Why RGB LEDs are Terrible as key lights

Why RGB LEDs Are a Terrible Choice for a Key Light


There is this fad with rainbow vomit capable RGB LEDs for PC case lighting that I don’t understand. However, as a key light, they kind of suck. Here’s why:

One of the most important tools for your stream if you use a webcam, is light. The reasons are many and varied, but suffice it to say, you need a light if you want your webcam to look presentable to an audience. In fact, if your only source of light for your face is monitor bleed, then we’d recommend just not using a webcam at all.

Some of the more pressing reasons are:

  • Health Hazard – In some extreme cases, such as a firefight in a game, the constant monitor bleed flashing from gunfire could potentially cause an epileptic seizure of someone watching. There is a very low possibility of this, but it isn’t zero.
  • Awful to your stream quality – Having poor lighting literally tanks the quality of your entire stream as these rapid changes in color are extremely difficult to compress. It introduces compression artifacts where they normally would be none, as its “emulating” High-Action gameplay.
  • A Major distraction – Inconsistent light levels cause the webcam feed to detract from the core gameplay or content. It draws eyes away from what you are doing on your main content.
  • Completely unprofessional – When someone is using a webcam with poor lighting when so many streamers have decent lighting, its a major turnoff.

In our other post on Key lighting, which you really should read first, (The link opens in a new tab, come back when you finish reading.) the type of light we recommend for streamers is LED technology. Some of you will instantly turn to RGB LEDs, such as the Philips Hue bulbs…

Stop! Cease & Desist! RGB LEDs Are Not Good Key Lights!

Trust us when we say this; As a key light, RGB LEDs are a very bad choice in most production situations. The reason for this is twofold: Color accuracy & white balance. A key light is your main source of light, and no amount of versatility offered by color pickers will make up for incorrect colors.

Could you make do with it? Yeah, you probably could. But your webcam colors will never quite look right. If you’re okay with that, then more power to you.

Before you go, we’d like to explain why RGB LEDs are bad as a key light in the first place. That said, as a back, rim, or hair light, they still have a use!

Sunlight is the benchmark that lighting technology strives to emulate in most cases. Surprisingly, we’ve actually nailed it with incandescent technology, at least as far as color accuracy is concerned. Light is an interesting phenomenon, and if you don’t work with it on a regular basis, you might not be aware that in some lighting situations, colors that are actually blue, would appear black to us. In this case, the reason that this occurs is due to a lack of blue in the light. A good example of this would be a High-Pressure Sodium-Vapor lamp, as shown in this video by The Action Lab.

To fix this, you can do a few things: Change out the light to one that has the color spectrum output you’re looking for, or alternatively, use a gel to shift the color spectrum.

What the Heck Is a Gel? and Wouldn’t It Be Redundant to Use a Gel on RGB LEDs?

Gels Filter Color

Weeeeeeellll… No. Actually, it is not.

First, let’s explain exactly what a gel is.

A Gel is typically a sheet of colored plastic or cellophane that you clip in front of the light you wish to modify the light being output. It is known by a few other names beyond “gel”; Color Gels, Color Filters, Lighting gel, or for our Brittish readers, Colour Gels. They may also just simply be referred to as “Gels” for short, as we have done.

The major benefit of gels is that you are able to physically change the color of light without needing to buy a new one, and as you may or may not know, they can get expensive. Comparatively, you can get extremely cheap gels that do the job fairly well. Just so we are clear, we do not recommend that expensive light as a streamer. Those lights are more for cinematographers, photographers, and big-budget movie production studios.

This video by Indy Mogul on YouTube shows the key differences between the lighting scenarios, and they even take it a step further. They break down each lighting setup, pointing out the color discrepancies in a scientific way. But even just the thumbnail should be enough to convince you that there is something missing with RGB lighting set to White light.

Also pointed out in the video are two lesser-known forms of RGB lighting, RGBW, and RGBWW. These lights include an extra white LED in the cluster, or even two of them to compensate for the missing color spectrum from the RGB Set. However, this technology is not widely supported or utilized, and as such is very expensive. We don’t really recommend them if we’re being honest.

Pay Close Attention: Gels Are a Fire Hazard if Improperly Used

Considering buying a gel now? Well, Before you take the plunge, we implore you to read this safety warning to ensure you know how to use them safely.

Never place a gel directly onto a light! It must always be 5-6 inches away at the very minimum!

The main concern you have with gels is their dimensions. An oversized gel can be worked with, but if it’s too small, it won’t be able to properly encompass all of the light being emitted. In addition, as lights tend to generate a lot of heat, the gels will warp and distort. This is normal! It won’t affect the gel’s ability to function, but there is very little you can do about that.

If you are using a particularly bright light on a dark gel, the effect is amplified, and can even melt the gel. In some extreme cases, it will even catch fire, so please be aware of that, especially when using tungsten or incandescent lighting over a certain output. They are not fireproof, so if they get hot enough, they will spontaneously combust.

With LEDs technology, there is very little risk of this occurring due to their relatively low heat output, but you still should never allow the gel to directly contact the light. Give it room to breathe! Again, keeping the gel suspended 5-6 inches away from the light is the safest.

Fun DIY Balsa Wood Gel Suspender Light & Diffusion Project

Here is a little side project you can do to be able to mount a gel to any light you want:

Balsa wood is a modeler’s staple. It is very soft, and it is extremely light. This makes the wood an ideal means to manipulate with DIY projects. For this little miniature DIY Project, you will need:

Now we begin the process of constructing our DIY Gel Suspender:

Construction Steps:

  1. Glue a pair of balsa Dowels together end-to-end to double its length from 3.9 inches to 7.8 inches. Let dry completely
  2. Measure about 1.5 inches from the end of each, and cut off with the X-Acto knife or pocket knife
    • Sand the end of the dowel with a fine-grit to remove frayed ends, being very careful not to break it.
  3. Measure 0.3 inches, and cut a notch into all 4. This is where your gel will be inserted and secured.
  4. Glue two of the dowels at the bottom corners of your light, ensuring your notches are facing up towards the ceiling. Let dry once properly positioned. You want them to be even with each other for the best result.
    • Water speeds up the curing process for gorilla glue, so a damp cotton swab can be used to do that without risking damage to your light. If you get your light wet, let it dry for 24-48 hours before you use it.
  5. While that is drying, you can start to sand your gels to add some diffusion as well. This is optional, and a quick warning. Start at a corner to ensure it doesn’t flake the color off or something. Not sure if this will be an issue, but worth mentioning so you don’t ruin the gel.
    • Be sure to use gentle passes, only ever pulling the sandpaper, never pushing. Start with a grit of about 400, and work your way down to 120. Patience is key.
  6. Test fit your gel in the notches, and take your remaining two dowels, place the notch face down, gripping the top of your gel. Pivot the Dowel so that it makes contact with the top corner of your light, and glue it in place. Repeat for final Dowel and your DIY Gel suspender is complete!
The finishing touch:

Final Extra step: surround the dowels in tin foil wrapped cardboard pieces, cut to match the gaps between the dowels to focus the light. Glue in place. Scissors work best here to cut.

Congratulations! You have made a Gel Diffuser for your light! This will work on literally any light that you can mount in a sort of rectangle pattern, including RGB LEDs and panels. That video above explains why you would want to use a gel, even if you were using an RGB light. Be sure to check it out… It’s positively Illuminating!

…Sorry. 🙂


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