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Design & Style

What Are Strobe Lights in Photography? Strobe vs. Speedlights

Written by the MasterClass staff

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

When preparing for photo shoots, one of the most important decisions a photographer can make is regarding the lighting. Deciding between continuous lighting, strobe lighting, or speedlights can affect the look, tone, and quality of your image.

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What Is Strobe Lighting in Photography?

Strobe lights emit a bright burst of light akin to on-camera flash photography. However, a strobe flash is brighter and produces a tremendously short burst of light. Also known as monolights, strobes have a quick recycle time and a full power output of anywhere from 100 to 1,000 watts. The higher the power output, the longer the distance over which you can effectively use a studio strobe, although certain models have the ability to adjust their output in order to capture close-ups with less intensity. LED lights, halogen lights, and xenon flash lamps are all common light sources for strobe kits.

Speedlights vs. Strobes

Speedlights—also known as hot shoe flashes—are external flash units that produce a faster flash than a standard camera flash and are often used in conjunction with photography umbrellas and softboxes. Like strobes, speedlights produce a short burst of light, but they are limited by lack of power, a longer recycle time, and less accurate color temperature readings. However, there are a few advantages to using speedlights, which include:

  • Portability: Speedlights are a lightweight and portable form of photography lighting equipment. If you’re shooting with a DSLR or other portable camera, you can bring everything you need to set up your shoot in one or two camera bags. This makes them incredibly versatile and ideal for setting up temporary photography studios on the go.
  • Good for remote shoots: Speedlights work well with remote control if you need to trigger them from afar.
  • Cost: Speedlights are generally much cheaper than strobe kits.
  • Versatility: The versatility of speedlights make them ideal for a wide variety of shoots including still photography, product photography, and fast action shots.
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What Are the Benefits of Using Strobe Lighting?

Strobe lighting can be an effective tool for a variety of photography scenarios. The benefits of strobe lighting include:

  • Intense light power: Strobe lighting is extremely powerful, allowing the photographer to place the light further away from the subject. They usually have higher guide numbers (a uniform way of measuring light outputs) than speedlight alternatives. This also lets the photographer send the light through diffusers to create a soft lighting or feathered lighting effect without having to worry about whether the light output will be powerful enough to achieve the desired results.
  • Ability to overpower sunlight: When shooting outdoors, flash strobes can overpower the natural light of the sun to achieve a very specific effect. The sky will appear dark, as the sun functions as a secondary ambient light source as opposed to a primary one. The flash power of strobe lighting can be used in these scenarios to create a high-impact, dynamic look for your shoot.
  • Faster recycle times: Studio strobes generally have quick recycle times—that is, the amount of time required for the flash to recharge after being used. Speedlights generally use AA batteries, and as a result take a longer time to recycle. If you’re shooting indoor portraits with studio lighting, a quick recycle time can help you take many photos in a short period of time, allowing you to capture your subject’s every movement and change in expression.
  • Flash duration: A studio flash from a strobe emits a lot of light in a very short period of time. This is particularly important for high speed photography, in which the flash duration functions as the de facto shutter speed.
  • Color temperature: Speedlights often don’t feature constant color temperature, which can cause subtle changes in the color accuracy of your images. Color temperature is extremely important if you’re working in product photography, where the accuracy of your color temperature and quality of light can be essential to producing an appealing image.
  • Modeling light: Strobes usually feature a modeling light (or modeling lamp), which is a constant light that lets the photographer see how the flash light will appear without needing to take a test shot or spend a lot of time metering. This lighting preview can help you quickly determine how your image will look before shooting.

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What Are the Disadvantages of Using Strobe Lighting?

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Though strobe lights are powerful and versatile tools, there are two major downsides:

  • Lack of portability: Strobe light kits are often large and heavy, making them difficult to travel with. Beyond the lighting kit itself, strobe lights also come with cumbersome power requirements. In order to have enough power, strobe studio lighting requires a weighty battery pack or connectivity to an AC power source, meaning that oftentimes you’ll need to have access to an outlet if you want to use strobe lighting outside of the studio. Strobes also require light stands to support the weight of the lighting gear, limiting your ability to rig proper lighting in less than ideal environments.
  • Cost: Another tradeoff for a strobe’s power and accuracy is the cost of a strobe lighting kit. Basic strobes can cost around $500, but higher quality kits can cost more. Oftentimes, accessories like power packs, light modifiers, and flash heads are not included, so there are additional costs to consider as well.

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