating doesn't feel the same? Tune your light to match the camera!
The 300d focuses instead on power (300 watts vs. 100 watts for around the same price), and the trade-off is much less internal control. You get a daylight unit in the 300d, and considering how inconsistent "daylight" settings are in different cameras, this unit might look slightly cooler or warmer depending on your camera and how it's set up.
There are, of course, a lot of ways to deal with that, either doing a custom white balance on your camera (we habitually shoot RED cameras at -5 tint and 4600 Kelvin when our color meter reads a light at 6500, for instance, since that gives us a balanced waveform on our scopes), or individually white balancing the light by throwing up a grey card and using gels. Having it in an app might be nice, but for many users, when power is what you need, adding a few gels to a light isn't going to slow you down that much.
While some might be tempted to say, "Fix it in post," color accuracy can actually be annoying to fix in post if you have a mix of units and need to bring them together. Despite the lack of Kelvin control, in addition to brute strength, the Aputure also manages to pack in a whole pile of accessories along with the 300d unit all in the base price. While competitors might come with just the head unit, when you open up the case for the 300d, you get a battery plate, a fresnel and a photo flood, all rolled into the same single package, which comes in a convenient soft case.
The battery functionality is a huge benefit as well. Most LED lights will run off batteries (mostly V-mounts), with the exciting part here being that such a powerful unit can also run off batteries, though it requires two batteries where other units require one. Using this unit off batteries opens up a whole host of amazing options for filmmakers, though we did find it frustrating on set having to use the battery block even when using wall power.
As opposed to units like the Hive where you only have one power brick in line (and a relatively small one), to get power to the 300d required both the ballast and the battery adapter in line together, which made for some awkward rigging situations when mounting it on stands or in complicated setups. Not by any means a dealbreaker, but it would be nice if there were at least a bracket for mounting the two bricks together that perhaps you could clip to a stand for easy rigging.
In addition, while the head unit is 4-pin, you have to use the cable that comes with the unit and you can't run an extension, which sometimes means mounting the converter in awkward places where a longer power cable would have been nice.
Occasionally in our tests, we run into units that are designed by people who have never been on a film set, but the Aputure team has clearly shot projects itself or interviewed people who do. The controls are usable and intuitive, but most importantly repeatable, with power readouts on the controller that make the possibility of a dynamic lighting ramp mid-shot a realistic option, despite the infinite spin wheel.
One worry we have is the plastic knuckles on the knobs. The unit is available with either a large or a small softbox, and when we tested it with the large box (which you'll mostly use for stage work, it's too big for tight locations), we really had to crank down on the knuckle to keep it firm. Of course, a knuckle is an easy replacement part if it breaks and not structural, but it is an area we will watch out for when we see these on set in the coming months to see if they are holding up.
2K or not 2K
Those practical issues aside, we also wondered, philosophically, if calling it a "2K" is the right move. We can't fault Aputure specifically for this; everyone compares LEDs and even HMIs to the tungsten heads they replace because for 60 years, everyone on a film set measured their light power based on the tungsten units that were the workhorses of the industry. However, we honestly can't remember the last time we put a 2K junior on a stand. 2012? 2008? HMIs and now LEDs have rapidly taken over the market, and the old reference just doesn't matter much anymore.
Aputure gave it the right official name (the 300d is 300-watts, and daylight balanced), but of course, power efficiency is hard to measure and its 300-watt unit might be brighter than a competitor's 300-watt unit. LEDs are less consistent than tungsten, where 300 watts was the same unit to unit to unit. Since Aputure gave it the right name, we guess it's actually a criticism of the industry in general for the way units are marketed. Hopefully in the near future, LEDs will be marketed without talking about the past, but instead focusing on what they can do for you now and in the near future.
Though in reality, lights like these will likely only impact the near future. In order to give users so many things for under $1,000, including battery plate adapter, ballast and case, and all that power, the head unit doesn't feel like it will last 50 years. With the "original" 2K unit, you regularly see units that have clearly been in use since the 1960s on trucks and sets. This unit just doesn't feel that robust. That's OK, with the way companies are innovating lighting technology, for a five-to-ten year life cycle for a head unit, the construction is plenty durable. You'll likely get a good few years of use out of the units before you'll be itching to upgrade to newer, lighter, cheaper, more powerful lights by the time the 300d has lived through its lifecycle. But it is worth pointing out that these no longer feel like they could fall off a truck and survive the way an old 2K junior might.
Of course, you can plug six (or maybe seven) of these into a wall outlet, and you definitely couldn't do that with a junior, so it's part of the trade-offs that come with new technology. iPhones don't feel like they'll last as long as your grandparent's rotary phone, but they aren't meant to. This isn't criticism as much as observation: lighting is changing and will now probably have an upgrade cycle closer to that of cameras than to what it used to be. Instead of thinking about lights as lasting decades, we think planning to get five to ten years from a light is probably realistic.
Overall, the 300d feels like a real window in to the next wave of production. All of the sudden, that single shot you need out in the woods is doable without renting a put-put since you can light the whole thing off a few V-mount batteries, though you'll likely want to invest in a 4-up V-mount charger to keep enough juice flowing. Rigging one of these off a power inverter for a powerful night backlight in a car scene, popping one far out in a field for a moonlight gag, rigging it to the ceiling of an attic without worry about cable routing, the power/weight/battery combo really does change the way you think about lighting. Lighting decisions on small crew/limited time shoots constantly involve planning ahead for cabling and balancing what is possible on time and on budget, and the ability to run a battery-powered unit (or four) out into the field without worrying about running long miles of cable or the noise of a cheap generator is a game changer.
The 300d is a major step forward for the LED industry. It tells us a lot about how we're going to be lighting movies for the next few years. Be sure to get a color meter, and have a good time.
Available for $1,099 from B&H.
- 300-watt power draw
- Light with Controller & Power Supply
- Wireless Remote with 492' Range
- 5500K Color Temperature
- Bowens Front Mount, Quiet Fan
- V-Mount Battery Plate
- Built-In Handle