Photography Gear

LED Continuous Lights vs Strobes for Photography

Which is the best lighting solution for you?

LED this, LED that, hybrid lighting, CRI, constant vs strobe… are you getting a headache from all these headlines and videos and kickstarter campaigns about these revolutionary new lighting gadgets? Is it causing you stress because you are going to have to spend a ton of money to keep up your status as GEARtographer?

Relax… First let’s break this down and look at the practical differences between continuous LED lighting and strobes. Then, over the next few weeks, I am going to put some of these new LED lights to the test and show you how I would use them so that, hopefully, you can make better decisions before you run out and spend your hard-earned dollars.

LED Lighting for photography has come a very long way in the last few years and all indications are that LEDs will be the future of photographic and video lighting – and that’s a good thing, I promise. The real questions right now are: Do you really understand the differences between continuous lighting and strobes or speedlights? Why would you use one instead of the other? If you are a new photographer which type of lighting should you start with?

Comparison: Strobes

Strobes or flashes do just that – they flash. The light doesn’t stay on all the time. When you are using a flash as your light source the duration of that flash will be anywhere from an average of 1/1000 of a second to as fast as 1/10,000 second or more. Most cameras will synchronize with the flash up to a shutter speed of anywhere from 1/60th to 1/300th of a second and cameras that support high speed sync will of course go even higher. Just in case you are just starting out and don’t quite understand the difference between flash duration and sync speed, the simple explanation is this:

Flash duration is the amount of time the flash is outputting light. It’s always very fast. As I mentioned generally between 1/1000th of a second to 1/10,000th of a second or even faster.

The sync speed is the fastest shutter speed that will allow your camera’s shutter to open and the flash to fully illuminate your scene before the shutter begins to close.

The brightness of the flash units combined with their extremely fast speed makes flash a great solution for situations where you need to be able to stop fast action, like this shot below of my model and me in mid-air.

me and model in mid-air

Flash is also great for situations where you want to overpower ambient light – like the sun- and have your subject appear brighter than the natural setting.

Speedlights being used to overpower ambient light

Flash is also ideal for situations where you need or want to use artificial lighting but you can’t place it close to your subject. The higher-powered flash units will be able to reach and light your subject more efficiently, like you see in this basketball arena below that I lit with four high-powered studio strobes.

close-up of players lit with 4 studio strobes

Speedlight strobes work on batteries, external battery packs and in some cases AC power. Studio strobes generally are designed to work on AC power, but many new brands will work on external battery packs or even replaceable lithium-ion batteries.

Speedlights are generally silent except for the pop when they flash. Studio strobes usually have fans so they do add a noise factor to your shoot.

You can also find more modifiers for strobes at this point, but I have no doubt that LEDs will catch up as the technology takes hold. You also will need a trigger to fire your strobes remotely, and a flash meter is the best way to set exposure.

Comparison: LEDs

Constant LED lights don’t flash. They are on all the time so what you see is what you get. This can be a great asset for beginners to lighting or even advanced professionals who are working with very intricate lighting setups. While the bigger studio strobes do come with constant modeling lights, the modeling lights only approximate what will happen when the flash fires. They don’t give you a truly accurate representation of the lighting.

LED lights frequently have the built-in ability to modify the color temperature from tungsten to daylight balance. While this is a very useful feature, it does come at the cost of reduced brightness, because some of the LEDs are dedicated to tungsten white balance and some are dedicated to daylight.

Tungsten to daylight balance spectrum

LED lights are generally much lighter than studio strobes and even some speedlights. They generate very little heat, if any, and they make no noise since they don’t require fans. LEDs are generally AC powered, but many have the ability to run off on readily available Sony or Canon batteries.

Because of the continuous light, you can use your camera’s light meter to set exposure and you will not need a trigger to use the lights remotely.

Comparison: Output

So I mentioned before that strobes tend to be more powerful. Below is a Savage Universal Edge Lit Pro LED light – this is one of the lights that I will be talking about in an upcoming video.

LED with Lola

I have this set 5 ft. from my lovely mannequin Lola. The Edge Lit Pro is set at full power and I am shooting with a Nikon D810, the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 lens at f/4 with a shutter speed of 1/4th of a second and an ISO of 64.

Below is Lola with a LumoPro LP180R speedlight set at the same 5 ft. distance at full power and my settings are f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second and an ISO of 64.

Lola with speedlight

Here is the same set-up with a Paul C Buff DigiBee DB800 studio flash still at 5 ft. This is a 320 watt second flash also at full power and my settings are f/20 with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second and an ISO of 64.

Lola with Digibee

Now if you think that this proved the LED light is a bad idea – definitely not. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If I move this Edge Lit panel to 3 ft. from my subject I have a light source that is broader than my speedlite or studio strobe and I can shoot at an aperture of f/4 at 1/60th of a second and an ISO of 320.

Now I could go on for another 20 minutes splitting hairs on the technical details – but you know that’s not my thing. I will leave that to the TECHtographers. Let’s jump to the part where we talk about what does it make the most sense for you to buy.

My recommendation

The simple reality is that you will not find one light that is best suited for every situation you will encounter as a photographer. As I have shown you, there are pros and cons to both lighting systems. I actually consider myself lucky that I learned portrait lighting with those cheap silver reflectors and 150 watt bulbs mounted on top of light stands. It made it easier to learn how to see light, because the light was alway on. And it forced me to learn how to really see and manipulate light because the light quality from those cheap silver reflectors is horrible.

If you are new to lighting and plan to shoot people like I do, or even products, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to start with LED lights. The constant light sources will allow you to really see what you are doing and will definitely help you develop your lighting skills much faster.

And for you portrait photographers, here is a huge bonus that you get with constant LEDs: studio photographers have a bad habit of working in slightly darker studios so that they can see the effects of their modeling lights. The problem with that is that the modeling lights really aren’t very bright so your subject’s pupils expand to gather more light. The result is that you see less of the iris and less color in the eye. Using LED lights for your portrait lighting will generally cause the pupils to contract which allows you to see more of the iris and more color.

Some of you are going to ask about the new LED flash combos and if they are worth the money. In my opinion – at the time of this publication- they are gimmicks and definitely not worth your hard-earned money. If you are a geartographer and the GAS is killing you, go for it. They’re interesting, but for practical purposes, they are too small and way too expensive. You can actually save yourself money by owning separate flash and LED systems compared to purchasing the few combination lights that are currently hitting the market. Please remember the newest gear and the most expensive gear doesn’t make your photography better. Only you can do that. Purchase your gear based on your real needs.

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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