LEDs are advancing in professional studio lighting, and multiple companies are making large bets that for these markets the days of halogen, electronic flash, and incandescent sources are numbered.
As we have debated and explored the ins and outs of LED lighting, an evolution has been taking place in an area we have generally ignored -- professional studio lighting for photography and videography. Long dependent on perspiration-inducing, high-power halogen lighting in TV studios and the ultimate photographic companion -- the electronic flash -- a few years ago professionals started saying, "We can do better."
Consequently, there is now a torrent of imported professional fluorescent photographic lighting products to provide longer life, cooler operation, and lower power usage. Such very-high-brightness, "cool" lighting is one step closer to what many professionals want -- what is now being called "what you see is what you get" lighting. See this link at B & H for a sampling of what is out there from leading national dealers.
Cambridge in Colour discusses electronic flash and its various pros and cons, and Paul C. Buff goes into some detail about color temperature and color balance when shooting with studio flash.
With electronic flash, the color temperature can vary substantially depending on type of flash, power level, and battery charge status. In addition, such a near-point-source flash induces sharp contrast in a fairly close shot.
So flash photography often results in a less-than-hoped-for outcome. If you could light up the scene like outdoors, and see what you have, the result might be much more predictable. At least that is what I have been told by a number of product executives and prominent dealers such as Hunt Photo and Video. Fluorescent systems won't do this job: they are large, bulky, and fragile. And unlike halogen lamps, fluorescents are essentially incompatible with the collimation or directionality often desired.
Electronic flash has advantages in two particular situations: where high speed is needed (millisecond exposure times), and when battery power is required (no studio 120VAC power available).
However, in 2015 at least one prominent company will be introducing a 100-LED panel with collimated (but not point-source) light that can direct the equivalent of 60,000 lumens toward a subject, with high CRI and at a CCT of 5600K. It will be available with a rechargeable battery pack for portability. Most interestingly, this product will have a multi-millisecond pulse-mode option to act like a super-power electronic flash, while preserving battery life. It will be interesting to see the reaction in the professional community.
LED technology is not likely to replace electronic flash completely in most places any time soon. However, it is in fact already making incursions into many professional settings and becoming a new tool to augment scene lighting in those applications where flash cannot produce the desired result, either alone or in conjunction with other lighting sources. (This is not my opinion but feedback from numerous professionals.)
TV and movie lighting
It is true that better digital cameras and software post-processing can compensate, to a degree, for this or that. But I have been told in no uncertain terms that nothing beats having the desired, quantifiable light in the first place. In the case of TV and movie lighting, flash of course is not in the equation, and fluorescent simply cannot provide the rigid specs and system robustness needed.
LED technology is now emerging that can essentially address both markets: professional photography and professional TV/movie videography. The technology is manifested in products that eliminate the forward heat, reduce the wall-plug power (which simplifies cabling issues), eliminate bulb burnout concerns, and (vitally important) offer whatever collimation is needed. Litepanels is a giant in all of these areas, and Flolight is an increasingly evident innovator coming on fast. Just as a top golf pro may want a $500 putter whether you think he needs it or not, so the end-user in these areas wants the "best." That means beam angle adjustability, variable CCT between 3000K-5600K, high CRI, and high R9 -- in the shape of a light "panel" rather than a point source, such as a PAR lamp or spotlight.
The use of a panel configuration greatly lessens the often undesirable sharp contrast and shadowing one gets with flash photography. In TV work, the panels can similarly produce more subject-enhancing effects -- observable in real time, with less need to compensate in software after the fact.
Because the collimation of an LED beam can increase the equivalent light on a subject by a factor of 6-8 or more, the variable-CCT, adjustable-beam-angle light panel becomes a powerful studio tool, with attributes difficult or impossible to replicate or tailor with any flash, halogen, or fluorescent technology.
Electronic flash will likely be around a long time for "on-the-go" consumer photography. But there is increasing evidence that many, not all, professional photographers, once they see what can be done with these new approaches, will never go back. See this video for an interesting assessment by a photographer who, while not an expert, seems quite attuned to some of these basic lighting considerations.
It may not be a revolution, but there seems to be at least a substantial evolution taking place, from the guy at the wedding to the high-budget TV / movie studio. The evidence suggests they already "get it" about what the latest LED lighting panels can do. Litepanels, Flolight, and others are making significant-dollar R & D bets that in the next 5-7 years fluorescent and flash will have a rapidly diminishing role in professional applications.