The year 1961 brought the world the very first light emitting diode – what we now commonly call the LED. While a LED outputs light, it is not a traditional “light bulb”, but rather an electronic component which generates when voltage passes through.
In the 50+ years since that first LED, technology has brought these tiny little “lightbulbs” a long way, to the point of breaking into the stage lighting industry in the last 10 years.
Today, this trendy light source has everyone talking. Some people love LED’s. Other people despise them, and nearly everybody is confused about the differences between different types of LED’s and LED fixtures.
While LED’s don’t generate a lot of infrared heat or heat which is in the light beam, LED’s do generate a lot of heat in the process of creating the light which needs to be whisked away from the diode itself.
There’s a smorgasbord of options on the market today, and the variety keeps growing as time moves forward.
Below, I want to explain to you all of the different types of LED fixtures, their best uses, and how you can use cheaper fixtures to your advantage without sacrificing quality.
5mm and 10mm LED’s – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The first types of LED’s to hit the stage lighting market were a big version of the little diodes that light up the power buttons and “on” lights in consumer electronics.
Featuring neat rows and rows of red, green and blue LED’s, early fixtures like these were fairly inexpensive. Some brands chose to put the LED’s in rows that matched by color, resulting in an uneven beam, while others put the emitters in seemingly random patterns that put out a much more even light!
I remember pretty clearly the first time I saw some of these in action.
They didn’t look very good, the light output was horrible, but they didn’t suck up much power or heat up, so they got an in with DJ’s and party companies.
If you pointed a camera at them, they’d flicker like mad on screen, so this made them impractical for many productions. They also were limited in the number of colors they could mix – you’d be lucky to get 8 visibly different hues!
Still, these fixtures were a step in the right direction and are still available through some manufacturers today.
Because you can see the individual diodes, I wouldn’t recommend using these for backlighting or anywhere that the audience can see the physical light source. And, depending on the quality of the emitters, you may have trouble mixing colors such as yellow, purple, and anything super-specific.
However, these fixtures are still totally good for party uplighting, indoor architectural lighting, and stage/set lighting in venues where you don’t have cameras. If you’re looking for specific fixtures, I’d suggest the Chauvet Slimpar 56 and Slimpar 64.
These units are inexpensive and look pretty good too – as long as you don’t point them at human skin! The good news is that the hey-day of these fixtures is pretty much gone, and the industry has moved on to build inexpensive versions of much high-quality LED fixtures.
1W and Larger LED’s – Moving Up In the World
Back in 2006 or 2007, the production company I worked for made their first major investment in the Coemar Parlite – buying at least 60 of these fixtures over the next year or two. These fixtures were bright, colorful and simple to set up.
Most importantly, they looked a ton more professional than the 5mm/10mm LED of the previous generation. We moved into a new age of LED with these, as the Parlite featured 36 x 1w LED’s in a nice, uniform pattern.
1w to 3w “non-homogenized” LED fixtures can also give you a lot of bang for your buck in the setting where the light source can’t be seen by the audience.
As you can see in the picture to the right, the individual diodes are still visible, but they’re a lot less ugly than the 5mm/10mm LED’s, and usually make up a consistent pattern!
Good quality units will also be flicker free for video and put out a nice beam which can mix many colors. You will still see multi-colored shadows on anything you point the light at because the beam is made up of many different tiny beams of different colored light.
Today, however, there aren’t really many of these units on the market – we’ve made way for our younger, brighter and better-looking homogenized LED’s!
Tri, Quad and Hex – Homogenized LED’s – Now We’re Talking!
While the 1w single LED’s were a huge step forward for the lighting industry, manufacturers and engineers were sitting in their labs working on lense technology for the next big thing. You see, a lot of lighting designers weren’t happy with seeing the individual colors in the fixture or the multi-colored shadows.
Then came the introduction of the homogenized LED, originally known as the “tri” color LED.
Fixtures with a tri-colored LED have a nice, smooth output and only show the mixed color on the lens of the fixture. This means that even the most particular designers could now enjoy using LED’s in their lighting designs.
Though Tri-LED’s were the original, we now have quad (RGBA or W) and even hex (RGBAW+UV) LED’s that will knock your socks off with the color combinations they can mix…and I’m sure we’ll just keep moving forward as time moves on!
These homogenized LED’s are the standard, and so they’re great for pretty much any application you can think of. There’s a ton of units out there right now, but some of my favorites are the Chauvet Slimpar and ADJ Hex Par series.
COB – Chip On Board – The Best is Yet To Come!
And if you didn’t think it could get any better – here it is!
Just a year or 2 ago, I began to hear about “Chip on Board” LED’s and was instantly intrigued. These new lighting fixtures promised superior brightness and power in a tiny chip, allowing for brighter LED fixtures than ever before.
Today, the chip on board, or COB LED has become very popular and is featured in new LED fixtures such as the Chauvet CorePar.
Just like the homogenized LED’s above, these fixtures bridge the gap between designer’s imaginations and the capabilities of technology. Able to mix many colors, today’s new LED’s are not only inexpensive but also versatile.
Whether you find yourself in need of some cheap LED’s to color a space or want the performance and brightness of COB LED’s, LED lights are a great way to go. I truly hope that this guide has been helpful to you and that you continue to keep learning about lighting and making amazing shows!