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Color Correction: Considering Litepanels’ Croma Fixture

I’ve had a chance to play with a lot of little LED fixtures in the past couple of years. It seems these guys are everywhere, and they’re incredibly useful. Although I am rarely in a situation where I’m doing a standup interview with an LED mounted on the camera as a front light, I do use them on camera for eyelights or tuck them in corners for more general illumination. They’re versatile fixtures that work well in any number of situations.

Variable color temperature Croma LED softlight mounted on a Sony PMW-F3 camera

Litepanels leads the pack when it comes to high-quality precision LED fixtures for film and videography. Litepanels’ latest on-camera light is Croma, a color-changing fixture with both 5,600°K and 3,200°K LEDs.

Croma is available at Adorama and B&H for $584 minus $100 mail-in rebate until December 15, 2012.

The Croma features 190 LEDs (90 tungsten and 100 daylight) in a 4.75” x 3.25” face. The LEDs are protected by a clear plastic lens. The body is a grey metallic plastic instead of Litepanels’ classic black, and there’s something about the unit that doesn’t feel quite up to Litepanels’ standard of manufacture. It feels more like the original Micro that was more plastic.

The construction is good. Although the front and back plastic tends to flex and creak a bit when I pick it up, I don’t feel like it’s going to shatter if I drop it.

The Croma’s function is simple and intuitive. One knob controls the main dimming function and a second, smaller knob controls the cross-fade between 5,600°K and 3,200°K lamps. You have no control over the cross fade ratio—as soon as you start the transition, one color fades out while the next fades in. So there’s no possibility of having daylight at 100 percent while tungsten is at 50 percent, for example, but that makes it only slightly less versatile.

Photographer Alan Weissman uses a Croma as eyelight fill.

I wish it had an on/off switch; to turn the fixture off, you need to dim down past zero. This means I can’t set the intensity and work with the fixture, turn it off for lunch, and know when I come back it’s going to be at exactly the same setting. I’ll have to either mark the dial or take measurements to ensure I’m at the same intensity when I return after a meal.

I dislike it when fixtures don’t offer calibration markings. Croma features two knobs—a dimming knob and a color-changing knob—but neither has an indicator to show start and stop points. The Croma is slightly ahead of the competition here as there is a notch on each knob that provides at least a hint about where the dial is. I suppose you could add your own marks with a Sharpie or a piece of tape, but there’s not much room.

The dimmer function is stellar. From 0 to 100 percent, it’s incredibly smooth. No jumps, no stuttering. The same is true of the color changing dial—the transition is seamless and smooth, no jumps, no stops. If you wanted, you could change the color during a shot and it would have a very smooth effect. You can get anomalous function from the fixture when your batteries are getting low, including flashing—which is a bit obnoxious—and complete failure. The fixture doesn’t dim as the batteries die; it goes from on to off very quickly.

I love that there’s an AC adapter to this fixture in addition to basic “AA” battery power for real-world versatility. There’s an optional D-Tap cable to connect with Anton/Bauer DIONIC HC batteries.

It’s interesting to note that the Croma doesn’t work with lithium-ion batteries: There’s a thermal sensor that shuts the unit down in the case of overheating, and apparently lithium-ion batteries can get hot enough to cause the sensor to kick in. Litepanels warns you of this with an informational card you’ll find when you first open the box. It’s also clearly stated—twice, once in bold—in the instructions, and it’s labeled on the battery lid itself: Not for Use with Lithium-Ion Batteries. They’re not kidding, folks. Litepanels is serious about informing the fixture’s owners about this issue.

The 10 oz. Croma is lightweight for handheld operation.

Further, if you’re not already paranoid enough about batteries, another warning card jumped out at me like a cautionary jack-in-the-box when I first opened the battery compartment. “Please insert batteries properly… improper insertion may damage the fixture.” All this caution may give me battery nightmares tonight.

Croma comes with a 1/4-20 threaded ball socket adapter that fits right into the top shoe of your camera. It’s sturdy and well built, if a little heavy (3 oz. by itself). A large lever on the side allows for loosening and tightening.

The top and bottom vents on the Croma have a bit more light leak than I’d expect—enough that I could see users taping off the bottom vent holes to keep the light leak from getting in their eyes while they’re operating.
As with most LED fixtures, the Croma runs very cool, with nearly no heat output from the front and very little from top and bottom.

The fixture comes with a small piece of plastic diffusion, similar to LEE 251, that slips into a slot between the LEDs and the fixture’s clear plastic front face. It fits in snugly, no chance of falling out or making any noise.

The diffusion is not really significant enough to change the quality of the light. At 2’ there are still multiple shadows from the 190 individual point sources, and they’re gone at 4’—but this is also true of the fixture’s performance without the diffusion. With a fixture this small, simply putting a piece of frosted plastic in front of the LEDs doesn’t really do anything for the overall light quality at any distance of typical operation.

Once you get more than 2’ away, it generally behaves the same with or without the diffusion—except for the fact that the diffusion cuts the light output about in half. Even that isn’t necessarily a bonus, because—as with all Litepanels fixtures—there’s a dimmer on the unit that works wonderfully. All of this renders the diffusion nearly irrelevant.

The Croma comes in a nylon carrying case that keeps it safe and sound.  

Product: Litepanels Croma
Pros: Small, smooth dimming, good output, lightweight, color shift from 3,200°K to 5,600°K, standard power options.
Cons: Light spill, erratic function when batteries are dying, no main on/off switch.
Bottom Line: A great small fixture with the flexibility to blend into a multitude of lighting situations on the fly.
MSRP: $649