SureFire FirePak Mobile Light Review
March 8th, 2017
These days I am becoming a photography minority. Why? Because I rarely use my phone to take photos or videos. I have tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of photography equipment that I perversely insist on using to take photos and videos with. Research shows that I am definitely in the minority, however, with camera phones outselling cameras at a ratio of 40:1 (and more) in recent years. It estimated that over 90% of photos shared and stored online have come from a smartphone. The percentage of videos is a little more nebulous, but let’s just say that at any given event you won’t see too many camcorders! But as a photography gear guru I am all too aware of the shortcomings of the cameras built into smartphones. They can produce surprisingly good results under the right conditions and lighting, but that tiny little imaging sensor has problems when the lights go down. And that’s where the FirePak from SureFire comes in. It is purposefully designed from the ground up for the various needs of a generation that uses their smartphone for pretty much everything.
When SureFire contacted me about the potential of doing this review, I was initially somewhat reluctant. I had already reviewed what I thought was a similar product in the LumeCube (another high powered, Bluetooth-enabled portable light source). My initial reaction was to politely decline, but I first did a little research on the concept and the company. I discovered that SureFire was a company that made their reputation on building high end tactical lights for the law enforcement community. I liked what the company stood for, and when I explored the FirePak concept I liked what I saw. I told them, “yes”, and I’ve had a FirePak in hand for a few months now.
The SureFire Phone Case
There are two components to the FirePak “package”. The first is a custom-fitted phone case for your phone…so long as you have an iPhone 6/6s, iPhone 7/7s, or a Samsung Galaxy S5. You can still use the FirePak itself without the custom phone case, but the experience is definitely better overall with the combination. A bit on the case before I move on to the FirePak itself. The case is shockingly good. I slipped off my existing case when I received the SureFire case in early December, and it hasn’t come off my phone since. It is perfectly molded in such a way that retains the sleek form factor of my iPhone 6, but also manages to have a tiny lip all around that means that if the phone is placed face down the screen is never touching. The high-density polycarbonate materials that the case is made from manage to straddle a fine line where they add a nice amount of grip to the too-slick surface of the phone but without being a lint or fingerprint magnet. The contours of everything fit my hand really well, and the materials covering the buttons are designed in such a way that the buttons don’t feel spongy at all. It offers great protection without compromising the design of the phone. Let’s put it this way; I’d happily continue to use this case even if the FirePak didn’t exist…which is as good a praise as I can give it!
Along the back of the phone case is a channel where the FirePak can slide into and lock in, which really adds to the accessibility of the whole package. Even if you don’t happen to have a phone that fits one of these cases, read on, as the FirePak is pretty cool all by itself.
The FirePak is a multi-talented tool, but its main function is to provide constant lighting for your video production when you either want to add a little fill light or brightly illuminate a scene in a dim setting (night or interior space). SureFire calls this a “video illuminator”. According to SureFire, “It features two high-performance LEDs whose light output is shaped by two specially designed reflectors that create a blended beam shaped to perfectly fit a 16:9 HD video frame – up to 1500 lumens and with an effective range of 50 feet.” Even the shape of the reflector domes around the LED lights are designed for a balanced dispersion of light to eliminate a vignette effect where the light isn’t even across the 16:9 video frame. The optics of the lights place 70% of the FirePak’s light dispersion within the camera’s field of view. This is impressive, as it means that the light output is not only powerful in a basic measurable way but that the light output is purposefully designed to be useful to the primary task.
This is part of the reason why the FirePak is best used in conjunction with the SureFire phone case; it ensures that the light is always in the optimal position for capturing photos or videos.
There is a sliding multi-level switch on one side of the FirePak that gives you access to four different lighting intensities.
|Level||Output Level (Lumens)||Runtime|
|Level 1||100||10.25 hours|
|Level 2||300||3.5 hours|
|Level 3||600||1.75 hours|
|Level 4||1500||1.75 hours|
The top intensity gives an amount of light equivalent to about 100 watts of conventional lighting – very bright and very powerful. There are limitations, of course, and my experience with high powered LED lighting in compact packaging has taught me to look for two things: short battery life and heat dispersion. As you can see, the battery life issue is real. There is a very powerful 2800Ahr rechargeable lithium ion battery on board (more on that in a moment), but pumping out that amount of light is going to suck energy. At maximum output levels you will get rough an hour and a half or a bit more, though that is with a minor asterisk due to the second issue – heat dispersion. There is a heat sink beneath the LEDs with a warning that says, “Caution: Hot Surface”. I don’t find that the FirePak gets as hot as the LumeCubes I’ve reviewed (and own several of), but that area will get hot. After about 20 minutes of continuous running at maximum intensity the FirePak will power down for a bit to allow the heat to dissipate. Fortunately it is rare for smartphone “videographers” to shoot for extended periods at a time. Under typical use you probably will have enough juice to shoot throughout an evening.
One of the things that sold me on the concept was the fact that the FirePak not only has a rechargeable battery (charged with a micro-USB cord with a charge port under a rubber cover on the right side of the unit), but is also designed to give rather than just take! It has a full size USB 2.0 port under the same cover that allows you to charge your phone from the FirePak’s battery. SureFire estimates that it has about 1.5x full charge for your phone in there at full power. Smartphones are always running low on power, so having this option (particularly one that clips right onto your phone) really ups the usefulness of the FirePak.
As a photographer, however, I got more excited when I downloaded the free FirePak app (iOS or Android). You need to set the slider on the FirePak to the first position (a green light will indicate it is on and ready to communicate). This gives you full Bluetooth control over the FirePak (connection is effortless) and the ability to smoothly ramp up the lighting output to far more settings than just the four positions on the slider. This is pretty important, as it gives the ability to better match the output to your setting. Overdoing the light power can result in that “flash photography” look, so I like to find a more natural setting. Even more exciting, however, is that the App gives you some very useful controls over the camera settings right there, including (extremely important!!!) White Balance. The light output from the FirePak is fairly close to daylight temperature, which means that is probably much cooler (in color temperature) than the ambient lighting in your scene. Setting the White Balance for the camera will help to “warm” the picture and give you a more natural looking result. You can also adjust things like ISO and Exposure (default is AUTO, but it gives you manual control). Some experimentation with these simple sliders will really help give you the best results. I also like that the App gives you a real time battery life for the FirePak as a percentage; no guesswork involved. You can also choose some custom grid overlays to make sure that everything is level (or stylishly tilted!)
All of these features are also useful for shooting photos, too.
Portable Light Source
The FirePak is useful as a light source for other purposes, too. You can use it as a flashlight, or stand it on one side as a portable light source. I’ve used it for other practical photography purposes, too. Once I needed a light source to brightly illuminate a test chart for calibrating a lens on the fly, and on another occasion I wanted to light a foreground subject so that I could balance exposure for the background (with my DSLR). I used the FirePak to add some fill light.
My favorite example, though, was during an impromptu portrait session with my grandmother. I had realized that we had never done a real portrait session with just her, and I only see her about every second year. I had a flash unit with me, but what I didn’t have were flash triggers and any way to get the flash off camera. I was getting frustrated as I could not get the lighting the way I wanted. Images were full of light, sure, but lacked nuance. Here’s an example:
I had tried moving a lamp near to fill the left side of her face, but I didn’t want it in frame and the light was not shaped very well. Images were too dark and too moody for what I wanted.
But in a stroke of brilliance (it happens, sometimes!), I remembered that I did have the FirePak in my kit bag. I had an assistance hold the FirePak (after I set the amount of light output) at an angle where it would gently illuminate her face. I changed the white balance in my DSLR so that the light would seem warm and gentle, snapped away, and got a series of images that I feel really captures the essence of my dear grandmother.
There are any number of useful purposes for a powerful, portable, continual light source…even if you don’t use your phone much for photos and videos. But if you do, the FirePak may solve a lot of your problems with video quality when the light starts to dim, and the well-designed app allows you to make real time adjustments very simply.
The FirePak is designed and manufactured in the USA, and the LEDs for the lighting are provided by Cree. It is very clear that everything is very nicely constructed and lives up to SureFire’s reputation. If you’d like more information about the FirePak, you can click this link to read the “White Paper” and get more detailed information. Right now the FirePak is being sold directly from SureFire and includes the camera case for free if you purchase.
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