As a portrait photographer, I occasionally make videos. Although they are not large productions, they can still be rather tricky to get right. The knowledge of lighting which I gained as photographer cannot be directly applied to video. It has to be translated, since there are many more limitations for continuous lighting than for flash lighting. Continuous lights are limited in power, thus they cannot be diffused as easily as with flash. Using large softboxes is usually out of the question since they are rather inefficient. Without light modifiers the light is ugly and harsh, but with diffusers attached the light output is not high enough.
One method to solve this problem is to use a lot of these light sources next to each other. This way the power will increase due to the high number of light sources. Also, there will be no need to diffuse the light since all the light sources appear together as one single large light source. Within the videography industry this method is not uncommon; there are an extremely large number of different LED panels available. But often the problem is that these panels are still not big enough to get good quality light, or when they are, they are unaffordable for videographers on a tight budget.
This is where the Pixel Sonnon DL-914 comes in. It the fourth product in the Sonnon line by Pixel and by far their largest one yet. The 900-LED panel measures 375 mm by 375 mm and is certainly not small. With a claimed output of 4100 lumens it’s a bright one as well. Due to the relatively large size compared to other LED panels and the still affordable price (currently around $300 on eBay) it directly caught my attention. Could this LED panel be the light that videographers on a budget are looking for? In order to find this out Pixel honored my request to send me a review sample. Keep reading to find out how well it performed!
First impressions and build quality
After unboxing the light I noticed that this member of the Sonnon product range cannot be compared with the others. It is substantially bigger and constructed from metal. Inside the box the following items can be found:
- Light itself
- Metal swivel bracket
- Translucent diffusion filter (2x)
- V-mount power adapter
- Power cable
Unfortunately no V-lock battery is included in the kit, but this is understandable: it would have significantly increased the price point of the light and not everyone needs to run the light on battery power. Pixel has chosen the V-lock battery mount since other batteries, such as the Sony NP-type, are unable to provide enough power to the DL-914 light.
During the unboxing I also noticed that this light is pretty heavy, at 4 kg it is certainly not a light that can be brought everywhere. This is possibly due to the metal casing which is required as heatsink. If the device would have been from plastic it is much more likely that the LEDs would overheat and eventually break. Because of the metal enclosure the build quality has significantly improved when compared to the DL-913. It feels much more sturdy.
An advantage of large lights for human subjects is that they are more comfortable to look at. Small bright light sources, including smaller LED panels, make people squint and appear uncomfortable in images. When the light source is bigger the light source is less annoying for your subjects, meaning they will be — and more importantly, appear — more comfortable.
User interface and input
Compared to modern day speedlites, this LED panel is as simple as it can be. On the back four buttons, a dial and a LCD screen can be found. Three of the buttons are used for linking multiple lights through radio, so one LED panel can control the others. The remaining button are used to activate the flash function, a feature focused on stills photography. More on those two functions later.
After turning the LED panel on, the display shows the current power, expressed in lumens and as a percentage of full power. By using the dial it is possible to change the light output in 30 steps. The display also shows the colour temperature, which is confusing, since it cannot be changed. I am a bit puzzled why Pixel included this on the display, but it could indicate that Pixel is thinking of releasing a second version of the DL-914 with bi-colour LEDs.
What is unique about the Sonnon series is that they can be linked through 2.4 GHz. This means that you can assign each light to one of the three groups and afterwards you can control the power of each group using any of the lights. Unfortunately transmitter inside the DL-914 does not seem to be compatible with the other models. This is a shame since I could have a small DL-911 as fill on top of my camera which would be used to control all my other bigger lights.
If you have multiple Sonnon DL-914 lights this can radio linking feature will be very useful, unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to test it, as I only received a single DL-914 unit. I am doubtful if many other people will have the chance to use this feature, since I think it is not so common to buy multiple DL-914 lights.
An unique feature of the Pixel Sonnon DL-914 is the flash mode. As the name indicates this mode activate a flash mode, created for photographing stills. I have to admit that initially I thought that this mode was a gimmick and that it could be compared to the LED “flashes” we commonly find in smartphones. But it turns out I was quite wrong; in flash mode the DL-914 does not give a pulse, as you usually see with smartphones, but a real flash.
The ‘flash’ can be triggered by either an 3.5mm input or by binding a Pixel King Pro trigger to the LED panel. For my photos I have used the latter. The flash duration of the LED panel seems to be above 1/250th of a second; if I am shooting with a faster shutter speed I get issues with synchronization (max sync speed of my D800 is 1/250). It is not possible to change the length or intensity of the pulse and thus changing power is not possible.
Pixel states the guide number of the flash mode at GN28, which is comparable to speedlights when zoomed all the way out. However, it should be noted that the Pixel Sonnon panel has a much larger surface area, meaning that it generates softer light. When shooting portraits you will need to diffuse the light from the speedlight, while for the Pixel this is not needed. So effectively the Pixel has more power because the quality of the light is already good; no diffusion fabric is needed (which would reduce the power output significantly).
There are two main advantages to using the LED panel in flash mode for stills compared to using it in continuous mode. The first advantage is more power. Due to the short burst it is possible to overdrive the LED, something which is not possible to due in continuous mode due to the excessive heat it would generate. Overdriving the LEDs results in roughly 60% more power. The other advantage is for your subjects. A short flash of light reduces the strain on the eyes and making the process of taking pictures more comfortable.
I have to say that using the Pixel Sonnon DL-914 as a light for my stills photography did manage to impress me. However, I do not think that it will become my main light for photography since it still has a lot of drawbacks from being LED-based rather than flashtube based. The inability to set the flash power is a major nuisance, however when you consider the flash mode as an extra feature in a dedicated video light it is certainly more than welcome. I certainly could see videographers use this light to make some quick headshots that would go with an interview, etc.
Recently I have had the opportunity to shoot some videos with the DL-914. As a photographer I do not have a lot of experience with video lights, but have used quite a few occasionally. During my time with the Pixel Sonnon DL-914 I did not encounter any big problems. It is easy to set-up, produced a good amount of light and the barndoors make it easy to control the amount of spill. The included diffusers work well to transform the DL-914 in one uniform lightsource, instead of one with a lot of small hotspots from the 900 LEDs.
Unfortunately, I did notice a few small flaws. For instance, the barndoors cannot be used at the same time as the diffuser. There is also room for important in the way how the diffuser is mounted, since there is a significant amount of light leakage on the sides. Unfortunately no CTO filter was included in the box, which is the case with the smaller Sonnon models of Pixel. Other these small flaws Pixel has made a light that lives up to its promises.
Without a doubt the main feature of this light is the power it has. From the specs we can find that it has a output of 4100 lumens at full power. I would have preferred if the power would have been stated as Lux, since luminous flux (lumens) has to be measured with an integrating sphere, which is a piece of equipment I do not own. One is sure though, the DL-914 has plenty of power. During my time with the light I found myself more often reducing the power (which can be done in 30 steps) than being limited by the maximum power.
With cheaper LED lights a high shutter speed and low brightness sometimes cause problems due to the cheaper hardware used. Based on my tests I can say that this is absolutely not the case with the DL-914, no banding occurs even when shutter speeds of 1/8000 are used in combination with the lowest brightness setting. The colour temperature at maximum brightness is around 5600K. In the product page Pixel has advertised that the DL-914 is made with premium components and indeed it seems that this is the case.
Although not tested, it is likely that the CRI will be lower than other more expensive lights on the market. Other manufacturers often give too optimic specifications, something we see also happening on the photography market. The real GN of flashes is often lower than what is stated, which is something we see for continuous lights as well. I have seen it more than once that other Chinese manufacturers state their CRI as 95 or higher, but in practice it is around 80 or even lower. Pixel states that the CRI of the DL-914 is 85+, which is a more realistic specification. If it is able to meet the CRI of 85 then for the semi-professional market it is more than enough. Unfortunately I cannot test it since LightingRumours does not have a spectrometer, but I have not noticed any odd colours shifts due to the use of the LED light.
Getting a good light for videography is all about compromises. Do you want something portable? Or does it has to be affordable? How high should the light quality be? When buying a videolight you need to be well aware of this trade off. Personally I consider the DL-914 as one of the better compromises currently available out there. It is affordable, has a good size and is powerful. Even though it is much more affordable than other similar sized LED panels, it still performs rather well. No real compromises have to be made.
Of course the Pixel Sonnon DL-914 is not perfect. The way how the diffuser is mounted or that you cannot mount the barndoors when the diffuser is attached leaves room for improvements. They are small nuisances that you quickly forget about when you consider the cost of the unit. Priced at 300$ it means that this light is indeed affordable for hobby or semi-professional videographers.
As I stated in the introduction I expected that the Pixel Sonnon DL-914 would be an excellent choice for videographers on a budget, and indeed, it is. Pixel managed to create a video light with a lot of bang for your buck. The biggest advantage of the DL-914 over other smaller light is that you get good quality light without the need to use additional diffusers. Since the LEDs are spread out over a larger surface area it acts as a bigger light sources giving nicer softer light. If you are looking for an affordable LED light I can certainly recommend you the Pixel Sonnon DL-914.