A lot has changed since our original article about finding the perfect flex light. We have a lot to talk about. But in some ways, things haven’t changed at all.
We still believe the Soonwell FB-21 Flex Light is the best all-around flex light for most video producers, especially after going on the road (and lots of flights) bringing along flex lights for documentary and corporate productions.
When we first reviewed the Soonwell flex light, we were using an older 18x24 model. Since then, we’ve been able to use Soonwell’s flagship FB-21 2x1 light, the one we ended up recommending in our article, so now we have plenty of first-hand experience with the light.
So where do flex lights stand today? How does the average videographer decide what to invest in? Are flex lights still the best choice for portable and nimble video production?
Come along and let’s find out.
Soonwell FB-21 Bi-Color Flex Light Specs
The Soonwell FB-21 is a 24x12 bi-color LED panel that’s 1/4-inch thick and soft enough to roll up. The color is variable from 3000-5600K, it has a CRI rating of 95-98, you can adjust the dimness from 0-100%, and of course you can program it with a wireless remote control or via DMX.
The FB-21 is a rain-proof LED mat that can sustain rain if you ever need to shoot in poor conditions. In addition to the control unit, it has a universal AC adapter and can also be powered by V-mount batteries.
The beam angle can go up to 360 degrees, since the light can be rolled into a cylinder. The output or photometrics are 340 foot candles, or up to 3660 lux at 1 meter, from a total of 504 LEDs on the mat. The maximum power consumption is 100 watts.
As a quick comparison, the Westcott 1x1 Daylight Mat and the Aputure Amaran 672W - both workhorse lights that we’ve used and recommended - are around 2000 lux at 1 meter, with around 45-55 watts of power consumption.
And our original flex light purchase, the Soonwell SW-18T daylight-only 18x24 mat, maxes out at 2500 lux at 1 meter, using 504 LEDs consuming 62W of power.
So despite its smaller size, the Soonwell FB-21 has more power and output with the same number of LEDs as their older 18x24-inch flex light, and now you have the full range of color temperature instead of just daylight.
Included in the FB-21 package is the light mat, the dimmer controller, an AC adapter, a softbox kit and a light stand mount, and a really nice carrying case.
Improvements Over Soonwell's Previous Flex Light
First, the mat itself is built tougher, so it feels more durable and long-lasting than the older flex lights. The LED chips themselves have been upgraded, so the output and CRI color accuracy is better.
And on the back of the mat there are the not only slots for the light stand adapter, but also velcro tabs to make it easier to attach the light to a wall, ceiling, or DIY frame. So if you wanted to hang it from the top of a car’s roof liner, now it’s easier than ever.
The back of the mat also has rings so you can hang it from nails, light stands, or just about anything it can fit around. This may seem like a little detail, but it makes the light incredibly versatile. You can use any piece of string, zip tie, or our favorite rubber gear ties to hang the light from just about any object.
Here's a reviewer showing how he suspends a Soonwell flex light from the ceiling:
The other major improvement is the dimmer controller. The original adapter for the 18x24 flex light was an off-the-shelf adapter that several other light manufacturers used. But the new controller is a proprietary box that looks and feels more professional, durable, and well built.
During our rounds at NAB, we noticed that the other flex light manufacturers were still using the old off-the-shelf dimmer box, along with light mats that changed sizes but weren’t otherwise different from the first iterations. Soonwell stood out as a company that is pushing to make affordable flex lights better all around with a number of improved features.
We’re also pleased to see that the original light stand x-frame has been redesigned as more foldable and portable frames. The original frames were long and difficult to pack in small carry cases, while the new x-frame packs down to a small size.
Apart from the addition of the much improved case, the FB-21 also has changed their soft box so that it remains as a solid square that you can fit easily over the flex light. The older version was slightly more difficult to figure out when installing.
The one missing piece from the new package is the honeycomb grid that could be velcro’d over the softbox. But in our opinion it wasn’t that essential to a flex light anyway, as the output wasn’t strong enough to warrant a grid that limited light spill. We never used the grid on our original Soonwell flex lights, so we don’t miss them in this updated package.
Overall, the big improvements to the new light are output, quality of the mat, more portable mounting hardware, a much better dimmer control, and a great carrying case to boot.
We did really like the small footprint of the dimmer controller that came with the Soonwell RX-18T, the daylight-only flex light. It was about the size of a 160wh V-mount battery. But it’s an understandable trade-off when we move up to more powerful, bi-color lights that need more hardware.
Flex Lights Today
In our original article on the flex light landscape, we illustrated how flex lights have largely moved away from innovating for more portability, and instead their accessories have made them bigger, bulkier, and closer to traditional panel lights.
In a way, flex lights are being marketed as lightweight and modular for transportation and building up large walls of lights, rather than as simple units meant for the solo videographer looking to travel light.
Since that article, Westcott has introduced their next gen flex lights, which now have full RGB control and are overall better lights all around. But the dimmer control and AC adapter, the required battery power, and the softbox units have all increased greatly in size, weight, and significantly cost.
A Westcott Flex Cine RGBW 1x2 mat is now $1500, but it also requires a seperate $800 dimmer control, a $300 AC adapter for the dimmer, a minimum $380 26V V-mount battery, a $150 battery charger, and another $140 for a softbox and frame, not including a $90 eggcrate grid. So we’re talking $2600 just to turn on the light, and a total of $3360 to soften it up and run it off a battery.
And that’s all for a 2x1 light that offers 3500 lux at 1 meter, about the same as the Soonwell FB-21 which costs about 85% less.
As much as we believe RGB will eventually become the norm for LED lights, at this time we’re still perfectly satisfied with daylight, tungsten, or a fluorescent color temperature somewhere in the middle for 99% of our needs.
Outside of Westcott, other flex light manufacturers are continuing to market large walls of lights that can utilize flex lights as their core pieces, along with hard shells that flex lights can fit into for more traditional paneling.
So it seems like our dream of light and portable flex lights has quickly reversed into an industry that’s dead-set on pushing bigger, bulkier, more sophisticated and way more expensive solutions, for customers who aren’t exactly the solo or small crew video producer that originally was excited about flex lights in the first place.
In our sweep of NAB, we did see a couple flex lights that featured a simple Sony NP battery plate on the back, which is what we’ve always wanted with flex lights. But of course there’s a limit to how much light you can power with one or two little NP or L-series batteries, and for our buck we really prefer the 1x2 or larger flex lights as an alternative to the wide range of cheap 1x1 LED panels out there already.
Soonwell vs. Other Flex Light Manufacturers
When affordable flex lights first started to appear on the marketplace, we had to choose between an assortment of companies that offered similar products. Samtian, Andoer, Falcon Eyes, Kamarar, Eachshot, Travor, Brightcast, Fositan, and Neewer were all selling similar lights on Amazon.
But since then, Soonwell has risen above the crowd and began to develop and innovate in a way that deserves a closer look.
Are they looking to develop the Soonwell brand into a unique lighting company, sort of like Aputure did a few years ago? Or are they taking better off-the-shelf parts and combining them into slightly better versions of the marketplace flex lights that sell under different names?
It’s hard to tell right now, because ShenZen Manufacturing has a much different approach to patents and product innovation than we’re used to in the West. But from the looks of it, Soonwell seems to be making an aggressive push towards distinguishing themselves from the sea of copycat lighting manufacturers.
It’s not often that we can predict any kind of trend or sea change in the filmmaking gear industry, but we’ve been to enough NABs to see a few up-and-coming companies rise above the crowd and become unique innovators in their space.
The main thing Soonwell is lacking right now is the marketing and social user base that made Aputure so succesful. It would take a considerable Western force to make Soonwell a household brand - someone like Ted Sims to connect with thousands of filmmakers face to face.
Until then, in our opinion Soonwell continues to be a diamond in the rough, and that means you can still get amazing value for your purchases, but you’ll still have to deal with ShenZen Manufacturers if you have support issues.
Here's Gerald Undone's review of the Soonwell FB-21 - he has a lot of great points that may help round out your decision about this light.
How do you choose which flex light?
Finally, we get to the most important decision when shopping for a flex light: which one do you choose? The gamut of portability vs. power is much wider with flex lights than with any other light out there right now. You really have to decide if you need absolute portability or if you want modular power and options on set.
That’s the beauty of affordable flex lights today - you don’t have to just buy the one key light you lug around for your interviews, photo shoots, event productions, music videos, and so on. You can pick and choose what you think you need, based on the production demands.
Originally the Westcott 1x1 flex light was the be all, end all light that we all sought out for our portable light kit. But then Westcott introduced their 1x2, 2x2, and other sizes, along with their new costlier RGB Flex Cine lights. So to give ourselves some options, we started to look at Chinese-made flex light alternatives that were nearly as good, but at a portion of the cost. (We also tried to make our own flexible led lights, but it turned out terribly).
So now you can choose between a 1x1, 1x2, 2x2, 2x3, 2x4, and even 2x8 options. You can decide if you want daylight or bicolor, battery powered or mains power only, whether you want soft boxes or prefer to use the flex lights naked, and how you plan to mount the lights in your production.
For our buck, we think the Soonwell FB-21 is a near-perfect solution at the moment. It has the right amount of power to size ratio, it’s portable but also dependable in a set environment, and you can rotate a 1x2 for both key light scenarios as well as top-light or table top shoots.
We really like the Soonwell FB-21, but if we were going to bank on the one light that you’ll end up using for years to come, we think a bi-color 2x2 will eventually be the light to get. Soonwell already has one available, but it uses the older AC adapter hardware. When they release a flagship 2x2, we’ll be first in line.