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.


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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Ryan Cooper's picture

I was using two Neewer flat panel reflectors on either side vertically. Basically a 6 foot vertical clam shell. Each reflector had a speedlight aimed at it.

Each light was mounted about 4 feet back in a Cheetah Speed Pro Brackert which allowed me to mount a cone reflector on the front of each to control spill

I also had a circular diffuser below the model angled up that a third speedlight was blasting through to fill shadows.

Finally, the background was an 80" parabolic umbrella that had a shoot through scrim on it. I put two more speedlights in the umbrella and set their power to be just high enough to blow out the background and also account for the rim highlight around her jaw.

The diagram attached sorta shows it, though the editor didn't have any speedlight gfx so had to use strobes to signify the positions of the speedlights. The shoot was done for my review of the flat panel reflector: https://fstoppers.com/originals/fstoppers-reviews-neewer-flat-panel-ligh...

PS: I wouldn't recommend trusting catch lights as signs of light set up. While I didn't in this case, personally, I often enhance or even replace catch lights in post.

Thank you so much Ryan for this detailed explanation. It's an eyeopener (along with the article).
I have a lot (I mean A LOT) to learn and I have a couple of speedlights. But was thinking of saving for strobes.... But something at the back of my head was holding me up. I think that something was this article of yours, yet to be written :) Now that you wrote it I know - I DON'T NEED STROBES!!!! YAYYYYYYYY!!!!! :) Thanks again!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Guy Daudelin's picture

Hi, fellow Canadian,

I have been in the same position as you, wondering if I should switch to being exclusive on one system or the other. I have not been able to make a decision.

I have 3 lighting kit :
Speedlite kit
Studio strobes kit
Battery studio strobe kit

While there is so much stuff I like about the speedlite kit, I always have the feeling that I don't gain much space or weight when I use them. For example, if I want to use them in a umbrella-style softbox, I need the Phottix bracket to be able to have versatilty with it. I don't need this bracket with strobes.

I agree with you on the ease to gel speedlites. I have even been thinking about creating something for my Elinchrom lights which would make it easier.

Eduardo Francés's picture

Mirrorless or DSLR, zoom vs primes, hot shoe strobes vs studio flashes...

Why people keep thinking gear is like getting married with a person, gear are things... Repeat things!

Why limit yourself? Why would you hinder your craft? I dont know any painter who wouldnt use all his/her brushes to make their art. A chef uses all his/her skillets, pans, oven, blender, etc. To make his/ her dishes.

The only absolutes are the art of making the photo and the photo itself as a final product born out of the passion, Love and creativity you poured in your heart to do it.

Regardless if you used a Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, small or big flashes, TTL or manual, mirrorless, DSLR, medium format, small camera, Iphone, android, APS-C, 4/3, film or digital, polaroid or negative.

Tools are only means to accomplish an end...

Love your photos and not your gear.

David Moore's picture

Different tools for different jobs. I do wish that there was a modeling light for speedlites.

Sky Simone's picture

Very informative.

Anonymous's picture

LOL, I seriously can't believe that these articles are really heading towards petapixel standards.

Really nice that fstoppers is allowing just anyone to write regardless of their knowledge on subjects:

"Meanwhile, speedlight modifiers generally require only a hot shoe."

No, speedlight goes in the hot shoe, not the modifier. You buy a speedring that the modifiers can go onto, and these different speedrings then can use all the old modifiers.

As other people have mentioned, it depends what you are shooting. It appears Ryan primarily shoots fairly close-up portraits of one person. The speedlights work for him. Other types of shoots require different lighting solutions. For instance, shooting a group of people with a large light requires a lot of light. ISO is a factor to consider as well. Raising the ISO to compensate for a speedlight with low power won't work on commercial shoots when clients need as little noise as possible for prints ads, 2 page magazine spreads, etc.

Matt Kosterman's picture

I think it is great that you can do the photography you do with primarily speed lights. I tried going that route several years ago before I invested in studio strobes and I found it to be a pain in the ass. I even went to an all day seminar given by two fairly well-known photographers. By the time you buy the speed lights, the triggers, the adapters, etc, you've spent some dough. Not as much as Profoto B2s, but still some dough. And I thought the speed light set-up was a much bigger pain than studio strobes, with all the brackets and triggers and cables and potentially battery packs and when you start getting into the multi-head holders so you can up your power output- oy! What a pain! I was always forgetting some piece or another.

To save money, I bought some Calumet triggers. Man, did those things do a number on batteries! It seemed like every time I went to use them, I needed new batteries. And they probably had a 3-5% miss rate. No bueno.

I never got nearly as consistent results as I do with my Profoto kit. Maybe it was the SB-800s I was using, I dunno. The recycle time sucked, the color temperature and power level varied from shot to shot. And the recycle time can't compare. And it falls off quickly as the batteries lose power.

It might be more work to schlep and I might need an assistant to help with the setup, but when I show up on a job with Profoto heads (both owned and rented) that I am being well-paid to execute, I KNOW everything is going to work. Set up is an absolute breeze. Other than power (if applicable), there are no wires.

Most top brand studio strobes have a large number of modifiers available, gelling them isn't really THAT big a deal and they give me the same light, pop after pop after pop. No, I don't think you can see the difference in the "quality" of the light, but you can see the difference in the power output. And I never had anywhere near the same level of confidence with speed lights that I have with studio strobes. To me, that is worth at least half the price of admission. Because the fewer things I have to worry about on a shoot, the more brain power I have left to deal with the client and the shot.

Speedlights might be less expensive initially, but I think over the long haul, studio strobes are the better investment. My three year old Profoto D1 500's are still worth 60+% of what I paid three years ago and they have years of life left in them. Not to mention, I'd need 6-8 speed lights to give me the same power.

Just my 10 cents.

jessepatterson's picture

Hi Ryan. What speedlites are you using? Just wandering what you use since I use all Flashpoint branded gear now (AD600s, AD360, AD200, V860II)

Ryan Cooper's picture

I use Nikon DB-700s

Andre Goulet's picture

You mean your strobes generate that much heat without modelling lamps on? That is weird. If you are comparing speed lights and strobes, you have to compare the strobes with modelling lamps off.

I have never seen strobes without modelling lamps on generate enough heat to notice it beyond about 1/2' from the light.

My strobes have 250w modelling lamps and when they are on, there is a bit of heat generated, but not much.

So, there must be something wrong with your strobes.

Jahl Marshall's picture

I wish it was that easy, however until cameras manufacture electronic or leaf shutters for super high sync speeds tiny speed lights will never produce enough power for sunny day shoots

Ryan Cooper's picture

Its all about the right tool for the job. If I needed to be constantly overpowering bright sun with HSS then I wouldn't have ditched strobes. (Though to be fair, the vast majority of strobes on the market don't even support HSS anyway). How many photographers often find themselves in such a situation? Doing portraiture at high noon, in direct sunlight at f/1.4? I'd probably flag, scrim, or find shade in that situation long before I tried to muscle my lights to fight with the sunlight.

I don't think I've ever been in a situation with a speedlight where I felt that I couldn't get enough light out of it to make HSS work for me. (Though sometimes that does mean putting 3 or 4 lights in one modifier, but those situations are pretty rare and usually when I'm busting out a 80" parabolic)

you don't want to carry strobes and you don't want to carry other equipment? sounds like you don't want to put in the work.

Ryan Cooper's picture

You and I have different ideas of work I suppose. ;) My priority is the photography and focusing on the shoot, not an ironman competition of how many trips to and from the car it takes to get all the gear on location.