181118 Quiet Viola - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Changing my life isn't hard to do – for example, at the start of our last winter I bought matching pairs of gloves, but one was regular and the other was fingerless. A regular glove goes on my left hand, fingerless on my right. Now I stay warm and can still use a touch screen and small buttons. Life changing.

Buying the Luxli Viola LED panel has changed my life even more than that. Not as much as discovering banana-bread french toast, but that's an unreasonably high bar. Still, this is a significant shift.

I've been doing night photography with a dash of light painting for a couple of years now. I've spent the entire time accumulating different flashlights, looking for The One. Or at least, The Several. Different bulbs, different power, different beams, different controls, different sizes. Honestly, I enjoy that kind of thing. But I started to run out of options to try that might finally be right, so I started looking for LED panels. They, at least, are made for colour accuracy and photography. They're bulky and awkward to hold, compared with a flashlight, but I'd be okay with that if they could solve my desire to blend with the immense variety of strangely orange lights on the Toronto Island parks.

They couldn't.

So I kept looking and reading everything I could find on lighting for night landscapes.

And that's how I found the Luxli Viola, a small LED panel with a fairly narrow beam and the ability to create RGB light as well as a remarkably broad spread through the kelvin colour temperature range. Life: changed.

Looking for LED panels for night illumination brought me to a different set of ideas as well. Normally light painting is done by waving a flashlight around – the beams are too narrow and too bright. There's a lot of trial and error involved, and doing it when other people are nearby violates The Golden Rule: "Don't Be Such A Dick." This is part of the reason why I'd stay out all night in places where there is nobody around.

But LED panels aren't as bright or as narrow, so they're good at "low level lighting". That link is to a page written by astro-landscape photographers out west, who use very low power levels to match ambient starlight on moonless nights in the desert. Beautiful. Being a kilometre away from downtown Toronto I sometimes need a bit more oomph than that, but running a dimmer light for the entire length of the exposure is still a much better idea. It's more repeatable and more controllable, creating better photos with fewer tries. And it's way, way less obnoxious. So I can't say that it's always "low level", but the lighting that I can do now is much quieter.

The Viola is particularly good at quiet lighting because its power output ranges from very bright to completely off, and it has both full physical controls as well as connecting with bluetooth to its app for iOS and Ad-droid. I can stand at the camera and adjust the colour and brightness of the distant light while I look at the live preview, making it far easier to get the results I want and then try something different. Turning the light off when I'm not actually making an exposure is as close as the control app on my iPod. I'll even adjust the lighting remotely during a long exposure if I need to, because there are times when even 1% power is too much.

These photos cycle between versions with and without quietly added light. (You can click on the full-screen arrows in the lower right of any slideshow to see it without distractions.) The light is at a very low level, one or two percent power, for each one. The snow fence on the beach is a two minute exposure at f/8 and iso500; the shadow movement between the exposures is from the moon. The Viola is on a little ground-level tripod, sitting stationary on some rocks.

Think about that for a moment. Imagine the light that casts a smooth beam at exactly the right colour to add a subtle accent without overpowering the moon in an exposure that keeps the shutter open for two minutes.

I'm never going back to waving a flashlight around. That shit's bonkers.

The railroad crossing is a mere forty seconds long, f/5.6 and iso320, with the light hand-held. My little tripod of choice for the Viola was the Pedco Ultrapod II, a super-light plastic doohickey that doesn't get cold the way my metal ones do. I own two of them. When they're collapsed they become a great handle for an extra bit of reach, so that's what I was doing here. But there were several times when I wished for something better – a normal-size tripod or a light stand that would give me more placement options. Of course I have all of these things, and then some, but they were safely at home because I didn't know how useful the little light would be.

There are some serious carrying-capacity problems in my future.

This is not a subtle addition of light. In fact, there's no ambient-artificial light on these buildings at all. I was struck by the combination of utility architecture and the view of the city skyline; in the summer this is a popular spot for groups and picnics, but in the winter it's deserted. So for this photo I lit the entire space with the Viola, cranked to high power and sitting some distance away – on a pay phone, in fact – which I then moved somewhat during the exposure. Definitely not waving it around, but just walking slowly to soften the shadows.

The unlit photo was taken with a sincere best effort to capture what I wanted without the added light. It didn't work. And I also knew that it wouldn't work, because I'd tried to light similar spaces with flashlights on a couple of previous visits, and they didn't work either.

Yes, I'll even light a barge. With an LED panel that fits in a pocket.

No, not all of the light on the barge is from the Viola. Some of it is spill from the tower lights in the adjacent parking lot that's across the eastern gap. But the little Luxli is making a significant contribution, filling shadows and adding highlights.This exposure is twenty seconds at f/5 and iso400, which was decided by not blowing out the city skyline. So the barge was underlit, but the extra kick did make the difference between recoverable shadows and just plain dark.

Let's back up for a second: the Viola fits in a large pocket, like the ones in my jackets, or on the cargo pants that someone else might wear because they're actually very practical for twelve-hour photo-walks. It's less than four inches wide, under six inches long with the knobs included, and about an inch and a half deep with a FW550-size battery attached. (More precisely, 95x145x38mm.) There's also a larger and more sophisticated model, the Cello, but if I get another I will probably stay with this smaller one just because it's so handy. The best light is the one you have with you, amirite?

So now let's imagine a light that can add just a subtle touch that doesn't overpower moonlight, but also crank out enough power to mimic a distant line of streetlamps, with a beam spread that doesn't have a hot spot but can still put light on a moderately distant subject. And it runs on a standardish FW550-series battery without ever seeming to deplete it. This is better for night photography lighting than any flashlight I've ever used, and in fact the Viola at 1% even works very well for finding my footing in the dark. Now I can go out with only one actual flashlight in my pocket, instead of three or four.

I've been 'into flashlights' long enough to watch them mature and change. With incandescent light bulbs it was a tremendous challenge to get any light out the front, so they were all made with super-narrow beams. When LEDs came along it became a brightness war – to some extent it still is, and any idiot with $20 and a local hardware store can buy something that will blind wildlife from a hundred metres away. (Don't. Buy. Tactical.) But what's the point of that?

Now that power is a solved problem, flashlights have diversified. Bad lights can be dim, any good light can be bright – no big deal. The real refinement and sophistication has been in making good lights that can be dim.

Creating an even beam is important, as is light colour and colour reproduction. I have ones designed for long throw, but I also have ones that create a flood light, and include usable light levels that are so low that it's not a shock to turn them on in the middle of the night. A diverse range of useful, human-scale lights. Which is part of the reason why I have fifteen flashlights, and one laser, within easy reach as I write this.

I take this digression because LED lighting panels are following the exact same evolution as flashlights did, only they're maturing much more quickly. It used to be amazing that the dog could talk at all, then they moved on to producing enough power, and now they're improving the quality and colour of the light itself. Maybe I could have taken the high-powered photos with my Viltrox 3300-5600K panel, but I wouldn't have been able to match all the colours I needed, and its "20%" minimum power absolutely couldn't have done the quiet lighting that makes such a difference. And that's still a good panel for video or still photography, but it's a completely different idea from the Viola.

The Pelican 1960, above, is one of my all-time favourite flashlights, and it's what I was carrying when I was out with the Viola. It's yellow plastic, puts out a modest amount of light from a pair of AAA batteries for a long time, and is basically indestructible. Its colour tint is not great for light painting, but sometimes it works, and yes, I own two of them. It went on sale. They're my preferred winter utility light, because they're the perfect size to fit in a jacket pocket, don't feel cold, and are easy to use with gloves on. Twist the entire shroud to turn them on and off; simple, positive, and reliable. No levels to cycle through, no strobe mode, no clicky to accidentally turn on. And the shroud glows in the dark, so it's easy to find when I drop it. They're a good design, and designed to be used, not to impress the guys at the club. And who cares about impressing them? They're not your real friends.

And the lighting to photograph my favourite flashlight was done with the Viola in the dark. I flooded the photoluminescent plastic to make it glow strongly, turned off the Viola, and took a thirty-second exposure of just the glowing shrouds with the camera set to 5600K. Transfer that photo with the on-camera wifi to my iPod and open it in the Luxli Conductor app. Sample the colour from a good spot on the shroud to make the Viola match the green glow. Add just a tiny bit of light – 1% for a few seconds, then off – and season to taste until it looks a little like the whole scene is just being lit by the glowing flashlights.

Locally Luxli lights seem to only been sold at B&H, so you get to choose your favourite affiliate link but not shop around between different labour practices. It may also be worth buying the dedicated softbox – they're often bundled – as it really is excellent and makes a difference for tabletop photography. You might also want to pick up a Ricoh TE-1 Extension Adapter for your tripod, since it's the only thing narrow enough to attach to the light without compressing the rubber softbox surround, but that's modern design for you.

The plastic-bodied Made In Norway light seems well constructed, although I'm not going to try to drop it on a cold night. The battery latches in place, and the LCD background changes between white and black to show whether it's in RGB colour or kelvin mode. Thoughtful design. And as good as the app is – it's decent, and connects quickly – what's vital is that it also has full physical controls for brightness and tint. Not only is it convenient, it means if the app gets broken by an OS update or stops being supported, the light itself is still usable. I wouldn't have bought it otherwise.

My complaints are few and minor. It seems to turn on easily, so when I'm packing it in my camera bag I pull the battery. That's probably a good call anyway. And I wish it had a tripod socket for vertical positioning, which would put the control dials at the top of the light. And sure, it would be nice if it cost half as much, but isn't that true of everything?

That said, it does seem to go on sale fairly often; $200USD with the softbox included (a "$29 value!" and worth every penny) seems to be the current low water mark. That's what I got it for. Not cheap, but perfect for what I do, so I'm happy. But given how quickly things are changing with LED lighting I'm not going to buy another quite yet, either. In six months or a year they may indeed be half the price, or better, or both.

Interesting times. Now the key is to go out and take some photos with it.


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