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Replacing Strobes With Constant LED Lighting

Strobes are at the core of any serious studio photographer's kit, mainly because they're cheap and powerful. However, as you can see from this video, constant LED lights are catching up fast and are now a real option for anyone looking to try something different with their portrait work.

In this video from Adorama, portrait photographer Emily Teague replaces her strobe kit with a selection of LED lights from Nanlite. She starts off with her model, Laura Fernanda, close to the backdrop in a studio. Teague then begins to introduce the lights one by one. First, she brings in the Nanlite Compac 200B as a key light. We can, of course, immediately see one of the main benefits of using high-powered LEDs instead of strobes. 

With LEDs, we are seeing how the light is falling on the model without having to take a test shot. Not only that but many of these LEDs are bi-color, which means their color temperature can be controlled, though the actual Kelvin range will differ depending on the specific product. This allows for some creative applications as well as the ability to dial in an accurate temperature for natural skin tones. 

Unfortunately, a decent, powerful LED will set you back further than a regular strobe. The Compac 200B — while wonderfully soft and versatile — costs $629 at B&H. 

At the end of the day, it all depends on what suits your own style and workflow. A product photographer, for instance, would find no use for these lights because of their lack of power. But for the portrait photographer on the go, lights like these are a real option.

Do you use constant lighting in your photography?

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13 Comments

Tony Northrup's picture

We really tried to make continuous lights work because it makes it much easier to accurately preview the lighting and you can see the effects on videos and smartphones. We also happen to own really powerful continuous lights for video. Ultimately we switched back to using strobes for stills because
1) the bright continuous light hurts the model's eyes, which makes them uncomfortable, which doesn't help the picture-taking process,
2) With light modifiers, it was never going to be bright enough to properly kill sunlight, so controlling ambient light becomes a big limiter in your creativity,
3) It's hot. Even modern LEDs get hot when you're under them for long enough
4) Power - bright continuous lights burn batteries fast, and wall power limits your locations and people can trip over the cables.

They CAN work, especially in a dark room without sunlight (like shown in the video) and if you're willing to shoot at higher ISOs...

Chase Wilson's picture

I’ve been considering making the jump to continuous, mainly because I want to work with the free ambient light. I’m mainly looking at the AD600 aputure’s, in the event outdoor location in the day is required.

We know continuous works well, they use it in movie production day in and day out. Albeit the setups are large and they bring their own power (also large and they have noise drawbacks).

Do you have any videos or write-ups about your experiences? I’m interested in the kinds of shots you were trying to create.

Jeff Bennion's picture

Almost everything I've shot this year has been with constant lights only, except outdoor stuff. Why don't you drive down and we'll make some stories together. I have an article coming out soon looking at another photographer's switch over to constant lights.

Chase Wilson's picture

I recently moved to ATX. But when I head out to SD I’ll hit you up for sure.

Which light setup did you go with? And how has the transition been for you?

Jeff Bennion's picture

I built my whole brand around dramatic light studio shots - low key lighting, heavy shadows, stripbox for highlights, etc. In my new studio, I built two giant fake windows powered with 24,000 lumens of constant light and triple diffused. I use that as the keylight in most of my images now and the Godox 100w bicolor and the 60w bicolor lights with bowens mount for either fill or key light or with an optical snoot. My new favorite modifier is my lantern, which I book up high to mimic a chandelier. I've been doing a lot of stuff lately too with pulling curtains closed on the fake windows and creating slivers of light. In sum, I'd say having the background of shaping light with strobes and modifiers really helped me transition to using fake windows as key light and shaping and angling and posing to still get the control I loved with shooting with strobes on seamless. I still have that option, but I'm in love with my new constant light options. I also add video as an upsell to shoots, and having that constant light lets me bounce back and forth between shooting stills and video.

Jan Holler's picture

Impressive! How did you manage the colour temperatures of the different lights? Are they even remotely controllable? Do you still add a flash sometimes? Cheers! -jan

Jeff Bennion's picture

One window is about 5000k, so slightly warm. I have it adjacent a cool blue wall with rich tones and a rich brown flooring. For fill, I use a bi color light and set it to 5000k to match. In the other room, the lights are much cooler, about 6500k. I have opposite the window a 10-bulb chandelier with ultra warm bulbs, like 3000k. In that room, I have muted tones - a kind of mint green wall paper with metallic gold accent foil that kicks back just enought of the warm chandelier light. I have an ivory chaise lounge, birchwood vinyl flooring, with rich crimson curtains for a little punch of that rich regal tone against the muted tones and the cool and warm balance of lights. Then we balance the warm and the cool tones there by standing in different spots, either between the chandelier and window for a mix of 6500k and 3000k on opposite sides of the body, playing with turning the body to change the angle of the cool and warm light. Or you stand with the chandelier behind you and it acts as a warm rim light hitting your hair and the waist. There's going to be an article on it 😂

Jan Holler's picture

Thank you. I'm looking forward to reading your article. Is your studio in a castle? :-)

Maurice Ramirez's picture

Its not just in overpowering the sun but even normally-lit office spaces with typical ceiling cans and track lights. Its surprising how much power is required; yesterday's job I had a large diffuser and didn't get to a clean, black base frame until 1/4 power (AD600) at f8, 100 iso, 1/250th. Less power showed orange hotspots on exec foreheads. I could have flagged those but who's got time for that.

For a dim, controlled set this is great because can one can shoot video b-roll, plus its a gentler and more fluid shooting process, but going continuous-only would be too limiting if you're going out to a variety of clients and situations.

David T's picture

Tried a few LEDs with 150w and 300w in my studio.

It can work, but it's not as clean as strobes and it literally burns through color gels.
Also the models miss the "beep" audio cue... I ended up powering on a strobe and pointing it at the wall.

If one did mixed content with stories/mobile vids like cosplayers or influencers I can see the advantages.

Pete Coco's picture

I use a Westcott flex kit for most of my studio portraiture. I love it. The light is beautiful and you can see exactly what you will get. For headshots and portraits it is a great option.

Alexander Stephan's picture

This was somewhat painful to watch because every time an adjustment was made there was an awkward pause to look at the computer screen to see what it looks like. The biggest advantage of constant lighting is so that you don’t need do that.

This is also a case for upgrading to mirrorless -if the only reason you need to look at a screen to check the look is to see the depth of field, a mirrorless camera would solve that, making your shoot go much more smoothly.

Midwest Photo64's picture

Have you ever seen a Plumber show up with a pair of shears? Pick the right tool for the job. Light sources are creative tool​s​ that give you a path to your vision​ - be versatile​. The thought that "move all your lighting" seems to​ needlessly​ handicap yourself with only one tool.

I"ve used mostly speedlights for 15 years and tried various continuous lighting over that period, and never found anything that I thought worked better or as versatile as speed lights/strobes. There were continuous lights before LEDs - Actually, that is all that existed. And before that all that existed was "available light." The pattern of innovation is pretty clear. I do not understand why some write articles like it didn't exist before. It's been around forever and there is a reason why strobes were invented. If you need to roll a square rock before knowing a circle works better, well...

Tony Northrup's comment above is spot on, especially the brightness which is too bright for people - it hurts. Try photographing someone with cataracts or other eye health issues. They are not going to understand why you can't dim the light.

I would Add two things to his list:
1) It is easier to keep ISOs low with speedlights/strobes. The goal should always be to produce the best file/image possible.

2) Repeatability/consistency. I can shoot 200 headshots across multiple days and locations for a company, and they all look like they were taken at the same time. Being able to overpower ambient light is very difficult with continuous light. ​There is a reason why TV and Film have Gaffers and lighting crews that specialize in it. ​

​Honestly most articles about this topic alway have an undertone of "lighting is hard '' and trying to find an easy way out. Lighting is difficult, there are no shortcuts to learning it. Continuous LED lighting will not make it easier.