When Shuji Nakamura perfected the Gallium nitride (GaN) LED in 1993, he brought about something of a revolution in light production. From those bright blue and ultraviolet GaN LEDs we get high-intensity white LEDs, and for the first time we have a white light source that is energy efficient, lightweight, cheap to manufacture, and powerful enough to use in place of traditional incandescent, fluorescent or even halogen lighting.
White LEDs seem to be steadily replacing all other types of lighting in almost every field of life, including car lights, flashlights, domestic room lighting, and of course in photography, where a powerful but compact source of pure white light is enormously useful. LED flashes have become a standard feature on mobile phone cameras, and now LED lighting is available for "proper" cameras too.
The Manfrotto ML360 Midi is one of the company's new range of camera-mounted continuous LED video lights, along with the ML240 Mini, which has 24 LEDs, and the ML120 Pocket, which has 12 LEDs. The ML360, as you've probably already deduced, has 36 white LEDs in four rows of nine.
Manfrotto isn't the first manufacturer to introduce LED photographic lighting. There are numerous other brands available, but most are aimed at professional photographers and filmmakers, and tend to be very expensive with many models costing several hundred pounds. The Manfrotto range, by contrast, is designed to be affordable, with the pocket-sized ML120 available for just £24.95, the mid-range ML240 costing £69.95, and the ML360 we've got here, available for £84.95.
As well as the three models in the continuous range, Manfrotto also makes a range of three hybrid LED lights, which combine steady continuous light for video recording with a brighter pulsed flash for still photography. We're hoping to get one of these in to test soon.
LED lighting has a number of advantages that make it a good choice for both still and video photography. First, it is much more energy efficient than conventional light sources. The ML360 is powered by four small AAA batteries, and can run at full power for 45 minutes on one set of alkalines, or for an hour on a set of 1000mAh NiMH rechargeables, and unlike most other types of lighting it generates almost no heat.
Second, it is very light and compact. The ML360 is the largest model in the range, but only measures 126 x 64 x 38mm and weighs 157g including a set of batteries. You can mount it on top of even quite a light camera and it won't make it horribly unwieldy. Four AA batteries would undoubtedly have given it a longer duration, but would also have increased the weight by about 60g and made it much more bulky.
Third, it produces a very bright and consistent light, and has a colour temperature very close to that of natural daylight. Relative brightness is a tricky thing to quantify, but at full power the ML360 generates 460 Lux at 1m, with a colour temperature of 5600K, which means you can use it as a fill-in light in daylight without creating an odd colour cast, and you can use it indoors with a daylight white balance setting.
Although it's a fairly simple device, essentially just a plastic box with a grid of LEDs on the front, the ML360 does have a few nice features. The light output is continuously variable from zero to full power via a dial on one end of the unit, which also serves as the on/off switch. The flash-shoe mount by which the light is attached to your camera can be fitted to either the bottom or the side of the device, so it can be mounted vertically if so desired, and it also incorporates a standard 1/4in tripod bush so you can mount the light off the camera. The bush is made of plastic though, so be careful not to strip the thread by over-tightening. Another neat little feature is a lower-intensity amber LED on the bottom right of the casing, designed to illuminate your camera's controls in low light conditions.
Comparing the ML360 to other types of video light is tricky, not least because few manufacturers publish details such as Lux output. I would estimate, based on experience, that its light output is roughly equivalent to a 30W halogen video light, although unfortunately I don't have one on hand for a direct comparison. There are certainly much brighter video lights on the market, from dedicated camera-mounted camcorder lights powered by the camera's own battery, to powerful professional halogen lights that have a separate battery pack, but that's not really a fair comparison.
A single ML360 could not replace a professional video lighting rig, but it's not meant to. What it does is offer a relatively cheap, extremely compact and easily portable light source that is ideal for casual or social video, where a larger or more powerful light would be inconvenient or just get in the way. It produces a nice diffuse light in a soft-edged cone with a beam angle of approximately 30 degrees, so it will easily illuminate a standing person at a range of around 3m, but it's not going to light up a whole room.
The ML360 is particularly good for close-range work such as interviews, since it doesn't generate the face-melting heat of a halogen or tungsten lamp, and the variable output means it can be turned down to prevent it from dazzling people. It also makes a very good light source for macro photography, again without the risk of overheating your subject, an important consideration with delicate subjects such as plants or insects.
One aspect of the ML360's design that I don't really understand is why it doesn't have a reflector behind the LEDs. Most other brands of LED video lighting use a white or silver reflector to maximise the light output in one direction, but the ML360 (and the other lights in Manfrottto's range) have their LEDs mounted on a plain black plastic panel. Surely a reflector would have improved its performance?
There are, as I mentioned, several other brands of LED video lights on the market, and comparing the ML360 with these is somewhat easier. Again there are more powerful models available, such as the popular LitePanels Micro Kit, the Polaroid 112 or the Kailite Z96, and many other brands have accessories available, such as filters or barn doors, which the ML360 does not have. However the competitors are larger, heavier and in the first two cases considerably more expensive. It terms of both value for money and convenience the Manfrotto is hard to beat.
Pros: Light weight, compact size, value for money.
Cons: No reflector or filters, not as bright as competitors.
Next Page: Sample Shots >
Here's an example shot taken using a Panasonic FZ150 super-zoom camera, using only ambient light at an exposure of f/3.2 and 1/10th sec.
This was taken using the same camera, the same manual exposure settings, but with the camera's built-in flash set on automatic.
This sample shot again uses the same camera and exposure settings, but with the ML360 on full power mounted on top of the camera. The cars are approximately 60cm away.