Review: Light and Motion SOLA 600 and iTorch Pro 3 focus lights

Review: Light and Motion SOLA 600P and iTorch Video Pro 3.

The use of torches to assist camera autofocus (AF) has been a favored technique for some time. The development and profusion of Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting has really changed the number and performance of available models. LEDs provide long battery burn times, high performance and durability. This in turn has allowed manufacturers to develop increasingly powerful and featured lights in ever decreasingly sized packages. In addition, the video capability of many SLRs has produced an additional demand for video light capability for use with them.

The purpose of this review is to test the relatively well-known Light and Motion SOLA 600 against the newer iTorch Pro 3. Both of these lights are designed as focus lights, although the iTorch is also marketed as a video light. Uniquely at present, they also both feature a red light mode which allows the torch to assist AF with minimum impact on subjects that may become skittish when a “white” light torch beam is shined on them.

Wetpixel Associate Editor Alex Mustard did a complete review of the SOLA 600 in August 2010, however the torch underwent a slight redesign in November 2010, and the version I was able to test incorporates these changes

The SOLA 600 is almost incredibly neat and compact. Constructed of resin/nylon with metal hardware, the “P” version (for photo) now features an integrated 1” ball attachment and tips the scales, complete with built- in Li-On battery, at 0.62lbs. (283g). This is a tad misleading, as you will need to carry it’s charger too (an additional 0.22lbs. (100g)) but it is still very light. The physical size is also minuscule, coming in at 2.24” (57mm) x 3.98” (101mm), although again, the true packed size needs to allow for the charger too. As mentioned above, the torch features an integral 2 cell Li-on battery which gives a potential burn time of up to 320 minutes and is recharged via an external plug-in port.

The output of the torch is rated at a maximum of 670 lumens, and in conversations with Amy Mack of Light and Motion at last year’s DEMA show, she revealed that these measurement are actually taken outside of the torch’s lens, rather than in terms of an LED output rating. The SOLA 600 has three levels of “white” light output, and in the updated torch supplied for the review, three levels of red output too. The red light levels are rated at 225, 110 and 55 lumens, again outside of the lens. These light levels are adjusted via an external magnetic slider switch-push once for level 1, twice for level 2 and so forth. White light is activated by pushing forwards, red backwards, and the torch is switched off by pushing and holding the switch. Lastly, the switch has a locking park positions to prevent inadvertent activation.

The SOLA 600 has three LED’s that give a visual display of the power setting, battery life remaining and charge status.

The internal battery means that it is not necessary in normal usage to disassemble the torch to recharge it. This will help maintain long term seal integrity, as each time an o ring seal is disturbed, the chances increase that it may not seal when the item is reassembled. The charging port is a simple two pin system, with an indexing pin to prevent the charging being incorrectly attached and reversing polarity.

The SOLA 600P sells for $579.00.

The iTorch Pro 3 is a newer light on the market, and as mentioned above, aims to do double duty by acting as a focus light and a video light. It is sturdily made of aluminum and is a more conventionally constructed torch. With a YS mount and 4 AA NiMh batteries, it weighs in at 1.54lbs. (700g) , and without batteries 1.26lbs. (570g). Size is also fairly compact; 5.3” (135mm) x 2.44” (62mm) at it’s widest.

It takes 4 AA cells via a battery carrier, which can give up to 10 hours of burn time depending on power level and battery choice. Although not as compact as the SOLA 600, it is nonetheless still very compact and lightweight.

Both the openings on the torch have double o rings seals to prevent leakage. The quality of construction is excellent.

Output is measured at 650 lumens at full power via a CREE MC-E LED. The iTorch features four levels of “white” light output: Full, three-quarters, half and quarter, and a single red output. These are adjusted via pushes of a single tactile push button on the rear of the torch. “Long” pushes switch the torch on and off, short pushes toggle between the light outputs/modes.

The iTorch Pro 3 sells for $350.00.

I have conducted an ad hoc experiment on each lights output. Simply, each torch was mounted on a Gorilla Pod and pointed at my kitchen wall. The camera was set at 1\50/f4 using a 12-24mm wide-angle lens. I then took pictures of each light’s power level:

SOLA 600 white light test.

iTorch Pro 3 white light test.

In the white light comparison, what is particularly marked is the “tight” 80° beam of the iTorch. When using the torch with wide lenses for video, the light falls off very fast outside of the beam. The SOLA, by contrast has a much more diffuse beam, with less clearly defined edges.

SOLA 600 red light test.

iTorch Pro 3 red light test.

The SOLA has both more power and a more even spread beam in all it’s red modes. This should be balanced with the fact that the red mode does not need to be very powerful to assist AF, and the hotspot visible in the iTorch test does not appear in images.

So which one is better?

The question is a vexed one as it depends on the user’s intended function for the light, preference and budget. The batteries that the models have used both have pros and cons. The use of an internal rechargeable makes the unit very compact and with external charging, less prone to o ring seal failure. However, it places reliance on the continued function of the batteries and internal electronics as well as that of the charger. There have been reports of problems associated with power fluctuations and the chargers Light and Motion are using. The iTorch uses standard or rechargeable AA batteries which underwater photographers often have anyway, and can be charged with any battery charger. The downside here is the increased risk of flooding due to inadvertently dislodging the o rings when changing batteries.

In both cases “empty” torch weight is a poor comparison point. The SOLA needs it’s charger, and the iTorch needs 4 AA batteries.

The SOLA 600 is amazingly neat and compact, in part as it uses a resin body. I haven’t seen the internals, but would imagine that there is some fantastic engineering involved. The iTorch is beautifully made out of aluminum which inevitably increases it’s size and weight. It has more heft in the hand if you plan to also use it as a dive light. That said, in terms of output and power, either of these will do the job for blue-water diving.

The iTorch’s attachment is a plastic YS mount that will only fit on the switch section of the torch. The fact that the mount is limited to one position makes it more secure, but does limit the position of the torch within the camera/arm system. A YS mount to ball adaptor (pictured is one by iTorch) is needed to attach the torch to the housing/arm system. Although functional, YS mounts can shift if not tightened enough, and a ball should provide sufficient articulation without needing the additional adjustment of the YS. The focus light is supplied with a lanyard which loops through a slot near the switch

The SOLA 600 is supplied a neat integrated 1” ball that can be removed with a supplied Allen key. In reality, I can see little reason to do this. The ball attachment also has a small d ring for the attachment of a lanyard if required.

The iTorch produces a more focused light in it’s white mode, which may suit macro SLR video shooters. I found that when using wide-angle lenses, the fall-off was too abrupt. Conversely, the SOLA has a very soft diffuse beam, with almost no edges and is hence more suited to wide-angle.

The availability of red light modes on both these torches is a huge plus. When using them as focus lights, there is no doubt in my mind that this minimizes (not eliminates) reaction from subjects to light. I conducted some (more) ad hoc testing on this, by starting off shining red light onto subjects and then switching to white. Different creatures showed different degrees of perception of the red, but they all showed a marked reaction to the white. Red light is the macro shooters friend!

Lastly price: The iTorch retails at $229.00 less than the SOLA 600P. This is not a complete story, as you will still need to purchase a YS adaptor and AA batteries/charger. However, if your decision is based primarily around economics, this is still a powerful argument. I think that both torches provide excellent value in their own rights: The SOLA 600P is a statement radical design that is amazingly compact, functional and attractive. Many retailers state that the best way to sell these lights is to let people hold them in their hands. The iTorch Pro 3 does not have the same tactile appeal but is a far more conventional design that is likely to provide good service and function at a significantly reduced cost.

The SOLA 600P was supplied for the review via Stephen Mawle of Light and Motion UK. The iTorch Pro 3 was supplied by iTorch. Many thanks to both suppliers for providing their products for this review.