REVIEW: Litepanels Astra in 2015

More lights at lower prices, and easy wireless control for iOS devices

Litepanels’ Astra is the best 1×1, bi-color LED panel I’ve come across, which is what I said when I reviewed it about a year ago here on Pro Video Coalition. I loved a lot of things about the light: its great color rendering, super-bright output, the tungsten to daylight color range, the potential for adding expansion modules, and I also thought the Astra’s $1350 street price was reasonable considering what you got for the money.

I ended up buying my own Astra after that review, and having now taken it with me on a wide variety of jobs, I still feel the same way about the Astra as when I reviewed it (though I do wish it were just a bit less bulky).

Now Litepanels has expanded the Astra universe in a few ways, so it’s worth taking a look at how this 1×1 LED has grown since its introduction in 2014… 

astra family

MORE ASTRA MODELS

A few months ago, Litepanels added several other Astra models to its lineup, which give you a choice of single color temperatures and lower light outputs, in exchange for a lower price. You can see the whole lineup on Litepanels’ Astra page right here, but some highlights include :

  • If you just want a daylight fixture that’s meant for indoor use, then a new Astra 1×1 E Daylight model costs only $665 (street price below $600).
  • Or, if you want a bi-color light but don’t need the blinding output of the original Astra, then the new EP Bi-Color model gives half the output (still roughly twice the output of earlier Litepanel bi-colors) for $1100 list.

Personally, if I were buying my first Astra, I would have a hard time passing up the original Astra’s tungsten-daylight range, or its super-bright output, because they make the light so versatile. But if I were putting together a kit of Astras, I could definitely see a B or C light not needing quite the same oomph as my A light, and saving money along the way. 

 

TRAVEL KITS

Along with new Astra models, Litepanels is offering pre-configured travel kits in hard cases with laser-cut foam. You can choose a bi-color kit with matching Astras in either the full power or mid- power EP flavors, and then choose between V-mount or Anton Bauer battery plates.

I got a chance to try out the Astra 1×1 Traveler Duo kit ($3847 list) with two high-powered Astras for a number of jobs. In the past, I’ve never liked the idea of carrying LED lights in big, hard cases, because the cases add significant weight and bulk to what are otherwise streamlined, low-weight lights. When I travel, I tend to pack my two LEDs into a big suitcase, and surround them with some packing material, and a few accessories like my trusty Road Rags frames.

travelcase

The Traveller Duo 2-Light Kit, packed up with room for some batteries or other small extras on the side.  

But i have to say, I got used to the convenience of having two capable Astras in a rolling flight case, even though I did no flying with them during my tests. The custom cut foam makes it very quick and easy to get the lights in and out of the case without any guess work (useful when working with assistants), and once the Astras are in the case, they’re essentially invincible.

Finally, Litepanels’ Duo case is 42 pounds when packed up, so while it gives you a bit of a workout when you lift it, it doesn’t trigger overweight baggage fees when you’re flying. You can also get a triple-light kit at $5853 and 69 pounds, but I think the Duo is the sweet spot for weight and maneuverability.

Still, I wish Litepanels also developed a soft case option as well lights. I use the Astra regularly, but rarely fly with them, and haven’t found any good, lighter-weight cases that fit the Astra’s slightly bigger-than-normal frame. 

 

WIRELESS CONTROL WITH AN IOS APP

One of the unique features of Astra lights is that you can install small modules into the fixture’s backside to add functionality. Initially, Litepanels offered modules for adding DMX networking via XLR or RJ-45 cables, but now it’s shipping a new Bluetooth module (list price, $300) that lets you wirelessly control your lights with any recent Apple iOS device (though its design is optimized for the iPhone).

Installing the new Bluetooth Communications Module into the Astra takes about 20 seconds, and requires no tools. You just remove the module door on the back of the Astra by squeezing its plastic tabs, and then pop the Bluetooth module into the empty module bay. You’ll also need to download Litepanels’ free SmartLite app to your iOS device, which you can find on Apple’s App Store.

 

bluetooth module

The Bluetooth Module just snaps into the back of the light.  

To pair the light to the app, just press the little pairing button on the Bluetooth module until its blue light starts to blink rapidly (not slowly, rapidly). Then press the + icon on the SmartLite app to pair the devices. Once paired, you can control the Astra’s dimming and color temperature with a couple of digital sliders.

The SmartLite app lets you connect to and control over 10 lights at once, from a line-of-sight distance as far as 60 feet. You can also give each light custom names (“key light”, “back light”, etc.), and arrange multiple lights into groups, which you can then dim together and audition on/off at once. Once you get the hang of the app, it’s very quick and easy to use. But it could still use a little refinement so pure newcomers can hit the ground running. For instance, changing the name of a light (from “Astra” to, say, “Key Light”) is buried in a non-obvious menu. Another example: the app doesn’t tell newcomers that they have to hold down the Bluetooth Module’s Pairing button for a few seconds until it blinks rapidly. I also wish the app wouldn’t require you to re-pair or re-name lights everytime you turn off the light, but realistically, I think a lot of people will be using the app to build and dial in lighting setups that will be plugged in once, and then left in place. 

 

screen322x572

smartliteapp

The SmartLite app easy to figure out on the fly, except for a couple of small exceptions.  

Still, those nit-picks aside, the Bluetooth module and SmartLite app work well together, and definitely deliver DMX functionality without the hassle of cabling and extra gear. And for any Android users out there, Litepanels told me that there are some unique engineering challenges invovled in bringing the SmartLite app over to Android, but they are working on it. I didn’t get the sense that anything was imminent, though.

 

So that’s what’s been going on with the Litepanels Astra in the last year or so. I thought the Astra was a great light a year ago, and now it’s shaping up to be a great system.

 

 

Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based DP and cameraman. www.losangelescameraman.com.

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Helmut Kobler

Helmut Kobler is a DP and cameraman based in Los Angeles, California.

He’s shot for networks such as Discovery, The History Channel, the BBC, PBS and others. Corporate work includes projects for Microsoft, American Express, United Airlines and Blue Microphones.

Helmut’s channel here at Pro Video Coalition focuses on any gear or software that help the camera and lighting department do more in less time.

See Helmut’s resume and reel at www.losangelescameraman.com

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