Continuous or Strobe Lighting?

Tamara Lackey discusses the differences between strobes and continuous lighting.

One of the more frequently-asked questions I get when it comes to studio lighting is this:  Do I prefer continuous lighting or strobes?  The answer to that question has changed over the last near eleven years of shooting portraits in the studio, due to changes in technology and changes to my shooting style.

One of the more frequently-asked questions I get when it comes to studio lighting is this:  Do I prefer continuous lighting or strobes?  The answer to that question has changed over the last near eleven years of shooting portraits in the studio, due to changes in technology and changes to my shooting style.

 

 

 

Let’s kick off with some simple definitions. 

Continuous lighting or constant lighting:

Means that when you turn the studio lights on, they stay on – like a video light or a flashlight.  You can power them up or down, based on what you need, but they produce What You See Is What You Get lighting.  Assuming you expose everything correctly in camera, what you see before you will be the lighting you capture in the frame.  Exactly how you light the scene (and the individuals in the scene) will photograph just like what you see before you click the shutter.

 

Strobe lighting:

Is just like flash:  it lights up when you trigger it and needs a bit of time recycle so that it can be fully powered for the next shot.  You cannot see exactly how your scene will be captured until you trigger the flash.  Once you do, a high-intensity light will pulse for just a fraction of a section, lighting the scene as you hopefully expected when you positioned - and set the specifications - for your lights.

 

 

 

When I first started shooting, I used only strobe lighting because the technology behind continuous lighting was simply not there yet, meaning not powerful enough.  In addition, the lights became too hot to be safe around children, and the color of the lighting wasn’t optimal either.  So I shot with strobes and a cord that connected my camera to the lights, so they would trigger when I clicked the shutter. This led to an inordinate amount of tripping over cords, mostly by me - I moved so frequently while shooting, it didn’t make sense to tape them down. Today’s strobe lights can be rather simply triggered by a third-party wireless device, like the Pocket Wizards I keep with me often. 

 

Today I use continuous lighting nearly exclusively in the studio.  Why?  First of all, today’s continuous lighting systems are more powerful and cooler to the touch – even after they have been on for a while!  They now come in white-balance-friendly daylight fluorescents, too.  And, third, because I spend so much time interacting with my subjects and encouraging them to move freely, the broad, constant lighting is quite nice – I no longer need to worry about constantly adjusting them.  I just drag and re-position them as needed here and there.

 

 

 

I still find that strobes are more powerful than continuous lighting options, no doubt – but here’s the thing:  I don’t always need the level of power they provide for every shoot.  I shoot alongside great natural light in the studio, and I have fantastic high-level ISO capabilities on my cameras that I didn’t used to have before.  

 

For all those reasons, I am choosing continuous over strobes more often for my portrait sessions and loving the results.  To be clear, though, I’m basing my choice off of my style of shooting, in addition to the gift of natural lighting/a near-wall of windows as part of my arsenal.   Don’t forget that it will always be important for you to determine for yourself which method of lighting is best for you, based on your own specific situation.

 

 

Specific equipment Tamara uses: 

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