This may not be the most ideal lighting kit for the airborne shooter, but the Litepanels Sola 4 Traveler Kit™ definitely packs a healthy punch for its size, weight and power consumption.
Rather than rehashing all the specs for this kit, you can read them on the Litepanels website here. Okay, I’ll make it easy for you. Here they are for your perusal (lifted directly from said site):
When I reviewed the Sola ENG Flight Kit™ back in October 2012, I was really excited about it. It was such a great little travel kit — albeit, with some drawbacks; the biggest being that a Sola ENG unit was not bright enough to act as a key light the way I like to light people’s faces. You can read the whole article here. Aside from that, I loved how compact and controllable they were and how easy it was to use them for backlight, fill and accent lighting not only in an interview scenario, but along side much bigger guns for other types of shooting.
I received the Sola 4 Traveler Kit to try out on a few shoots that I had lined up over the last few weeks. I was enthused to put the ENG’s brighter and physically-bigger brother to good use. My first impression of the kit as it arrived was that the roller case was bigger than I had expected. Not a major concern, I’ve lugged around large cases before. The units and accessories are packed really nicely in the custom case — I really liked that about it. I was happy to see a precut space for a 1×1 panel, which was my biggest wish with the ENG Flight Kit. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a 1×1 panel on hand to use with my testing so that empty spot was just mocking me the whole time.
My next concern was that the Sola 4 Traveler Kit weighs 62 lbs. I figure if it were possible to come under 50 lbs., Litepanels would have made it so; but I lament, for flying reasons, that this kit falls into the oversized and overweight category on most or all airlines. I usually fly with Delta and, depending on the mood and experience of the representative you get, for a U.S. domestic flight it can cost you anywhere from $0 (love it) up to $335 (hate it) each way! Most of the time, they only ding me for the overweight charge but there was one time it seemed like the representative was having a bad day or something and charged me for the second bag fee ($35), the overweight fee ($100) and the oversized fee ($200). It was ridiculous. I usually try to convince them to give me the “media rate” (a flat $50) but most of the time they don’t go for it because I’m not with a television network or whatnot. Anyway, I digress.
Holding the Sola 4 unit in my hand, it was nice to be handling a light that felt like a light. The Sola ENGs were so little, but this was much more comfortable to handle. The first thing I noticed after powering one up was that the brightness level was a bit brighter than I was expecting. The second thing I noticed was that the focusing mechanism was servo driven — which I didn’t expect and, frankly, I was perplexed about for days until I realized that these units are DMX controllable so the controls have to be motorized. Duh! I are smart. I wondered how the focus could be controlled if the motor ever went out, and I was relieved to know there is a manual override on the side of unit that you can access with a Phillips-head screwdriver.
The first two shoots I took them onto were ones that already had a decent lighting package. When you have units like an Arri M18, Joker 1600s, 800s, 400s, KinoFlo 4’ 4-banks and Divas, you’re gonna use them. But there’s a time and place for everything, and I definitely found uses for the Sola 4s throughout those two shoots. As you can imagine, a unit with the equivalent of a 125w HMI becomes more of an accent light on shoots like these. Below are some behind-the-scenes shots and diagrams along with their corresponding (semi-)final images. You can click on the images to enlarge them.
The two shoots I had after those mostly consisted of talking-head interviews and made the Sola 4 Traveler Kit feel more at home. These lights were — for the most part — perfect for these shoots. In most of these scenarios, you’ll see a pretty standard approach to the lighting. Diffused three-quarter key light, a backlight/hairlight on the opposite side and perhaps a touch of fill.
Now, here is where my beef with the kit comes into play. Like the Sola ENG Flight Kit, I still found that using one of these lights as a key fell short — at least with the style of lighting I was doing. Having a soft key is crucial for my typical setups. So having a stronger unit than the Sola ENG was exciting to me knowing that I would be diffusing it. But in almost every lighting setup I did, I found it still wasn’t quite enough power for comfort. But, like a good DP should, I made the best of it by adjusting the background, the other lights, aperture, ISO, etc. In one instance, I ended up firing two Sola 4s side by side through my sheet of 400 diffusion to get enough stop for my key. You’ll see that setup in the photos below.
For all these shoots, I used the Canon C100 which has an “optimal” ISO of 850, which I didn’t stray from much at all. I also shot all of these between an f2 and f2.8 — mostly the latter. I know that I can push the C100 comfortably to 3200 without atrocious noise but I like to stay at 850 unless I absolutely have to push it. But for many interview setups using daylight balanced units, you’re probably going to be using a bit of daylight from windows, thus, the need to compete and balance with it. That’s a challenging task when using smaller lights like these.
Like the series above, here are some behind-the-scenes shots and diagrams along with their corresponding (semi-)final images. Click on an image to enlarge.
I should note that the last shoot I went on required a flight to Seattle. It cost $175 to take the kit on the round trip. Delta charged $25 for the first bag and then $100 because it was overweight (gratefully, they didn’t ding me for oversized). They didn’t go for my “media badge” on the way out, but on my way back, the representative in Seattle did. So it only cost a flat $50.
I like the Sola 4s a lot. But they have their quirks, I’m not going to lie. The servo-powered focus is a bit disconcerting even though they didn’t let me down, but I can see how that feature would be a life-saver in a studio setup. I’m also not used to using lights with fans in them, like the Sola ENGs, but I can see the need for that as well. The fans are quiet and never became an issue, by the way. I did like the light quality and the control I was able to have, nevertheless. The size and weight of the roller case and the homogenous nature of the kit (three Sola 4s) makes this kit not the most ideal dream kit for my purposes, but a good kit for sure for certain situations.
What would be an ideal kit you ask? Well, dream a little with me if you will…
Rod’s Ideal Traveling Interview Litepanels Lighting Kit:
I have no idea if this is even possible, but I submit that to the world (ahem… Litepanels) as an ideal traveling (flying) interview lighting kit.
The Sola 4 Traveler Kit is a good solid kit that is package up neatly in an easy to repack case. Even the agency guys that helped me wrap up knew exactly where things needed to go. There was no fumbling with cords awkwardly wrapped around the head unit. Lights go here. Cords go here. Stands go here. Done. If you’re looking for a kit that can go from location to location easily using ground transportation, this kit is great. I can’t recommend it so much if you fly a lot and have to sport the bill for the baggage fees (no big deal if it is a covered expense by the production!). Bottom line: the Sola 4 Traveler Kit a great small-unit lighting kit.