Lowel GL1: A Versatile Handheld Light for Weddings and more

In Gear by Aaron Grubb

I’d like to let you in on a little secret…But first, let’s talk about what led to my discovery. Technology has somewhat recently produced cameras that have given us the ability to take pictures in very low light. About four years ago, I owned a Nikon D90 – I never wanted to push it beyond ISO 800. I just didn’t like the look of the images when pushed beyond ISO 800. Plus, a lot of noise started appearing in the pictures. I can say the same thing of a Canon 60D I owned a couple of years ago. Now, I have a Canon 6D and a 5D Mark III – both are capable of shooting beyond ISO 6400 while producing usable images. Now that I own these cameras, I shoot a lot more in low light.

Photo by Author using speedlights & shoot-through umbrella

Photo by Author using speedlights & shoot-through umbrella

One thing you’ll notice, though, is that while shooting at high ISOs is great for photojournalism, the photos don’t always ‘pop’, so to speak. If you’re shooting portraits in the evening or at night or speeches at a wedding, for example, you will often need an artificial light source to make them look awesome.

I’ve often used flashes with softboxes or umbrellas for portraits, and often use flashes on light stands (and one on camera) for certain parts of a reception, but sometimes, I just use a bounce flash. However, you will inevitably experience situations in which you don’t have time for light stands, softboxes, etc or a situation that’s not suited to one of those solutions. I believe I’ve found an excellent solution. It’s the Lowel GL1, a handheld LED light that was designed specifically for these situations and actually works great for other things, too, but we’ll get to that.

 

First Impressions & Features

When my friend Mark, who I sometimes work for (second-shooting at weddings, usually), first purchased one of these lights,

Product Shot from Lowel

Product Shot from Lowel

I honestly thought he was crazy.

The thing wasn’t cheap. It usually is priced at around $700 (but it often comes with a $100 rebate) and let’s be honest…it looks like a $50 power tool. It felt nice, though, but I wasn’t convinced yet. I had to see it in action for my mind to be swayed. We took it to a few weddings, and I started to see what the fuss was about. The first thing I noticed, as a second shooter, were the ¼” 20 and ⅜” screw mounts on the bottom. That meant that I could attach a Blackrapid fastener or a tripod plate to the bottom. Well, thanks to Blackrapid’s innovation, we can now do both.

Blackrapid 'Fastenr' on Manfrotto plate attached to the tripod mount of the GL1

Blackrapid ‘Fastenr' on Manfrotto plate attached to the tripod mount of the GL1

Why is this a big deal? Because I can hang the GL1 from my extra camera strap while I carry other stuff or while I’m taking pictures and have it at the ready…You know, just in case the DJ goes rogue and decides that we’re going to cut the cake early! I can just grab the light at my hip and go. This brings me to a few more features. When I grab the light in that moment, all I have to do next is pull the trigger – that’s right, it has a trigger. You can either lock it in place by pulling it all the way, then adjusting the back scrolling ‘intensity dial’, or you can adjust the brightness by how much you pull the trigger.

On the right side: Intensity Dial

On the right side: Intensity Dial

Personally, I like to lock it in and use the back and adjust the light output with the dial. Then, you won’t accidentally vary the output.

Once you have your light output locked in, you can focus the beam using the push-pull head on the unit. The GL1 also has a Fresnel lens that ensures an even spread of light in every position on the zoom range. Then, if you have the tripod handy, you can throw it on so that you can do something else.

When the light is on that long, you would expect it to get hot, but I was surprised to learn that it has a built-in cooling fan.

GL1 Case with accessories

GL1 Case with accessories

I’m ashamed to say that I found this out while I had the light near my ear and I thought it was a wasp and nearly slapped myself in the attempt to ward off the non-existent invader. The fan was so quiet that I hadn’t heard it until then.

Well, what else does it come with? It comes with the, quite necessary, removable, rechargeable battery that Lowel says lasts only an hour, but purportedly, lasts well beyond that. It also comes with the battery charger and AC power adapter.

If you feel so inclined, you can also purchase the Pelican-like carry case, a daylight-balanced filter, barn doors, and more. There’s a handy feature I forgot to mention: the 82mm screw-in filter threads. Like I said, Lowel makes a daylight filter, but technically, you could screw any filter on for interesting effects. Mark also tells me they have excellent customer service. The battery “door” in the first generation of GL1s was known to come off, but they replaced Mark’s at no charge.

 

Why Did They Make This?

People used to have to rely on lights that used halogen or incandescent bulbs, which use a lot more power, vary in color at different temperatures and over time, and get pretty hot. While these lights have their place (for now), they’re not very versatile. Lowel attempted to make a portable light that met photographers’ needs when they produced the ID Light with a lead-acid battery pack, but it was heavy and awkward to carry around and still suffered from the problems listed above. Wedding photographer John Solano saw these flaws and saw the need for something better, so he developed the GL1. Another thing to note is that with constant lighting like this, ‘what you see is what you get’ – with a flash, you can’t see what the image looks like until you look at your LCD screen.

 

When to Use It

Photo by Mark VanDonge Photography

Photo by Mark VanDonge Photography

Like I said, it can be used in a snap to add dynamics to portraits like this one shown of the bride with the bouquet.

We only had a minute before we had to move on to the next item on the itinerary, so we popped out the back door of the venue and took a few pictures and popped back in. The image turned out excellent for having no other lights set up and in spite of the fact that we were in almost total darkness.

Photo by Mark VanDonge Photography

Photo by Mark VanDonge Photography

Another time at a wedding that the GL1 can come in handy is during the first dances. Some people like to use flashes during this part of the night. While you can produce some great pictures this way, speedlights can be blinding, distracting, and can kill the mood. This image was backlit – when it gets pretty dark, backlighting can be an easy way to create some stunning images.

Photo by Mark VanDonge Photography

Photo by Mark VanDonge Photography

When the lighting is dim at the reception, your food and detail images can also feel lacking.

Have no fear! Use your GL1. Side lighting seems to work well to give these images some interest and ‘pop’. It also works quite well for lighting the dress.

Photo by Mark VanDonge Photography

Photo by Mark VanDonge Photography

So far, we haven’t mentioned landscape and real estate, but the GL1 can come in very handy for these, too. If you haven’t heard of light painting, you’ll want to know about it. It can produce some stunning images. You just need to set up your camera on a tripod and dial in a shutter speed of between ten to thirty seconds and ‘paint’ the scene, lingering longer on the spots that need more light – also consider where you light it from. Just like with portraits, the angle of light matters here, too. Try walking side to side while painting to try to fill in the shadows. Don’t forget to turn the lights on in the house, though. Alternatively, you could light the rooms separately and combine the layers in Photoshop later, but that could be a lot of work. Renowned real estate photographer Mike Kelley uses a GL1 in conjunction with speedlights and he does some pretty phenomenal work. This year I plan to also use this light in my video work, so I’ll let you know how that goes.

 

Drawbacks and Conclusion

Honestly, there aren’t many drawbacks, but the one thing that everyone will instantly notice is the price tag. At $700 ($600 with rebate), this light is inaccessible to many beginning photographers, so it might just be something you consider purchasing if you’re making a reasonable income from wedding or real estate photography already.

I also noted that the battery can slide out due to the faulty battery ‘door’. Lowel has fixed this issue in recent models, so it shouldn’t be an issue, but if you happen to get one of the older ones, give them a call and they’ll send you a new one or fix it for you.

Some people complain that it’s heavy. I don’t think it’s too heavy, really, but it’s something to consider if you’re already carrying a heavy camera and/or bag.

Obviously, the GL1 can’t compete with the power output of strobes, speedlights, or halogen lights that plug into the wall, but as we’ve discussed, this is a light you use in specific circumstances, just like you wouldn’t use your speedlights in every circumstance. Each piece of gear has its place and where the GL1 shines (pun intended) is low-light photography.


About the Author

Aaron Grubb

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Aaron is a wedding, portrait, real estate, and landscape photographer from Eastern Washington. You can find his work at his website or at his Facebook Page