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Why RGB Lights Are So Important for Filmmaking

The versatility of RGB lighting technology is unmatched, and it is the future of video production. Is this the end of gels?

We live in an exciting time as filmmakers. Technology for our craft has evolved exponentially over the past few years, and continuous lighting fixtures are no exception with the advancement in LED technology. Just as many productions have transitioned from power-hungry HMI and tungsten fixtures to daylight-balanced LED fixtures over the years, we’re now seeing RGB lights gain the same traction as their daylight counterparts.

What is “RGB” Lighting? RGBWW/RGBACL

When I mention “RGB” in this article, I am specifically referring to two different LED technologies; RGBWW & RGBACL.

They both have red, green, and blue chips in common, but RGBWW has a cool white and a warm white chip, whereas RGBACL has an amber, cyan, and lime-colored chip. These two technologies are the leading arrays of LEDs in continuous lighting fixtures in film production, so when searching for RGB lights, look for either RGBWW or RGBACL.

Additionally, I am referring only to lights explicitly designed for filmmaking and photography. Let’s now look at why RGB lights are so helpful in filmmaking.

Nova P600c RGBWW Light against a blue backdrop, showing a rainbow of color options
The Nova P600c RGBWW Light. Image via Aputure.

Wide CCT Range

CCT, or “correlated color temperature,” refers to a value attached to the color appearance of a light source, such as 3200K (warm/tungsten) or 5600K (cool/daylight).

Before LED lighting, the two most popular fixtures were tungsten (~3200K) and HMI (~6000K). To change the CCT of those fixtures, you had to put gels in front of them.

With RGB lights, you can tune the CCT to a wide range of values without needing gels. This makes it more effortless to achieve creative and visually interesting lighting setups. It’s also much quicker and easier to get natural light looks for certain times of day at a location.

Model wearing a pink sequined top framed against a white backdrop colored in by pink and blue light
Imagine capturing an image like this without using any gels, C47s, clamps, or burning your hands. Image via ReeldealHD on Offset.

What about bi-color lights? Those have multiple CCT values as well, don’t they? Yes, absolutely. Depending on the fixture, bi-color light fixtures have a CCT range of about 2700K-6500K.

What makes RGB fixtures even better is the ability to expand that CCT range even further to about 1500K-20000K, depending on the fixture. This gives you more creative freedom and opportunities to add color contrast or mimic light sources outside that bi-color CCT range, such as candlelight.

Gels Built In

As I mentioned earlier, gels used to be the method for changing the color characteristics of lights such as tungsten and HMI fixtures. Although cumbersome to rig or change–especially as a one/two-person crew on a tight schedule–many DP’s prefer the look that certain gels create. For example, both CTS (“Straw”) and CTO (“Orange”) add warmth to light, but they give slightly different results.

Hands adjusting an Aputure 300D II light

Depending on the use of that light, a DP may prefer to use one over the other.

The great thing with RGB fixtures is that manufacturers have been able to recreate the characteristics of those gels using the RGBWW/RGBACL chipset. This means no more rigging CTS gels to get that look. Now you can do it all with a simple menu selection, which is a massive time saver on set.

All The Colors

One prominent but compelling feature of RGB lights is that you have so many color options at your fingertips. When switching from CCT mode to HSI mode, for example, you can dial in any specific color (hue) that you want, and also have the ability to adjust how saturated that color is.

Beforehand, if you wanted to use the color purple, for example, you would need something like a Lee 126 (Mauve) gel. If the color was too saturated, you would have to change that gel to something else, which takes time.

A hand holding a phone showing the control options for an RGB light
Image via Aputure.

Additionally, some gels like 126 absorb heat quickly and are prone to burning or melting. In those cases you would need to use a heat shield gel like a Lee 269.

The ability to precisely and rapidly change the color of your light on set is such a time saver.

Don’t be fooled; Lee makes fantastic filters, and I still have and use quite a few of them as required. But, they take more time to set up.

Green/Magenta Correction

The expanded CCT range, built-in gels, and numerous colors are fantastic. Still, I think the most significant selling point of RGB fixtures is the ability to dial in green or magenta in the light to match other fixtures.

One notable example would be the fluorescent lights you find in an office building. Typically, those lights have a pretty green solid shift to them. You may not notice it immediately when you walk in. Still, as soon as you strike your accurate video light and adjust it to the same color temperature, you will notice how different those light sources look due to the green in the fluorescent bulbs.

In the past, to balance that light, you would either need to add a minus green gel to those overhead lights (not ideal) or put a plus green gel on your video light to match.

With RGB lights, you can quickly and precisely add green or magenta (at any CCT) to check the other lights. This is why I always opt for the RGB version of light if there is a bi-color option, as bi-color lights typically do not have that capability.

I have found many bi-color lights have a green shift to them and have had to use something like a 1/8 minus green gel to correct it. 95% of my usage of RGB lights is in CCT mode, but having the G/M correction has saved me on multiple occasions.

A hand turning a dial on the back of an Aputure RGB light

Variety of Fixtures

There are many RGB fixtures in multiple sizes on the market, such as tube lights, practical bulbs, flexible light mats, panels, and recently point-source options. Soft light fixtures like panels and tube lights are fantastic tools, especially for critical lights.

However, it is not very easy to turn a soft source into a hard light source to get dramatic shadows and textures. That’s why point-source lights are more versatile. Even though they start as a hard light source, they can quickly be diffused to become a soft light source.

The versatility of point-source lighting and the creative flexibility of RGB technology make these new fixtures handy tools on set. Want to create sunlight coming through a window? Just put something like the Aputure LS 600c Pro or Prolycht Orion 675FS outside and even select a gel-like Full CTS if you desire. The possibilities are endless with RGB technology.

“LED Panel vs. Point Source | What Light Should You Use?” | Tyler Edwards

Are Mono-color Lights a Thing of the Past?

In my opinion, no. Don’t go off and sell all of your daylight-balanced fixtures for RGB fixtures just yet because daylight fixtures will be brighter than RGB lights.

When comparing daylight COB (“chip on board”) and RGB COB fixtures of the same size board, a daylight COB has more white emitters than RGB COB as the RGB COBs have to share that real estate with the different colored emitters. That is going to result in more output on the daylight fixture.

Technology is ever advancing, and maybe in the future, it could be possible that RGB fixtures will be as bright as mono-color lights. For now, if you need pure output, daylight fixtures (LED or HMI) are the better tool.

Light technician adjusting a light fixture on an outdoor set
Image via guruXOX.

RGB Is The Future

I genuinely believe that RGB fixtures will be the future of video production lighting.

Just as many productions have moved from film to digital, we are seeing a shift from traditional high-wattage fixtures to LED lighting. As technology advances in RGB lighting, I think we will see productions primarily using RGB lights on set–especially when output starts to match daylight LED and HMI fixtures.

The convenience of not using gels paired with how accurate RGB[WW or ACL] fixtures make these tools so crucial for production.

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