Strobe and Flash Lighting for Photography

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Often, we need to add extra light to a scene to ensure we have enough light to create an image, freeze movement, or simply enhance the scene for the sake of the photograph. The primary way photographers do this is by using a flash.

The electronic flash has been around since 1931 and, today, there are several variations—all with different potential uses for the photographer. Here, we will take a quick look at the types, compare them, and discuss the benefits of each type.

Terminology Basics

Before we dive into flash types, let’s get familiar with some important terms that are found in the field of strobe lighting.

TTL

TTL stands for “through the lens” and it refers to the ability of the camera to control the flash output automatically, based on the metering information from the camera. Many modern electronic flashes, when used with a compatible camera, offer this automatic control of the flash.

Power—Watt Seconds

“Watt seconds” is a unit of energy (equivalent to the joule) that measures strobe power. The higher the number, the brighter the light. You’ll see this number in the specifications for monolights, power packs, and strobes.

Power—Guide Number

“Guide number” is a measure of flash power. Like watt seconds, the higher the number, the more powerful the flash. You will see this number in the specs for on-camera speedlights.

Light Modifiers

One way to control the output or spread of a light is through the use of a light modifier. These optional tools attach to the flash to give photographers greater control of how light is transmitted through a scene or how it falls on a subject.

Modeling Light

Built into the flash or strobe, a modeling lamp is a continuous light source that allows photographers to see how the strobe light will fall on a subject. While not as bright as the flash of a strobe, the modeling light falls on your subject from the same angle, mimicking the characteristics of the flash, and also lights the scene while you get your subject ready for the flash.

Recycle Time

The speed at which a strobe reenergizes and can fire again is called “recycle time.” When a strobe light flashes, stored energy in the light’s capacitor is released to create the discharge of energy we see as a flash of light. Before the strobe can flash again, that discharged energy needs to be replaced.

Flash Duration

Like flashes of lightning in nature, not all strobes have the same flash duration. Having a short flash duration is the key to freezing fast action. Some strobe lights do not have their flash duration speeds published but, in general, increased power means the flash will not only be brighter, but the flash duration will also be longer.

Now that we have covered the basics, let’s look at the basic types of photographic flashes.

Built-In Flashes

Integral, built-in, or pop-up flashes are common on many point-and-shoot cameras, as well as entry-level and prosumer DSLR and mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras. Their purpose isn’t to light an entire scene, but to throw out some supplemental light, when needed, and when a larger flash is unavailable.

Pros:

  • Convenience. Because they are built in, these flashes are ready whenever you need them—no need to carry extra gear.

  • Compatibility. There are no compatibility issues with a built-in flash—it definitely works with your camera and many have TTL capabilities.

  • Ease of control. Because it is built-in, controlling the flash with your camera’s controls and menus should be seamless and easy.

Cons:

  • Power. Built-in flashes will occupy the lowest position of the totem pole on this list. Size and power go hand-in-hand in flashes, and tiny built-in flashes have low flash output.

  • Modifications. As you’ll see down below, many larger flashes allow for the addition of modifiers to shape and control the flash. Built-in flashes generally do not allow for modifications.

  • Positioning. Because the flash is built into the camera’s body, you cannot reposition the flash to change distance or angle.

Speedlights

The camera-mounted speedlight is probably the most recognized member of the flash world. Many cameras, regardless of their design, size, or type, have a “hot shoe” on the camera’s body that accepts and triggers a mounted speedlight.

Pros:

  • Portability. Second to built-in flashes, speedlights are small and light (some are downright tiny!) and can fit easily into many camera bags.

  • Versatility. Designed primarily for use mounted on a camera’s hot shoe, some speedlights can be mounted off the lens axis on brackets or on light stands and operated remotely either wirelessly or with a connected cable.

  • Modifications. While not as customizable as lights lower on this list, there is an ever-growing number of speedlight light modifiers on the market.

  • Compatibility. Most camera manufacturers make their own on-camera speedlights. Their compatibility, and that of certain off-brand lights, is fairly plug-and-play, and often they have TTL capabilities.

  • Cost. Again, compared to the lights farther down on this list, speedlights represent a great value in the world of supplemental lighting.

  • High-speed synchronization (HSS). Flashes with HSS communicate with the camera to allow the use of a flash with faster shutter speeds.

  • Batteries. Many speedlights operate on readily available batteries—many use standard AA batteries.

Cons:

  • Power output. While more powerful than built-in flashes, speedlights will not produce the same amount of power as those options farther down on the list. Speedlights generally rate less than 90Ws of power.

  • Recycle time. Speedlights do not have very fast recycle times and there is a delay between flashes. This can be a negative for shooting action sequences.

Monolights

Monolights are commonly used in studios to provide powerful flashes of light. Like the speedlight, the monolight is self-contained with a capacitor and strobe light in a single unit. It is larger than a speedlight and not designed to be mounted on a camera.

Traditionally, monolights were powered by plugging them into an electrical socket, but now there are battery-powered models that increase portability and flexibility. There are also battery-powered monolights that are also designed to be used while plugged into wall power.

Pros:

  • Power output. Monolights are very powerful, especially when compared to the flashes listed above. Depending on their ratings, they have plenty of power to light up a large studio and, when used outside, “overpower the sun”—producing a flash that can add illumination to an already sunlit scene. Monolights range from 100Ws (almost 2x the power of an average speedlight) to over 1200Ws, with the average being 250-500Ws.

  • New portability. Battery-powered monolights are designed to head out into the field where only speedlights dared to tread before. Some are smaller than midrange zoom lenses and fit easily in a camera bag.

  • Shaping. There are dozens of different types of light modifiers for today’s monolights to allow photographers greater control of the flash spread and direction.

  • Modeling lamp. Most monolights have a modeling lamp onboard—always a nice feature to have.

  • TTL. Modern higher-end professional monolights have TTL capabilities with specific camera systems.

  • Remote operation. Traditionally controlled via cables (PC sync cords), many monolights today have built-in radio transmitters for wireless operation and to give photographers the option to set up lights past where a standard camera-connected cord would reach. Some monolights do allow for the addition of a remote-control system if one is not built in.

 
Nanlite FS-300 AC LED Monolight

Cons:

  • Portability. Monolights, especially higher-powered models, can be large and relatively heavy—not exactly portable. The battery-powered models are designed to be used in the field but are still larger and heavier than a speedlight.

  • Cost. Monolight cost spans from price points rivaling that of speedlights to those rivaling that of expensive premium telephoto lenses.

  • Light stands. In most common uses, monolights will have to be mounted on light stands. Of course, you could lay them on the ground or use an alternative support to mount them higher but, in most scenarios, you’ll need to bring a light stand for each light.

  • Recycle time. Usually, a monolight will be able to charge and fire again faster than a speedlight, but they are not the top option for fastest recycle time.

  • Wireless triggering. Some, but not all, monolights have built-in wireless capabilities. Those that do not will either need a physical cord connecting them to the camera or a separately available wireless transmitter and receiver.

  • Wireless control. Not all monolights can control the power wirelessly, have TTL capabilities, or have HSS features.

Power Packs & Strobe Heads

The traditional way to get maximum power for a flash in the studio and out in the field was with the use of power packs and strobe heads.

While the monolight is a self-contained unit, this flavor of flash separates the capacitors and the strobe head. These packs are available either as AC-powered or battery-powered units.

Pros:

  • Power. Power. Power. Power packs and strobe heads give photographers the most powerful flash options, ranging from 150Ws to over 6000Ws.

  • Lightweight strobe heads. Because the strobe lights are separate from the power source and capacitors, they are relatively lightweight. This gives more options for mounting and positioning since heavy light stands or counterweights might not be needed.

  • Modeling lights. Most strobe heads have built-in modeling lights.

  • Recycle time. This flash option gives photographers the fastest available recycle time.

  • Flash duration. This option often gives you the quickest and most powerful strobe for freezing the fastest action. Speedlights are still some of the fastest when it comes to flash duration, but if power is considered, this is the best of both worlds.

  • Power source. Battery packs allow operation in the field away from power outlets. Plug-in models give top performance in the studio. And some battery packs allow plug-in operation to give maximum flexibility.

  • Modifiers. Like monolights, these strobe heads can use numerous light-shaping modifiers for greater control and precision.

Cons:

  • Portability. While the battery-pack versions are designed for operation away from wall power, they are often large and heavy—nothing you’d casually walk out of your home with on a photo shoot.

  • Operating range. The flash heads are connected to the power or battery pack with cords. While they can be triggered wirelessly, they need to be plugged into their power source. This limits their flexibility as far as setup.

  • Wireless control: Not all packs and strobes can control the power wirelessly, have TTL capabilities, or have HSS features.

  • Cost. If you have to ask…

Hybrids

With modern LEDs, battery technology, and digital circuits, there are many products on today’s market that do not fall completely into the above flash categories. They bear mentioning here because they might be more viable options, depending on your creative needs. These include the following:

Mini “Monolights”

Smaller than traditional monolights, these battery-powered flashes are designed to give monolight-like power output in a smaller light. Because of the demand for continuous lighting for video, some of these have powerful LED lights in addition to their strobes.

LED Strobes

With modern creatives doing videos and stills, there are continuous-light LEDs that have “strobe” functionality without a traditional flash tube providing short-duration light. Technically, this isn’t a strobe, but an LED cycling on and off very quickly.

Questions?

Do you have any questions about the flash types described above? Are you looking for flash for your camera and need guidance on what to buy? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

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