By: Dan Bergstein
Let there be light! You could have the best camera in the world but without the right lights, the images look like they were captured through a screen door. The best LED light panels give you greater control over luminescence to give your subjects the perfect amount of glow and pop. These handy, portable tools turn indoor and outdoor spaces into a manageable environment.
Flat panel LED lights can be used as key lights, fill, and backlights. You can even use them in concert with strobes to create unique effects. Light panels provide studio-grade lighting, even when shooting in a dark basement or closet. And an LED light kit is simple to set up and fine-tune, making it one of the most convenient tools in your photo/video tool box. Whether you need LED lights for professional photos or to improve your social media influence, these LED light panels put the power of an adjustable sun in your creative hands.
For a long time LED light panels were looked down on as inaccurate tools for amateurs. They couldn’t hold a candle (pun intended) to traditional strobes or studio fluorescents. But in the past decade, these mighty bright lights have made huge improvements in the art of long-lasting, great-looking illumination. Today’s portable LED powerhouses are professional-quality lights capable of shining stunning, precise light on all of your creative projects.
Are you using the LED light panels inside, outside or both?
Some LED light panels offer a number of settings that you’ll have to dial in before you get shooting. You will need to adjust it to get the best effect for your location. That’s why you should look for LED light panels with easy, user-friendly adjustability.
The first thing to consider when shopping for a light panel is color temperature. Measured in Kelvin, the color temperature is a number between 1,000 and 10,000 that describes the warmth of the light. For example, low color temperature lights of 2,700K will produce orange/yellow-ish light like typical incandescent bulbs. Higher temperature lights of 5,000K produce more neutral light, closer to that of direct sunlight.
The goal of the LED light panel is to match or balance the color temperature of the environment. If you’re taking photos inside and want a natural, cozy look, a lower color temperature works best. Some LED light panels can be adjusted to meet your needs with a variety of color options.
For use outside, you’ll also want battery-powered LED lights, or else a very, very long extension cord. Luckily, LEDs require a small amount of power to deliver a large amount of light. Finding a good battery-powered LED light panel shouldn’t be difficult.
Don’t get overwhelmed with color rendering index numbers.
You may see a Color Rendering Index (CRI) number when shopping for LED light panels. CRI is not the same as color temperature. Confused? Even pros have trouble wrapping their brain around this one. While color temperature can tell you if the light will look like a blue sunny day or an orange indoor dining room, the CRI number tells you how accurately the color of an object will look. CRI is measured on a scale of 1 to 100.
Sunlight has a CRI of 100 because the colors always look accurate. The higher the number, the better. Any light with a CRI above 90 will be great for photos and videos. And for LED lights, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a CRI number below 80. For that reason, don’t get hung up on this stat. Focus on color temperature. You’ll want a good range, between 3,200K degrees to 5,600K in 100K increments.
What’s the difference between soft and hard lighting?
When it comes to controlling the hardness of your light, there are a few things you should consider. The light source’s size relative to the subject does a lot to dictate how hard the light looks. A larger light source creates softer light. But, even if you have a relatively small light source, you can put an umbrella or other light modifier over the light itself to make the source seem bigger. If you don’t want to fuss with a modifier, get a light with a bigger surface area.
You can also soften a light source by adding a diffuser. Some LED light panels come with their own right in the box. A diffuser typically consists of a translucent layer that scatters the light as it exits the panel. Because all the rays aren’t traveling in the same direction, some of them will fill in shadowy areas that otherwise may go too dark or harsh.
How much should you spend?
Keep an eye on your budget as some LED lighting kits can be very expensive. A simple LED light panel may cost no more than $30, but a full-blown lighting kit with key light, backlight and fill light can run over $2,000, which hurts if you’re on an indie budget. Unless you’re a professional portrait photographer, or a high-end video shooter, there’s no need to clean out your bank account for LED light panels.
For making online videos, taking impressive Instagram pics, or hosting a live-streamed conference call, a set of two LED light panels should run less than $100 and will cover you in all the glorious light needed to make an impact. Prices escalate when you add more features and larger lights. But a low-priced table-top light panel will provide more than enough light for great-looking photos, videos, and jealousy-inducing social media posts.
Use two or more LED light panels for a professional look.
Most professional pics and videos are based on the three-point-lighting rule: A key light aimed at the subject, a fill light from the opposite angle to shine away any harsh shadows, and a backlight to make the subject pop out from the background. You may not need all three lights, but having at least two light panels will give you options to turn flat dull pictures and videos into eye-catching images.
Depending on the look you’re going for, you can ditch the backlight. This is the most subtle of the three lights and can be the most difficult to position. Using two soft lights in front of your subject will get the job done. And if you only have one LED light panel, position the soft light panel at a 45-degree angle from the subject for a dramatic look, or stick it right in front of your subject for the now popular YouTuber aesthetic. Bottom line: Experiment and have fun. Use however many lights you’ve got in your kit and try new setups to find dynamic looks.
Related: The best detachable camera flash options to light up your photography
The best LED light panels.
The best LED light panel transforms boring images into dynamic works of art. With a budget in mind, look for options that fit your style and environment. Will you only be using the LED light panel indoors? On top of a camera or phone? Do you need multiple lights? Is portability a factor? Browse the best LED light panels and find the illumination that works for you.
Best LED light panel for photographers: Rotolight Neo 2
It can work as a continuous light or a high-speed flash Rotolight
Perhaps the most versatile LED panel around, this circular device can provide a steady stream of constant light between daylight and incandescent in color. It can also sync with a camera’s flash system to provide super-fast bursts of light that can freeze action mid-movement. Typical LEDs can’t do that. It weighs just over a pound and can mount to a handle or other grip for easy maneuvering.
Opt for square over a ring light
When it comes to streaming and Zoom calls, ring lights have gotten super popular. The truth is, however, they don’t always create the most flattering look. They can create an odd halo effect that looks unnatural. The ring-shaped catch light in your eyes can also look otherworldly, which is fun when you’re chatting in Discord, but may be inappropriate when you’re showing the bosses those disappointing quarterly reports.
A square-shaped light panel will give a more natural light fall-off and a simple catch light that looks more like the TV and movie lighting we’re used to.
The best LED light panel for Zoom hosts: VILTROX L116T Key Light LED Video Light
Tiny and Bright
Give your face-time a glow-up with an LED light panel perfect for work calls and professional presentations. Viltrox
The VILTROX LED light panel is great for setting up in a home office. Color temperature (3,300Kto 5,600K) and brightness are easy to adjust from the rear control panel, and once you’ve honed in on the right look, you can set it and forget it. The soft light makes it ideal for a simple, single-light setup. The battery will only last a couple hours, and it can take a while to charge, so it’s best used for short periods of time, such as for a meeting or presentation.
Don’t be afraid to go big
As stated above, a big light can really come in handy when you want options for softening your light. Opting for a larger panel over a small one typically means less mobility and more power consumption. It also means more flattering light and brighter illumination overall.
If you go with a bigger square light, you also have the option to feather the light off of your subject. That’s where you turn the light slightly away from your subject so you only illuminate them with light spilling over from the sides. It creates soft, flattering waves of light across your subject, which still maintains its directional nature. This can be particularly handy when you’re trying to photograph a shiny object that’s prone to little white hot spots from the light reflections.
The best LED light panel for Etsy sellers: Neewer 660 LED Light Panel
A great light for product photography, the Neewer LED light panel can be positioned and adjusted to hit just the right angle. The dimmable light panel prevents you from blowing out your subject in a sea of white light. For home studios photographers and small business owners looking for the best way to highlight products, the Neewer LED light is a simple approach to capturing great images.
Tiny Lightweight Camera Mount
Keep it all in one hand with the great miniature light panel for DSLR cameras. Lume Cube
The Lume Cube LED Light attaches to most popular camera bodies (Sony, Nikkon, Panasonic, Fuji, Cannon). With a surface the size of a credit card and at only 3 ounces, it’s an impressive little nugget of portable illumination. Color temperature can be adjusted in 100K increments from 3200K to 5,600K so you can take it indoors and outdoors, day or night. The Cube can run for 14 hours with the internal battery, so it’s perfect for day-long adventures or travel vlogs. A must-have for YouTubers in the dark.
Jump into a kit
You’re often going to want more than one light source, and buying a light kit together can often save you some serious cash. You want to make sure that you’re not paying for total junk–sometimes companies will throw in trash accessories just to make it look like a better deal than it really is. You can usually check out the user reviews to see if that’s the case.
While kits are great, you also shouldn’t go too far overboard. You still have to store all of this stuff somewhere. And if you’ve never set up lighting like this before, it may be more work than you’re anticipating.
The best LED light panel for intermediate photographers: Dazzne D50 2-Pack LED Video Lighting Kit
High-quality Light With Remote
This two-light kit takes amateurs a step up with powerful, remote controlled lights. Dazzne
If you know your way around a camera and studio, but aren’t ready to drop thousands of dollars on equipment, the Dazzne D50 LED lighting kit is a fantastic set of lights. The remote control makes it easy to adjust and shift lights as you pinpoint the perfect angle of attack. With color temperature ranging between 3,000K and 8,000K it has more color temp options than you probably need. The large 15.4 inch panels are perfect for studio photography or making videos in the garage. The AC adapter is included, but you can use batteries for shooting out in the field.
Once upon a time, many photographers started their lighting learning with a simple work light from the hardware store. It was hot and unflattering, but it gave photographers an opportunity to mess around with light. Now, beginner-friendly light kits offer much higher quality for more consistent results and fewer burns from those hot light bulbs.
It’s OK to start with something cheap and easy just to get a feel for what it’s like working with light. Once you have a good understanding of what you actually want or need, then it’s time to drop all that birthday money grandma sends you on your birthday.
The best LED light panel for newbies: EMART LED Video Light
Affordable Lighting Options
An entry-level lighting kit to get you started in the art of photography and videography. EMART
If you’ve never used a lighting kit and want some practice before investing a lot of money, this inexpensive LED kit gives you enough to get started. For less than $40, don’t expect high-quality materials and dependable manufacturing. This is a budget-priced lighting kit that’s more fun than functional. Those looking to stock a professional home studio, look elsewhere. But it does come with two LED lights, two stands, and four filters that allow you to experiment with light setups. Great for kids who have a creative spark, the lights are easy to use. The lights are also pretty good LED lights for Zoom calls. The stands only reach 4.5 feet, and are meant for tabletop lighting and sitting on desks.
Q: Are LED panels good?
Yes, LED panels are good. They offer highly adjustable light at a great price. They also last a long time (if you take care of your equipment). For shooting pictures or videos, you’ll need a quality light kit. And unlike other types of lighting kits, LED panels are incredibly easy to transport, set up, and tear down. They can be small enough to fit in a pocket. They are also intuitive, so even novice photogs can pinpoint perfect lighting setups without needing a PhD in lightwave engineering.
And while they’re already good, they’re getting better all the time.
Q: What to look for in an LED light panel?
When looking for an LED light panel, consider how you’ll use it. Do you want to attach it to a camera or use it on a tripod? And how large a light do you need? Small, fist-sized LED light panels can be great for quick, impromptu photoshoots and vlogs. But if you want studio lighting, you’ll need a larger panel…and probably more than one. Make sure color temperature is easy to control and the display screen is easy to read. When shooting videos or photos, everything must be as simple as possible — you don’t want to stop working because you need to squint and read a tiny display while adjusting color temperature.
Most LED light panels on the market will be bright enough for closeups, but if the subject is standing far away (8-feet or more), you’ll need stronger light output to reach them.
If you’ve never used an LED light panel before, don’t spend too much. Buy something that works within your budget and play around with your lighting setup to find what you like and what you hate about lighting kits. Then upgrade as needed.
Q: Which LED light panels are better? Round or Square?
When choosing between round and square LED light panels, think of where you want the light. Popular ring lights are good for smartphones and cameras that are aimed through the center of the light, to give an even coating of glow. But the look of ring lights may be fleeting, as all social media aesthetics can be. While the ring light look is hot now, it may be as cool as The Harlem Shake in a few months or a year. Square LED light panels will give you more traditional, time-tested lighting looks. And with the right adjustments and positioning, any LED square light can make you look good.
Related: Flashpoint Xplor 300 Pro TTL R2 review: Impressive power in a small package
The final word on the best LED light panels.
Give photos and videos the light they deserve with an LED light panel. These thin rectangles of light are powerful tools for every type of image capturing. Use them for live-streaming, taking pictures of cats, shooting a sci-fi epic in your backyard or any other creative project on your list. Don’t let the numbers and stats intimidate you. With a basic understanding of color temperature, you’ll have enough know-how to pick and choose the best LED light panel for your needs. Discover your inner Speilberg or Mr. Beast with the proper LED light panel.