Flash, Strobe, or Constant Light?

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When casting light upon your photographic subject, which is better, flashes and strobes, or constant light sources such as bulbs and lamps?

The answer, as in many things in life, is “it depends”.

Five Reasons To Use A Flash or Strobe:

1. You really need to be able to direct, modify and shape the light. A flash or strobe allows you the flexibility and capability of directing and shaping the direction and strength of the light, so that you can achieve very specific effects. In addition, strobes have a variety of available modifiers such as filters, soft boxes, and snoots to even further customize the quality of light.

2. You want to freeze motion. Jumping shots, smoke photography, water droplets and the like all require fast, powerful light in order to freeze the motion. The use of a flash or strobe also helps compensate for camera shake.

3. You need to overpower ambient light. Strobes in particular are strong enough to completely overpower ambient light, so much so that you wouldn’t even know that any existed when looking at the resulting photograph.

4. You need to use a small aperture. Since a flash or strobe has a high power output, you’re able to use a small aperture and low ISO, and still won’t sacrifice shutter speed in order to properly expose the shot. This is particularly helpful when you have to have a deep depth of field, such as in group shots.

5. You need a specific color balance. You can increase or decrease the power output of strobes, and the color balance is not impacted. This is especially helpful to reduce time spent in post-processing, and ensures the balance is equal from photo to photo.

Five Reasons Not To Use A Flash or Strobe:

1. They tend to be expensive. Good quality flashes can run into the hundreds of dollars, and strobes into the thousands and even tens of thousands.

2. You really need a light meter for correct exposure. So, if you don’t have one, expect to experience a lot of trial and error as you dial your lighting in.

3. Off-camera flash and strobe lights need to be triggered somehow. With speedlights, unless you have a wireless trigger, your camera and flash need to be in line of sight with one another. With strobes, you pretty much have to purchase additional trigger mechanisms in order for them to fire in sync with your shutter speed.

4. You don’t know what you get until you take the shot. If you don’t have a way to truly view the photos as you take them (tethering, as opposed to just looking at the display on the back of the camera) you won’t really be sure of the light quality until you’re in post-processing. Many strobes do have modeling lights to give you an idea of the effect, but flashes such as speedlights do not.

5. They can be intimidating. Most of the time when I am instructing a beginner photographer on the use of light, I encourage them to try continuous light sources first. The intimidation factor can be a real discouragement to some folks who are just learning how light effects their photography.

Five Reasons To Use Constant Light:

1. It’s readily available. Everyone has lamps and bulbs in their home. Shop lights and drop lights can be found in many garages, and many desk lamps have flexible necks and clamps to allow for a variety of positioning options. In addition, professional-grade constant light sources tend to be less expensive than strobes.

2. What you see is what you get. The light setup produces immediate, visible results and you can see how the light is hitting your subject with your own eyes. Then when you take the picture, the resulting image is exactly as you saw it.

3. Your camera’s built-in meter is a great tool for correct exposure. No light meter needed! Just use custom white balance and you’re all set.

4. You’re using a large aperture and/or a longer exposure. Though a tripod is still needed to eliminate camera shake, the lower power of continuous light sources are excellent for photos requiring large apertures and slower shutter speeds.

5. It’s great for creating a subtle mood. Constant light sources are much easier to manipulate when you want a soft, romantic atmosphere. A warm colored lamp set off to the side creates a soft light to illuminate an intimate setting. The use of reflectors can “grab” the smallest amount of light and cast it in the direction you wish it to go.

Five Reasons Not To Use Constant Light:

1. You’re shooting outdoors. Chances are, light from a constant light source won’t be powerful enough to overcome ambient light, or adequately illuminate a subject in dark conditions (unless you’re using some very powerful light sources).

2. You want a very high contrast look. While it is possible to achieve a high contrast look with continuous lighting, it is much easier and much more dramatic to do so using strobes.

3. You might have to sacrifice ISO, aperture size or shutter speed in order to properly expose the shot. Your camera will always view continuous light as less bright than a strobe or flash. So in order to properly expose the shot you may have to use a higher ISO, larger aperture, and/or slower shutter speed.

4. You cannot separate ambient light from the light coming from continuous light sources. This means you cannot strike a balance between them as you would be able to do with a flash.

5. They’re hot. Sometimes, they get really hot. So, along with needing to take special care when handling them, they also tend to heat up any small spaces you may be working in, and make models feel like they’re being baked.

Which do you prefer, strobes, flashes, or constant light? Can you think of any other reasons to choose one over the other? Do you use a mixture of all of them, or do you prefer available light? Share your comments and your photographs below, or on our Facebook Page or our Flickr Group.

Photos copyright Tiffany Joyce. The photo of the water drop was taken using a Canon Speedlite 580EX II, and the photo of the port wine bottle was taken using constant lights and a light box.

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  • http://smilingfacestravelphotos.com/ Nomadic Samuel

    This is a great guide.  Although I prefer constant light I can see the use for the other alternatives.

  • http://holidaymagazine.com.au/ Montymireles

    very nice effects on pictures..