Introduction: What is it?
What is a Kick exactly? If you told your friends that you had received a Kick then you might get some confused faces, but the Kick we are talking about is a light made by Rift Labs. The Kick is a special small LED panel that can provide light for video and stills. Why is it so special? Like other LED panels the Kick is fitted with an array of LEDs, but in the Kick these LEDs are of a special type. The RGB LED used in the Kick can emit more then one color, resulting an very flexible light. No gels are required to change the color of the light, and it opens a gate to a lot more possibilities. It can mimic the light from a thunderstorm, campfire or the sun reflecting in water. Sounds great, right?
What is also special about the Kick is that is controlled by a smartphone. Currently just iOS is supported, but in the future there will an app for Android and Windows Phone as well. However the way how the Kick has to communicate with each platform is different, so it might take some time.
Rift Labs states that the Kick is currently not aimed at professional photographers, but as a affordable creative tool accessible to many as possible. They plan to expand the product line up with bigger sizes, a more professional app and more of the features professional photographers want. But first we will see how their debut product holds up.
Unboxing the light reveals the Kick itself, two Kick stickers, an extra insert to make the iPhone 5 fit as well and a USB charging cable. It is advised though to use this cable with a 1A or even 2A USB port port, that can be found for example in iPad chargers, since a regular USB port might not provide the Kick with enough current to charge it.
A few days before I left for my holiday — Kick in tow — I read on the company website that a new firmware was released, so in the airport I used a public computer and updated the Kick to the latest version, which was 1.02 in my case. Updating was easy enough: currently they recommend to use a Windows-based computer to do so, but in the future you will be able to update the Kick directly through the smartphone app as well.
Eager to try it out, I downloaded the app to my phone and connected it to the Kick. Connecting was easy and soon enough I was controlling the color of the kick. Since the light was quite bright I did get some funny faces from other passengers waiting for their flight, so I stored it in my camera bag and decided to continue testing it somewhere else.
Unfortunately the Kick does not come with a fabric sleeve, and since the lens elements in front of the Kick are protruding out of the case I was afraid of scratching them during transport.
The Kick is quite small — about the same as an iPhone. It is made from a few black plastic components screwed together. When shaken you can hear the Li-ion battery moving around slightly inside the case. Rift Labs have chosen not to seal the battery in place so that a user could replace it if needed. Myself, I would have preferred if they used some sticky tape to create a temporary fix, instead of leaving it loose. In their defense, I don’t think it would have made a real difference in durability, but I am more a perfectionist: something worth doing, is worth doing right.
The case itself has six buttons: one for power, one for WiFi connection, two for setting the brightness without a phone and two for adjusting the white balance without a phone. Next to the power button there is a USB port for charging and firmware updates.
The case also provides the user for the possibility to attach their iPhone. There are two ‘ears’ where you can slide in the iPhone. In one of these two ears there is a 1/4″ female screw, so you could even put the Kick on a tripod, with or without your iPhone. I regret the ears a bit, since it makes the device almost twice as thick.
The build quality is reasonable. Do not expect professional-grade, as it is not weather sealed, and material flexes quite a bit. For example when screwing the tripod to the Kick there is quite a lot of flex in the case, maybe some added plastic or a screw would have been better. Rift labs told me that they made some changes to the case mold to make it tighter, solving the problem, so non-kickstarter Kicks should not have this problem.
App (version 1.1)
Controlling the Kick requires a iOS device to be connected to the Kick and running the app. The app requires iOS 6, so make sure to update your iPhone or iPad to the latest version if you haven’t done so already. The app is quite bewildering when started up for the first time and I still find it quite confusing. It is sluggish, and sometimes I have no idea what exactly I am doing.
One thing that is really bothering to me is that the camera of the iPhone starts when you start up the app, corroborating my idea that the Kick almost is intended as some kind of iPhone gadget. Rift Labs have admitted their app still needs work. I guess they focused their efforts on releasing the hardware as soon as possible since the backers on Kickstarter have been eagerly waiting for them for quite some time already.
In the app itself you can control the light either by selecting a static color and then sliding the brightness up and down, or by selecting one of the special modes. These modes include a strobe function, simulation of an explosion or lightning, and a color sweep. When I try to use these modes I just try to move some sliders since I have no idea when the effect starts. The app is clearly not there yet, but I am confident they will improve it soon. In the video section there is a YouTube video where you can see the app in action.
The quality of the light is quite hard, since the LED array is quite small. For close ups it works quite well, but with bigger objects such as portraits the light is very hard. Brightness seems to be reasonable for such a small device. They claim 400 lumen at 5400 kelvin, but I am not sure at what distance.
I haven’t measured the time I used it before needing to recharge it, but with the occasional use it lasted for two days. On their Kickstarter page they said that the Kick typically last 4 to 5 hours, but if you turn it to max power and leave it on, the runtime is reduced to 1.5 hours. From my observations this seems about right.
How it works: pulse-width modulation (PWM)
The first question I always ask myself is: how do they do it? Maybe it is it my engineering background, but this thirst for knowledge has ruined enough “magic”, so to speak. I can tell you a bit more about the technology in this little black box.
The LEDs used in the Kick are of the RGB type, which means red, green and blue, similar to the pixels of the device you are currently using to read this review. A combination of red, green and blue light can trick the mind to see another color, due to the way humans perceive light. The pixels in the device that you use to read this review work exactly the same. I won’t go too deeply into this but there is one thing that is important to the way we will use the light.
RGB LEDs mix the different color lights by pulsating at a very high frequency. Like a painter mixes his paint, the Kick mixes the light in order to create all the different colors. For example, purple would be a mix of blue and red, but a slightly more blue-ish purple requires that the blue led is only active for 50% of the time, while the red is 100% active. If a red with lower brightness is desired, a similar trick can be done with the red channel, as you can see in the figure (above).
In the figure the high signal results in light from the LED, so it is quite obvious that the longer the signal is low, the less light there will be. Maybe you already guessed that switching the light rapidly on and off could lead to problems. What if the frequency of the flickering of the light is too low, and we can see it on video and stills? In this review I will tell you the answer.
Practical usage: stills
Being more of a portrait photographer I had a go with some portraits with just the Kick. In hindsight I can understand why this was not the best idea; pointing a 400 lumen light in the face of somebody is quite annoying for the subject. Since it was the first time using the Kick I decided to stop and take my time shooting some static subjects.
What I noticed was that on shutter speeds of above 1/500 second I would get significant banding due to the pulses of the RGB LEDs when the kick is set at maximum brightness. As can be seen in the example underneath. At 1/250 and 1/500 there is no obvious banding occurring, but at 1/1000 and 1/2000 it is quite bad. At minimal brightness the banding occurs at a lower shutter speed, but has the same effect.
This time I had more success. I am used to shooting with flash, and having a light to actually see what you are shooting is good, especially since you can change the white balance and directly see if you have the correct temperature. If you have to gel your flash you never know what exactly if happening. In general, the light would suit your needs. It is quite hard, but it works well (provided that the app will be improved).
Practical usage: video
Using the light for video is very similar to using it for stills. Banding can be seen when increasing the shutter speed, just as when taking stills. A lower brightness has an effect on the banding as can be seen in the movie. With a lower brightness I would get banding already at 1/60 second, which is the lowest shutter speed that I use during filming. At the maximum brightness there is banding visible at 1/250, but it really becomes obvious at 1/500. All movies and stills were shot with a Nikon D800.
The app could enable you to do some special effects in video, like simulating a campfire or similar. In the movie underneath you can see how the app works and how the effects can be turned on or off.
Also in the special modes you can see the banding when the Kick is set to minimal brightness. Turning the brightness to maximum often solves most of the problems.
In the end the question always is if it is really worth your money. To be honest I have the feeling I received a product that could be much better, but still, after having used it a bit I am happy with the results that I have gotten with it. The potential for Rift Labs is certainly there, and I am convinced this is certainly not the last time we will hear something from them. I guess it is the price of being a early adopter. You always have the newest stuff, but you also get the bugs. I don’t think it can replace anything in my camera bag, but it is certainly a welcome addition, since it can do stuff other lights can not do.
The banding is holding me back from recommending this product. Especially on when the Kick is set to the lowest brightness (a setting which would not be used a lot though), there is a lot of banding even at 1/60 second. At higher brightness the banding starts at 1/250. Rift Labs has indicated that they will see if the banding issues can be solved with firmware updates. I am not sure if they can though, since it could be a limitation of the hardware.
Personally I will keep using the Kick even though it has its limitations. I am a bit disappointed that the Kick is not usable at higher shutter speeds, especially when the Kick is set to low brightness. In practice however this would be a combination you would not make. I love the possibilities, but hate first-generation bugs. Maybe it feels too much like an iPhone gadget. One thing is sure: keep an eye out for Rift Labs. When they are going to get this right, they are going to be big.