The Aputure AL-H198 (Real World) Gear Review
Today marks the beginning of real product reviews on my blog. Since the beginning of my blog I’ve tried to be super inclusive of all visitors by not concentrating on the gear I use. Instead I’ve talked about the results I achieve and the techniques I used to get them. I’ve been a Sony shooter since well before it was OK to shoot Sony cameras so gear reviews just were not something I was interested in doing. But things change and, while the tips and techniques are great, there are real gear choices that need to be made. So with this review of the Aputure Amaran AL-H198 I’m going to start sharing real world reviews of some of the gear I use on a regular basis. If you are making videos then light is super important and in this review I’ll be looking at a superb 198 LED video light that is extremely affordable.
My Move to Video
Over the years I’ve made a gradual move from still photography (only) to video and now it’s probably a majority of the paid work I do. I haven’t changed the name of my business (Monicoz Photography) because my clients have always known I do more than just photography. The move into video has been huge for me for a number of reasons for me and I’m really looking forward to expanding my video work. In the months to come I’ll be producing considerably more videos to share here and on my YouTube channel and I can’t wait for everyone to see what I’ve been working on.
If you were wondering “what took you so long?” the answer is actually pretty simple – I have a seriously high standard for my video work and that requires lots of gear that I didn’t have. I’ve been correcting that has more video jobs have been coming in and now my video production capabilities are at a level I’m extremely proud of. My choice for video production capture are my Sony mirrorless cameras but they’ve been accessorized to get the most performance possible. Here’s a look at my Sony a6000 rigged up for video production:
My Sony a6000 is mounted in a Smallrig cage with 15mm rail system and there’s also an audio recorder, Atomos video recorder/monitor, Rode microphone and I have a Sony wired remote for basic control. In the months to come I’ll go into more detail about my video rig and the many pieces that come together to let me produce the videos I do.
Still Photography verses Video
Unlike still photography, when you’re shooting video there are some things you absolutely need to do right. You need to have good audio, for example, and that means using good microphones (the ones built in to a camera are just not good enough) along with a workflow that understands good audio. Without good audio your entire video quality becomes compromised.
Another extremely important area of video production is lighting. In still photography you can get away with a lot because you can increase the length of your shutter speed, use strobe lighting and push exposure in post-production. Video, on the other hand, is totally different and requires good lighting. Over the years good lighting was expensive, required massive amounts of power, they were gigantic and they produced an astounding amount of heat. One of the biggest shifts to this “old” way of producing quality light was the introduction of LEDs.
LED lights for video offer lots of advantages. They (now) produce plenty of light, can be powered by battery, are light, and they produce little to no heat. Best of all the quality of the light, expressed in CRI or TLCI, can be outstanding. With good quality light you can now get awesome video results with little to no color correction required in post. And that brings me to my newest addition to my lighting kit from Aputure.
As I mentioned above, the move into video production required an investment in new gear. Because I’m (primarily) a still photographer I didn’t own the audio or lighting gear I knew I’d need to produce high quality videos. Adding new video gear has been a slow build up for me because good gear isn’t cheap. That’s why my new favorite company for my video production needs is a company called Aputure.
Here’s a company description directly from Aputure’s “about us” page:
Aputure was founded in 2005 by a team of inspired photographers and filmmakers who wanted to create high-quality content, but struggled with steep cost of equipment needed to do so. Determined to create professional-grade equipment at an affordable price, they started Aputure: the first company to provide truly affordable camera accessories with the quality and functions needed to fully realize any creative vision.
The great news is I’ve been using some of their gear for a while now and I feel they’ve really found the sweet spot for making equipment that is well priced and performs better than you expect. Additionally, they have a clear upgrade path as your video production needs grow. In other words, they have affordable gear that works great along with more expensive equipment that performs even better when you find you need to take the next step.
My introduction to Aputure came in a budget lavaliere microphone, the A.lav. I needed something for my early video production audio needs and the A.lav looked perfect. What I didn’t expect, for the low price, was how well accessorized the A.lav would be. It included everything necessary to connect to a camera, a recorder and even a smart phone and it even had a great case to protect everything. To this day I still use an A.lav microphone when I need a hard-wired lavaliere and now I own several. After my positive experiences with the small A.Lav microphones I was eager to try additional products from Aputure.
My First LED Video Lights
Before I tried video lighting from Aputure I’ve used some other brands with mixed results. My first LED light was a 160 LED model from Flashpoint (a house brand at Adorama) and, while it wasn’t anything special, it was in my budget at the time so I gave it a try. Originally the Flashpoint 160 LED light was over $100 and it offered me a substantial improvement in the quality of my videos. What I didn’t like was the amount of light (it was plenty bright on it’s own but suffered when I tried to diffuse the light). Build quality was consumer grade and I really disliked the cold shoe mount. Overall it was a good start for my LED lighting but I always knew it wasn’t a good long-term solution.
My next LED lights were considerably smaller units I wanted to use for adding fill and accent lights (both for my still photography and my video work). I was looking for something tiny and the Sima 64 LED lights looked good for what I had in mind. They were not too expensive (about $40 each when I got mine) and I could attach several together to increase the total light output if necessary. I picked up three so I could scatter them about my product photography studio and they worked fine. Again, they were not especially well built, they lacked good adjustability and the quality of light was completely different than my Flashpoint light so they didn’t get used very often for my video work as I hoped.
Aputure LED Lighting
When my video production began began to pick up it became time to invest in gear to let me take my work to the next level. One area I knew I wanted to make a big improvement was in the quality of my lights. After having really positive experiences with my previous Aputure purchases I knew I wanted to give their LED lights a try.
Because I was investing in a lot of new gear I had a limited budget for investing in new lights. Long-story-short, I was looking for excellent bang for the buck. I decided to go with the Amaran line of lights with my first purchases being something small I could use as a main light at first. The 198 LED light looked perfect for my plan.
The LED light I chose has awesome specifications and comes in two versions, a daylight balanced model and a variable color model. Because I wanted a brighter light (I planned to use additional diffusion) I decided to buy the daylight balanced version (the variable color version isn’t as bright when set to daylight color). Besides, if I ever need color – other than tungsten – I can always attach a Rosco gel to get a different look from a light.
The long term plan was to get a much larger LED light later and then use the smaller lights for accent or background lighting. In other words – what I bought now needed to be usable later. With this approach in mind I decided to buy the Amaran AL-H198 daylight balanced LED light as a replacement for my old Flashpoint 160 LED light. What arrived seriously exceeded my expectations.
In the Box
Inside the box was literally everything I needed to get up and running – except for batteries. Here’s a look everything that was inside the box:
Talk about awesome! Once again Aputure has put together a package that gives you maximum flexibility without having to buy a bunch of additional accessories (except for batteries). The small size implies it will be used “on camera” most of the time so if you plan to use it in a studio environment (like I do) you may need some additional parts – like a light stand – to get yourself up and running. If you’re a run-and-gun or ENG video shooter then you have everything you need included.
I think the included carrying case is an especially nice touch (although it doesn’t have much room for important accessories like additional batteries). I also loved that Aputure chose to include a miniature cold shoe ball head mount for attaching the light to your camera, camera cage or a light stand with a 3/8″ or 1/4″ thread (an included adapter let’s you use either). All the usual documentation is inside as well.
There are also a few diffusers (a white one to soften the light and an orange one to both soften the light and color balance the light for blending with tungsten lights). Here’s a look at the AL-H198 (front) without a diffuser attached:
Unlike my Flashpoint 160 LED light there is a clear plastic front to protect the LEDs. The silver backing behind the LEDs helps to eliminate strange shadows or color fringing as well as maximizing brightness. You can also see the four mounting points for the diffusers located on the left and right side of the light. With the standard diffuser attached the light looks like this:
The standard diffuser softens the light and gives you a wider coverage than without. If you’re going to use the AL-H198 as a main light the diffuser really helps soften the light and reduce hard shadows. If you’re planning to use additional diffusion I recommend leaving the standard diffuser off. Here’s a look at the AL-H198 with the “tungsten” or “CTO” diffuser attached:
The Tungsten or CTO (for Color Temperature Orange) diffuser softens the light and lets you blend the output of the Aputure AL-H198 with the warm light bulbs you commonly find in a home. If you’re on a location shoot with lots of Tungsten light you can set your camera’s white balance to “tungsten” and even though the light is orange, it will look totally natural in the finished video. This technique lets you get a great balance of color between your LED lights and existing lights as well as giving you creative possibilities that I’ll talk about in a future article.
I mentioned the lack of included batteries and, for most people who buy this light, that’s fine because there are several ways to power the AL-H198. The most basic is the common AA battery (you’ll need 6). In addition to AA batteries you can use the easy to find Sony NPF style battery which is available in several sizes.
One of the nicer surprises for me was the compatibility with another Sony battery, the NP-FM500H, which is commonly used in Sony DSLR cameras. The small NP-FM battery won’t last as long as the larger NPF batteries or even 6AA batteries, but it’s nice to have an extra option to use if your other batteries are in need of a charge. Best of all I already have half a dozen of the NP-FM500 batteries so even though I can only get about an hour of useful light at a time, I always have plenty of those small batteries charged and ready to go. Here’s a look at the back of my AL-H198 light:
For power I highly recommend getting the largest Sony NP-F style batteries you can afford to give you to longest time possible before the light quality starts to fall off. I’ve found I can get about 40-45 minutes (of full power output) from my small NP-FM500H batteries, about an hour and a half from larger Sony NP-F550 sized batteries. 6 AA rechargeable batteries gave me almost 2 hours of usability so top quality Lithium AA batteries are probably good for even more than 2 hours. I didn’t get a chance to test NP-F750 or the gigantic NP-F970 batteries but I’m willing to bet a pair of either could last for most of a standard day of shooting.
My personal choice for Sony NP-F style batteries are from DTSE and they’re available on Amazon. A pair of NPF550 batteries with a charger can be purchased for less than $25 with the bigger NP-F750 batteries with a charger available for less than $35. The largest NP-F970 batteries with a charger cost less than $50 (a single genuine Sony NPF-970 will cost you more than $120 and won’t include a charger). The DTSE batteries may not last as long as genuine Sony batteries, but when you can get four batteries, two chargers and still have $20 to buy a nice lunch it’s hard to argue with the value of off-brand batteries. I’ll include links to all of the DTSE battery choices at the end of this review.
One last feature worth pointing out is the four led battery power level indicator on the back. You activate the indicator by pressing a nearby button to get a visual indication of the remaining battery power. In most of the testing I did (with NP-F550 batteries or smaller) I rarely saw a power level higher than three out of four, but I’m confident a larger battery – at full charge – will show all four LEDs of power level.
If you’re working in a studio and want to use an A/C adapter the AL-H198 doesn’t have a connection for using a power supply but there are options you can use like the Atomos ATOMACP001 AC Power supply (about $50 to $75 depending on where you buy it). This power supply works great, but you’ll need to add an extension cord since the length of the Atomos power cord is on the small side. Unfortunately, this lack of an easy AC power source is something you give up at this size and price.
Light Brightness and Quality
The Aputure Al-H198 has a great package and awesome power options, but what really impressed me when I first turned my AL-H198 on was the amount of light and the quality of the light. It only had 38 more LEDs than my previous main light, but it is substantially brighter. The Flashpoint light is rated at 2080 lux at .5 meter but it seriously doesn’t look as bright as the Aputure, which is rated at 920 lux at 1 meter. The numbers look like they favor the Flashpoint, but my eyes tell me a different story. The AL-H198 is a seriously bright light!
I used the Aputure AL-H198 for a quick introduction in a new video I made and the results were great. I loved the high output from the small light! Here’s a screen capture from the video (there was no color grading done in post) so you can see what I look like when lit with the Aputure light:
In addition to the brightness I felt like the quality of the light was a substantial step up for me. Aputure rates their lights to have a CRI of 95+ and I believe it after seeing it in action.
CRI is a rating of light quality that looks at 8 specific colors that are important in determining the quality of light and assigns a value from 1 to 100 (larger numbers being better). The resulting value tells you how accurate the total CRI (Color Rendering Index) of a light source is. A CRI above 80 is considered “acceptable for most uses” while a CRI above 90 is considered to be “High CRI”. Measuring a light for CRI requires a specialized meter like the $1,500 Seksonic C-700-U, which I don’t own, so my review will trust the Aputure specs and I’ll describe the quality of light based on what I see, not a scientific measurement.
Since I never tried to confirm the absolute CRI of my Al-H198 I did want to perform some kind of test so I used it to illuminate a grey card I photographed to take a white balance measurement. I was looking for a lack of color tinting (something the 64 LED Sima suffered from big time) and I was seriously impressed by what I found. With my camera set to “daylight” white balance the resulting image was extremely neutral and a look at a color histogram confirmed what I saw with my eyes. For comparison here’s a look at my older Sima 64 LED light lighting up a grey card:
If you look at the histogram you can see that the range of the color blue isn’t close to the red and blue channels. This gives a noticeable yellow color to the light that is correctable with still photography, but not as easy to deal with when making videos. Here’s a look at the same test performed with my Aputure AL-H198:
You can see in this histogram that the shape of all three color channels are much closer together in shape and placement on the scale. This means considerably less color shift caused by the light and it’s something that is extremely important when you plan to use several lights together to light a person or a scene. If you look extremely close you can see a very slight red/blue tint in the grey card (confirmed in the histogram) but it’s so minor it could easily be a fault in how I tested the light.
I know my grey card test is not a conclusive scientific test but it did give me a quantifiable way to see the differences between my cheaper lights and the new Aputure light. My grey card test is no substitute for getting a reading from a $1,500 meter, but it definitely confirmed what I could see with my eyes – the Aputure light is extremely neutral and feels like a considerably more natural light source than what I’ve used in the past.
Use in the Real World
So I’ve talked about what comes in the box and it’s technical specifications. That kind of stuff is nice, but what really matters is how it works in the real world. I’m happy to say that my AL-H198 performs great. I love how the AL-H198 has enough light to work on a light stand in my studio but is also small and light enough to mount on a camera and take out into the field.
Build quality is definitely on the consumer side with an all plastic construction that probably won’t survive a drop to a tile floor. For my work it’s perfectly fine since I work by myself or with an extremely small – and very trusted – team so I expect my lights to last me for many years. I understand there’s no way to build a light like this any sturdier without significantly increasing the price and that’s perfectly fine with me. If you work primarily in harsh environments or have employees who aren’t very careful with company gear you should probably look at Aputure’s Lightstorm line of lights which have a considerably more solid construction than the Amaran line (along with an increase in price).
On all four sides of the AL-H198 there are slots that look like standard cold shoe sized mounting points. This means you can mount additional accessories (like a small microphone) to the light or attach something to the light with an inexpensive cold shoe adapter. These slots are intended to be used, with the included connector, to connect multiple AL-H198 lights together to create an even bigger light.
One minor dislike has to do with the small connecter used to mount the AL-H198 to the included ballhead or for connecting multiple lights together. It works fine, but I worry that over time it will wear down and not be as effective as it is when it’s new. Additionally, I’d like to see Aputure make those connectors available to buy separately so I could replace them if they wear out or I can connect four (or more) lights together with additional piece of mind.
The bottom line is this – I am super happy with my Aputure Amaran AL-H198 LED light purchase. In fact, within a day of my first AL-H198 arriving I ordered a second one. It impressed me that much.
Now that I have two AL-H198 lights I have the additional lighting flexibility my video (and still photography) demands and I love how I can connect the two lights together with the included connector. Two lights stacked together gives me a 296 LED light which gives me a ton of output with a quality of light that I absolutely love. The two AL-H198 lights combined with a set of DTSE 750 sized batteries cost me under $150.00 and I’m unable to recreate that much flexibility and performance without spending twice as much.
I’ve had such great success with my two Aputure Amaran AL-H198 lights that I’m already looking to upgrade to the larger Amaran lights (they make a 528 LED light and an awesome looking 628 LED lights) as well as picking up some of the super small AL-M9 for accent/highlight usage. I’m also looking at picking up one of the variable color versions of the AL-H198 (called the AL-H198C and available for about the same price) to give me some options for adding color to my environment.
When I’m done I’ll have several lights from Aputure in many sizes to ensure I’m able to accomplish more in my home studio or when on location creating videos for clients or doing interviews. As I add new lights to my kit I’ll be sure to share new reviews here on my blog.
If anyone has questions about my experience with the Aputure Amaran AL-H-198 LED light please leave them in the comments below or email me directly at: email@example.com
The Aputure AL-H198 is a great deal at $58.00 and can be purchased using the following links:
The batteries I recommend for the AL-H198 are made by DTSE and come in three sizes. The NP-F550 is the smallest, the NP-F750 are middle sized and the NP-F-970 are the largest batteries. All work great but the larger batteries will last longer. You can find the batteries at Amazon by using the following links:
- Get the DTSE NP-F550 batteries (2) with charger at Amazon.com here
- Get the DTSE NP-F750 batteries (2) with charger at Amazon.com here
- Get the DTSE NP-F970 batteries (2) with charger at Amazon.com here
The Atomos AC power adapter lets you power your Aputure Amaran light from a wall outlet instead of a battery (I’ve tested this out in my studio and it worked fine). It has a large power plug on one end and a Sony NP-F550 dummy battery that attaches to your light. You can find the Atomos AC adapter using the following links:
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