Strobes vs Continuous LEDs – Which is right for you?

May 30, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

May 30, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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The strobes vs continuous debate has been going on since LED lights for video and photography became a thing. It’s a debate that’s probably not ending anytime soon, either. The latest voice in the debate is that of photographer Lindsay Adler. In this video, Lindsay walks us through the pros and cons and when she chooses one over the other. She also goes a little into the history of continuous lights and why they’re now a lot more viable than they used to be.

For most photographers, continuous is often where we start. But it’s not artificial continuous light like LEDs. It’s usually the natural ambient lighting in our environments. As we start to want to shape and control light, we go into flash. But has continuous LED lighting now gotten to the point where it can replace flash? Maybe. In some situations.

[Related reading: Flash vs LED – which is right for your photography]

Why is this a debate now?

If you only shoot video, then the debate is already over and there’s no point watching the above video. You need continuous light. It’s that simple, really. A flash isn’t able to put out the kind of light you need for video, as flashes produce light in a very powerful short burst. If you only want one frame of your video to be lit every second or two, then great, but that’s not the vast majority of video people want to shoot.

But flash has been the go-to for photographers for decades. Historically, this is because continuous lights – also known as “hot lights” because… well, they got real hot – just weren’t that great. They were very expensive and if you wanted any kind of high light output, you were practically cooking your subjects. The heat of the old tungsten lights has been an issue for movies in the past, too, with makeup and prosthetics melting away during filming.

The strobes vs continuous debate wasn’t a big deal until recently because hot lights had far more downsides than benefits than strobes when it came to photography. That’s changed now, though.

LEDs present some fantastic advantages over more traditional tungsten lights. For a start, they don’t consume anywhere near as much power for the same light output. And while they can still get quite warm, they don’t get close to as warm as tungsten lights did. And with so many companies out there manufacturing LED video lights, the prices have fallen quite dramatically. Sure, the really high-end stuff is still very expensive, but you can pick up a half-decent 100W LED video light now for less than $200.

The LED tech hasn’t just produced heat and energy-saving benefits, though. LEDs can also be made in shapes that simply weren’t possible with traditional tungsten lighting. We’re now seeing 2ft, 4ft and even 8ft long tube LED lights. Lights that can produce the full RGB (or RGBLAC) colour spectrum. And they can all be remotely controlled directly from your smartphone. Cooler lights mean more modifier options, too, because there’s less chance of them melting.

[Related reading: Continuous LED lights vs Strobes – what’s best for your photography?]

Pros of strobe lighting

The obvious pro of strobes is pure power output. The time the light needs to be on during a single photography exposure is minimal – usually in the hundredths or even thousandths of a second. During this short output duration, strobes put out a lot of light. They allow you to get a lot of light on your scene and they also allow you to freeze motion perfectly due to that fast flash duration.

Because they don’t need to put out light all the time, battery-powered options are more widely available now, too. A fully charged battery in most strobes today will often last you somewhere between 200-500 exposures. When you’re out on location away from plug sockets, this can be a life saver.

Even though they are extremely bright when firing, the duration is so short that it’s not going to cause your subject much discomfort. A quick flash outside the centre of your subject’s vision is barely noticed. One or several continuous lights that are on all the time can get quite annoying for your subject after a while.

Pros of continuous lights

By far, the biggest advantage of continuous lights is that you get to see exactly what your shot is going to look like – or WYSIWYG. All of the light that will be hitting your subject during the exposure is hitting them all of the time. On mirrorless cameras with live exposure preview enabled, you literally see what you’re going to get before you hit the shutter. But even with DSLRs, you’re going to be able to judge the ratio of light and see all of the angles the light’s hitting and reflecting off before you hit the shutter.

The lower light output of LED lights can also provide some advantages that strobes do not possess. The ability to drag the shutter to shoot longer exposures, for example. Sometimes you want to be able to capture motion, but the fast durations of flash mean you can’t. If you’re photographing a dancer and want to see her dress fly with some motion blur as she moves, the slower shutter speeds you can get with LEDs allow you to capture it.

And, of course, continuous lights have the benefit of also being usable for video, too. And while strobes often contain continuous modelling LED lights now, they’re typically not powerful enough for video, especially after you add a modifier.

Strobes vs Continuous – Which should you buy?

The strobes vs continuous debate will still carry on for a while. There have been some efforts over the years to create hybrid LED lights that also act as a flash. But, such efforts usually end up being pretty underwhelming. They still typically fail at being a decent flash or they have too many compromises and are inadequate for both functions. This may change, but it seems like this trend might be going away.

Which one you should get will really depend on your own needs and the types of images you want to produce. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I have a range of both strobes and continuous LED lights. I typically only use the latter for videos but occasionally they come out for static product photography. For people, I’d almost always choose strobes. But that’s what my vision needs. Yours might have different requirements.

What do you prefer for photography? Strobes or continuous lights?

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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One response to “Strobes vs Continuous LEDs – Which is right for you?”

  1. Michael Elliott Avatar
    Michael Elliott

    Since I purchased a couple of 14000lm @12″ LED panels that have full colour temperature control and where the power is continuously dimmable, I’m seriously considering ditching strobe for still life photography indoors.

    Strobe still has a place in outdoor photography to fill shadows etc. but in the studio, “hot” lights are much more palatable now.