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Archive for May, 2022

This is a question that just ten years ago would be met with an answer from me like this: “Absolutely.” But technology has moved forward and prices on some of that tech have landed into the mid range. Now things like LED panels are affordable to the middle class not just the billionaire crowd.

So back to the title query, do we need flash units anymore? The answer is still yes, but for fewer people. LED light panels are available in small shoe mount sized units as well as large studio sized panels. But strobe units still have some advantages as well as some real disadvantages. Let’s take a look.

Canon 580 EX

I’ll start with on camera units. I still believe that flash is overall better when using a battery powered on-camera unit. There are some genuine challenges to flash in the marketplace, for example Lume Cube makes the Panel Pro a 6×3 inch thin panel that can run for 2.5 hours continuously at full power and runs around $150. Full power delivers 1500 lux at 1.6 feet. 1500 lux is aprox. an EV 9 or ISO 100, 1/75th at f/2.8. Now 1.6 feet is not a realistic working distance for anything other than macro work. Moving that out to 6.4 feet or about 2 meters means we will be dealing with ISO 100 1/45th sec at f/1.0. Yeah, that’s not super useful is it? The formula for Lux is aprox. ISO 100 1/50th at f/2.8 for 1000 lux. Lux value falls dramatically as distance increases. This unit for tight shots inside of ten feet would work OK at ISO 800 and f/2.8. Contrast that with a modern flash unit such as my Canon 580 EX, where you can get ISO 100 1/250th at f/19 at 10 feet with no trouble at all. You would need roughly 40 of these 6×9 Lume Cubes to deliver that exposure at that distance. So I have little doubt that the power offered by strobe units is still pound for pound much stronger, but there are still pros and cons to each.

Flash units used in very dark environments will likely cause “red eye” as the subjects pupils cannot ‘stop down’ fast enough to counter a strobe. Subjects can sometimes be uncomfortable being ‘flashed’ in these low light scenarios. But equally annoying in low light areas is a bright constant light panel. Flash units only flash at the moment of exposure. Panels of course do not have to ‘cycle’ after each shot so follow up shots are easier to obtain. That said modern strobes at relatively short distances can consecutively fire 2-4 times before needing to cycle back to full charge. Modern flash units typically offer a bounce and swivel head to provide off axis illumination as well a Fresnel zoom head to offer a wide or narrow beam to either spread the light out for wide angle shooting or a tight narrow beam to offer more range.

The panel has the advantage of being useful for BOTH video and still imaging. The panel is also easier to move off camera without cords or special settings in the camera. All of this leads me to the conclusion that panels are not yet the ideal choice for on camera illumination in still photo work. Panels are not limited in the use of shutter speeds. Any shutter speed in the range is available. With flash typically you are limited to a range between 1/30th to 1/250th second unless you have an advanced camera and flash system and/or very high skill levels.

On Camera FlashOn Camera LED Panel
IlluminationVery strong variable power from 1/32nd to full powerVery weak 1 stop of variance
Cycle time0 to 5 seconds (range and f/value determined)None
Color Temp5600K-6000K non-adjustable3200K – 5600K adjustable
RangeExcellentPoor
Red-eyeVery susceptible in dark environmentsUnlikely but possible
Off cameraYes but typically cordedCordless no issues
Universal Use?No typically proprietary to camera, manual is universalYes
Ease of UseModerate to high skill needed to masterEasy
Video Use?NOYES

But what about studio use? Ah now we are talking. Back in the day we used to refer to video style lighting as ‘hot lights’ and the reason was quite literal. Any useful level of brightness before the arrival of LED panels was literally generated by using red hot incandescent or quartz bulbs that would deliver 3rd degree burns if you touched them. They produced enough heat to make a room uncomfortable. Models hated them. Furthermore use with fabric based soft boxes or umbrellas was downright dangerous. Studio strobes were so superior they dominated the still imaging lighting market. But this is not 1990, is it? No… no it is not. Today we have LED panels that offer variable color temperature and brightness. They can be used with battery power or 110v AC. They still lack the lighting strength of studio strobes but they are far more useful than old school hot lights. Dracast makes a $2000 panel that delivers 430 lux at 12 feet. That works out to EV 7 or 1/125th at f/1.0 ISO 100. Still weak sauce compared even to an on camera strobe. A 30 year old Norman 2000 system with a single strobe head will deliver EV 18 at that range with 1/4 power. So strobes are still the king of POWER. However due to the low heat of modern LED panels they can be moved very close to the model without causing discomfort.

Brand new studio strobes are still pretty expensive and comparable to LED panels like the Dracast above. There is however, an enormous used market for strobe systems and prices run in the 1/8th to 1/4 of new for a decent used setup. There really isn’t much of a price difference between the two systems when buying new.

LED panels often offer battery packs for portable field use and most large studio strobe systems do not. In fact most battery powered strobes are much weaker in power and only slightly stronger than a large LED panel. Many modern on camera flash systems can be used as portable studio setups because they can be wirelessly connected together and controlled by the camera.

Now pros and cons still exist. Flashes are very effective in well lit studios as the models eyes are already adjusted to a reasonable brightness and thus unlikely to have ‘red eye’ problems. Further more strobes are easy to diffuse with umbrellas or soft boxes and their overpowered nature lets you get away with it. In a dark studio the panel is king because they remain on at all times allowing the model’s eyes to adjust to the brightness. They produce very little heat so there is no issue there. The panels however still produce a hard contrast style of light despite the large surface area, although not as harsh as a bare strobe head. Adding additional soft boxes or reflectors severely reduces the luminance on LED panels often to the point of being useless.

Studio strobes are more challenging to use and require a great deal of skill to operate as they do not connect to the camera’s internal computer as on camera flashes do. Studio strobes require additional equipment to properly determine exposure such as a flash meter. Studio strobes require a special connector for flash synchronization to the camera and many novice and mid-level cameras do not have such a connector. There are hot shoe adapters however, but those tend to have suspect reliability.

Dracast 5000 panel

LED panels do not connect either, but they do not require shutter synchronization or a TTL connection the camera. Panels are very friendly to beginners. Determining exposure when using panels is very similar to typical outdoor exposure, one can use the camera very much the same way. LED Panels or any video light really, are easier to spot reflections and adjust accordingly because they are constantly on. Strobes of course are only on for a tiny fraction of a second so spotting reflections typically requires test shots.

I still believe that strobes are better in the studio than LED panels, but the gap between them is much closer than the on-camera comparison from the first part of this article above. Panels have an easy learning curve and photographers of all skill levels are less likely to have a malfunction or mistake when using panels.

Studio StrobeStudio LED Panel
IlluminationVery strong variable power from typically 1-4 stopsVery weak 2 stops of variance
Cycle time0 to 2 seconds (range and f/value determined)None
Color Temp5600K-6000K non-adjustable2000K – 10,000K adjustable
RangeExcellentFair
Red-eyeVery susceptible in dark environmentsUnlikely but possible
CordsTypically corded between strobes and power packAC or Battery
Universal Use?Yes no connection to camera other than synch.Yes
Ease of UseHigh skill needed to masterEasy
Video Use?NOYES

I hope that helps you decide what type of artificial light is best for you. As technology continues to improve I believe LED or some future luminance device will replace the rather long in the tooth technology of thyristor strobes but for now they remain rather useful.

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