Archive for the ‘Lighting’ Category

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
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
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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Tightcrop-hannahBack in the film days studio lighting was a critical part of making any kind of serious studio stills and certainly a big part of shooting portraits. Modern digital cameras are somewhat adept dealing with difficult and complex natural lighting. The “need” for studio lights has been reduced. Reduced, but not eliminated.
There are many ways to control lighting; reflectors, conditions, location, etc. But studio lighting allows you to control light where you are, when you want, and how you want. Over twenty years ago I bought a small Norman 500 watt studio lighting kit. At the time I had access to a large brick and mortar studio with 6000 watts of lighting and every studio widget your heart could dream up. Thanks Seawood 🙂 But I wanted a little set I could take on location and just have for home. Well, I still have that vintage Norman 500 set. It has to be at least 35 years old because it was already an aged specimen when I bought it. It still does the job and with the modern digital gear I don’t really need a ton of power. I have three heads and of course since it is flash-based I can use my two Canon Speedlites or my old Sunpack 422 for additional lights.

For shooting stills I have always preferred strobes to hot lights, largely due to the “heat” generated by the latter. Video users are locked in to the hot lights of course.

I use a really simple setup for the most part. Crude but effective. A portable Background stand and a few backgrounds. I have a neutral grayish Muslin, a couple of Chroma Key Greens and a few rolls of assorted seamless paper. The little Norman kit or something similar from Speedotron or other quality makes is fine. At least two heads. Light stands and assorted accessories to mount them. Umbrellas or soft boxes to create that dreamy soft light, and I recommend a flash meter as well.

In general two lights facing the subject and a third providing a back light or hair light. Sometimes I like to add a fourth light to cancel the shadows against the background if it is a light background.
The two forward lights are designed as a primary and fill light. The primary light will expose the subject to the level you desire. The fill light generally is going to be anywhere from 1:1 all the way down to 1:3 depending on the mood you wish to create on your subjects features. For a really dramatic and edgy effect, eliminating the fill light is an option. In the photos here, the fill light was 1 stop softer than the main, for a 1:2 ratio. This was intended to maintain soft lighting and minimal shadows but still allow for some depth. Using a 1:1 main to fill ratio can create a flat and two-dimensional looking image. This can be good if you are trying to de-emphasize prominent features or if you are using a shorter focal length lens.

Generally on a full frame camera, 85mm is the shortest focal length I prefer to use for portraits. Again, unless you wish to create some drama in the image. All of these images were shot using the Canon 5d Mk II and a 24-105mm L lens between 85-105mm. The f-stop was around 5.6.

meter-1In the digital universe you can get away without having a flash meter. You could just play around with the lights snapping test shots until you get the desired look. I like to use a flash meter. To do this I turn the main light on only and stand in the spot where the model will be. Holding the flash meter up to my face with the meter pointed at the camera I fire the strobe. The flash meter will fire the strobe when you push the button and measure the light. To get the desired f-stop you may move the strobe closer or further from the subject or change the power setting to that particular head. My lighting setup only allows for full and half power so I am limited to a stop without moving the head. Next, the same exercise with the main light off and the fill light on. Now using the power settings for the fill light or by moving the light, you can set the ratio. In the case of the two sample images here, the main light wanted f 5.6, the fill wanted f 4.0. The camera lens was set to 5.6.

The back light or hair light will depend largely on the subject. A blonde in a white blouse will need a soft back light 2-3 stops under the fill light, where as a brunette in a dark blue blouse might have a back light equal to the fill light.
There are two ways to synchronize the strobes. Bear in mind that studio lights are not electronically connected to your camera. There is no automatic or TTL operation here. Your camera will be set on manual with the shutter speed somewhere within the synchronization range. The Canon 5d Mk II can synch with flash up to 1/200th of a second. The slower the shutter speed the more ambient light can effect the photo, for better or worse. Most strobes are color balanced to simulate day light conditions around 6000K. Ambient light indoors is often much cooler and generally mixing color temperatures is a bad thing. A faster synch speed helps in that regard. The 5d mk II has a PC synch connection allowing me to plug it directly into the power pack running the strobes. Some cameras do not have a PC receptacle and one can utilize a hot shoe adapter to achieve the same result; or use a light slave unit. If the latter is used, buy a good quality slave unit. Also the slave is actuated by an on-camera flash, so be sure to set the on-camera flash to a minimal manual setting such as 1/16th or 1/32 power, so it does not upset the lighting balance. Better yet swivel the head of the on-camera flash away from the scene and keep the power pack slightly behind the camera this way the on-camera flash is not involved with the exposure. I prefer a PC cord connection personally.

Strobes can be very harsh light. The reason we use umbrellas and soft boxes is to make the light soft and fluffy. Fluffy? Sure, why not? Ideally we want our light source big and close. Think of a bright sunny day and how harsh all those shadows are. They can wreak havok on your subject’s face. Then think about a cloudy day and how there are almost no shadows at all. The cloud cover acts like a big soft box in the sky. The direct pin point light of the sun is spread out over the whole of the sky softening the harshness of the light. Yes, it is less bright, but the light is fluffy 😉 A flash unit is like the sun on a really small-scale. The umbrella or soft box will make like clouds, and spread the light out, making it deliciously soft. Bear in mind that the bigger the box the softer the light. Also larger umbrellas and soft boxes will “consume” more of your light thus requiring the light to either be close to the subject or a wider f-stop, or more power. Closer to the subject is generally a good thing. The closer the light source is to the model the softer the light will be. Since I am limited to a measly 500 watts, a giant 4 x 6 foot soft box would suck up all the intensity, so I use a more modest 2 x 3 foot box for the main and a 24 inch umbrella for the fill light.

Photofair-sarah1The pictures here had the soft box just about 3-4 feet away from the subject and the fill umbrella was about 4-5 feet away. For these pictures I tried something different and I think over all I like it. I stuck to just the three lights controlled by the power pack. There were no extra strobes. So I used one light to serve three purposes and it almost worked. I mounted the back light up on top of the back ground stand with a 24 inch umbrella. I angled it so it did three things at once. It provided an over the subject hair light which normally I achieve using a slaved Sunpack 422 flash on a boom. It also provided an over the shoulder back light, and it even filled in the shadows cast on the background! The part where it was not as effective was the back ground shadows. It worked a little, but not as well as it could. Since these photos have the background removed it doesn’t really matter. It was a simple three light setup and over all worked pretty decent.

Some photographers like to use a two light setup with one behind the subject and the other in front. Then a reflector is placed opposite the main light to provide fill light. This really helps if shooting in a tight spot as the two lights can be placed on a relatively narrow angle to the subject.

I recommend attending a local camera swap show and take a look at some lighting gear. There is almost always at least one guy with a bunch of lighting at these shows. I know PhotoFair always has a ton of cool lighting gear. Check it out and have fun!

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