The Light at the End of the Tunnel Won’t Be a Strobe
One of my jobs at LensRentals is to predict the future. We have some flexibility, but in general we have to decide what to buy, and how many copies to buy, before an item is actually released. So I get to spend a few hours each day haunting the various forums and blogs, looking at what direction the camera world seems to be heading in.
Doing that for the last four years, I’ve found that I’m not great at predicting what’s about to be released or anything like that (the full-time rumor sites can’t do it, and I certainly can’t either). But I’m pretty good at looking at newly released products and picking overall trends—the times when several factors seem to point together to a logical conclusion. I see a logical conclusion developing now, so for your entertainment I’ll tell you why I think strobe lighting is on the wane and continuous lighting will begin replacing it over the next few years. I should mention I’m pretty much the only one at Lensrentals who thinks this way; most of the staff are rolling their eyes about this one. (Of course, all modesty aside, I was the only one who thought Sony was going to take off, or the Canon 5DMkII would be a huge seller. But all modesty restored, I was also the one who bought Sigma DP-1s because I thought they would be huge, too. Not so much.)
For many years one of the rites-of-passage for beginning photographers has been to learn lighting. And learning lighting meant learning strobes. One of the separating points between amateur and professional photographers was the pro’s ability to know exactly what lighting would be required for a given shot, set it up quickly, and with a bit of metering and a few test images, be ready to shoot.
Strobe lighting really is remarkable: even a battery powered shoe-mount unit can project significant light 50 or 100 feet away. A set of AC powered strobe lights can put out light as strong as sunlight over a fairly broad area. And those of you (not me, you) who are proficient with strobes can light just about anything, anywhere, to get shots that would never be even remotely possible without strobes. Even those who are lighting hackers with minimal experience (that would be me) can use strobes to get the standard portrait and product shots that are photography’s bread and butter.
But strobes definitely have their weaknesses. There’s a steep learning curve associated with strobe lighting, and much of it is not intuitive. Without a lot of experience (or a lot of trial shots for the inexperienced), it’s hard to know just how that split second of high-intensity light is going to look on the image. And setting up the lights is only part of the problem. Strobes must be triggered to fire in sync with the shutter button, so they must be slaved to an on-camera flash, synced by electrical cord, or triggered by radio. Getting the lights to fire can be every bit as complicated as setting them up in the first place, especially when using radio triggers. Shoe-mounted flashes are small and lightweight but take several seconds to recharge between flashes, which severely limits fast-action shooting. Studio strobes can flash more rapidly (although often not as rapidly as we wish), but even “portable” studio strobes are fairly large and heavy setups.
But until recently there really haven’t been many alternatives to strobe lighting. For most of my photographic life, continuous lighting wasn’t really a consideration. Bright continuous lights were “hot lights”—they put out enough heat to melt the makeup off of a model. There were some fluorescent “cold lights,” usually sold on eBay and ranging from nearly useless to less than useless (slow cycle lights that put out light with variable temperature shifts).
Those of you who are skilled “strobists” are simply shrugging and saying “that’s part of being a photographer” at this point. Which is what my first photography instructor told me years ago when I resisted going to the darkroom: “work in the darkroom is just part of being a photographer.” Nope, not so much. I was shooting microscopy images on 1 megapixel CCD cameras, stacking 4 or 6 shots in NIH Image or Photoshop 2 to get enough resolution to make a 4 X 6 inch print. But I was absolutely certain (to the amusement of my instructor) that digital, not film, was where everything was heading. I feel the same way about lighting: continuous, not strobe, is where lighting is heading, although not immediately.
Why Continuous Lighting Will Replace Strobes
Strobes will never be replaced entirely, but I believe they will become less and less commonly used over the next few years, for a number of reasons.
Newer SLRs can function with a lot less light.
Big powerful strobes were needed to get short exposure times shooting reasonably small apertures on ISO 100 or 200 film. New digital SLRs (and better post-processing software) mean photographers today simply don’t require as much light. Even full page glossy prints and billboards can be shot at ISO 800 on most systems, and 1600 on many. Newer SLRs have a wider dynamic range and maintain shadow detail far better than older cameras.
This doesn’t eliminate the need for lights, of course, but it reduces it somewhat. For example, I recently did some interior shots for a real-estate agent. I’ve always despised this type of work; it requires lugging lights and a tripod from room to room, etc., for usually a pretty minimal fee. But I did this as a grudging favor and in my passive-aggressive way took just a Nikon D3 and a 14-24 f/2.8 lens. Shooting at ISO 3200, I got excellent shots just from the lamplight in the rooms. In some ways they were better than properly lit shots would have been. The lamplight gave a very nice, home-like appearance. The whole job took 15 or 20 minutes, rather than the couple of hours it would have required had I used lights.
Video requires continuous lights.
Almost every dSLR released in the last year has had some video capability. In some cases the video is so good that videographers and cinematographers are using the cameras in place of regular video equipment for certain types of shooting. Of course, a lot of photographers aren’t shooting any video with their cameras, but many, maybe even most, are at least playing with the video capabilities.
Some photographers are going to get serious about the video features of their SLRs. Wedding and event photographers are already under a lot of pressure to provide video, for example, and a number of videographers who have bought SLRs for video are learning to shoot stills. Video lighting, while currently a bit more expensive and less powerful than strobes, can generally be used for still photography. Strobes, however, are useless for video. The “photovideographers” are going to have to invest in continuous lighting for video. Many of them will use their continuous lighting for still photography instead of buying a second lighting set (strobes).
Continuous lighting is simpler to learn.
I’ll assume the majority of photographers at this moment in time are at least adequately skilled in the use of strobes. But some aren’t, and new people enter photography every year. For the beginner, continuous lighting is simpler to set up. There are no cables or radio controls to trigger the flash at the proper instant. They can set up their continuous lights and adjust them to the look they want, then let the camera do the work of metering and exposure if they desire.
I’ll tell you a Lensrentals secret: every week we deal with 3 to 5 people renting lighting to use for the first time. For years, we’ve spent time on the phone with them, encouraged them to get the equipment early and work with it before their shoot, and then looked at each other saying “This isn’t going to end well." And it usually doesn’t. About half of those first time lighters never get the equipment to work properly.
So lately we’ve been encouraging first-timers to try continuous lights. The difference has been dramatic. Instead of the 50% unhappy customer rate we have for first-timers using strobes, almost all of the continuous lighting renters are happy. They may not have gotten exactly the lighting they wanted, but they got in the neighborhood on their first try. I’m sure, as some of them gain more lighting experience, they will try strobes. A lot of them won’t, though, and I bet a large number of those who try strobes may still prefer continuous lights. I’m pretty sure this has always happened—new photographers who are intimidated by strobes tried continuous lighting first. The continuous lighting they try today, though, is so much better than it was 4 or 5 years ago that I suspect a lot of them will just stay with their continuous lights. Especially if they also shoot a little video.
Continuous lighting has become stunningly better than it was a few years ago.
Continuous lighting used to be heavy, bulky, hot, weak, and expensive. Good continuous lights are still more expensive than quality strobes, but not nearly as much as they once were. And the gap is narrowing pretty rapidly. Hot lights remain an option, but LED and fluorescent lights are virtually heat free. Some continuous lighting systems remain larger than strobes, but others are smaller and lighter than strobes of similar luminance. And continuous studio-sized lights can provide plenty of power for almost any situation (while shoe-mount continuous lights are available, they can’t approach the power of shoe-mount strobes).
Those of you who haven’t tried continuous lighting recently may not realize how good it actually is. Continuous tungsten lights are quite bright, and many of them not only accept a wide variety of light modifiers (snoots, scrims, barn doors, etc.), the light beams themselves are often focusable from spot to flood by a dial on the light source. Because they don’t need a heavy power supply, continuous lights are quite portable and therefore appropriate to use on location as well as in the studio. The Lowel three light tungsten set (see below) produces a total of 1500 watts combined as a spot, flood, and highlight. It fits in a 30-inch bag and weighs about 24 pounds including stands and light modifiers. A 500 watt, 21-inch tungsten softbox weighs about 3 pounds – light, power supply, softbox, everything.
On the other hand, top quality fluorescent lights are generally bigger and bulkier than equivalent strobes. A 400 watt Kino Flo fluorescent bank (image below), for example, is 22 × 35 inches and weighs 14 pounds. While not appropriately portable for on-site work (unless you have a truck and some assistants), they work very well for continuous heat-free lighting in the studio. And unlike the cheap fluorescents of yesteryear, new fluorescents lights are rapid cycling so the color temperature is consistent shot-to-shot.
A Lowel DV creator kit (left) and a Kino Flo 400 watt light bank (right)
But the biggest strides in continuous lighting are being made in LED lights. LEDs are still more expensive (up to double) the price of other forms of lighting, but the prices are dropping pretty fast. And they definitely are cool lights, in every aspect of the word. I can carry four Litepanels 1 × 1 in a large briefcase, giving me 2,000 watts (equivalent) of heat-free continuous light. If I’m working off-site, I can power each of them from a video camera battery for a couple of hours. When working indoors, I can plug the lights into a standard electrical outlet—no powerpack needed. And I can fit them with gels, scrims, barn doors, or other light modifiers.
With some of the newer LED lights, like the Zylight, you can do something that’s completely impossible with strobes: change the temperature of the lights with a dial. No need for gels, filters, etc., just rotate the dial for sunlight, fluorescent, or whatever temperature you want. And they’re radio synced from the factory so that adjusting the temperature on one light adjusts all the other lights in the setup. LED spotlights, floodlights, even ringlights and shoe-mounted lights are already available, and the technology is growing by leaps and bounds.
A litepanels ‘500 watt’ floodlite (left), a Zylight 90 (center) and an LED ringlight (right)
What’s the catch?
Continuous lights aren’t perfect. They’re more expensive and less powerful than strobes right now, but it’s new technology. Like any other technology, the price will drop and the products will get more powerful—a couple of years ago a 30 watt LED was about as bright as you could get, now 500 watts in a single light and 2,000 watt arrays, while breathtakingly expensive, are available. Quartz and tungsten bulbs burn out and fluorescent bulbs break, something that isn’t a problem with strobe tubes, so consumables are an additional expense with continuous lights.
And there will always be certain situations where strobes will remain king for the foreseeable future. On-camera shoe-mount flashes will remain simpler, cheaper, more powerful, and more portable for single-light solutions or Strobist type on-location lighting. A decent set of studio strobes will be cheaper than a decent set of continuous lights for at least another year or two. There will always be situations where the power of strobes is simply a better solution than what can be obtained with continuous lighting (sports and action photography, for instance). And I’m sure many folks will swear by the “strobe look,” just like many photographers swear by the “film look” today.
Back when I was saying I didn’t need to learn the darkroom because digital was going to replace film, I was way too early in my prediction. That was 1996, and it was another 5 or 6 years before digital really began replacing film. I’ll go out on a limb with this prediction: by 2013 more photographers will be using continuous lights than studio strobes for in-studio and on location photography, and I’ll bet the number of strobe manufacturers is significantly lower than what we have today.