Let’s talk about artificial lighting. More specifically, let’s talk about continuous lighting vs. flash lighting and learn which is the right choice for you!
Do you ever feel like learning photography is just one great debate after another? Canon vs. Nikon! IPS vs. digital sales. Wix vs. WordPress. Well, we’ve got another head-to-head matchup for you today…continuous lighting vs. flash! There are a lot of people using both (though not at the same time.) So what’s better for your photography?
Today we’ll discuss the advantages of both continuous lighting and flash photography and help you determine what works best for your business. We will look at things like portability, cost, power and ease of learning.
And in the end, there will only be one winner…you. Because now you have the information you need to make a decision about what’s right for your business and bottom line.
What is continuous lighting?
The first step in choosing the right product for you in the continuous lighting vs. flash debate is to understand what each group is and how it works.
So what are continuous lights? Continuous lights are really any light that stays one for an extended period of time. That could be a table lamp, an overhead light or even a flash light. As long as it stays on continuously, it’s a continuous light.
In photography terms, continuous lights are always-on artificial lights we use during a session to provide light (or shadows!) where we want it, to flatter our subjects.
Continuous lighting can be used exactly like flash. You can use it barebulb, with modifiers, behind scrims or in other ways you can flash. The only difference is you turn a continuous light on, it stays on.
Continuous lighting comes in different kinds, including incandescent, LED, fluorescent, tungsten and even plasma lights. Each kind has its own advantages and limitations. Incandescent bulbs, for example, are readily available but run hot to the touch. If you decide to invest in continuous lighting, research the best type of continuous light for your needs.
What is flash or strobe lighting?
Flash or strobe lighting, on the other hand, is intermittent light. When you fire the shutter, the flash fires, quickly lighting up your subject and then turning itself off. Flash lighting can be a simple speedlight, like the one pictured above, or a more powerful strobe.
Speedlights and strobes, like continuous lighting, can also be used behind modifiers, with no modifiers, etc.
Continuous Lighting vs. Flash: Which is Better for your photography?
The answer is…it depends! There are pros and cons to both systems, which we will discuss below.
Benefits of continuous lighting
I think the number one benefit of continuous lighting is that what you see is what you get. You know how bright the light will be on your subject before you fire the shutter because you can see it with your own eyes. There’s no guesswork. You know where the shadows will fall, how the light will hit your subject, etc.
Because you can see the light, I think it can be a lot easier to learn lighting techniques. If you want to do butterfly lighting, for example, you can literally see the butterfly shadow intensify or disappear as you move your light around your subject.
Continuous lighting is also easier because you aren’t messing with triggers or receivers on your camera. Your lights don’t have to talk to your camera!
Continuous lights also work for videoing.
And finally, a basic continuous lighting kit is less expensive than a basic flash kit. All of these things make continuous lighting look really attractive to new photographers.
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Drawbacks of continuous lighting
But there are some limitations to using continuous lighting vs. flash.
First, most basic continuous lighting kits out there are underpowered. You can add lights to your scene and still not have enough light to shoot like you want to. Those basic kits can also contain lights that run very hot, posing a fire risk to your gear or a burn risk to your client if something gets knocked over. And if you don’t get the right kind of light, you have color balance issues.
Second, continuous light also needs a continuous power source. In other words, they need plugged in. Cords can be a pain to run to your set and pose a tripping hazard. It also means that continuous light isn’t a viable alternative for outdoor sessions.
I also find I need to raise my ISO up quite a bit when I’m using continuous lights. That can cause noise in my images.
Speaking of noise, some of the more powerful continuous lights come with a built-in fan to keep the unit cool while its turned on. Those fans can be noisy and a distraction if you’re trying to create a calm studio environment or use them for video.
On average, high-quality continuous lights with good power cost more than the equivalent strobe.
Because continuous lights are, uh, continuous, they don’t make great lighting for events like weddings or conferences. A short-duration flash on the bride and groom as they spin around the floor during their first dance is one thing. Constantly stalking the happy couple with a continuous light right up in their face during their dance under twinkle lights sort kills the mood they tried to create.
And finally, continuous light won’t freeze motion like flash will. You’ll need a powerful enough continuous light to illuminate your scene well enough that you can use high shutter speeds like 1/1000 to stop action that you could otherwise stop with flash.
Benefits of flash
So let’s look at the benefits of shooting with flash. First, flash is incredibly portable. Its easy to pack a single speedlight in your camera bag to use on your hotshoe. You can also get speedlights and strobes that run on batteries so you never have to mess with cords. Cordless units also make it easy to take along on outdoor sessions or to move your lights wherever you need to without being tethered.
Flash is also more powerful than continuous light. A single speedlight puts out more power than most beginner continuous light kits. You can even use them to overpower the sun if you have a big enough strobe. That means you can shoot outdoors on a really bright day with a really bright background and still have enough power to expose your subjects correctly.
Strobes can also stop motion. They fire really quickly, essentially freezing your motion. They work better than continuous lights for action shots.
Strobes can also be used to kill the ambient light in a scene. I use my camera settings to make my subject appear as if he’s standing in a darkened gym lit solely by my flash. When in reality, the gym is fully lit. That’s not as easy to do with continuous light.
On camera speedlights work much better than an on-camera continuous light. They are more powerful, can be bounced to create softer light and are smaller and less bulky than a camera-mounted continuous light.
And finally, I can “throw” a strobe light a really long way and still light my subject correctly. Continuous light doesn’t work very well for getting lots of light a good distance.
Drawbacks of flash
Flash takes a great deal more time and effort to learn how to use it correctly. You have to understand how to fire your flash with a trigger, how to set the power, how to sync it with your shutter speed, etc. It’s not hard, but there is a lot to learn, making continuous lighting the winner in this part of the continuous lighting vs. flash battle.
Flash also takes more tweaking during a session because you can’t see the light. You have to take a test shot, review it in your camera, then adjust your lights. That takes more time and energy during a session.
Some studio strobes come with fans which can run and be noisy. But because the flashes aren’t on all the time, the fans turn off and on as you shoot. They can be annoying if you’re sensitive to noise.
Flash can’t be used for video.
And flash can sometimes cause health difficulties for subjects with underlying conditions. I shoot a few athletes with epilepsy who can’t be around flash photography because it triggers seizures. My continuous lights don’t cause them any problems, however.
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LED lights and panels
One of the reasons more photographers are choosing continuous lights is because of how far LED lighting has come in its technology. LED lights are more powerful and use less battery and run cool to the touch. They can be a great option if you’re looking into a continuous lighting setup.
One thing people don’t often consider, though, is how those LED lights are constructed. A flat LED panel, like the one above, is made up of dozens, if not hundreds of little lights. The entire panel is flat. That means it’s going to project light in a different way than a rounded bulb of a strobe.
That’s not to say the light is bad. But it is different. It doesn’t wrap the same way light coming from a strobe does.
Also look closely at the color temperature of your
Continuous lighting vs. flash? Put them together instead!
Yes! You can use your strobes and continuous light together. You can also mix different types of continuous lights or different types of flashes. Just make sure they have the same color temperature so you aren’t trying to fix color casts in post-production!
So what should you buy?
If you’re in the market for some off-camera lighting, it’s hard to decide where to invest your money.
The truth is, there isn’t one light out there that will satisfy ALL your needs. As your skills and body of work grows, you’ll want to invest in new equipment to meet your new needs.
If you photograph still people and products indoors and are new to off-camera lighting, starting with high quality LED lighting makes sense. Because you can see the light, it becomes much easier to learn how to light scenes and people.
If you plan to photograph action, events like weddings, or outdoor portraits, it makes more sense to learn flash and invest in strobes or speedlights. If you plan to get into volume photography like schools or sports team and individuals, I’d recommend a flash system so you aren’t worried where to plug in your cords or have people tripping over them.
And finally, you won’t ever regret learning how to shoot with flash. I know a lot of people turn to continuous light because they are afraid of flash and don’t want to take the time to learn it. Don’t hide behind that fear. You’ll be a better photographer if you embrace the challenge of learning flash and knowing how to use it to light your images, even if you ultimately choose to use continuous light.
Some unsolicited advice
Please be wary of the really cheap continuous light kits available at places like Amazon. They sound amazing, I know. You get two umbrellas, some light stands and a handy carrying case all for like $25. That old saying of you get what you pay for is an old saying for a reason. Those cheap kits are made cheaply. The light stands are often flimsy and unstable and won’t hold up over time. I even had one catch on fire in my home when I was using it as a video light. Um, yeah. Not cool.
It’s the same story with knockoff flashes and strobes. The price looks great but you may end up spending more money in the long run. Neweer, for example, doesn’t make their own lights. They simply rebrand someone else’s product. Their documentation is usually subpar, you can’t get the equipment serviced and there’s a really good chance it won’t be compatible with products you purchase down the road.
So be smart with your money and read the reviews of the product from professional photographers. Buy your lights from a reputable brand and equipment provider that will stand behind their product. You’ll be money ahead to save that $60 or $70 you were going to put into a cheap kit or knockoff flash, save up and buy a higher quality setup that will last.
My favorite place to buy flash equipment is from Tim at Flashgear.net. For continuous light, try your local camera store or trusted outlets Adorama and B&H Photo. If you want more traditional corded studio strobes, you won’t go wrong with the Alienbee and Digibee lights at Paul C. Buff.
Beware the gimmicks
My news feed is flooded with the latest and greatest lighting products, all of them promising amazing results for your photography. It’s also filled with pro photographers trying to sell me these new amazing products (that they are getting paid to promote!) These products might be great products but remember this…
There is no substitute for understanding light and knowing how to use it.
Let me say that again. No product can circumnavigate you actually learning about light and understanding how to use it. Don’t click on those ads thinking those products will solve your problems or teach you how to use off-camera lighting. Only time, effort and hard work can do that.
The bottom line of continuous lighting vs. flash
There are hugely successful photographers out there using both continuous lighting and flash. It’s less about what is better and more about what is better for you. So educate yourself, invest in quality equipment and then invest in yourself. You’ll never regret learning how to use off-camera lighting, whether it’s continuous lighting vs. flash! It’s all light and you are the one that makes it beautiful!