Lights, Camera, Action: Why I’m Sticking with Speedlites

Lights, Camera, Action: Why I’m Sticking with Speedlites

When looking at lighting, you have a lot of choices with companies like Profoto, Broncolor, Elinchrom, Paul C. Buff, Godox, and others. Have you asked yourself if the lights from those companies fit how and where you shoot? Does it makes sense to buy that $2,000 strobe or would a couple cheap speedlites achieve your vision?

When having to light people in dynamic situations, nothing helps more than using additive light, more commonly referred to as strobes and flash. For those that are photographing people, being able to control lighting in a multitude of situations makes creating imagery a whole lot easier when shooting portraits, families, weddings, or events. The big questions are how much light do you need and what circumstances are you going to encounter using those lights?

For the past year, I’ve really tried to take the plunge with a strobe set, preferably a three-light setup for on-location work and large groups of people. If you’re like me, you’ve added up the costs of the modifiers and the lighting and cringed a bit. Maybe those pieces will need battery packs and you’ll need get heavier duty stands just to make sure your investment doesn’t hit the pavement during their day-today work. Do you photograph subjects that require 600 watt-seconds of power? Will your modifiers be useful in the situations you envision? Are there other choices that will accomplish your goals?

I decided I needed to take a really intense look at the needs I have and the goals for my future work. I also needed to look at the expense of the equipment and the real-world likelihood of failure or breakdown of that equipment, then add up all the scenarios that us photographers hate dealing with but if you’ve shot long enough, know will eventually happen. These are things like shooting a wedding, when a drunk person decides your lighting stand is a great thing to lean on (there goes a speed light). What if you need to light up a room half the size of a football field but only have three lights (because you went all strobe) and then need to move those lights for dances and portraits? How easy is it to pull a replacement light out and fix the problem on the go? How about a mixed lighting system of strobes and speedlites? But now you have different modifier mounts and a system? 

The choices are daunting and I personally didn’t feel good about any of the options plus the cost commitment to the new system and modifiers. Most strobe work is not done at full power. You are many times balancing ambient light with a nuanced touch of directional light. I'm rarely shooting people and groups in venues at very closed down apertures like f/8 or f/11. The backgrounds are muddy and distracting and I want to show my subjects separate from those scenes, so I use light and a thinner field of focus so the viewer looks where I want them to. Even groups of people in two rows at a mid aperture like f/5.6 when backed up enough will have enough depth of field to be in focus, and I can already achieve that with only one speedlite bounced off a wall. I can double that power and gain an extra stop of light to stop down more or lower the power on my flashes together to stop motion with one additional speed light on a light stand next to me using the exact same technique. 

So, what about shooting in midday sun? You need those power outputs when shooting in that, right? Maybe. I went through my work the past three years and couldn’t find an instance where I had to shoot outside and compete with direct sunlight. Where I am, I can work around it with open shade from buildings and trees. I can use high speed sync or a neutral density filter and put two umbrellas overlapping one another, and I now have a larger light source with about 100 watt-seconds of power. This way, I can balance my ambient and directional light for a portrait even if it’s full length. I can use an octabox with a three-light bracket and have even more power with less chance of wind knocking things down. Though very rare, I can work around the predicament where a more powerful strobe would make that type of shoot easier. There are limits, but like everything with photography, you are working within your tool set to make the most from what it has to offer.  

My setup currently is four Canon 600EX-RT speedlites and three Yongnuo YN600EX-RT speedlites. I primarily use the Canon brand for on-camera flash and the built-in triggers because the infrared beam focuses faster than the Yongnuo version speedlites. The Canons were expensive to get fixed when they were damaged and averaged about $200 each time. Every time this has happened was when my flashes were off camera, so I now only use the Yongnuo speed lights for OCF, because I can buy a brand new speedlite for almost half the cost of repairing the Canon. Besides basic umbrellas, I’ve used Westcott brand modifiers like the Apollo Orb and Rapid Box Light Kit. For the look of larger lights, I can always shoot through a scrim that's included in the Impact 5-in-1 Oval Reflector. Expo Imaging Rogue Gels have been a mainstay in my kit for a long time, and I’ve used the Expo Imaging Rogue FlashBender as a directional key light.

I am purchasing an addition to continue to take advantage of the kit I have decided to keep, and that’s the MagMod system. Without the worries of spending a considerable sum on new lights and the modifiers to fit those lights, it made sense to have a system that could be added to my kit that may make creating imagery faster. It made sense when thinking of creating dynamic scenes and the time savings when comparing the Magmod modifiers to the cost of new lights, soft boxes, beauty dishes, gels, and grids. My shooting style is fast-paced, and my modifiers are great, but not necessarily for those situations and have slowed me down sometimes. I’ll see how these new modifiers work over time, but shooting a wedding yesterday and using the Magmod tools was faster and easier than some of my current kit. 

If you’re looking for new lights or modifiers, have you looked at your shooting style first? Are you intrigued by the idea of new equipment and the possibilities it can offer? Are you trying to improve the work and lighting system you currently have, or are you maybe looking for a problem that isn’t really there?

Lead image by Alexander Dummer, used under Creative Commons.

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28 Comments

Mike Victorick's picture

I've moved to 1 good 860 for each body and 2 ad200s. Perfect setup for me.

Anders Madsen's picture

For event photography, speedlites are a godsend - compact, lightweight, no power cords and the ability to use HSS to combat the sun. No two ways about it.

However, in general I find that they work best when you are augmenting the existing light, not replacing it. I just finished a project for a commercial client where we needed to overpower some sunlight coming through windows in the ceiling and a lot of awful yellow-greenish fluorescent lights in a large auto repair shop (the lights were sensor-activated, so short of pulling the fuse, we could not turn them off).

This is one scenario where my Elinchroms were firing at 500 Ws for once, and while I do like to use a speedlite when I can, I cannot see myself getting through the day without studio strobes. For added portability I bought an external battery pack that will give me around 200 full power flashes at 400 Ws with my ordinary studio strobes - that is a lot more economical than buying battery powered strobes, but also noticeably heavier. A bonus is the ability to power your laptop or phone from the battery pack if needed.

Speedlites have one other inherent issue that sometimes drives me nuts: When running without an external battery pack (and sometimes even with one), the recycle time can be maddening, especially when you have a busy CEO in front of you - it's simply not good enough to go click - wait 3 seconds - click - wait 3 seconds again in that case.

The problem with speed lights for me is the teeny tiny controls and the hard-to-see LCD. In the studio they drive me mad. Its also the reason I bought an Elinchrom Quadra to travel with - that and the additional power. I could match it with multiple speed lights (like 5), but then there would be more of those teeny tiny controls ... Yea, and the recycle time. Use a sun dial ...

Jeff McCollough's picture

Hahahaha what are you a giant?

No, just old. With matching eyesight.

Use TTL. Nothing to control :)

TTL is great when warranted. It's not always warranted.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I have the same two problems (age and bad eye sight). So, I applied a large sticker on each of my speedlights and the two AD200's and wrote a letter from A to D on each one (large and bold). It is easy to see and ID each when placing them. Each flash is set to a group corresponding to the letter (I divided all my flashes to four groups). After placing the lights as I want them I then control the power from my on camera trigger.

I once saw a photographer using large cards (like 8x10) with huge letters written on them hanging from the light stands. He did not have to remember what flash belongs to what group, a quick look at the card and he changed the power of that light. Even with bad sight I could read the letters from 20-30 yards. I took the idea from him and made it work for me.

Kirk Darling's picture

Works for me, too. Same reason.

Gil N's picture

Speedlites are a godsend for intermerdiate photographers like me. Cheap and reliable enough to get consistent results, also very portable. I don't think I'll need anyting more powerful than my AD200 for a moment.

why not have both and close the debate there? i love having options.

+1.

I have several Yongnuo flashes with built-in radio triggers plus extra YN622c triggers. The flexibility to use these with traditional modifier on a stand or strategically placing them around a room to bounce off walls or ceilings is very useful. But, there are times when more power gives me more control and more options.

The RoveLight 600 battery powered monolight has become a staple for on-location studio lighting of large groups, outdoor senior photo shoots, and photo booths. With the YN622 triggers, I can also use these monolights and the Yongnuo flashes together for more complex setups.

I use to gang up several flashes when I needed more power, but it's so much easier to use the RoveLight in these situations. As long as I don't need a cord or an external battery, these monolights are just big flashes and I can't see a lighting kit without both types of lights.

Robert Nurse's picture

Haha, same here. Having both is a "godsend"!

The Godox system is very sweet for this type of work. From small flashguns (speedlights) to 600 Watt-seconds which can be ganged together to produce a 2400 watt-second light. The nice thing is that they all use the same transmitter and reciver system, so you can mix and match as needed. I bought a manual only (badged Pixapro) Ving 850 ii for about £50 new on Amazon two weeks ago. As JT said, much cheaper to just replace a flash than getting a Canon/Nikon flash repaired.

One thing to rember is that with Godox there is NO backup in place. You break it - you buy a new one.

For me the AD 200 is a game-changer- the power of 3 speed lights in an extremely portable package with fast recycle/rechargeable battery. It hits the 'sweet spot' for many shoots of the usual trade-off of power versus portability. By ganging 2 together- or using the Magmod MagBeam you can get some pretty good 'punch' even in brighter sunlight.

Matt Rennells's picture

While I held this thought for a long time, after using a pair of Godox AD600s to augment my speedlights, I find them invaluable. Battery operated. Stable on a stand (I primarily use the extension head and hang the main body off of the stand for weight/support). And at anything darker than say f/2.8 and ISO 400, they recycle faster than my camera can take photos. And when I need to overpower the sun, I've got the power to do so.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I am absolutely with you on that. I am completely on the Godox system and it makes things so much easier, I do not have the 600w/s strobe, the AD200's (2 of them) are the most powerful lights I have.

How many times I shoot in mid day full sun? Almost never. Even when doing a wedding in August I will take the couple to a shaded area or go to an urban location where buildings and windows help soften the light. Besides, 1) I have no desire to subject my client and myself to a mid-day summer sun, things get very cranky very fast and 2) I have no desire carrying huge strobes (with matching huge lights stands and huge modifiers) when photographing on location. Things get very slow and awfully cumbersome.

On camera speed light bounced from various objects (even white shirt or blouse) and a speed light on a stand is all I need.

As for events, I discovered long ago that with today's cameras's ability to shoot at 1200, 1600 and higher ISO, (and wide open at slow shutter speed) the creative look of fill light and the venue's colorful ambient light, gives the photos a MUCH more interesting look. As opposed to flooding the venue with 1200w/s and shooting f/11. When doing that, a fun and colorful wedding looks more like a bunch of drunk people in a conference.

I shoot events in huge halls and high ceilings with two AD200 on 1/4 power on two corners of the venue and on-camera flash at 1/4 or 1/2 power. If I need more light I place two V850's on opposite wall. All controlled by the V860II on the camera.

Michael Kormos's picture

Studio strobes are designed for studio use. Speedlights are small travel lights. You can't expect to get the reliability, consistency, and most importantly - power and recycle time out of something that's powered by four AA batteries.

I love speedlights, but they're not the right tool for a studio job, where a modifier alone eats up 2-4 stops of light. Now imagine shooting at f/8 on top of it, and going click, click, click.

Even Nikon and Canon's flagship speedlights can't put out the type of light you'd need, and before you'd know it, the units would overheat.

Lastly, they neither have the support of wide range of modifiers that studio shooters need, nor are they structurally sound to hold anything large.

You have to define "studio job" to make such a blanket statement as "they're not the right tool for a studio job". They might not be the right tool for a very large studio shoot for cars with 16' softbanks. They ABSOLUTELY can function well in a studio environment for general portraiture.

Particularly the newer flashes like Godox. We're using AD200s to great effect, even with large modifiers like a 7' umbrella.

Kirk Darling's picture

Speedlights can be made to function for studio portraiture, but if that's not the smart way to live if studio portraiture is how one is paying the mortgage. And, no, they don't function "well."

Godox AD200s are not really speedlights--trying to mount one on a camera is using that tool for the wrong purpose as well.

Mmmk.

As to the AD200 not being a speedlight, you're correct - but it's definitely closer in form factor to a speedlight than a traditional strobe.

Kirk Darling's picture

I guess it depends on how you want to define "form factor." Personally, I include the hot foot as an essential characteristic of the speedlight form factor. If it has only a stand mount, it doesn't have the form factor of a speedlight.

Kirk Darling's picture

Well, I change my position on the AD200...Adorama has just released a remote head for the Ad200 that has a camera mount foot.

Marc DeGeorge's picture

I use a combination of speedlights and strobes, and so to save some $$ on modifiers, I bought speedlight mounts that are actually Bowens-S mount compatible. So I can use the same speedring and mount for both a speedlight and a strobe. Cuts down on how many modifiers you need to bring to a gig, too.

Ted Chen's picture

I've found that Godox is the way to go, simply because (like others have mentioned) of their large range and cross compatibility, plus they are cheaper to replace then a repair of your Profoto gear.

I just had my Profoto TTL-C remote die on me even though I wasn't using it recently. I can't bear to imagine how much the repair cost will be.

Colin Robertson's picture

Like many others here, I'm really digging the Godox system. I find the controller (xpro) far easier to use than the Canon speedlite stuff and the variety of light types is awesome. Also, the price is right. Also, lithium-ion batteries not only recycle faster, but they're RECHARGEABLE and have excellent battery life.

I've got 2 AD200's and an AD600. I can use both AD200's together in a bowens mount and get 400 w/s out of them. I can't see any reason why I'd want to buy on-brand lights at the moment.

Low ISO. Precision. Recycle time. These are the reasons I stay away from speedlights.

You just gave me an idea for my blog.
Thanks!

Kenneth Jordan's picture

Rich Cirmenello I'd love to see a comparison made using lith ion battery gear. TIA!