Continuous Lighting or Strobes/Flash?

There are a lot of opinions on which one is best, but it really just depends on what you are trying to do. To me continuous lighting is like a Swiss army knife of lighting – its a jack of all trades. You get to preview you lighting real time in advance and you get to use it for multiple things like video and still photography. So why not use it for both? Well simply put you’ll end up end up paying for it in your still images. Use the right tool for the right job at the right time and you’ll end up with great images. For still photography make the investment in strobes.

Jai-Jai (MM2466857) D7000 1/250th f8 iso100 112mm (Nikon 70-200) Strobes
Jai-Jai (MM2466857) D7000 1/250th f8 iso100 112mm (Nikon 70-200) Strobes

The easiest way to explain it is to look at the two images in this post. Its not a perfect apples to apples comparison, but its really whats in store for you if you choose to go with a continuous lighting kit for your still photography. Ester Eva’s photo (below) I thought was a great at the time, but then looking for photos for this article, I clearly saw that her photo was not nearly as good as ones taken with strobes. This wasn’t her fault, she is a fantastic model. Granted all aspects of my photography have gotten better since I took her photo, but the root of the problem was the use of continuous lighting.

Ester Eva - D7000 1/125th f5.6 iso800 185mm (Sigma 70-200) Continuous
Ester Eva – D7000 1/125th f5.6 iso800 185mm (Sigma 70-200) Continuous

Don’t get me wrong, there are uses for continuous lighting other than video. For example, if you want to set up lighting where you can’t have a flash going off. I would have killed for some extra lighting when I was taking the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra photos (flash was not an option). Another time would be if you are in a group shoot situation where multiple photographers will be shooting (think setting up for a press conference). Its also easier to balance out a room because what you see is what you get. If you subjects don’t move and you have a tripod (eg products) I suppose you can also argue for continuous lighting. And of course anything where you are trying to control complicated reflections because you can see them up front and adjust angles easier, but continuous lighting is also not a substitute for natural light/ambient photography (IMHO again).

However strobes simply give you more light and more motion control. Motion control means hand held shooting and unsteady subjects just come out better. Strobes are extremely bright because they are only lit-up for a small fraction of a second. Also because they are only lit for a fraction of a second they freeze motion. Don’t believe me, take a look at my article where I was freezing water droplets with an SB-600 flash.

In the case of the two photos above, with strobes I was able to light up Jai-Jai with enough light to use iso100, f8 and I shot her at 1/250th of a second, which is my shutter sync speed (see my article where I show you this) and in reality the light was probably at 1/2000th of a second or faster, further freezing things and giving me a crisp photo. There was at least 4 or 5 stops more to work with than I had with Ester Eva and I could have added even more light if I needed to.

With Ester Eva, I had to drop the shutter to 1/125th, f5.6 and raise my iso to 800 to achieve the results. I was at the lower limit and didn’t have any wiggle room. Cranking up the lighting was not an option as it was already maxed out. Hand held even with VR at 185mm I was pushing my luck. The 1/125th of a second shutter speed was also a true shutter speed since there was no burst of light. It was just harder to achieve results using the continuous lighting then it was with strobes. Plus after a half hour under tungsten lights I think Ester was ready to melt.

I know there is so much more I could go into between the two types of lighting, but for me, my vote is simple, use the right too for the right job and Strobes win hands down for most still photography. You’ll need to put more work into it up front since you will have to meter and mentally conceptualize your shoot. But like all things where you put effort into it, you’ll be rewarded with sharp well lit photos.

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