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Field Test: The Lowel Blender
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Field Test: The Lowel Blender

Will it blend different kinds of light?

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It’s an ingenious LED Location Light that’s fully adjustable for color-balanced light output. How well does it work, what else can it do, and is it worth the price?



The basic concept of the Lowel Blender (available at Adorama) is so breathtakingly simple and intuitive it comes under the general heading of ”Why didn’t I think of that?” Imagine a small rectangular reflector head containing a dozen large LEDs, six of them daylight-balanced, the other six tungsten-balanced, arrayed in a compact (about 4 inches wide, 3 inches tall, and 3 inches deep), lightweight (1.2 pounds) fixture with separate variable dimming knobs on the back, coded blue for daylight and yellow for tungsten output, and you’ve pretty well got it.

On the bottom of the head is a sturdy polycarbonate and metal bracket that allows fore and aft rotation for basic vertical angle adjustment, provides a standard fitting with a lock screw for mounting the unit on a 5/8-inch stand or stud, and includes an accessory slot with a second locking knob for adding a Gel frame, umbrella, etc. There’s an on-off switch, but there’s no need for a fan because the unit’s 56-Watt rated maximum output generates relatively little heat. However, to keep things as cool as possible and to maximize LED life there are 8 stout metal heat-dissipation fins on the back arrayed in a radial pattern.

What makes Lowel Blender (available at Adorama) a novel, ingenious and useful approach is that is solves one of the basic problems of providing additional light when you’re shooting video or stills in mixed-light situations—especially when shooting “run & gun” videos. Instead of just guesstimating, the Blender makes it possible to fine-tune your fill light to match or contrast with the ambient light to get the precise visual effect you want. By turning two simple dials you can achieve light outputs ranging from 2800K to match traditional incandescent lamps, all the way up to 6000K, roughly equal to daylight on an overcast day.

The compact unit is small enough to handhold with the pistol grip included in the kit, and it can run off a camcorder battery (available in configurations to accommodate Sony, Canon, Panasonic, Samsung, and Hitaschi batteries) or powered with the furnished 120V AC adapter. Despite its modest wattage, the unit puts out a surprising amount of light for its size, and it can even be used as a main light for subjects up to around 10 feet away at ISO settings in the 800-1600 range.

How the Lowel Blender (available at Adorama) was conceived and the challenges of getting it into production are a fascinating story in itself. The original Blender was designed by cinematographer Tom Robotham to solve the lighting problems he encountered on location much more easily and quickly. Rather than using light modifiers such as gels placed over conventional light sources, or trial-and-error settings of the camera’s white balance, he was now able to dial in his desired color temperature in seconds. Lowel took over Robotham’s original designs and added certain refinements and improvements to create the Lowel Blender, but getting it into production was tougher than they had anticipated. Due to the rapid changes in the LED manufacturing industry, getting a reliable supply of precisely color-balanced LEDs to meet Lowel’s stringent requirements took an incredible amount of time and effort, not to mention considerable R&D cost.

Field (or, Living Room) Test

Just how good is the end product? To find out, I set up the Lowel Blender (available at Adorama) on a standard light stand, plugged in the AC adapter, and shot several series of comparison stills using a Nikon D700. In addition to the aforementioned DC camcorder battery adapter of your choice (the input voltage is 7.2-15V DC), the kit includes a handle with mounting stud, a nicely-made, compartmented carrying bag, and three frosted light panels that slide into a groove on the front of the unit. These panels, which should be installed rough side outward, diffuse the light and lower the output a bit, but their primary function is to avoid multiple shadows created by the individual LEDs.

I used the standard Cracked Ice diffuser rather than the (slightly softer) Lite Frost or the brighter Prismatic diffuser in my comparison tests. For testing purposes, I shot with the D700’s white balance set to Tungsten or Daylight as noted. Setting it to Auto White Balance (AWB) would have tested the camera’s performance rather than the Blender’s capabilities.


Case study #1: Orange Tabby
Ambient light: Mixed daylight and tungsten with daylight predominating.


Camera: Daylight. Light setting: Daylight

Camera: Daylight. Light setting: Daylight + Tungsten

Camera: Daylight. Light setting: Tungsten.

In this environment, setting camera’s white balance to Daylight and Lowel blender for Daylight output (top photo) yielded the most accurate color overall. Leaving camera on D and setting Blender for mixed (Daylight plus Tungsten; middle shot) output gave slightly warmer, but still quite accurate color rendition that some might prefer. Last image in sequence was made with camera set for Daylight balance and Blender set for Tungsten-only output accentuates cat’s orange coat while overall color result is still in the ballpark.




The first thing I noticed was that the Lowel Blender puts out a prodigious amount of light when the main switch is turned on and both Tungsten and Daylight knobs are turned up to their full output. The light output is noticeably less when both knobs are turned down, or when one of the sets of 6 LEDs is turned off to obtain pure daylight or tungsten light output, but it’s still quite sufficient for use as a front fill light when shooting a portrait or a video interview. The only time I found that the light was unable to affect the results much is when I tried bouncing it off a high ceiling in a room flooded with daylight coming through two large windows.


Case Study #2: Tortiose Shell Cat in Window
Ambient light: Primarily daylight (backlight) with a touch of tungsten-balanced light (60 Watt incandescent) in the foreground.


Camera: Daylight. Light setting: Mixed Daylight + Tungsten.

Camera: Daylight. Light setting: Tungsten.

Camera: Tungsten. Light Setting: Daylight

Camera: Tungsten. Light setting: Mixed Daylight + Tungsten.


With camera set for Daylight balance setting Blender for a 50/50 Daylight/Tungsten mix (top photo) brings out subtle hues in cat’s fur while the window in the background is accurately rendered in neutral white as it appears to the eye. Leaving the camera on D and setting the Lowel Blender for pure Tungsten output (second in sequence) yields an overly warm image of the cat, but it’s a strikingly attractive graphic statement emphasized by the neutral background. Setting the camera to T (tungsten balance) and the Blender for pure Daylight output (third shot down) produces a predictably blue image that is hardly accurate but might succeed as a good creative “mood” shot.




When I shot in an “average” living room lit with two 100-Watt incandescent bulbs and some daylight coming in through lace curtains—a classic mixed light environment-the Blender performed superbly, matching the mixed daylight perfectly, and yielding a pleasantly natural looking effect when a aimed directly at the subject. I also tried setting both the camera’s white balance and the Blender to pure Daylight, and the color rendition of the subject was perfect while tungsten-illuminated areas in the scene were reddish/yellowish as you’d expect.

When both camera and Blender were set to Tungsten, the color rendition of the subject was very accurate, but the daylight areas in the frame looked predictably blue. Sometimes we preferred the “Blended” light output in mixed light environments, and sometimes we preferred the Daylight balance/Daylight output result or the Tungsten balance/Tungsten output result. The choice is yours, and the point is, we were able to shoot an entire series of varying effects in minutes and pick the combination that worked best for us. This could just as well have been a 3-minute shakedown test for dialing in the lighting effect prior to shooting a 20-minute video.

 


Case Study # 3: Living Room Self-Portrait in Mixed Light
Ambient light: Window light plus two 100-Watt incandescent lamps is typical of what you might encounter in the average living room during daylight hours.



Control image taken with camera set for Daylight balance without using Blender captures a nice atmosphere. Lace curtains are accurately rendered but subject is too warm due to incandescent lights.


Control image taken without Blender and with camera set to Tungsten balance is far too blue to be pleasant, but not how lamp picks up some natural skin tones in subject.



Setting both camera and Blender to Daylight yields a reasonably accurate, pleasant result. Background colors are on the nose, but subject is a tad warm.


Setting camera to Daylight balance and Lowel Blender for a 50/50 Daylight/Tungsten mix yields the most technically accurate results in terms of color rendition.


Leaving camera set for Daylight balance and setting Lowel for pure Tungsten output produces an overly warm result as you’d expect—note reddish looking brown sweater. However there are times when this is the mood you want to create.


Setting the camera for Tungsten balance and the Blender for pure Daylight output yields a result that’s far too blue. Most viewers would consider this image unacceptable.




Conclusion and recommendation

Bottom line? I found that the
Lowel Blender (available at Adorama) provides an efficient and intuitive way of achieving precisely color balanced lighting effects on the fly as well as a range of striking effects that increase your creative flexibility whether you’re shooting stills or video. It’s not a powerhouse that’s intended as a the main illumination source for lighting a large room, but it is a unique product that’s well thought out, very well made, designed to withstand the rigors or professional use. That’s what makes the Lowel Blender kit well worth its price of approximately $600. 

With the vastly improved high ISO performance of today’s DSLRs and camcorders, almost any photographer can get a decent image in most ambient lighting situations. However, if you really want your images and videos to stand out from the crowd, and to achieve truly professional results, the ability to color match your ambient location lighting, to add more warmth or coolness, to separate your subject from the background, or to add more depth and contrast is priceless.

While primarily aimed at videographers, the Lowel Blender is also a good choice for professional DSLR shooters who are now often asked to shoot HD video as well as stills. For convenience there’s accessory Cam-link & Stud-Link, Code VIP-41S available that will even allow you to mount the Blender in your camera’s shoe although on-camera lighting is not its primary mission.


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