Review: Rotolight’s NEO 2 LED Flash
June 12, 2018
On paper, LEDs with flash capability have a lot to offer: They can recycle instantly at any power level, they have easily adjustable and often very precise white balance control, and they’re famously energy efficient. But in the real world, making an LED flash has proven tricky for many lighting companies to master. One of the few companies to have sustained the effort is Rotolight with its NEO and ANOVA product lines.
With Rotolight’s NEO 2, the company has melded a compact video light with the ability to flash at high speeds with zero recycling times. Is it too good to be true? We turned the NEO 2 over to N.J. commercial photographer David Patiño to find out.
As a continuous light, the NEO 2 offers an adjustable brightness from 0-100 percent in 1 percent increments and is flicker free at any shutter speed. It offers a CRI of 96, including an R9 value of 98 and an R15 value of 91—both important scores for pleasing skin tones. The NEO 2 delivers 2000 lux at 3 feet (at 4110K) with a 50-degree beam angle.
As a flash, the NEO 2 offers the aforementioned zero recycle time and is integrated with Elinchrom’s Skyport radio technology. Thanks to the radio receiver, the NEO 2 offers HSS at all power levels of the light and the ability to control multiple off-camera lights (up to 10 lights in four groups).
While the NEO 2 doesn’t offer TTL metering, you do get some exposure assistance in the form of a feature they call True Aperture Dimming. In this mode, the NEO 2 will tell you a light brightness value as an aperture setting, using the distance to your subject, your ISO value and shutter speed as benchmarks (all three of which you must input manually). With these measurements saved in the light, you can dial brightness up or down and see the optimal aperture value for your exposure. You can also vary the parameters so that, for instance, you can view light value as a function of your ISO.
Beyond strobing and continuous operation, the NEO 2 has multiple lighting-effects modes. You can mimic lightning or a fire, activate a “throb” mode to trigger a regularly recurring smooth pulse of light, or a color cycle that pulses out alternating daylight and tungsten light rays. It can get a bit esoteric, too: There’s a mode that simulates the light from an electric welding torch or a celluloid film projector, and a series of simulated pulses to mimic a mob of paparazzi photographers. You may never need them, but they’re fun to play with.
The light ships with a full diffuser, half diffuser, a cosmetic peach skin tone filter and a 1/8 magenta filter. Rotolight makes additional colored gels, a softbox, barn doors and other accessories for modifying the NEO 2 as well.
The NEO 2 is compact enough to be used on camera. At roughly 17.8 ounces (with batteries) it’s about 2-3 ounces heavier than Canon’s flagship 600EX II-RT speedlite and Nikon’s SB-5000 flash. It’s not burdensome to handhold for stretches if you don’t want to mount it on camera.
The back of the unit is dedicated to a large battery bay for holding six AA batteries, a power button and a flash sync cord. The light is controlled via a pair of big red buttons on the back of the unit with a rather smallish display that reads out menu items like an old-school clock radio. Given the amount of real-estate on the back of the light, it would be nice to have a larger, more information-rich menu display and a few more buttons for quicker access to the NEO’s many features.
Out of the box, the NEO includes a face plate for holding its donut-shaped modifiers in place. While it’s plastic, it slides and rotates firmly into place. The face plate is roomy enough that you can stack more than one filter in at a time. Patiño says he regularly used the 1-stop diffusion filter during still and video shoots to soften the light.
Quality & Performance
There are two ways to judge the NEO 2—as a flash and as a video light. As a flash, Patiño tells us that it’s not powerful enough to replace a speed light for most uses. Using his Sekonic light meter, we measured f/2 at ISO 100 from three feet away and f/3.2 at ISO 200. In both cases, the light was running off of AC power, not the batteries.
Rotolight claims a 500 percent boost in power output when using flash, but it’s hard to perceive if that light is all that much brighter than it is when it’s on continuously. Either way, the NEO 2 can’t overpower the sun and can’t out-muscle conventional flashes in the power department, but it’s not without its use cases as a flash.
Patiño used it as a fill flash for some portraits he shot using his Canon 5DS at ISO 800. If you bump your ISOs, you can leverage the incredible recycling speed (or lack of recycling, really) of the NEO 2 to capture short bursts of motion. Performance wise, the light does indeed deliver the promised zero recycle times. But while the NEO 2 flash is really ideal for cameras that can take quality images at high ISOs, the read-out on the light stops at ISO 6400 (in True Aperture Dimming mode). The next value is an unusable 9999. A menu system that could accommodate higher ISO values (or more than four characters at a time) is definitely needed.
As a continuous light, the tiny NEO 2 works quite well as an interview light or as hair/rim lighting, Patiño says. Given its size, it’s a fairly hard light at full power but the included diffuser does help soften it. It looked pleasing on skin tones.
One aspect of the light that Patiño tells us he really appreciated was the fact that you didn’t lose power when switching between daylight and tungsten color temperatures. Unlike many rivals, Rotolight doesn’t turn off daylight LEDs when you’re in tungsten or vice versa but instead blends together two different sets of LEDs, one at 2800K and the other at 7000K, to achieve the proper color temperature. Not only does this approach give you full power output at any color temperature, it also enables a fairly wide range of color temperature options—all of which can be dialed in precisely on the unit.
One day in the future, perhaps, LED flashes will grow powerful enough to consign flash tubes to the dustbin of history. But we’re not quite there yet.
Patiño tells us it’s best to think of the NEO 2 as a continuous light that can be used as a flash under a limited set of conditions (shooting at higher ISOs with the light close to your subject). It does have virtues as a flash—it’s super fast, color accurate and light enough for on-camera use. But without TTL and enough power to reach across a room or overpower the sun, it’s not an optimal choice for photographers simply in the market for a new strobe.
But when you remember it’s also a feature-rich continuous light, it’s obvious the NEO 2 brings an awful lot to the table for the price. If you shoot video and stills, it’s a versatile and relatively inexpensive addition to your kit.
PROS: High quality continuous light; Dial-in precise color temperatures; Feature rich; Skyport compatibility.
CONS: Flash lacks TTL; Not very powerful as a flash; Menu/Dial operation could be simplier.