Aputure is finally (slowly and belatedly) delivering their Amaran MX portable LED light, following up their innovative ultra-compact Amaran M9 that costs $45. At more than triple the price, is this new MX worth it?
Well, it arguably out-performs the M9 by at least a factor of three, so that’s something. But Aputure seems to be fast forgetting its modest roots as a budget alternative to Litepanels and the like — I’m sure it costs a lot to pay poster child Ted Sims‘ salary, and send him on a non-stop global evangelism tour — so now, it’s sad that they’re losing focus on the survival principle to tag what it really costs to make these things, even after a healthy profit margin. And anyway, they blew their manufactured hype by making everyone wait almost a full year since announcing the product mid-2017.
But here’s the run-down, before diving into the technical details:
- Internal lithium battery, not removable: a good thing
- USB-C power: because Micro-USB is dead
- Solid construction: but did that heat sink need to be so thick and heavy?
- Diffusion: frosted plastic plus flexible gel are a great combination
- Interface: solid, logical, and easy to use
- Price: way too high, but there’s no competition (yet)
Opinions will vary, but I really like the way that there’s no external battery mount on this thing. It would have made the total form factor much bigger, while also, USB-driven external power as a supplement is extremely ubiquitous these days: we all stash a USB battery pack and charger with our gear anyway, and that’s the trend we’re seeing in, for example, the Sony a7 series cameras — the option for USB power, both for charging and for an active power bus. Then, I’m glad that Aputure went with the USB-C port standard, which is much more durable, with less fiddling at insertion because there’s no directionality to the plug (up vs. down).
Compared to its plastic M9 predecessor, the metal MX is substantially heavier owing mostly to a thick and heavy red heat sink on the back, seen in the picture at right. After leaving the light on at full brightness, I didn’t sense that it was fully necessary, but here you could give Aputure’s engineers the benefit of the doubt. Yet it certainly more than doubles the weight and size of the thing, so I hope it’s worth it.
I love the textured black metal surface, the solid tactile button controls, and the intuitive layout. As seen in the below pictures, the up/down buttons on the left control either color temperature, or brightness, depending on the mode selected by the switch just to their right. There are only five gradations/steps in either category, however, so this is not a device you can finely tune (and you definitely can’t make adjustments during a rolling shot, like you could on a light with continuously adjustable knobs).
Also, this is a typical LED matrix with light elements that have fixed indoor color temperature, interspersed with light elements that have fixed outdoor color temperature, as seen at right — and all you’re doing is adjusting the relative brightness of each category. Thus you actually achieve maximum brightness during a blend of indoor and outdoor LED elements, at the halfway point — though in real-world use, given the realities of complicated shooting environments that usually reflect and create blended color temperatures, you’ll usually find yourself firing in that brighter middle zone anyway.
Speaking of brighter, there’s that exciting-looking button labeled Booster: it gives you a temporary, one-minute burst of around 30% more overall brightness. Oddly and counter-intuitively, it also only works from battery power: if you’re getting strong USB bus power, no dice. I doubt I’ll ever use the mode anyway, failing to remember when setup and shooting ever lasted less than a minute; but perhaps for quick clips of objects and retail products in close-up, etc., it’s nice to know it’s there.
In the above pictures, you can see the whole face of the light without any diffusion, which of course will look harsh when it’s on (my a7 III camera can’t really capture those lights separately firing), while Aputure also provides a magnetically attached hard frosted plastic diffusion panel. Unfortunately, it shifts around in place pretty easily, and it should have been designed to notch into position, though Aputure includes an extra one just in case.
But what I really valued most was the combination of the hard panel, and the gel that they include, pictured at left, attached with velcro. True, the total light output decreases a little, but given that warped separation you see from the surface, and an additional layer of diffusion, the final result is really pleasing and still quite a bright source for soft lighting. I can see it serving as a portable fill light for interviews, supplementing of course a bigger, primary key light. And you can easily mount it to numerous camera accessories (e.g., mini tripods, mini light stands, etc.) using its standard 1/4″-20 socket that’s really well reinforced at bottom.
Complementing the sturdy chassis of the MX, Aputure includes an extremely well made zipper pouch, seen above. At first it looks oversized for the small wonder of the MX alone, then you realize that to carry the diffusion gel without damaging it, you need a large enough pocket to avoid folding it. Then, there’s also plenty of room for the included USB-C to standard USB cable, and a couple of branded rubber bands that are just sort of thrown in for no likely field use I can think of. There’s also room for the pictured ball mount with hot shoe adapter. Although no one seems to have actually reviewed the MX as of this writing (besides trade show tinkering), I’ve noticed advance plaudits about the ball mount, even though really it’s nothing special. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve usually seen better.
Should you get this thing? Well, at $150, it’s overpriced — sort of a luxury item. It reminds me of the main reason the Sony RX0 matters/mattered: “The best camera [or light] you have, is the one you have with you.” And even if you’re normally kitted out with a suitcase full of lighting gear, life doesn’t always make that possible. I love having an option to run and gun with this kind of little light. I owned the Aputure Amaran M9 before this, and I keep stashing an Ikan iLED-ONE as a tiny little kicker and rim light, for backup. Until something else comes along, this Aputure Amaran MX is getting a permanent spot in my camera bag and I trust it’ll get me out of some unexpected situations, with passable light — after all, when shooting with large-sensor digital cameras these days that increasingly suck up light at historically stunning sensitivity, something like this can really do the job.