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A Decade of Vanguards, #9

Jan 20, 2010 12:00 PM, By Dan Ochiva

A decade of LED lighting.

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LED lights such as the Nila Boxer are poised to replace traditional HMI or tungsten setups.

LED lights such as the Nila Boxer are poised to replace traditional HMI or tungsten setups.

Although lighting doesn't get as much effusive press as the latest camcorder, the constantly improving capabilities of LED lighting over the past decade could prove as significant as the latest developments in CMOS chips.

Camcorders that are lightweight and produce high-quality images are of most interest to cinematographers. But it's the nearly parallel development over the past decade of lightweight, power-sipping, cool-running lights that could be just as important for the future of video production.

While the earliest developments of what turned into usable LED technology go back to the beginnings of the 20th century, it was only in the 1970s that advancements in manufacturing the solid-state devices allowed dramatic price drops and thus enabled their wider use.

LEDs, or forward-biased (switched-on) diodes, benefit from the same R&D and manufacturing techniques that have made CPUs and GPUs such an important part of modern life.

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While red and green LEDs became common in all manner of products in the 1980s, one piece was still missing from the LED puzzle: How can LEDs make white light, the key to full color reproduction? While phosphors and coatings could create bright red and green LEDs, high-power blue or—even better—white LEDs remained an elusive goal.

That all changed when the first stable specimens of white LEDs came to life in the mid-1990s. (A white LED is actually a blue LED employing a phosphor that converts some of the blue to white.) By 2003, new companies—including Zylight and Litepanels—had formed to take the latest full-spectrum LED technology to market.

One of Litepanels' initial products, the Ringlite Cinema, became an instant success. Replacing cobbled-together quartz rigs, it enabled DPs to shoot close to a subject without melting either the camera or the actor.

Adding microprocessor control, now standard on better-quality LED lights, enabled dimming the lights from full-on brightness to 0 percent with little or no perceptible change in color temperature.

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