I get asked almost on a weekly basis what kind of lighting should I buy? Continuous or strobe? ACK!!! The issue isn’t what you should buy, but WHY you should invest in either strobes or continuous. They both are amazing lighting systems, but accomplish entirely different tasks. I have used both systems ranging from lower quality inexpensive strobes all the way up to top of the line continuous systems. Both styles have their pros and cons, so read on to clear up confusion, answer the barrage of questions, and give some “trying-to-figure-out-the-best-investment-for-their-business” photographers a little more education on which system might work best for them.
Simply put, they mimic natural light almost to a T. The light my Westcott TD6’s produce is soft, daylight balanced, ethereal and lovely. It has allowed me to use a “natural” light feeling in my dark, dreary studio. This is incredible for shooting newborns and/or non-moving subjects. It’s also been great for my parent/newborn images because it does not pick out every pore, wrinkle and blemish in a mom’s skin like a strobe does. Retouching these images is a breeze!
- What you “see” is what you get—no guessing about where the light fill fall on the subject, You can see it.
- You can shoot at f 1.4 no problem—creating beautiful bokeh.
- You can shoot at ANY shutter speed, never having to worry about your camera’s sync speed.
- The light has a “soft” quality to it. I don’t mean by what modifier you put on the light, the actual quality of the light. It’s “dreamy.”
- If you are doing video work at all, they are a must have. For video, you MUST have a constant light source.
- Freezing action is hard. Almost impossible. Not good for fast moving subjects.
- Shooting stopped down any more than f/5 (for example f/8, f/11 or f/16) means bumping up your ISO to borderline “unacceptable” levels. In other words, continuous lights don’t have a lot of power.
- That said, getting a SUPER sharp image from front to back is a challenge. On single subjects, this can be a positive, but in larger family groups it’s a problem.
- That being said, blowing up images to incredibly large sizes can be a bad idea unless you have a near perfect file because your subject was still, and your hand-eye coordination produced absolutely NO camera shake. Trust me, this is my biggest nemesis and something I have finally been able to train into my arms and hands.
- Lack of control. As you get more and more advanced in your studio lighting techniques, you will find that you cannot fine tune a continuous light nearly as much as you can strobes. Even with good modifiers it’s tough to control on what I call a “molecular” level.
- The mercury inside each fluorescent continuous bulb. You need to be careful. If a bulb breaks it releases its mercury content. Handle it with care because it is toxic. You don’t want little kids around that. YOU don’t want to be around that either!
Strobes are the industry standard and for good reason. They get the shot, especially when you invest in quality lights that will last. I have shot the entire gamut when it comes to strobes and started my studio with 4 Alien Bee 400’s. It’s a great starter strobe and I shot many great images with them. Strobes produce sharp, commercial style images that pop. The trick with them is learning to control the light how you want it.
SOOC strobe test shot with inset showing sharpness. You can see it all!
- Flash freezes action. Great for fast moving kids and toddlers.
- Freezing the action means TACK sharp images, even with a moving subject.
- The lights are powerful enough to shoot a family at f 16 or more, that means sharp images front to back. Incredible control over your light. By control, I mean where the light falls, how much falls there and you’ll be able to control the quality of the light better. This is all because of the ability to power the lights up or down, plus there is an incredible range of modifiers available on the market to allow you to control strobes in a variety of ways. Continuous lights have 1-4 power settings, whereas a strobe can have 7 or more with fractions of stops in between.
- Yes, it means you’ll need to be trained to obtain that control, but ultimately it gives you more freedom to be creative, and more knowledge of the nuisances of your craft.
- High quality strobes will give you consistent color every time it fires.
- What you see with a strobe’s modeling light is NOT what you’ll get. You ‘ll need a hand-held meter to measure your light output and adjust your camera settings accordingly.
- You have to shoot at your cameras flash “sync” speed. That’s the fastest speed your camera can shoot and still obtain a fully lit, clear image without a black blob on one side of the frame. Now, that said, there are some strobes out there that allow you to utilize Nikon and Canon’s TTL (through the lens) system. This technology allows you to sync at any shutter speed. Both Nikons and Canons speedlight systems for location lighting do this. They are expensive and sometimes have their own limitations.
- So, what does that mean for you in practice? You will be limited to only ISO and aperture when adjusting exposure shooting with strobes. In other words, shooting wide open at f 1.4 using a strobe is next to impossible because the lights are just too powerful. I can’t power down enough to be able to open up my aperture, stay at my camera’s sync speed and get a properly exposed image. YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO ACHIEVE SOFT OUT OF FOCUS BACKGROUNDS.
- You’ll need a flash triggering system like Pocket Wizards. You don’t NEED it per se, but you’ll be a LOT happier not being attached to your lights with a sync cord. Some strobes like the Profoto D1 Airs have a triggering system built in.
- Lights firing in a subjects face. Adults can handle it no problem, but some kids get really worked up with a flash going off in their face. Be cognizant of that, especially with your really young and/or animal subjects.
What system you choose highly depends on your goals, the subject you shoot and how much control you want of your light. I love continuous light for my newborns, and in my opinion is the BEST way to shoot them for the “look” that is so popular today. I can blow my background out of focus easily and the light is soft, lovely and very low contrast. It very much mimics natural light. Perfect for babies! Strobes are great for families (multiple subjects) and fast-moving kids. I admit I have been shooting families with my continuous lights, but finally got so frustrated losing great shots to my inability to freeze action, that I have now moved back to strobes for kids and families. Oh so happy!!!! I just recently upgraded to Profoto D1 Air 500 strobes and I couldn’t’ be more excited. Keep in mind, I have been a pro photographer for over 12 years and I finally got top-of-the-line strobes. I shot for years on entry level Alien Bee 400s and they were great. You have to invest in what works for your budget and your ability. If I had purchased Profotos right away, yeah I would have had the “best” lights, but I’m not sure I would have had the technical skill to be able to use all their bells and whistles to the best of their advantage. Maybe, maybe not? Now with a much more trained eye and knowledge of the nuances of lighting, I can appreciate their incredible quality. High quality equipment will not lose that much value over time, too. Profoto lights hold their value exceptionally well and I know I’ve got a system that will stay in my studio for 5 years or more. So what should you choose? Ask yourself these questions:
- What subject do I shoot the most?
- Do I need to freeze action?
- Or is soft bokeh important to my work?
- Am I skilled in flash metering? Do I have a handheld meter?
- Do I need to control the light on a “molecular” level?
- Am I more comfortable “seeing” what I am shooting?
Budget wise, it’s actually probably less expensive overall to start with continuous lights. You’ll need the light(s), modifier(s) and light stands and that’s it. You can use your in-camera metering system to measure exposure. Strobes involve purchasing a triggering system and meter too, which adds to the cost. So all in all, I hope this answered a lot of questions. Each system has its pluses and minuses. You have to decide what $hit sandwich you are willing to live with. In other words, which minuses you can live with. I have finally given up and use both, since my business, skills, and type of work I do are at the point that I need both to create the imagery that I want to create. Happy Lighting! -Julia