LED Ribbon Lights:
Flexibility In Creating Your Own Light
By Tim Park
LED lights are becoming very common on-set because of their low power, low heat, and compact size. One type that is very useful is the ribbon LED, also called LED tape lights or LED strip lights. These come in different colors: white, red, green, yellow, and blue. There are also multicolored red/green/blue (RGB) lights that come with a remote so you can adjust the color and create effects.
The LED diodes are embedded on a thin ribbon that is flexible, compact, and often have an adhesive on the back. Different models and brands come with different sizes and densities of diodes based on how bright you need the light. Keep in mind though, that both bigger diodes and more diodes per meter require more power.
LED ribbon lights are great for any sized video production since they allow you to create any sized light you want. This is handy when small accent lights are needed in tight locations, or a light needs to fit in a prop, on clothing, or within an actor’s palm. No longer do you have to worry about hiding a light behind a pillar or piece of furniture, and since they are so lightweight, you can often just tape them to an object.
You can also treat ribbon LEDs like modular pieces of light, building them together as you would LEGOs. There are connectors that quickly snap onto the ribbon terminals allowing you to quickly wire together multiple short LED ribbons to create a longer or wider light. Just make sure you get the right size for your LED tape light. The two most common sizes of ribbon LEDs are 8mm and 10mm, and there are connectors for both of these sizes.
Ribbon LEDs vs. Standard LEDs
The LED diodes on ribbon LEDs look a lot different than most standard LEDs. It isn’t the old-school bulb LEDs that are surrounded by a thick, clear plastic the size of a wooden match. Instead the diode is in its most basic form: a phosphor resin sitting in a “dish” with electrodes embedded in it. There might be a thin clear coating over the phosphor, but that is it.
As you look at a LED strip you will notice various resistors and other electrical components on the ribbon, almost always paired with each LED emitter or diode. LEDs require these electronics to function, and by pairing them with each LED you can cut the ribbon into shorter segments depending on your needs. These components are very low-profile allowing the ribbon to remain thin and lightweight.
Since these electronics are right on the LED strip, the strip is relatively fragile when compared to a standard LED light. They don’t have a plastic or metal enclosure, and have no mount points. Many LED strips are not waterproof, while others are specifically waterproofed for use outdoors. All that being said, you don’t have to be super careful using them. I’ve bent mine all over the place and only have had one fail due to a connection within the ribbon breaking.
Another thing about ribbon lights is there no power source. One reason is that the power source depends on how many LED diodes you want to use for your light. The way you determine your power needs is by looking at the wattage per meter of your ribbon LED (such as 18 W/m), then calculating what amount of power you’ll need to light it. (Wattage equals volts multiplied by amps.) No worries if you accidentally don’t provide enough power; too little and it either won’t light up (or only some of the ribbon with light up) or it will flicker something fierce. If you find this happening, detach the power source and find something bigger. (Using a power source that is too small for any length of time could harm the power supply and/or the ribbon LED; short tests are fine, though.) Better to go with a power source with more amps than you need. As long as the voltage is correct (often 12V or 24 V), you are good to go.
Also make sure that the positive and negative terminals are connected correctly. Since both ends of the LED ribbon have terminals, it is easy to get them switched if it wasn’t for the plus and minus symbols (although they are awfully small, so I like to mark them with a paint pen).
LED ribbons do give off heat just like standard LED lights. This is normal. You will want to test each ribbon LED before attaching it to something to make sure whatever mounting material you use can handle the heat.
CRI and Ribbon LED lights
Like standard LEDs, many ribbon LEDs also have a hard time reproducing certain wavelengths and colors, especially the R9 value (saturated red) and the R12 value (saturated blue) of the Color Rendering Index (CRI). [For more on this check out our article “Is CRI Relevant In An LED World?”] This is especially true for ribbon LEDs since it isn’t possible to use the remote phosphor technique used in some standard LED light to improve color quality. Having a low R9 value is particularly concerning since this saturated hue is crucial for proper skin tones, as well as when imaging meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit. As we continue to build our database of LED lights, we are shocked at how low the R9 and R12 values of many higher end LEDs!
Review of Three LED Ribbon Lights
For this review we looked strictly at white lights, since this is the main light used for video projects. Additionally, evaluating CRI of LED lights that are designed to be colors other than white is a bit pointless.
(60 LEDs per meter)
The Yuji VTC series creates the new standard for LEDs. We actually didn’t believe our readings so remeasured these LEDs in different environments with different color meters. Not only are the CRI values better than every LED we’ve tested (and we’ve tested dozens of top brands), but they’ve overcome some of the major issues of LED light. For one, the wavelength spectrum is much more smooth than any other LED in our database The blue spike around 460nm is smaller and more in line with the green and red levels with a much reduced valley around 500nm. This makes this daylight balanced LED the closest to real daylight than not only any other LED, but most other lighting technologies on the market. The R9 value (saturated red) is 97, and the R12 value (saturated blue) is an impressive 91, an accomplishment since LEDs have a VERY hard time with this color.
The Yuji VTC series have ribbon lights balanced to different correlated color temeratures (CCT): warm white (3200K), natural white (4000K), and two daylight whites (5000K and 5600K). We haven’t tested the 3200K and 4000K versions, but from the info on their website I wouldn’t be surprised if they are just as good.
- Correlated Color Temperature: 5215K
- CRI (R1-R8): 98
- Extended CRI (R1-R15): 97
- R9: 97
- R12: 91
- TLCI: 99.3
- CQS: 97
- Price: $197.50 for 5 meter reel (300 LEDs)
- Price per LED: $0.66
- Wattage per meter: 18 W/m
- Width: 10mm
(360 LEDs per meter)
LiteGear’s VHO series of ribbon LEDs have very good CRI values, with the average at 96 and an extended CRI of 94. The R12 (saturated blue) value is fairly low at 68, but the more important R9 (saturated red) is 94.
These LEDs come in two densities along the length of the strip: 60 (low density) and 120 (high density). Within these two categories there are four options for how many diodes width the ribbon is: one row of diodes (called X1), two rows (X2), three rows (X3), or six rows (X6). As such these ribbon LEDs have the most configurations already built into the ribbon. The downside is that the ribbon widths are not standard, so you cannot use any third-party snap connectors to join them. Soldering wires to the terminals is your only option.
- Correlated Color Temperature: 6505K
- CRI (R1-R8): 96
- Extended CRI (R1-R15): 94
- R9: 94
- R12: 68
- TLCI: 95.5
- CQS: 91
- Price: $225.99 for 5 meter reel (300 LEDs) of VHO 60 X1 Daylight
- Other density options range from $26.99 (0.133 meters of 60 X3) to $354.99 (2.5 meters 120 X2)
- Price per LED: $0.75 for VHO 60 X1 Daylight
- Other density options range from $0.56 (5 meters of 120 X1) to $0.87 (1 meter of 60 X3)
- Wattage per meter: Varies from 9.6 W/m (60 X1) to 115.2 W/m (120 X6)
- Width: Varies
(60 LEDs per meter)
The LE Lampux LED Lights are some of the least expensive daylight balanced LEDs on the market, but also have some serious color rendering problems. (Yes the R9 value is negative, and yes this is possible.) With a CRI of under 70 and an extended CRI of under 60, this isn’t the light to get proper colors off of anything. However, before you dismiss them, realize that not all lights in your projects need to have high CRI values. Remember that low pressure sodium vapor lamps have a negative CRI rating (often reported as zero to simplify things). So for certain situations and effects lighting, having low CRI lights could be useful to give certain feels to your image. And with such a low price, they are great for those who want to experiment with ribbon LEDs.
- Correlated Color Temperature: 6469K
- CRI (R1-R8): 69
- Extended CRI (R1-R15): 59
- R9: -27
- R12: 45
- TLCI: 44.3
- CQS: 69
- Price: $10.55 for 5 meter reel (300 LEDs)
- Price per LED: $0.04
- Wattage per meter of ribbon: 14.4 W/m
- Width: 10mm
Powering Your Ribbon LEDs
There are hundreds of power supplies on the market that can run your ribbon LED lights. As long as they are 12V or 24V direct current (DC) (depending on what your specific ribbon requires) and have enough amperage for your LEDs, you are good to go. Some larger power supplies let you dial in the voltage, so you can give it a bit more umph if you need it to travel farther before it reaches the first LED. This is important because voltage decreases along wires depending on the gauge and type of wire. (See more later.) You should calculate all this out so that when the power finally reaches the first LED is arrives with close to 12V (or 24V if your ribbon requires that) as possible (a little more is okay). If your power supply is large enough, you can also put parallel branches at the beginning using “Y’s.” this is great if you want to take the ribbons in different directions or create a wider light.
The simplest power supply is the 12 volt 1 amp, which delivers 12 watts. This works great for small stretches of ribbon LEDs, such as if you have small LEDs highlighting different areas of your background. These are inexpensive power supplies, and can be bought in multi-packs if you anticipate using LED ribbon lights throughout your set. They are relatively compact too, compared with many of the other power supplies.
If you need to have longer stretches of ribbon LEDs or your lights require more power per meter, a more powerful option is the 12 volt 6 amp, which supplies 72 watts. These are a little more expensive, but not much. It’s worth having at least one of these power supplies since they give you more flexibility, especially if you want to power a few runs of ribbon LED lights.
If you have some serious power needs and want to power multiple circuits, you can go with this beast: 12 volt 30 amps, which can deliver 360 watts. Some things to note about this power supply: you need to wire in your own plug since it doesn’t come with one. (I just took an extra plug for a pc computer, cut off the end, and wired it in.) Another thing is that all of terminals on this power supply are exposed, so be very careful! Third, this power supply allows you to adjust the voltage. CHECK THE VOLTAGE BEFORE USING! When I received my power supply, it was factory set at around 13 volts which would have harmed my LEDs if I had wired them in without checking first.
With thin wires like those used with LEDs, voltage drop can be a big limiting factor. The longer the wire is, the more voltage drop occurs. With regular lights that have higher voltages and thicker wires, this drop isn’t very noticeable. However, since LEDs require exactly 12 volts to work and use thin wires, voltage drop can cause problems if you aren’t prepared for it.
Voltage drop is less in thicker wires than thinner wires, and less in copper than in aluminum. So one way to improve your odds is using thicker copper wire. In America the thickness of wire is measured in AWG (American wire gauge). Larger numbers equal thinner wire, so 18 AWG wire is thicker than 22 AWG wire. As an example of voltage drop: after 10 feet 12 volt power drops to 11.87 volts when using 18 AWG copper wire. If you instead were using 22 AWG aluminum wire, the voltage over that same 10 feet would drop to 11.49 volts.
Here is a voltage drop calculator to better determine wiring for your specific needs:
This voltage drop also happens within the ribbon LED, limiting how many you can string together. If you want longer distances, your options include powering them from the middle, having an amplifier at set distances to boost the power, or by having separate power supplies along the distance.
There are numerous accessories that are made specifically for ribbon LED lights, but here are a few that I think are a must to have:
Whether you are using LED ribbon lights for a film set or your home, one accessories that I feel is required is the remote controlled dimmer. And at $6, there really is no reason to not get one. And since LEDs can’t be dimmed the same way incandescent lights are dimmed, you can’t use a standard dimmer on LEDs. (Incandescent bulbs are dimmed by decreasing the voltage to them. Since LEDs require constant voltage, they can’t be dimmed this way.)
As the name implies, it allows you to not only dim the LEDs to the intensity that you need, but it lets you do it remotely. And if you suddenly want to have a dance party on set, there are multiple modes built into the remote to make the LEDs flash and strobe different ways and at different speeds.
If you need to make one ribbon LED stretch longer than your power supply or voltage drop will allow, you can easily insert a power amplifier into the ribbon LED. There are a few different types of amplifiers, but this one is the simplest and smallest. They also make amplifiers for Red/Green/Blue (RGB) LED Ribbons.
LED Ribbon Connectors
End-To-End LED Connectors
The simplest is the 2-pin end-to-end connector, which allows you to butt two ribbon lights together. The ribbon LED easily slides under the contacts, and the the connector snaps shut to lock it into place. Just make sure the polarity of the ribbon LED matches the label on the connector. As mentioned before, make sure you get the right width connector, often 8mm or 10mm.
L-Shaped / 90 Degree / Elbow LED Connectors
The next type of connector allows you to create 90 degree elbows with your ribbon LEDs, such as when you are wanting to create a rectangular light or put the ribbon LED around the border of something. These are simply two end-to-end connectors with a L-shaped circuit board connecting them. Some L-connectors come with the 2-pin end-to-end connectors, while others require you to buy the end-to-end connectors separately. These also come in 8mm and 10mm.
Wired LED Connectors
Another type of connector that allows for more flexibility is the wired snap-on connector. These consist of two end-to-end connectors with wires already soldered to them. Within the end-to-end connection is a different type of connector so that a wire can solidly be attached, so they can’t necessarily be switched with true end-to-end connectors. These also come in 8mm and 10mm.
Getting some wire specifically for your LEDs give you latitude on where you place the ribbon LEDs if you are not running them off of a battery. As mentioned above, there is a voltage drop depending on the thickness of the wire and what metal makes up the conductor. So keep this in mind when purchasing your wire. Getting 18 AWG copper wire might be more expensive, but it also has less voltage drop than 20 AWG copper or 18 AWG aluminum wire.
Also, like with most online purchases, wire on places like Amazon is sometimes mislabeled. I purchased this wire that claimed to be 20AWG copper, and it ended up being 22AWG aluminum. Since it is a cheap price, I can make it work. I just make sure to not do long stretches before the first LED diode.
Using LED ribbon lights for the first time might be intimidating for some, especially those who haven’t worked with electronics and solder before. But I highly recommend taking the leap. The components are very low cost, there is very little technical knowledge required, and the benefits on-set can be huge no matter the budgets of your productions. If you make a few mistakes when building your first light it might cost you a dollar or two, unlike working with standard LED lights that cost hundreds and often thousands of dollars. Plus, the new skills you’ll learn will help you in other areas too.