Throughout my time as a professional wedding photographer, i've tried out many different portable lighting gadgets designed to aid me in getting better pictures. From off camera flash, HSS triggers, Continuous lights, LED panels, reflectors, scrims, torches, the list goes on and this is only lighting gear!
In more recent years, i've come to love portable continuous light sources, which i find particularly useful at weddings, where light can be very challenging and backdrops uninspiring, and when it rains, the need to create something arty, different and interesting indoors, means creating a back drop or ambience in a shot using portable continuous or flash lighting.
Some years ago now, and after some consideration i opted for the Lowel range of portable tungsten battery lights, namely the 'ID light', which for a long while developed a reputation as one of the best quality, dimmable, focusable, 100 watt portable lights around, with a range of modifiers and accessories, it is loved by many a wedding and portrait photographer. The ID light uses an every day tungsten car lamp mounted in a focusable head with the ability to dim the light output.
Having used the ID light for some time, the fact that it is powered by a fairly cumbersome lead acid externally attached 12 volt battery pack, means that in use it could be a little awkward and heavy to carry around. More recently, newer battery technology has allowed for smaller batteries which last longer, but the ID light's separate attached wired battery design was growing a bit long in the tooth.
Additionally, the ID light being an incandescent tungsten halogen source means that when dimmed to its lower outputs the colour temperature of the light becomes very warm, below 3200K, and for most situations this is just too warm, meaning some colour temperature adjustment is required in post production to give a more natural looking colour temperature to the images produced.
When I heard about the release of a new battery powered Lowel light, known as the 'GL1 Power LED', utilising a 24 volt LED lamp, I was very interested to try it out, and even more happy that they had designed it as a single unit, batteries built in! Not only that, the fact it was LED meant a more constant colour temperature throughout dimmed output, which Lowel rate to be around 3200K.
At first glance the GL1 looks somewhat like a cheap Black & Decker DIY torch, with a hand grip and power trigger, much like a battery drill with the removable battery housed in the base of the grip... but, the GL1 is no amateur torch, it's actually a very impressive, well made, professional lighting tool, giving you the equivalent of around 100 watts of Tungsten output from the 'Power LED', which you can focus with a ratio of 5:1, spot to flood. My dad used to say, if it's heavy, it's probably expensive... and that certainly rings true with this bit of kit... I got mine from UK distributor ProKit - www.prokit.co.uk
When I first took it out of the box, the first thing I noticed is the weight of the unit. It feels substantial, and with almost equal weight in the head and the battery, when handling, feels quite nicely balanced. Having said this there are a number of design changes i would make for a MKii version of this light, which i will touch on further on in this review.
The focusable head itself is the well engineered bit, with a solid metal circular telescopic focusing chamber, which is simply pulled in and out by hand, to focus or flood spread the beam of light. The action of doing this feels controlled, secure and is nicely dampened. The front focusing section features a fresnel lens element for a very nice evenly spread light output, with nearly no fall off from edge to edge, giving that soft filmic look to the light pool. The simple fact the light source is a flat circular LED lamp allows for a more even spread of projected light, with little to zero hotspots across the projected beam, something the older ID light suffered with.
The older ID light did not feature a proper fresnel lens, it was dubbed to produce a "fresnel like" effect, but was really just an opaque directional glass diffuser. The GL1 also features an 82mm accessory screw thread on the front of the fresnel lens for using colour changing filters such as an 82B Tungsten to Daylight filter (available separately) for lighting in daylight colour conditions. You can also add an 82mm lens shade (available separately) to help prevent direct light spills into the camera lens during timelapse light painting situations.
The grip and battery chamber of the GL1 is where they can improve the design dramatically, although nicely moulded the grip does feel a bit plasticy, constructed in two parts which screw together, the battery simply clicks in and locks in place using two plastic interior catches on either side of the battery itself. Easy removal of the battery can be a bit tricky and some force and wiggling is required. I should point out I have had an earlier version of the Hotlight compared to the one I have now, they have made some very slight changes to some of the components which do improve the feel, quality and use of the light, but the plasticy grip although fit for purpose, does not have the same nicely engineered solid metal jacket feel as the lighting head which sits attached on top of it. The yellow trigger and dimming wheel could be better quality components, especially the dim wheel which rotates too freely / loosely and needs some dampening. I also found this dim wheel a bit prone to getting stuck in places whilst spinning with my thumb.
At the rear of the head is a temperature controlled diaphram fan, with ventilation holes around to draw in air to cool down the large circular LED which can become very hot, very quickly. The yellow grip trigger beneath the lighting head allows for dimming functionality too, basically the harder you press the more light output you get. Pressing this all the way to a firm fully pressed position engages the dimming using a small yellow jog dial at the backof the head, accessible to your thumb whilst holding the light with just one hand. This is useful when you have no assistant available and you need to hold a camera in one hand and the light in the other!... At weddings i normally rope in a bridesmaid or the best man to hold lights for a few feature shots.
At the bottom of the grip you will find the on / off switch and the green LED which indicates power on, and when the unit has been on at full brightness for some time will begin to flash slowly to indicate the unit has sufficient battery power to run for approximately 10 minutes at full brightness. When the flashing becomes faster this indicates 2-3 minutes at full brightness before battery power is depleated and requires charging.
When the little LED flashes Red, this indicates the unit is overheating and is about to shut down at which point you should turn the power switch off to allow it to cool for 10-15 minutes. During my last couple of months using the GL1, I have never seen the indicator LED flash Red despite long periods of over 10-15 mins of full brightness output, although i suppose ambient conditions, battery condition and charge state will effect the GL1's performance in this respect.
Beneath the battery chamber in the bass of the unit are two tripod bush mounts, one large, one small, for mounting the unit on a tripod, but i would make sure this is a heavier, more sturdy tripod and head, as the GL1 with battery installed weighs in at over 1.8kg.
Also on the base of the grip is an AC power socket, this is to power the GL1 via the mains power adaptor included in the box, and not for charging the battery. To charge the 24 volt 2500mAh NiMH battery pack you must remove it and use the included battery charger which charges the battery in roughly 2-3 hours.
Using the Hotlight is so simple really, turn it on get someone to hold it where you need the light and show them how to adjust the output, there's no complex triggering to setup and you can obviously see where your shadows are going to fall and the intensity of the output. Unlike using off camera flash which can take a few test shots to get the desired output, and without snoots or grid modifiers can cause alot of light spill where you don't want it... the GL1 is a continuous light, easily dimmed, adjusted and focused down to just where you need the light most, with the option of a daylight filter on the front.
Ok, so it's not going to over power the sun, replace your speedlight or your Quadra, light up a large group or be any use at all in anything but low light, but for arty low light illumination or backlighting at night, or even for a hint of warm fill in overcast or dull daylight, it's really a very useful tool to have as part of your kit, especially for those rainy days when the indoor light for portraiture is not good and the bride is refusing to go out in the rain brolly or no brolly!
As you can see from the images I've included here it can be used to produce some really nice fill or primary light effects, especially when used for backlight or later in the evening to pull a couple off the background of a floodlit building. The fact the light can be focused down and is so soft, diffused and even across the light pool it produces is fantastic, and all from a small battery powered LED light, which is much less hassle to setup and use than an off camera flash system for some lower light shooting situations.
In conclusion, this is a great light for arty, creative low light photography and certainly very useful for location portraiture and wedding photographers looking for something that does the job, adds a bit of wow factor, but doesn't require any great difficulty setting up... just grab, turn on, point at subject, done. Also useful for straying light across a wall or for adding light pools to a backdrop, or even for timelapse / time exposure light painting... for a stills photographer like myself, who shoots mainly weddings, i wouldn't be without the GL1 now.
Here's the GL1 listing on the Pro Kit website... http://www.prokit.com/products/lowel-gl-1.html
Here's the Lowel website, (with which i have no relationship, endorsement or sponsorship from i might add!... i just like the product.) - http://gl1hotlight.com
If you like this review or would like to ask a question about it, please feel free to use the facebook commenting section below. Thanks for reading.