3 Reasons Why Continuous Lighting Is a Good Choice for Portraiture

3 Reasons Why Continuous Lighting Is a Good Choice for Portraiture

For decades, color slide film was the industry standard for commercial and editorial work, and the speed of the film was typically 64 or 100. It was standard practice for a portrait photographer to use a high-powered strobe to illuminate the subject. Today, a digital camera can produce clean images at high ISO settings and allows the photographer to forgo strobes and instead illuminate the subject using lower-power continuous light units.

This article will detail three ways in which continuous lighting is superior to strobes for portrait photography. This is not to suggest that continuous lighting is a better choice than strobe lighting for portrait photography. Both methods offer unique benefits. An article titled, “3 Ways in Which Continuous Lighting Is a Poor Choice for Portraiture” would be just as valid as the article you are about to read, and perhaps you will see that one on this site soon.

Photography by John Ricard. Sony A1.

Continuous Lighting Gives the Subject Brighter, More Colorful Eyes

In portrait photography, we want to draw attention to the subject’s eyes, and we can use artificial lighting to accomplish this. Often, we use a reflection of the lighting itself in the subject’s eyes to help draw attention to the eyes. Many photographers have a preferred method of arranging their light modifiers to produce the style of catchlight they desire in their images.

Often overlooked by photographers is the relationship between the pupil and iris and how we can use this relationship to draw attention to the subject’s eyes. Everyone we photograph has a black pupil that varies in size depending on the ambient light in which we are shooting. As the pupil enlarges or constricts in reaction to the ambient lighting, the iris conversely constricts or enlarges. If the subject has bright-colored eyes, this effect can be very noticeable. If we want to call attention to the eyes, it would be wise to photograph the subject when the pupil is small and the iris is large. Soft, continuous lighting is ideal for creating these conditions, and the resulting portrait has a look that simply can’t be replicated by shooting in a room lit by standard ceiling lighting.

The Westcott Flex Kit that I use for my headshot photography is substantially brighter than any ambient room lighting. The lights are so powerful that my lights are typically set between 35-40%. If I were to raise the power any higher, the subject would have to squint. At my moderate power setting, the lights are bright enough to shrink the pupil and enlarge the iris, which results in portraits where my subjects have bright, colorful eyes.

Photograph by John Ricard. Nikon Z7 with 85mm f/1.8S lens.

Continuous Lighting Provides a Valuable Real-time Preview of Your Final Image

When shooting with a modern mirrorless camera and continuous lighting, you are viewing the final image in real-time. You can see where the shadows and highlights appear on the face. If the color temperature of your various lights is not the same, it will be apparent. If your continuous lighting is arranged properly, your subject will look beautiful, no matter how unflattering the ambient lighting may be. By contrast, if you set up strobes in a typical, dimly lit corporate office, the subject may appear to have a green tint or dramatic shadows on their face while you are shooting. You won’t be able to tell from looking at the subject if your lighting is arranged properly. The only way to determine this will be to take a photograph and review it on your camera or laptop. It can be a touch disconcerting that the image you are viewing in real-time doesn’t look at all like the actual photograph on your laptop. This isn’t a major problem, but having used both strobes and continuous lighting for portrait shooting over the years, I can assure you that it is preferable to photograph the subject while they are lit exactly as they will appear in the final photograph.

Continuous lighting also makes it easy to make both minor and major adjustments to the lighting setup. If the subject moves out of the sweet spot you will be aware and it will be a simple matter for you to move the subject back into position or adjust the lighting. Once the subject appears to be lit correctly you can shoot with confidence knowing that the final image will be as beautiful as the scene in front of you.

Strobes are often equipped with modeling lights that are designed to simulate what the subject will look like in the final image. While these lights can be useful when you are arranging your setup, the modeling light is not an accurate representation of how the final image will look. When using strobes, you will need to take a series of test shots to determine if the lighting has been set up correctly. This is time-consuming for you, and you won’t know the effect of each adjustment until you take a photograph and review it.

Some continuous lights, such as the Amaran 21c, can illuminate the subject in any color you desire. Rather than buying gels and placing them over the flash tube on a strobe, you can simply dial in the color (and the intensity of that color) of your choice. Some lights can be set to cycle through a series of colors so that each time you take a photograph the subject or background, it has a different color palette. This allows you to create dozens of noticeably different images with ease. This is simply not possible using strobe lighting.

Photograph by John Ricard. Nikon Z7 with 85mm f/1.8S lens.

Continuous Lighting Makes It Easier To Capture Natural Expressions

When a strobe is fired, there is an audible pop from the flash tube going off. Many strobes beep after each shot is taken to indicate that the strobe is ready to fire. When I am working with strobes, these sounds sometimes ease me into a rhythm where I am firing the strobe at a predictable interval of 1.5 seconds or so. As my trigger presses become predictable, so too do the subject’s poses, and it becomes more difficult to capture an authentic moment. When shooting with continuous lighting, the mood is quieter and subtler. While there is a mental adjustment that the subject must make to become comfortable under the relative brightness of my continuous lighting, I find this only takes a minute, and then, they are comfortable for the rest of the shoot. Because there is no flash tube to fire when I press the shutter button, the subject is less aware of when I take a photograph. When I use continuous lighting, I find myself talking to the subject more, and I increase my chances of capturing an authentic expression.

Continuous lighting also allows for shooting multiple images quickly. If the subject is laughing or telling a story, you can fire at will. Using a program like Photo Mechanic, I can cull through thousands of images quickly to locate the single image where the subject’s expression looks correct. This isn’t possible with strobes, since the lights typically require a moment to return to a full charge after each firing. It is also hard for the subject to feel natural when a strobe is firing dozens of times in just a few seconds.

If you are an experienced natural light shooter, you may be familiar with some of the advantages of continuous lighting detailed here. Natural light can certainly be beautiful, but the ever-changing nature of this light means you will always have to make exposure adjustments. It is also difficult to match natural light exposures taken over a period of hours or days. Using continuous lighting, it is possible to develop a consistent look and color in your images no matter what time of day or what location your shoot might take place in. 

If you have a preference between strobes and continuous lighting, what are some reasons that you prefer one over the other?

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51 Comments
RU KiddingMe's picture

I would be curious as to what your ISO and shutter speed settings are when using continuous lighting for these photos.

John Ricard's picture

When using the Flex Kit for headshot photography I set the camera to 200/4.5 and ISO 160. Occasionally, I have to raise the ISO to 250. You do need to shoot in a room that isn't overly bright though. A "regular" room works just fine for this setup. But a daylight photo studio might be too bright.

Sean Gallagher's picture

I agree about hot lights, but damn the angular linear highlights in the eyes will never not look like garbage.

David Moore's picture

Is that first shot it makes the person look like they don't have human eyes, the pupils are black triangles.

Mike Ditz's picture

I think that looks like the Peter Hurley shtick.

David Moore's picture

Oh 100% shooting through the triangle.

John Ricard's picture

Yeah, I'm definitely following the Peter Hurley method for my headshot photography. I started jumping into headshot shooting more regularly about 2 years ago. I was. using my own method of lighting the shots. I had a friend who used Peter's methods and I concluded that his headshots looked better than mine as a result of the lighting. So I switched to that method. I believe my headshots look better now than they did 2 years ago and that is why I continue to use the Flex Kit and the triangle lighting setup.

John Ricard's picture

You can't blame the lighting for the triangular pupil in that shot. You have to blame the photographer -me. If I had moved the subject closer to the lights the reflection of the triangle would have fallen on her iris rather than her pupil and the look would have been more natural to your eyes.

John Ricard's picture

That triangular pupil isn't the fault of the lighting. It is my fault. If I had moved the subject closer to the lights the reflection of the triangle would have fallen on her iris rather than her pupil and the look would have been more natural looking.

David Moore's picture

Wow, the highlights in the eyes look so weird/bad in all these.

Mike Ditz's picture

If the look that you are after is the quiet, calm gaze into the camera then continuous light will work well.
OTOH if animated expressions like a quick smile or laugh there will need be a lot of light to freeze the action if that is what you want. Even with today's great cameras and higher useful ISO getting something like 1/250 will need an uncomfortable (for the subject) amount of lights pointed them. If you take the position of the subject and look out at the lights, it can be...illuminating lol
All the strobes that I know can beep or not beep. As photographers we know how long the recycle is and no beeps are needed. I find the rhythm of shooting flash/pose/flash/pose/flash can help when shooting.

These days on location, I find I may shoot with low powered strobe and a mix of natural daylight or some LED panels. Studio work is still mostly strobe ranging from Norman pack and heads, Hensel monolights, and Godox V1

John Ricard's picture

I think we photographers pixel peep more than our clients ever will. We could all be shooting at ISO 1600 and 95% of us would never have a client ask why the images are so noisy. (This doesn't apply to anyone doing high end commercial work. But if you are doing magazine work or shooting for regular people, you have a wide range of what they would find acceptable).

Mike Ditz's picture

I am not pixel peeping, I am saying that having enough constant light to get an action stopping shutter speed pointed at a model or subject can be uncomfortable for the subject. OTOH it does stop down the eye so you get the nice color in the iris.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

This lighting has no shape and they look like aliens.

Klaus .'s picture

Don't like the result. Teach me one thing, never use continuous for portraits, use natural light, much better.

John Ricard's picture

I've seen tons of amazing natural light photos, but I hardly ever shoot in natural light. I don't like the way the light changes constantly. I find myself fiddling with my settings too much whenever I use natural light. I've always been a strobe or continuous light shooter. But whatever works for each person is all that matters.

Klaus .'s picture

John, thanks for your feedback. I didn't want to attack you personally, it's just not my taste, I wanted to express that. It has nothing to do with haters. It has become so difficult today to simply express your opinion. The best example is the current soccer World Cup. Every day someone feels stepped on because someone spontaneously says something.

And what I've learned in many years of photography, from doing great I haven't improved. More of an honest constructive judgement.

To come back to your statement regarding continuous light. I also like to use it from time to time, but mostly I work with flash because I like to photograph fast movements. As you rightly pointed out, work with what you like best. I share this view 100%.

Back to your examples. It has less to do with the lighting and more to do with the type of retouching. The first two images look very flat and what strikes me the most is the different skin tones, I count at least three. I think if the skin tones had been chosen more harmoniously, the images would have given a better impression and not distracted from your message. But here, too, I am aware that everything is a matter of taste. I hope I can say that this doesn't appeal to me. Have fun with the photography and thank you for your article, which at least stimulated a discussion.

John Ricard's picture

I retouched these myself and they are to my liking. That said, retouching is not my best skill so it's possible that someone could look at the retouching and think it was too much or too little. Also, the first subject pictured is 14 years old and the second is a model. So both of them probably have smoother skin than the majority of people you see in photographs. The model has shaved eyebrows, so that makes her look a bit different as well. As for your comment about the varying skin tones, I don't understand what you are trying to say. I've never focused on any one skin tone and when I chose these images for the article, I chose images where the eyes showed the effect of continuous lighting. I didn't pay any attention to the skin tone. Were you suggesting I should have chosen images where all of the people had the same skin tone? What would be the reason for this. If I'm off track here, I apologize for the confusion.

Klaus .'s picture

Among other things, I photograph beauty and retouch these pictures. I'm not perfect either ( you need many years of experience for a good/high level), but a very important goal in the field of beauty retouching is the matching of skin tones. I don't want to go too deep. Four Youtube links clarify what I mean.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-noF2RNu7uY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvMzWuts9RI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSW46jvmTRw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt39PClmo4U

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

So many haters here on continuous Lighting.. must be they can't handle it or never tried.

John Ricard's picture

I think the "hate" is more for the large catchlights in the eyes. I understand people not liking it. But it might just be a case of this being a new look that we aren't used to. No one objects to a large umbrella catchlight, but I don't think anyone is accustomed to this triangle catchlight. I don't think anyone has ever used this lighting setup prior to Peter Hurley. If I'm wrong about that, I'd love to see images from that photographer. It is possible that other photographers would not object to this setup if it became more common.

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

I agree that the weird catchlight in the eye can be weird, but you can light the model in so many other ways than the result we see here. i use to combine continuous light and flash and thar work really good.

John Ricard's picture

You should post a sample here. I'd like to see it.

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

Sure!

John Ricard's picture

That's a great shot and illustrates exactly what you are saying. Well done.

John Ricard's picture

If Peter Hurley switching from the 4 light setup to a 3 light setup was about him selling something to other photographers then it wasn’t a wise move. He’d make more money selling a 4 light kit than a 3 light kit. I’m not a fan of the triangle and I’ve been struggling to get it right. I have a few issues with it. But I can state that when I see headshot photography from someone who has mastered the triangle and I compare those photos to those from a photographer who does not use the triangle, I find that I like the triangle photographer’s work better. This is an example of one such photographer. I think the headshots on his site are excellent: https://www.trevorwalkerphotography.com/

Daniel Medley's picture

In a nutshell it's basically a Peter Hurley headshot. Nothing wrong with that if it accommodates your flow. People hung up on the catchlights don't realize that the average client couldn't give two squirts about it. These kinds of shots will always make a client happy; well and evenly lit. At the end of the day if both you and your clients are happy, then that is really what matters.

I disagree that continuous lights inherently make the eyes brighter and more colorful. Strobes would do the exact same thing if set up similarly. So would many natural light approaches. At the end of the day light is light no matter if it's strobe, continuous, or natural. Those who claim that one looks better than the other lack a basic understanding of how light works.

Personally I prefer strobes set up in a clamshell-top to bottom--arrangement. Continuous lights bright enough to accommodate reasonable ISO can be pretty uncomfortable for many people.

But, really, the shots in the article are perfectly fine headshot photos.

John Ricard's picture

I never really paid attention to the catchlights in my work over my decades of shooting. When I decided to go the Peter Hurley route with my headshot lighting, I definitely saw that the iris was larger in my new work than it had been when I lit headshots with strobes. I'm not sure how you are getting a large iris using strobes. I'd love to see a sample. I can show you headshot images that I have done with strobes where the lighting looks fine, but the iris is most definitely not as large as it is when I am shooting under continuous lighting.

John Ricard's picture

That doesn’t match my experience in shooting strobes. I’ve been shooting strobes for decades and my strobes have always had modeling lights turned on. The iris in my older photos was not as large as it is when I’m using continuous lighting. That is my experience.

Daniel Medley's picture

I have my modeling lights on precisely to shrink the pupils. Looking through some of my photos the pupils are similar to what I see in your photos in the article. Admittedly, I do shoot in a pretty bright studio.

Andrew Eaton's picture

Here are 3 reasons why continuous LED lights are not so great... 1 Overpowering/ working with daylight is not great, changeable daylight would be very problematic. 2 LED lights do not provide enough power to run large modifiers limiting the quality of light, a 2m indirect octa just wouldn't happen... 3 Lastly the colour rendering of LED constant lights is not great, you can tell when shot have been shot on LED (no mater how much tweaking you do in editing) So yeah if you have some big HMI lights then great, but most won't be using HMI lights.

John Ricard's picture

1) Agree. It's not possible to overpower daylight. LEDs aren't great even if you're shooting in a someone's brightly lit living room if they have a lot of window light.

2) Agree. You don't have any real options for light modifiers. For me, I would always just use the LED panel as a panel. You don't have beauty dishes and magnum reflectors and things like that. It's very limiting to use LEDs. That's why I only use them for headshots.

3) Agree, but.... Saying "you can tell when the shot has been shot on LEDs" is sort of circular logic. You can also tell when the shot was taken by strobes. Or by natural light. So that sentence by itself isn't really saying anything relevant. I've definitely seen some issues with skin redness from LED lighting. I've also seen some beautiful skin tones. LED lighting seems to react different to some skin tones than it does to others. I'll shoot one person and it's perfect. And then the very next person has redness in their images. This isn't a problem for me when I'm using my Profoto strobes. I'm confident I'll develop a fix for the redness in time. For me, the other benefits of doing headshots with LEDs outweighs this problem.

John Ricard's picture

Personally, I don't have a use for a continuous light that is built like a strobe. Not saying it doesn't have value, just saying it isn't something I'm interested. So maybe I should have been more clear, but for me, continuous lighting means LED panels.

John Ricard's picture

My issue with redness using LED comes from using my $5,000 Westcott Flex Kit. #JustSayin'. I'm happy with the purchase though.

David Moore's picture

I keep wanting to go constant. What really draws me in are the LED panels/lights that some can do all the different colors. Also the whole having the pupil be a bit smaller thing. I think a lot of what was said was lost in the Hurley of it all (sorry lol).

John Ricard's picture

The Amaran light that I mentioned in the article is discounted to $525 right now. I own one and I can assure you it is a great deal at that price.

Tundrus Photo's picture

Only photographers would debate/argue over the shape of catchlights. The topic is inconsequential. Or to put it another way, photographic onanism.

bryan wark's picture

So I have never had a problem with any if these "cons" I know what my subject will look like before I take a photo with my strobes I know if they are standing where I need them to, I expose and white balance to my liking without a problem and I have no problem getting completely natural expressions that fit the mood we are going for its actually something a lot of my clients love about me.

I think continuous lights are great and a lot of amazing photographers use them. I just feel the cons listed are more of user error than actual problems with strobe lights.

John Ricard's picture

There are no real cons to using studio strobes. I have no intention of selling my Profoto lights. In fact, I'd love to upgrade to the B10 units.

george andrews's picture

Regarding someone other than Peter Hurley using a triangle system for high end work the renown Douglas Dubler used it many times for his iconic images that were printed in many magazines in the past. He perhaps is one of the best fashion beauty photographers I know and he invented many techniques which have been copied. One was using a triangle of light. His were flash though. He is prominent in the art of portrait photography facebook group. Peter is good Douglas invented it.

Mike Ditz's picture

I would be interested is seeing some of those images. Do you have a link?

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