While some shooters cast their fate to ever-changing natural light, others like to be as controlling as possible when it comes to illuminating their shots. Luckily, innovation in portable lighting is bridging the gap between the two. Take for example the Lowel GL-1, a battery-operated, dimmable, focusable handheld LED (light-emitting diode) spotlight that’s meant to be an easy way to get light where you need it on location shoots.
There are several reasons why a handheld LED finally makes sense for photographers. On the lighting side, LED technology has improved so that its color temperature is easier to control, and improved circuitry allows high-powered lights to suck less power, yet still maintain brightness. On the camera manufacturing side, sensors that capture clean images at higher ISOs have emboldened photographers to shoot in dimmer conditions than they could have in previous years. In those on-site scenarios (read: weddings and events), a compact, handheld hot light can be a versatile tool to get even better shots using fill or accent lighting without having to cart around umbrellas and stands, or decorate a ballroom with wires like it’s garland. Since hot lights remain on constantly while you’re shooting, it’s convenient for video and, when it comes to still photography, what you shoot is what you get, unlike when shooting with a brighter (but much more distracting to your subject) flash.
In the Hand
The GL-1 resembles a cop’s radar gun. During operation, your hand wraps around the rubberized grip of its midsection, and your forefinger around its yellow trigger which, when squeezed, fires up the light from five to 100 percent by a thumb. Up top, the GL-1’s head resembles a commuter coffee mug, and holds the pricey parts: the LED itself; a Fresnel lens that can be slid forward and back, and used to focus the light output 8:1 from flood to spot; and a fan at the rear that quietly cools the device. The unit’s rectangular bottom looks like it could be a power drill’s, and holds its swappable, rechargeable battery; a power-on switch; and a jack for plugging in a power adapter, convenient for stationary all-day shoots. There’s also a X-inch tripod mounting screw head underneath. With its battery plugged in, the GL-1 weighs 3.75 pounds, and its evenly balanced weighting, top to bottom, makes it easy to control with precision. The battery base allows it to sit steady on the ground or a table, so you don’t need to use a tripod with it full time.
Over a month-long trial, we used the light for shoots indoors and out, paired with a Nikon D7100 SLR and the fixed-lens Fujifilm X100S. Control-wise, the GL-1 is very simple, and it’s easy to get a feel for its range very quickly. We used it as a flood for an interior shoot, and found the wide, diffuse light made a display of taxidermy look as if we’d lit it with a more expansive setup. Outdoors, we zoomed in and used it as a spot for a model portrait on a rooftop, and used the GL-1’s dimmer to find the right balance between our artificially lit subject and a cityscape background at twilight.
We found the GL-1’s 3,000K tungsten light has a clean, pleasing quality. If you want it to take on the color of natural light, an 82B conversion filter can be screwed on the front. We found it to have even lighting edge to edge. Various attachments can be found to give softbox-like falloff, if you need it.
Lowel claims that the GL-1’s 25-watt power consumption allows it to operate for one hour with the included battery, but that figure seems conservative. During our testing, the light routinely stayed powered for 90 minutes or more. Its longevity makes the GL-1 a viable option for shooters using their digital SLRs to record video. The light does warm up with use, triggering an internal fan. Though some users have noted that the fan prevented the GL-1 from being completely silent, we doubt many video shooters will be annoyed by its ever-so-slight noise emittance.
Though the GL-1 is a superior product in function, we do have one qualm: the build quality does leave something to be desired. While the plastic that most of its body is composed with wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a workshop tool, the material doesn’t give it a rugged quality. We would dread dropping it. And we think that if more of its touch points were coated in a grippier rubber, it might be easier to hand over to a layman at a shoot, if you’re going assistant-free. But it does come in a padded plastic case that stashes its power cords, batteries and recharger, as well as the unit, so damaging it en route to your location should never be a problem.
Pros: It’s a compact, powerful, and mutable lighting solution ideal for getting great shots in dim locations without hauling a ton of gear—or overwhelming your subjects with it; impressive battery life should pique the interest of digital SLR video shooters
Cons: Though sturdily built, a light this pricey should have a more premium feel in the hand
Price: $700; www.lowel.com