NITSAN SIMANTOV. PHOTOGRAPHER. FILMMAKER.

East Grinstead photographer and filmmaker Nitsan Simantov. Wedding photography and commercial video production in London and West Sussex.

Aputure AL-H198 Review - The (new) best compact LED panel ever

I just got the fourth Aputure AL-H160 LED (to complete my LED travel kit) in the mail together with the Aputure Al-H198 LED light which I just got so that I could review it, although now that I've seen it, I'll be selling my 160 kit and getting three more 198 units.

I mention Yongnuo several times in this article because there isn't much else worth considering in the lower price range, and frankly for small lights I wouldn't spend the large sums that some other manufacturers ask.

I recently posted this video showing the H160 in action. I briefly explained why I like it so much, more than all my previous panels. Notice the Yongnuo's clearly green color cast in the video.

It was sort of ironic to get the last part of my H160 LED light kit and 30 seconds later learn that the H198 is even better. 

The H198 is very similar but with some great improvements while only costing £10 more. It's the same size as the H160 but has more LEDs crammed into it, just like Aputure's 528 and 672 units which also use the same housing as each other.

Pros:

  • Compact, more so than the small Yongnuos which are a strange shape and always have the stand sticking out of the bottom.
  • Lightweight, 480g on its own, or about 1100g with the case, ball head, 12 Eneloop AAs (6 needed per use) and AC adapter. For comparison, a H672 light is about 3KG with the case, x4 NP-f batteries (2 needed per use) and AC adapter, etc.
  • Bright. lots of light for your money. I measured just under 1000 LUX at 1m.
  • Great battery life. It runs completely cool, unlike some other LEDs like the yongnuo YN600 which waste precious energy by producing heat, and then sometimes wasting more by adding a fan to try to dissipate that heat. I got well over an hour at full power with the H198 using x6 Contour/Eneloop AAs [LINK].
  • Superb color quality, 95+ CRI rating, noticeably better color than most other LEDs. No color shifts that I can see.
  • Rugged. I had a look inside, very thick internal wires which inspired me to put one of my 160s through a rough torture testing. I've not done this yet, I'll film it when I have time. For this reason I would choose these over the larger Aputures which are more fragile.
  • Much better customer service than Yongnuo, by a long shot.
  • Multiple units can be combined into a single larger panel, as big as you want.
  • No fan noise, so four of these are much better than a single YN600.
  • Great price, which means it's much easier to start off your kit, and easier to expand it when needed, and very easy to upgrade. Since you get a lot of "LUX-per-dollar", no matter how many you add, it's always a good investment, it's basically an infinitely upgradable light. With the AA battery adapters you can also easily connect all of them together so you don't need multiple power plugs, it would just be one power cable that splits up to power all the lights together. I will show this once it arrives in the mail. You just need a single one of these adapters [LINK] per light, and an AC adapter suitable for powering the number of lights you want to use. 
  • Included ball head and case.
  • Much better battery door. It's on a hinge so can't get lost, unlike the Yongnuo ones which are very likely to get lost or stepped on.

Here's a photo of my cat that I shot with the Aputure behind the big RoundFlash ring light [LINK]. The camera is the Sony A7S at 5500K white balance with no green/magenta shift.

Cons:

  • No direct 1/4" screw built into the unit. You rely on the mini hot shoe adapter that comes with the light. You can see it in the image above, between the ball head and the light unit. This same adapter is also the connector that allows you to connect multiple units together. So far this has not been an issue but direct 1/4" connectors would have been nice. You can use any other hot shoe connector you want so it shouldn't be a big issue.
  • No on/off switch. The light turns off when you turn the dimmer all the way down until it clicks. Personally I will be adding switches to my units, but you really don't have to. I hope this is fixed in future versions, because this makes it easier to keep to the same exposure after you turn the light off and on.
  • No direct power connection for an AC adapter. This is not at all a problem. I will show you how to make one without any modification to the light. All you need is a single AA battery adapter [LINK] and a 9V 2.5A power supply [LINK], the cost is about £5 per light and it's nice and compact. I'm waiting for these to be delivered.
  • No remote. This is a shame because Aputure's remote system on the 672 lights is absolutely awesome. My favorite remote system on any light because it's so simple to use, yet still very versatile in the lighting setups it allows you to control. I really hope Aputure add this to the future versions of these lights. The mistake was assuming people will only use these as on-camera lights, which is a big under-estimation of this product's usability. 
  • Not quite as bright as Yongnuo's offerings, but while Aputure's larger units are seriously lagging behind in this department, their smaller lights are actually not very far off. Plenty of LUX-per-dollar, far more than their larger brothers, the 528 and 672.
  • There's some flex between the units when connecting them together, which makes you wonder how strong the connection between them is. This is not a big issue because if you plan to use them mostly as individual units with the occasional use as one larger unit then just be gentle with it, I don't think general use will break it. If you plan to use them mostly as a single larger unit, then connect them together as usual, but then wrap some black gaffers tape around the outer edge of the large unit. This squeezes them together and gives you a really nice sturdy unit. It took me about a minute to do and doesn't get in the way at all. Use quality tape to prevent leaving glue residue on the lights.

The case:

The H198 comes with an awesome little case.

Unlike the larger Aputure 528 and 672 units which are surprisingly bulky and surprisingly slow to set up with their many parts and multi-pocket case, the 198's case is very compact and allows for very quick setup of the light.

  • It is extremely protective with well-padded semi-stiff  walls. It has a movable padded separator with the perfect amount of space for the 9V power supply and a pocket which will perfectly hold 12 rechargeable AA batteries (this light takes 6 at a time), or 24 if you don't mind half of them sticking out of the pocket, plus another 6 AAs inside the light itself and another 10 comfortably under the light. As I mentioned in my video above I'm switching to AAs because the Sony-fit batteries keep breaking on me. I hold 2, 4 or 6 of them together with strips of gaffers tape which makes it really easy to keep them organized and avoid losing any.
  • It has a nice carrying handle (unlike the very annoying one of the larger units) and a loop connecting the two zips which is nice. It also has a hanging loop and a wide belt loop, both of which are at the back of the case so aren't visible in the photo above. Unfortunately it does not come with a shoulder strap which I think would be nice because Aputure make lovely quality shoulder straps. Luckily it's a piece of cake to add a shoulder strap, just clip it to the handle, belt clip or hanging loop - or maybe add your own connections if you really want. It's as easy as cutting two small holes and adding a piece of string.
  • Another feature that would be awesome on this case would be the ability to connect multiple cases together, since many people will be using more than one of these lights. This should be easy to DIY though. You could make little holes in the cases and use some string or clips to connect them together, or maybe add Velcro to the sides of the bags. Personally I will be doing this with some string.
  • It will fit Sony NP-f batteries if you prefer those over AAs, but without an AC adapter in the bag. Either one large 6800mah battery or two medium sized 4600mah batteries. I'm not sure about the really small ones, I would guess four.

Normally I don't pay this much attention to the carry cases manufacturers include with products, but this one is just exceptionally good, especially considering the price of the light. I look forward to including it in the "torture test" of the H160 unit I plan to destroy, oh, and I will also destroy the Yongnuo YN300 as a comparison!

The ball head stand:

The H198 comes with a really great mini ball head, this is not the case with the H160 which comes with a plastic piece of crap that's just about good enough for holding the light in place, if you're careful with it.

Once again I find myself amazed at how much quality stuff Aputure are giving us with these lights. This is hands down the best mini ball head I have seen, which is awesome to find because I'm tired of all my other ones. This doesn't unscrew from itself in the center like some of my other ones, it's way nicer to set up and use than the stand connectors that come with the larger aperture units.  It's easily strong enough to hold up my cameras so I will be ordering more of these for my tiny RatRig travel slider (review coming soon) and my Gorillapod shoulder rig [LINK]. I do have many normal ball heads but they are often too heavy for my uses. The thumbs screw on it is a bit too small but I'll just add some tape or something to make it a bit nicer.
It comes with the more common type of 1/4" adapter at the bottom, which sticks out a little. That will still work but it's not ideal, so best to pick up one that doesn't have the raised edge.

My previous "good" mini ball head wasn't actually very good, just better than the others I had. Shown on the Rat Rig slider.

Conclusion:

Aputure somehow took a product that was already superb (the H160) and made it that much better. It is hands down the best LED panel I know of. It kicks the butts of all the other panels I've seen on the market for two reasons, first of all it's a great light with great accessories for a great price, add to that the ability to connect multiple units together and what you get is a light that is great no matter what your budget is or what size LED panel you want.

I'm sure some of you will ask if it's better than the Pixapro and the answer is very simple, it's not even close. But they are different tools for different uses. The Aputure is a super compact system and it's super cheap, the Pixapro is pretty large in comparison, about x3 the weight, about x15 the brightness and about x10 the price. A good thing to note is that both give a similar "LUX-per-dollar", which is great but it wouldn't make much sense to use thirty Aputures instead of three Pixapros. 

Value for money: Excellent.
LUX-per-dollar: Excelent.
Color quality: Perfect. Much better than most LEDs.
Accessories: Awesome, but no remote.
Portability: 8/10.
What it's missing: A 50cm softbox attachment which is fast to set up, super-lightweight and doesn't have much light loss. This is not a complaint, just a product request. I would also love a super lightweight version of the light, something that's 150g and just takes AAs and has a single 1/4" connector, and I know it's possible because I've opened this light up, just like most other lights the box weighs a lot more than the actual parts needed to make light. Lets add a light stand to this wish list, it should weigh no more than 400g and go to 1.8m. (Similar to the 200g Lollipod, but larger.) I think these products would sell like hotcakes, I hope you're taking notes Aputure!
Should you buy it? If you need a super portable LED kit, absolutely. If you really don't care about the case and ball head, or the slight brightness increase, you can also go for the H160 which will save you about £10 per unit. You can also order from china rather than locally to save a bit more.
Which version should you buy? Strictly only the 5500K (daylight color) version. The "C" (dual color) version is half as bright while costing a little more, just like all other color changing lights that I know of. If you ever want your light to be 3200K (tungsten color) just use the orange gel that's included with the 5500K version. If you plan to use one on top of you camera for live events where tungsten lighting is used then the C version might be useful, although personally I do not use lighting for live events, and if I do I won't have it on my camera. Remember to get the AL-H198, not the older AL-198.

Product links:

eBay UK link

eBay USA link

Amazon UK link

Amazon USA link

Here's a lighting tutorial you will probably enjoy, which also explains why I love working with continuous lighting for stills work, not only video.

 

Update 1: Adding the power adapter

(Warning: Do this at your own risk! Incorrect use of electric products can be very dangerous.)

This is pretty simple and cheap, but it did take quite a bit of time for all the parts to arrive from china. You can get local parts too but it will usually cost a bit more.

The parts you need for each adapter:

  • One 9.5v 2.5A AC adapter (About £3-4). This is the actual power plug that goes to the wall. 
  • Two AA-to-AAA battery adapters (about £1 for a pack of 10). These two connect to the light without needing to modify the light.
  • One 5.5mm x 2.1mm plug connector (About £1 for a pack of 10). This is the usual standard size, but double check that your AC adapter has this connector.
  • Knife and tape.
Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 10.36.29.jpg

Steps to making the adapter:
Warning: Don't do this if you don't know how to be safe with electricity. 

  1. Carefully make a hole in the battery adapters using a knife or drill.
  2. Strip the plastic coating from the cable ends on the female side of the 5.5mm connector.
  3. Insert the cable ends into the battery adapters in a way that you get a good connection with the metal part. You may want to use tape to make sure that there's a good connection. Warning: This is technically the wrong way to do it, you should be using a soldering iron, not tape. Frankly I just couldn't be bothered and I didn't have any issue with this method so far.