What Does a Sekonic C-700 Spectrometer Have in Common with a Paul Reed Smith Custom 22 Electric Guitar?

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

Oh, baby! They’re both nose-bleed high beyond most mortals' capabilities, but getting your hands on one – even for a day – will make you better at what you do.

You can argue that this article is a comparison of five different LED panels, and at one level you’d be right: for your illumination (geddit?), we’ve trotted out everything from a $29.97 Neweer CN-160 to the new $495 Aputure Light Storm LS 1/2W [B&H | Amazon]  to compare performance and value.

But we wouldn’t have been able to do it with the Sekonic Spectromaster C-700.

Background

Well, yeah, of course we could have: you do anything long enough, you get a sense of things.

And that’s how it all began, really. I turned on Aputure’s new Light Storm LS 1/2W for the first time and thought to myself: darn, the thing has a green tint. I turned on another LED panel I have from another manufacturer as a reference, and sure enough – definitely green in comparison.

I called Aputure: “I love the light, but I think it has a green tint.” To their credit, they jumped on it. Even sent me  photos of them testing their Light Storms with whiz-bang doodad thingamajiggie meters that said, in essence and very nicely, “nope.”

But I knew what I saw.

A quick exchange of emails with our buds over at B&H Photo procured our own tactical nuke (so to speak), the aforementioned Sekonic C-700.

It is NOT a light meter: it is a spectrometer. And what that means, for $1,499, is that should you be fortunate enough or wise enough to get one, you will know with a level of precision heretofore unheard of exactly what your lights are doing.

Why Does It Matter?

With the advent of LED panels, this is more of an issue than it used to be. Before then, you basically had lights balanced for daylight (5600K) or tungsten (3200), and you could gel your way to anything in between.

But LEDs held out the promise not just of cool, energy efficient lighting (Kinoflos proved you could do that with fluorescents), but dimmable and color temperature variable lighting as well.

No more gels! No more sweat-soaked talent!

That’s when early adopters started to notice not all LEDs are the same. Mix and match? Potentially ugly.

Enter the C-700.

We Get Our Mitts on a Sekonic C-700, Use it to Test Aputure and CAME-TV LED Panels

The Basics

The C-700 is easy enough: it looks like a touch screen incident light meter, and indeed it has a swivel head with dome, on-off switch, measurement switch, menu button – the usual stuff.

But as soon as you turn it on, you realize it’s different (of course, if you read the manual first, you already know that).

The first thing it does is dark calibration (all you need to know, really, is that it self-calibrates).

Then you’re ready to measure, either ambient light (as we did for this test) or flash. The incident dome has three positions (dark, ambient and flash), so you’ll need to make sure to set it accordingly. If you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you’re good to go. Even if you can only do one at a time, you’re still good to go.

Once that touch screen lights up, you are entering a new world of knowledge.

Did you know, for example, that there isn’t just one CRI measurement, but 15?

It just gets richer from there, like telling you what filter – by brand! – you need to get your light on spec.

Our Panelists (hah!)

Once I had the C-700, I wanted to test almost every panel I had, but I settled for five. Here they are, in increasing price order:

1. The Neewer CN-160 ($29.95) is a small, camera-mount LED which you can also put on a light stand. It was the first LED panel I ever bought, dimmable but not color temperature controllable, and set me on a path which ultimately led me to sell off my ARRI Softbank IV kit on eBay. Neewer calls it a “Dimmable Ultra High power Panel Digital Camera/Camcorder Video Light” and 2,422 reviews yield a 4 _ out of 5 star rating. It’s Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in On-Camera Video Lights. It takes a pile of AA batteries or a Sony NP style battery, and comes with a diffuser.

2. CAME-TV’s Ultra Slim 576B Bi-Color LED Panel ($298) is, as the name suggests, a 576 LED panel which is in fact very slim. Its length and height approximate that of an iPad. It takes a pair of Sony NP-style batteries and also works off a mains. The Ultra Slim also has a unique two-wheel controller on the back – more on that in a bit — and a diffuser and yoke. The unit I tested was part of a very aggressively priced 3 head kit including bag, stands, batteries and chargers. At $868, this is a very tough value to beat.

3. Also coming in at $298 is Aputure’s Amaran HR672C [B&H | Amazon]. I loved this light when I tested it as it was compact, light and flexible. It was my first bi-color unit, and like the Ultra Slim, it can connect to a wall outlet or use Sony NP-style batteries. It also comes in a nice case with everything you need right out of the gate, including batteries, diffuser, light stand mount – and wireless remote control!

4. The new kid on the block is Aputure’s latest, the Light Storm LS 1/2W ($498) [B&H | Amazon]. This is one of three Light Storm models. Balanced for daylight only and with a very wide spread (120°), it is unique in a number of ways. The battery mount/control box is separate from the head; it uses surface mount LEDs; the head is wide but short; it comes with a pack of ten diffuser sheets (no plastic panel); is built incredibly solidly in aluminum; and it, too comes with a wireless remote control

5. Last but not least, my workhorse for the last year or so has been the CAME-TV High CRI Bi-Color 1024 LED Video Light ($499). I loved this light when I tested it, too. It’s a 1×1 that puts out a good amount of light; it’s well built; and it just plain works. It doesn’t come with a battery, but my unit takes V-mount.

The Test

I didn’t try to do everything, but instead used these lights to serve as an introduction to the C700 and to help me sate my own curiosity: was it me, or had Aputure sent me a defective Light Storm?

I measured each light from a distance of one meter, all ambient light off, but diffusers on (that’s how I use them, so that’s how I measured them). I took three sets of measurements.

Warm-up: just to acclimate myself to the process, I used the C-700’s multi-light option, which allowed me to record and display up to four different lights’ readings to a single screen.

Text mode: I then took another round of measurements in text mode, one light at a time (these were the basis for what you see in the results table).

Finally, I took measurements in the C-700’s Spectrum mode, to determine once and for all what it is I’d seen with the Light Storm’s tint.

Spoiler alert: it was me, but not the way you may imagine.

In fact, Aputure’s Light Storm turned in the highest CRI of them all – 97.5 — and had ZERO color correction (the only one that accurate).

Detailed Results

There were a few surprises – but only a few.

The little CN 160 is a great introduction to LEDs, but it was the least powerful and the least accurate, managing a color temperature 500K below target and a CRI of 77.5 (although to its credit, it required only .3M color correction).

Even so, I’ve used it to great effect and will keep it in my toolkit.

The CAME-TV High CRI Digital Bi-Color came within spitting distance of the 5600K target (certainly within a margin of error attributable to my own measuring prowess) at 5570K; the Aputure Amaran HR672C, also a bi-color unit, got even closer at 5688K. The other three, howeer, irrespective of price, came in on the low side with measurements of 5104K, 5222K and 5296K for the CN-160, Ultra Slim Bi-Color and Light Storm, respectively.

The lights’ lux readings were pretty much what one would expect given the number of LEDs and overall size, but there were a couple of measurements of note. No newsflash that the CAME TV High CRI came out on top measuring 2390 lux compared to the last place little CN-160’s 438 lux. Interesting, however, was how close to the two Aputure units were — at 1230 lux for the HR672c and 1470 lux for the LS 1/2W – and that the Ultra Slim came in at just 977 lux.

The evolution of CAME-TV’s LED products came into sharp relief (the Ultra Slim line is newer than the “High CRI” line), and this brought with it both admiration and surprise. The first surprise was that the “High CRI” panel – and the most expensive one in this test — only scored a CRI of 86.7 and required the largest color correction of the group at 1.6G. The second surprise was that the Ultra Slim had less than half the output of its bigger older cousin. Still, the Ultra Slim acquitted itself with a CRI of 95.9 and a color correction of just .2G. Well done, CAME-TV!

The Amaran HR672C did well, scoring comparably to the Ultra Slim with an identical .2G of color correction and a very close 95.1 CRI – even as it pumped out more light.

But as I wrote above, the new Aputure Light Storm blew away all the other units with a CRI of 97.5 and ZERO color correction required.

Turns out it wasn’t too green – my reference panel was not green enough!

With all of this written, I feel I was just scratching the surface of the C700’s value.

But even more impressive to me is that my eye detected a .2G difference in tint. I don’t mean I’m impressed with myself. I mean I’m impressed with that extraordinary piece of evolutionary splendor, the human eye.

CCT Lux@1 meter CCi LBi Ra
CAME-TV,HIGH CRI Digital Bi-Color 1024 LED Vide Light 5570 2390 1.6G 1MK-1 86.7
CAME-TV Ultra Slim 576BBi-Color LED Panel 5222 977 .2G 13MK-1 95.9
Aputure Amaran HR672C [B&H | Amazon] 5688 1230 .2G -10MK-1 95.1
Aputure LS 1/2W [B&H | Amazon] 5296 1470 -17MK-1 97.5
Neewer CN-160 [Amazon] 5104 438 .3M 11MK-1 77.5

Recommendations

What the measurements don’t tell you, of course, is what may be most important of all: how these lights look to you (as each of us has our own way of seeing).

For me, the revelation over the past couple of months has been the quality of the Light Storm’s light: the wide angle LEDs coupled with a paper diffuser sitting an inch or so away from them is by far the most pleasing to me. I’ve grown to prefer its two-part architecture – the head separated from the battery mount/control box – to all others. And now I know it is dead-accurate on color rendition, even if it’s a little light on color temperature and output.

On the other hand, once you add in a proper battery (it does not come with one) and contemplate how much power you’re getting for the buck, it is the most expensive of the bunch by hundreds of dollars.

If you’re most concerned with ultimate quality, though, you can’t beat it and the Light Storm is my recommendation.

If you’re more concerned by cost, well, for less than half the price you can get either its older brother the Amaran HR672C (which has the added benefit of being bi-color and it can be operated from the same wireless remote control) or the Ultra Slim. Both have high CRIs of 95+. Both require the most minimal color correction.

Between the Ultra Slim and HR672C it comes down to whether or not you’re already into the Aputure system and personal preference.

The Ultra Slim is indeed slimmer and housed in metal rather than the Amaran’s plastic (they use the same Sony NP-style batteries). But it also gives up wireless remote, and its controls are a little different: rather than one control for color temperature and one for intensity, it uses one wheel for the daylight LEDs and one wheel for the tungsten LEDs (all bi-color panels use just two color temperature LEDs, and change their proportion to achieve specific color temperatures in between).

I prefer the Aputure approach.

But if light output is your primary concern among this group — and you are not focused on theoretical top scores but instead on cost-effective lights that will get the job done in most situations — I still like the CAME-TV 1024 Bi-Color. It puts out twice the light of the Light Storm LS 1/2W – even more when you dial in around 4300K and all lights are going — for the same price.

Finally, there is a place for the little Neewer, too: it’s a good-enough on-camera light at a ridiculously low price, and if your needs and budget are modest, there’s no shame in picking one up.

As for the Sekonic Spectromaster C-700? If you are a working DP on a shoot one week and another the next, you will love, love, love the C-700 and probably find a justification for buying one. Go ahead. It will make you a better DP.

If you’re a one-man band or small production house, you might want to rent one when you’re deciding which LED panels are worth an actual investment: the differences among them are real.

Or maybe you’re just a middle-aged guy who wonders every now and then which he’s losing faster: his mind, his eyesight or his hair. In that case, getting your hands on the C-700 for a week can be a truly anxiety-reducing experience.

Your mileage may vary.

Hugh is the author of Apple’s iPhone: The Next Video Revolution. Follow him on Twitter (@hughbrownstone) or write to him at hugh.brownstone@3bmep.com

(cover photo credit: snap from the video)


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