Why I Sold My Studio Strobes in Favor of Exclusively Using Small Flash

Why I Sold My Studio Strobes in Favor of Exclusively Using Small Flash

I began my journey as a portrait photographer quite obsessed with the premise of blasting large studio strobes through giant modifiers. It was my workflow for years. In studio, I'd usually be washing my model with giant waves of light and on location I'd lug big, powerful strobes along with huge lengths of extension cords so that I could plug in and not bother with heavy battery packs. About a year and a half ago I stopped using my big strobes completely and eventually ended up selling them in favor of completely switching to small flash.

Small Flash Is More Convenient

I imagine this more or less goes without saying but lugging around big strobes is somewhat of an annoyance. It also means lugging around heavy stands and significant weight in sandbags to ensure that they don't topple over. My standard big strobe kit contained three strobes and rolled around in a large bag. My entire speedlight kit contains five lights and weighs less than even one of those original strobes. 

Furthermore, my need for for assistance or running back and fourth to strobes to adjust light power has been replaced with a small commander unit on top of my camera which really isn't a feature that the big strobes offer until you edge into the higher priced range. 

Small flash works just fine for creating the "studio look."

Small Flash Is Universal

Fairly early on I switched from Impact strobes to Alien Bees. That switch meant all of my modifiers were suddenly obsolete and needed to be repurchased. Meanwhile, speedlight modifiers generally require only a hot shoe. It doesn't matter if I'm rocking Nikon, Canon, Yungnuo, Godox, or any other brand of speedlight, my modifiers are all going to work just fine. This universality allows me to invest in a more diverse range of modifiers that I know will last until they wear out (years) and won't need to all be completely replaced if some other company comes out with a new ground breaking light that I feel compelled to buy.

Gelling Small Flash Is Much Easier

Of late, I find myself using more and more gels to add creative mood or even just to balance mixed lighting. Gelling a speedlight is much easier than trying to gel a large strobe. And with the the help of tools such as MagMod or the gel holders created by ExpoImaging, gelling has become even easier than before.  Back when I primarily shot strobe I avoided gels as they added a giant headache to attach to the light, especially if I wanted to also modify the light with a softbox. Meanwhile, small flash empowers me to use gels with almost no effort.

Small Flash Is Cooler

A few years ago I was shooting a costume designer in a full suit of armor in studio blasting him with a set of three strobes. The armor was quite warm to begin with but with the help of the heat released by the big lights the set of armor quickly turned into a furnace. About halfway through the shoot I was worried that my model was going to face heatstroke. Even with the help of an air conditioning unit aimed directly at the model I often found that hot summers made for awfully uncomfortable shoots thanks to the heat generated by large lights. While small flash does create some heat the impact that it has on ambient temperature is trivial at best.

The studio eclipsed 110 degrees during this shoot.

Conclusion

I loved my studio strobes while I had them and there is a certain magic to being able to fire away like a machine gun with full recharge in a second or two, but ultimately I decided that the benefits of small flash vastly out weighed the benefits of large studio heads in almost all situation. Thus, going forward, I have decided that if I do need tremendous flash power for a specific shoot I can always rent a set of large strobes, but for that vast majority of shoots my small flashes are certainly the way to go. Ultimately, moving to small flash has had no discernable impact on image quality which would have been the only factor that truly would have changed my mind. If you don't believe me head over to my Instagram and try to figure out exactly when I made the switch. Good luck.

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76 Comments

jurian kriebel's picture

I made the switch the other way around lately. I've been using speedlights for quiet some time, but they just don't have enough power anymore for the work I do now.

Michael Kormos's picture

I'm with you. For years I've used Nikon Speedlights (SB-900). But a few factors forced me to ultimately upgrade to Profoto B2s.

Batteries. Recharging a dozen AA batteries got annoying, quickly. And on occasions when I'd need faster recycle times, I'd used the optional battery packs, each one of which houses 8AA batteries. It just got to be too much.

Recycling Time: Slow. And on full power, the units would overhear and shut down. This got to be a major issue for me. We photograph a lot of kids and I needed something that can keep up with their pace. Speedlights cannot.

Remote Triggering. Nikon's CLS is great, but relies on short range, line-of-sight infra-red triggering. It's useless outdoors with sunlight present, and indoors it can be unreliable too. I was really attracted by Profoto's Air Remote, which suffers none of the above.

Modifiers: Let's be honest here. Speedlights are for quick, impromptu, supplemental light. They don't run a photo studio. The range of modifiers available for a studio strobe is comprehensive. Modifiers for Speedlights are small, flimsy, and made by third party brands that come and go with the wind. The only exception would be Lastolite, who make some great Speedlight modifiers, but by the time your flash goes through two layers of diffusion, you'll find that the power output is really struggling to keep up.

Power: in a bright studio (like ours), where I normally shoot at ISO100, 1/125, and f/8 in order to drown out the ambient light, a Speedlight would have a heck of a hard time illuminating anything farther than 2 feet away when shot through a soft box. The average Speedlight approximates some 150 watt seconds of power. With Profoto B2s, you've got 500 watt seconds, with no overheating and a snappy recycle time.

I could probably keep going with my list but I don't want to hijack your article. I think that technology has come a long way, and the li-ion batteries now pack so much punch that you can run a cordless, wirelessly-triggered studio strobe more easily and reliably than a Speedlight, which I've found to be more of a burden than I thought.

I use only speedlight but I agree with you, I know it's limitations. I think that the intentions of those articles are way far from instruct people for what's really good, the intention is more about archive viwers. You know that nowdays all the media works with spoilling messages, like you say people's issues are normal or even good and then people read and feel less worst because nowdays the ugly is the new beautiful. Advertisement do the same, like saying that people's fat body is beautiful, buy my product... Or, your weakness is strong, buy me product.. or Your ugly face is cool, buy my beer brand.. and so on.
So.. OKAY, we need motivate people and tell them they can work with speedlight, instead to tell them to improve or they can't be considered proffessional, but I question how far this can go, because people are giving wrong information and this is spoilling people.
One can work with speedlight as I do, and it's okay to tell those people to don't give up while they can't afford, but people exagerate in saying that good equipment don't make great shots, instead great photographers do.
NO WAY, one can't use a true fact to build a lie just don't saying all the story.
For example, I use a sigma 70-200mm f2.8 for portrait and it's much more proffessional than a kit lens, but even this has not the sharpeness enough to produce good stock photos as a prime lens would do and great photo includes image quality also.
One can't make art using a 18-55mm too, instead if one buy a simple 50mm f1.8 they can do great shots. So my point is, equipment let you make photos that no equipment can't do!
But they will continue using this style of articles because they target are not proffessinals or people who are struggling to make it better, they target are VIWERS AND CLICKERS.. if they archive twenty million viewers they don't give a damm to the fact the information is good or right, they just want make people get simpaty to what they write and the information of this article are not complete enough to say one can just use speedlight as tool like in definitive way.

jurian kriebel's picture

Hit the nail on the head there!

What STROBES are you using that produce heat that the model can feel?

Also, most modifiers don't become obsolete, they make things called adapters. For example, many Profit users have long used the 6ft. Elinchrom Octa (and many other Elinchrom products).

Ryan Cooper's picture

I have primarily used both Impact and Alien Bee strobes, both when used heavily would raise the temperature in my studio space by 10 degrees or more.

I just don't think this is true. I guess it could be true if a super bright modeling lamp was on entire time but I don't know why you would do that. And if that is the case you a) don't know what you're doing and b) would have the same issue when using speed-lights

What kind of modeling lamps did you put in there?!? I have used Alien Bees for years and I've never seen any impact on the ambient temperature at all.

Ricky Perrone's picture

How is that even possible? Were you shooting in a closet? What are you putting the speed lights on if your not using light stands? The camera?

Scott Spellman's picture

Huh? There are many good reasons to use flashes, but strobes raising the ambient temperature by 10 degrees is ludicrous.

Dan Howell's picture

I agree. I have used Speedotron and Profoto strobes for 20+ years and have not noticed a single instance a rise in studio temperature. I've worked in both small and large studios. If the author experience a hot studio it seems more likely that the studio is the problem, not the strobes.

Speedlights are not option for the work I do. The power output would not create enough f-value to work at the iso I choose to work at. The volume of shots typically do make AC powered strobes a natural choice. Even the location work I do has been enhanced by using higher power battery strobe units like the AcuteB and Pro7b.

Joseph Anthony's picture

As with any discussion related to "best gear", it comes down to what we are trying to do. If talking about head shots and portraits, and small environmental portraits, a case can be made for speed lights for sure. Will my sedan haul more than a truck? No, never will. But for what I do, my sedan works great. Speedlights are so cheap and flexible that I can group 4 together behind a 7 foot octo and stick 1 for a rim light and then 2 more for some ambiance lighting in the background to highlight something and have money left over for lunch. Nice. Never mind the time I was taking a portrait near a lake and a wind came out of nowhere and blew my box and sandbag into the lake. Ruined the speedlight...I was only out $70.

Dan Howell's picture

how many shots/actuations do you fire in a typical day? Shooting catalogs I typically fire 1500-2000 shots. How many batteries would that be? Do you value modeling lights? I sure do. What is your top recycle rate at full or even half power? Personally, I prefer an exposed flash element behind pyrex which fills a softbox more evenly. Occasionally I value having the option of using an optical spot or ring flash. These are the factors that I have used to select my lighting system.

Also to the OP, I would contrast the assumption that a strobe head is more prone to falling over than speed light--it is the modifier (umbrella, softbox) will pull over a lightstand more than the size weight of the light source.

Joseph Anthony's picture

I agree with everything you said, once again proving the point that the gear you choose depends on what you do. We do not do that same thing so clearly we would not have the same gear. Not necessarily you, but it is interesting to see people get bent out of shape when someone states why they changed gear to fit what they do.

Where in the heck are you getting speedlights for $70?

Michael Aubrey's picture

Modeling lamps can get hot fast.

Jay Jay's picture

I use 4 Einstein strobes in my apartment and have *never* (ever ever) had an issue or noticed my apartment getting warmer by them. Not ever. (That also includes the 3 Alien Bees i used before i picked up the Einsteins).

Also, every strobe manufacturer offers transmitters and receivers for their gear. In fact, more are incorporating their receivers directly *into* their strobes itself (Why Buff still refuses to do that is a mystery). Plus, third party manufactures like Phottix and even the king of super cheap but usable gear, Cowboy Studio, makes transmitters/receivers for everything. I really don't know of a strobe manufacturer who doesn't offer that capability even in their lower line.

Saying the use of modifiers are more diverse is a non issue, since you can get speedrings to fit any modifier you want (Balcar/AlienBees speedrings, as well as every other manufacturer, can be had for $20 bucks on Amazon).

What you are giving up is power. And a lot of it. And a reliance on batteries. a LOT of batteries. Ever had to stop a shoot midway through because one of your batteries is weak and it's now taking twice as long for your flash to recycle to ready? That sucks (and again, this is coming from someone who also has 3 Yongnuos and a Canon speedlight controlled by a trigger). If you're shooting an all day cosplay event, you really need to factor in 2 if not 3 full sets of batteries per flash to make sure you're covered (that's 36 batteries, not counting what's already in the strobes- so 5 speedlights+ 3 sets extra batteries per speedlight= 180 AA batteries (Plus the 20 you already have in them). Is that really more convenient than a strobe with battery pack? Even if you do an external battery pack for them, keep in mind, they're not going to be 100% reliable, as i've seen some fail with very little use.

Indoors, in a controlled setting, speedlights are fine, but if you're shooting outside in the sun or trying to beat the sun, good luck trying to do that. Plus, if you are shooting out in summer or where it's fairly warm, and you shoot fast, you're going to trigger a shutdown when the speedlight starts to overheat, causing you to be out of service for a good 15 minutes (this i can tell you from experience, and happened within 15 min of shooting). That sucks even more than having a suitcase full of extra batteries.

If you aren't sandbagging, that's great. But you will the first time the wind knocks over your softbox/umbrella setup. I've experienced it first hand, and if you're not careful, it will happen.

Never had an issue with gelling (and never heard a photographer ever mention it was a hassle). This includes my 48" Paul Buff Octa, which is giant. Not once a problem.

My Elinchrom strobes fit in the palm in my hand- literally, they're the size of a tennis ball.I can fit 2 of them, the cables, the mounting brackets, and both battery packs, plus meter and everything else in one Lowpro back pack. That's it. I have Manfrotto Nano lightstands that comfortably fit in a standard plastic grocery bag, they're that small folded up. Add the slim case for my 2 softbox umbrellas, and im ready to go anywhere i need to at about the same weight you're looking at. On top of that, i have true HSS, as opposed to the way a speedlight needs to work to achieve it (which also requires more than one in tandem a lot of times).

So while it's great you found a set up that worked for you (it's taken me 8 years to find several that worked for my needs), I will have to respectfully disagree with every single point you made in your article. While i initially thought speedlights would be great for the very reasons you mentioned, i quickly found out from heavy experience that it was definitely not the case. I like your photographs though and glad you've got the skills to light with what you have to work with!

Ryan Cooper's picture

To each his own, in regards to your points.

- I used to run two AB 400s and an AB 800 and my studio would turn into a sauna when using them. No problem at all with my speedlights. Granted my studio wasn't the most optimally ventilated space but I did have AC. Even with the modelling lamps turned off models would become uncomfortable quickly once I started popping the lights.

- Each persons needs are different. I would never even consider doing an event where I'm firing non-stop all day. I've done that once, never again. My battery bag weighs about half as much as a single PCB power pack and I have never even come close to running out of batteries. It is very rare that I even need to swap out batteries during a shoot.

- I didn't say I don't sandbag, I said strobes need more sandbags, they are heavier, need more counterweight. Particularly when mounted on a boom.

- Gelling Einsteins is easier than standard ABs, I will grant you that. However, it still involves stocking a variety of large gel sheets cut to fit the front of the strobe. Those sheets then need to be gaff tapped in front of the light or mounted in some sort of filter holder. In comparison I can quite literally "toss" a magmod toward my light and so long as I'm not a terrible thrower the magnet will clip onto the mount. (though I usually gently place it on the front) ;)

- Elinchrom Quadra are certainly smaller than most strobes and quite attractive. That said, add in a power pack for each light and the kit is still far larger than a speed light kit. The cost of the full Quadra kit is far higher than a speedlight kit as well. (SB700 at $326 vs Ranger + Battery at $999)

- I never said I'd never use studio lights again, in fact if I need the power. (perhaps once a year) I can easily rent whatever the top quality studio strobe is on the market at that given time. For the rest of the year small flash is a superior option for almost every shoot I do.

"I never said I'd never use studio lights again" Huh, the title says "Exclusively" that pretty much means never. Is there an editor in the house? :)

If you're asking about anyone editing articles before publication, you must be new to this site. ;)

Mike Leland's picture

I want the old fstoppers back.

Not new, but hoping!!!

Anonymous's picture

I think some of you are missing the operative phrase here: "Why I...."
He never suggested what anyone else should do. There's absolutely nothing wrong with someone making a different choice from your own.
You had a different experience? That's fine. I wouldn't want to question anyone's honesty or capabilities.

Jay Jay's picture

If we weren't allowed to agree/disagree/debate our opinions, the world would be an incredible sterile and boring place. ;)

Anonymous's picture

It wasn't my intention to stop debate but rather address the tone of some of the comments. Trust me... No one likes to debate more than me! :-)

Anonymous's picture

An account of one persons experience is a valuable thing. Just tuck it away in your information vault for later recall. :-)

Anonymous's picture

My "vault" is pretty small and is built more like a sieve! ;-)

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