Are LED photography lights better than traditional studio flash lights?

LED lighting has come a long way in recent years, with more accurate colour, the ability to modify the light, adjust colour temperature and usable levels of brightness; plus with a ‘what you see is what you get’ effect they’ve become hugely popular. So why do most professional photographers (myself included) still prefer to use studio flash lighting?

To help you understand the two kinds of lights and, more importantly, which is better I’m going to explain the differences between them, the pros and cons of each, and where each is best applied.

Types of studio lighting
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Types of studio lighting

A detailed exploration of different types of studio lights

In this photography class Karl explains how studio lighting works, the advantages and disadvantages of different systems as well as the type of work they are best suited for.
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How is a studio flash different to continuous studio light?

Continuous lighting

As the name suggests, continuous lighting is a continuous light source used to light the subject. Examples of continuous lighting include everything from the sun to fluorescent lights in an office or LED studio lights.

LED has become one of the most popular choices of continuous light for photography as they don’t produce a lot of heat and closely replicate the feeling of natural light with their adjustable colour temperature.

Advantages of continuous lights

Continuous light allows you to see the results of your lighting in real-time, which means many new photographers perceive them as easier to use when starting out.

Many continuous lights nowadays allow you to control the power and colour temperature, although they still don’t offer the same amount of control as flash or strobe lights. Modifiers such as softboxes and even parabolic reflectors can be used to further shape and control the light.

One great advantage of continuous light, particularly with LEDs, is the ability to record video. LEDs are perfect for adjusting colour temperature to whatever you like and the flicker-free LEDs mean you can use them not only for video but also for slow-motion too.

With so many photographers now being requested to produce video as well as stills, having a couple of LEDs in the studio is often quite useful.

Disadvantages of continuous lights

One of the main disadvantages of continuous lighting is the comparatively low power output when compared with studio flash (I go into this in more detail in the video and later in this post). This lower output means you’re limited in terms of what aperture and shutter speed you can use.

This isn’t too much of an issue if you’re shooting subjects that are stationary, like products shots or still life images, for example, but if you’re photographing people or other moving subjects it can become problematic.

The brightness of LED lights can also be off-putting to models or portrait subjects as they have to look into the bright, blinding light.

But perhaps the greatest drawback to continuous light is that one needs to have the ability to completely darken the studio or shooting area because any other ambient light, whether it be from a window or even office lights, will add to the light in the scene.

Studio flash lighting

Flash lighting, or strobes, as I show in the video, fire a daylight-balanced (5600K) burst of light and include both a flash tube and modeling lamp. The flash tube is what creates the burst of flash (triggered by a remote shutter), while the modeling lamp provides a continuous light source that allows the photographer to get a general idea of the lighting.

You can learn more about the modeling lamp vs flash in ‘A guide to understanding studio lighting’.

Advantages of studio flash

The main advantage of studio lights, and part of the reason why most professionals use them, is due to the power output and precise control they allow.

As I show in the video, the power output from studio flash lights is far greater than that of LED or other types of continuous lighting, which allows you to be much more flexible with camera settings, such as depth of field.

The quick burst of flash is also ideal for freezing movement, and if your lighting system has a fast flash duration you can even freeze fast-moving subjects such as smashing glasses or splashing water.

You can also further control the light by using different modifiers, and there are many to choose from as studio flash lighting has been around for so long.

Disadvantages of studio flash

There are two main drawbacks to studio flash: the cost and the fact that they are not suited for video work.

To a newcomer, studio flash can often seem quite intimidating, especially if you don’t know how they work, how to adjust the power etc. However, they’re really quite straightforward to use and the modeling lamp allows you to get a basic idea of what the light will look like.

Read: Mistakes to avoid when using studio flash

Studio portrait using umbrellas
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Lighting Theory & Equipment

The fundamentals of how to use studio lighting

A complete introduction to understanding studio lighting, this in-depth course covers essential lighting theory to help you understand and control light.
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Are LED lights as powerful as studio lights?

Image

As mentioned previously, and in the video, LED lights are nowhere near as powerful as studio lights. This is an important difference that will limit (and even dictate) what aperture, shutter speed and ISO you can use when shooting.

In short, studio flash offers the greatest versatility when making images, and therefore allows you a greater level of creativity.

As I demonstrate in the video, when shooting at 1/120th shutter speed, there was a nine-stop difference when using a flash light and continuous LED light. Essentially, this meant that I would need a four-second exposure to get the same amount of light from the LED light compared to the flash.

At 1/250th shutter speed that would be a 10-stop difference between an 800 joules studio flash and the 12000 lumens LED light tested here, which means the studio light was 512 times brighter. Alternatively, a 1600 joules studio flash light would be 1024 times brighter.

The additional power output offered by studio lights also makes them well suited to working outdoors, especially if you’re looking to achieve dramatic images with darker backgrounds.

By using smaller apertures like f22, you can cut out the ambient daylight but still clearly light your subject using flash (I demonstrate this technique in one of our environmental portrait classes, where I photographed a farrier outdoors).

However, similar results would be nearly impossible to achieve using LED lighting as they simply wouldn’t offer the power output required to light the subject and cut out the ambient lighting.

Can you use strobe and continuous lighting together?

Image

Combining strobe and continuous light can also be an option, depending on what you’re photographing. I’ve used this technique for everything from car photography to portrait photography, and it can give some really creative results.

In our car photography tutorials, you’ll see how I combine studio flash with HMI lighting and LEDs to light both the car and background and how I balance these different lights.

I also demonstrated how to photograph models using flash and LED lighting in our ‘Moving bodies’ live show. By combining the different types of lighting, it becomes possible to capture a combination of blurred and frozen motion. However, as you’ll see in the replay, a darkened studio is essential for this.

The most important consideration when combining LED and studio lighting is colour temperature. The continuous lighting will need to be set to 5600K to match the flash output.

How do the prices compare?

Generally speaking, LED lights are less expensive than studio lights, with prices starting at around $100 for something quite basic. Cheaper monolights can be purchased for a similar price, however this is for the lower budget end options. Both options can range into the thousands, depending on the brand and quality you look at.

Further considerations

When looking at any lighting, there are two important considerations, specifically the modifier options and bulb design (lights with a protruding bulb will allow you to use modifiers such as reflectors and parabolic modifiers). When it comes to LED lighting, CRI is a third important factor.

The CRI (Colour Rendering Index) refers to the ability of a light source to accurately describe colour.  Daylight at midday, studio flash or HMI lighting records a CRI of 100. Ideally one needs a CRI over 90 to get a usable light for photography. Therefore, if using an LED that only has a CRI of 80, the light will be missing 20% of colours from the full daylight spectrum.

HMI lights offer an alternative solution to LEDs, being much, much brighter and with the capability to describe the full colour spectrum. These lights are often used by professionals in the film and television industry as they allow for slow-motion recording, greater power output and some models are even waterproof.

Conclusion

There’s little question that the advantages of studio flash outweigh LED and other continuous light sources, which is why many top professionals prefer to use flash.

If you’re a product photographer, LED lights may be suitable for your work, as long as you don’t mind working in a darkened studio. However, you won’t be able to shoot products with splashes or any other form of movement as easily.

I demonstrate how to photograph pack shots using LED lighting in this tutorial, and you can see the result of using continuous lighting for portrait photography in this live workshop.

That being said, continuous lights do have their place, especially when it comes to video work. With the right cameras, it's even possible to extract stills of fast-moving subjects from videos, as you'll see here.

If you’re a portrait photographer or fashion photographer, then I consider studio flash a much better option as you will be able to work both indoors and outdoors, freeze motion, and not overwhelm your model with overly bright lighting.

You can see examples of how to freeze motion using flash in our water sculptures live show and models in motion live workshop.

Keep in mind the fact that studio flash can do everything continuous lighting can do photography-wise, but continuous lighting cannot do everything studio flash lighting can do.

You can find out more about the products mentioned in this comparison at the following links:

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