Why I'm Using LED Lights Over Strobes for Many Shoots and Why They're the Future of Lighting

Why I'm Using LED Lights Over Strobes for Many Shoots and Why They're the Future of Lighting

In many of my shoots over the last year, I have opted to use only LED continuous lights over my strobes, and I can only see that trend continuing. Here's why I think you ought to consider LEDs if you haven't tried them yet.

Portability Both on and off Set

Ryan Beatty shot for FAULT Magazine. My R3 set to its coolest Kelvin is off camera right, then a small LED on a lightstand is very close camera left set to orange. The wall was already a teal color.

My strobes and modifiers are reasonably large; there are bigger and more complex units, and there are more compact, flashgun style strobes. Nevertheless, all of my strobe lighting kit I take on a job is cumbersome. So much so, in fact, that if I'm to take all of it, I have to drive and can't take public transport, as it's too much to carry at any one time. My LEDs, however, are a different story. I can take my Phottix R3s, and a whole host of handheld LEDs (Phottix M180, Aputure MC, and Falconeyes F7) in my rolling case or even just carry them. The small LEDs go mostly in my camera bag anyway. I like being able to carry all necessary gear from place to place without altering the curvature of my spine.

A second — admittedly lesser — perk is not having to tether or use wireless adaptors to connect to my lights. This means I'm carrying one fewer item that needs batteries, and my camera is lighter. Camera weights don't bother me generally, but if I can strip weight off it for no loss, I'm going to.

  • Lightweight continuous LEDs not only means you're not altering the curvature of your spine when moving the equipment, but that reshuffles on set aren't a whole "thing."
  • Not having tethers or wireless adaptors frees up more space in your bag and on your camera and makes your camera lighter to shoot with too.

Small Size on Set

JJ Julius Son of band KALEO shot for EUPHORIA Magazine. An R3 is to camera left, a small LED on a lightstand is camera right for the harsh rim light on the back of JJ's head, and top right of JJ's head is another small LED on a lightstand to add a touch more separation and act as a practical.

Admittedly, a lot of the size of strobes is their modifiers, but as they're often necessary components of your lighting, I'll roll that into one. LEDs are much thinner. I slide my key light LEDs into all sorts of tight spots between sofas and bookshelves, flush against walls, and so on. The depth alone of my softbox on my strobes means it can't go almost anywhere but in open spaces.

The perk of the little LED light bricks is that whether you mount them on a light stand or just put them on a shelf or ledge, they're small enough that they can act as a rim light and be eclipsed by your subject's head easily. I use this all the time to add depth, as you can see in the image above. You can, of course, do this with a strobe and no modifier, but it's much easier with small LEDs.

Ease of Creative Control With Color and Temperature

Ryan Beatty shot for FAULT Magazine. Three LEDS in play: a small one set to teal/blue to camera left, a small one set to orange to camera right, and then one more neutral fill light above the subject and to the right.

​​​​​​​This is by far the most impactful area of using LEDs over strobes for me. Yes, I'm au fait with gels and how you can change the color of a strobe's light, but how easy it is with LEDs is incredible. I tend to veer sharply one of two ways on shoots: black and white or bold colors. With all my LEDs set up, I can, at a mere touch of a few buttons, overhaul a scene. Sadly my R3s only have temperature control, but while I'd love them to have the sort of variation of settings my smaller LEDs have, it's not much of a hindrance. With the entire RGB scale as an option, I often experiment with drastic light setups after I get my intended shots.

Real-Time Adjustments

JJ Julius Son of band KALEO shot for EUPHORIA Magazine. Just one key light strobe hidden behind the big metal object to the left.

You get to the point where you can guess all the settings for your cameras and strobes, but making adjustments in real-time and watching the changes in live view allows you to spot things you might have missed, as well as be perfectly accurate. If you've used strobes in a situation where the natural light is often changing, you'd really see the benefits of LEDs. During my shoot with KALEO, we went onto the rooftop of the Warner Music building, and the clouds were changing the light rapidly, as well as altering the temperature of the image (less of an issue). There isn't a great deal of difference between strobes and LEDs in this area if you're experienced, but it's definitely easier.

The Low Prices

I don't just use LEDs in my editorial portraiture for magazines either. This was a shot for a brand using one small LED off camera left to light the strap, one further away camera right to light the bezel, and then the key light. This shot is in fact a long exposure to capture the lume of the watch.

I'll come straight in all guns blazing here: Every LED I own has a combined price of less than one good strobe head. If you click the linked gear at the start of the paragraph, you'll see that for about $600, you could have what I used for most of my shots. In all truth, I would like to upgrade the R3s with Phottix R4s or something even more powerful and flexible, but even then, I'd still be far below high-end strobes. No, you don't get the power of strobes yet, but I rarely need to really make my strobes sweat, though admittedly wedding photographers might, for example. In fact, for the sake of balance, I'll list the downsides of using LEDs over strobes.


If LEDs were better than strobes in all areas, this article wouldn't be worth writing (who knows, maybe it wasn't)! I still use strobes for certain shoots, but the shift from strobes to LEDs has been picking up momentum for a year or so now. So, what are the downsides?

  • LEDs are not as powerful as strobes and can't always overpower natural light, but I assure you, that's not far off.
  • The battery life of my R3s is less than my strobe by a long chalk, though it can be plugged in, of course. Plugging them in removes a lot of the portability that I like, though.
  • Modifiers are trickier and sometimes less effective. Some LEDs have built-in frosting to spread light more evenly like a softbox, but that does remove some creative control.
  • People are sometimes a bit confused as to why you're not using big strobes like top photographers. That confusion is quickly dispelled when they see the images on the back of the camera, but it may bother some people that they don't look "professional."

What Do You Make of the Strobes Versus LED Debate?

Do you use LEDs in your work? If so, what draws you to them? If you prefer strobes, why is that the case? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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LEDs have their strengths (especially if you also shoot video), but strobes are more flexible and far superior when it comes to power and battery life.

Also, you seem to make an unfair comparison:

"... you'll see that for about $600, you could have what I used for most of my shots. In all truth, I would like to upgrade the R3s with Phottix R4s or something even more powerful and flexible, but even then, I'd still be far below high-end strobes."

If you're going to reference high-end strobes, you should also reference high-end LED lights, which can be pretty pricey.

You could put together a pretty great speedlight kit for less than $600 and have much more power and battery life.

Agreed, when I was getting into lighting, I was under the impression I had to shell out for some Profoto or other high end lights, because that's all I saw people use.

Then came Godox and my prayers were answered. They're not the best, but for the money they can't be beat.

"They're not the best, but for the money they can't be beat." you're the first one person I've heard say this about Godox. Thanks for your honesty, everyone else always talks about them like they are flawless. What are draw back you find with them?

I would have to say consistency, colour, and mayyyybe reliability (but that's usually just human error, not something that is faulty).

Honestly I don't think beginners, or even avanced users would even be able to tell a difference between profoto and godox lights, in terms of light quality. I'm pretty damn sure I can't.

I think it boils down to quality of life for the user. I've noticed with my godox lights, sorting/culling images, I can see some subtle colour shifts between shots, as well as consistency of brightness. Once again, this could be user error, shooting too quickly, not letting it get enough time to recharge the cycles.

That being said, I'm immensely happy with my godox setup, it got me into the lighting game at a fraction of the cost of other brands. I don't plan on changing any time soon.

Yeah you're right, fair point.

Yea Joe McNally and David Hobby do quite well with small strobes.

Phottix R4's @22" out of a case is not that portable! How big is it in a protective case? & 7.3lbs/3.3Kg. I wouldn't want be carrying one or a couple of them on Public Transport withe rest of my gear.

"LEDs are not as powerful as strobes and can't always overpower natural light, but I assure you, that's not far off." That's already doable with other continuous light. To "overpower natural light" with a continuous light source however, you need a lot of power, which makes them not as portable and they'll also produce a lot of heat (yes, even LEDs). I've used powerful HMI's before and although the output is plenty for video, for photos it doesn't compare to strobes.

LED's are great, but not an alternative to strobes. Just different tools.

Part of the reason of the popularity of LED lighting in photography is the same reason smartphones and mirrorless cameras are popular. The current generation of photographers are accustomed to seeing the image processed before actually taking it. Both SLRs and flash demand some craft skills with respect to previsualizing stop differences, exposure latitudes and light quality; you don’t know that you’ve got the image until after you’ve taken it … and processed it in the case of film.

The downside as you note is power. Most that work regularly with LEDs have to use their lenses wide open, their ISO 12232 settings significantly above base, and are forced to avoid light modifiers. And it helps if your subject is still. See the recent portrait works for Greg Gorman as an example of a style where these limitations are managed.

For myself, shooting fashion and beauty, the benefits of flash are power with the ability to use a range of light modifiers, and the inherent ability to freeze the subject for tack sharp images both with flash duration and the ability to work with smaller apertures for greater depth of field to encompass the subject.

Portable? Yes if you are talking about those light cubes all over instagram that can barely overpower my desk lamp. Powerful? Yes if they carry a battery size of a car battery. So you cant have the best of both worlds at this moment. When that day comes, i bet it wont be LED but something completely new.

So much wrong with this article...

Perhaps you'd care to enlighten us.

I prefer strobes: They are much, much more powerful and have an even frequency range and not these spikes of some frequencies or a very narrow band of light as most LED lights have.
And the weight of the Phottix R4 is not less than that of an Elinchrom ELB400.
I consider LED lights as an addition and not at all as an replacement for flashes.

Another advantage of strobes is that they freeze the motion of your subject. Especially when shooting animals or children which move a lot it can happen that you get slight motion blur with LEDs. Of course you can use higher shutter speed but that means that your LEDs must be even more powerful...

I've been using both flash and LED for portraiture, and in general, I'm not that impressed with the color fidelity of the LED lamps, even if there are a couple of notches above the absolute discount models (Aputure Amaran 672's in my case). Even when using a color checker I find it difficult to get the same rich skin tones as with my Elinchrom flashes, and that is using the same scrims and flags for both types of light.

I agree with Alexis Cuarezma that we're talking about different tools for different needs, and there are things, that you can do with an LED that you cannot do with a flash and vice versa. Freeze motion with an LED? Probably not. See your lighting before the shot with a speedlite? No, not really.

I think that my main beef with LED lamps is that they are often hard to modify. It's either scrims or umbrellas, and that usually sends light in all directions, requiring flags and black folio all over the place until you can barely move for all the light stands that are in your way.

"The future of lighting" - probably not, but LED definitely has its place for some kinds of photography, e.g. when you need to match the color of your light to the ambient or for situations where a flash may be too intrusive.

Dream on...

I also struggle to find LED's with as much punch as my Sony Speedlights, and I have access to some pretty high end continuous LED's. My little HVL-F45RM has more punch than even the Fiilex Matrix I have available to me. Which, considering one is $350 and the other is $3000, is pretty impressive. The little speedlights fit a lot of the same requirements for weight and size that the little LED's do, and if you go with Godox or another similar brand are very affordable. Throw in a Rogue Photographic FlashBender or two and you have really flexible lighting options in a compact space.

The one thing I don't enjoy about going the speedlight rout is the lack of modeling light for finding focus and crafting the ratios before firing.

LED's have come a long way, and I love working with them for video, but I don't see them really competing with strobes any time soon, and I'm not sure I would want to use LED's that could match the output of even a modest speedlight, everyone on the shoot would go blind with that much continuous light.

Case study. I have a client who shoots for an exercise brand. They have a requirement to shoot the marketing photos and video simultaneously. To avoid having flash banding rendering much of the video unusable they bring in every 5k and 10k video light they can get their hands on, and its still only about half as much as the photographer would really like to stop the motion of the talent. If they weren't doing simultaneous shooting they could get away with some decent strobes, and call it good. Instead they are bringing in somewhere around 50,000-60,000 tungsten equivalent watts of continuous LED.

I would love to be able to use continuous lights over strobes, but it looks like there are currently too many trade-offs for the shooting that I do.

I think you’re right, though, in predicting that the technology will advance to the point where trade-offs no longer exist.

Nice shots, too, although I’m not keen on the transition between the blue and orange on Ryan’s face.

I think this article is important for outlining a different workflow, and seeing where LEDs fit in a professional photography space. However, I run off the mantra that "light is light", no matter where it's coming from. If your lighting system is convenient and powerful enough for your needs, whether it's a strobe or an LED is inconsequential. As long as you are getting the image you need, and the process isn't inconvenient for you or the client, the light source can be whatever the hell you want it to be.

Its a 'race to the bottom'..

I shoot food, drink and still life. Often I am shooting lights through scrims, silks or diffusion filters. The light intensity drops off fast. Also, I often focus stack, and having to use slower shutter speeds introduced even more problems. Additionally, the amount of light needed to freeze liquid it very high. When I do shoot with LEDs, often the lights have to be so bright, you really need sunglasses on set. Usually, if there is video involved we light it separately -- a pain but actually simpler right now. I can see how it would work well for portraits, though.

A couple of years ago I used some heavy duty, expensive LED light panels. They were about 40 pounds with batteries and cost about $3,000 each. Not exactly portable, but they did offer great light and a range of temperatures. The LED industry will continue to evolve, but for now, they are not as flexible or portable as my strobes. I'm using LED's mostly for colored accent lights.

I agree with the consensus of comments before me. LED's are just another tool and they do have their place. But to suggest they can be used where speedlights or other strobes excel is totally unrealistic. You might be able to get by in some cases, but too many sacrifices have to be made if you don't use the best tool for each job.

LED's are great for certain uses, but they cannot and will not replace strobes for all applications. For one, in order to get comparable power output, you'd have to pretty much blind your subject since strobes will output all of their power in a short burst. Continuous lights cannot freeze motion the way a strobe can nor do they allow of creative effects such as capturing motion with rear curtain sync. By using a continuous light, you also lose one of the cool bits of control you have with a strobe, which is that you effectively have two different exposures-your flash exposure and your ambient exposure. This is the reason that even a weak strobe can overpower daylight while you'd need a MASSIVELY powerful LED to do the same (again, it would blind your subject). Powerful LED's are just as large (if not larger) than strobes of comparable power and in terms of LED's that can fit standard modifiers (Bowens, Profoto, etc.), I've yet to see one that is smaller than a strobe light.

LED's are obviously great for video. They are nice for certain types of studio shoots where you're not necessarily trying to freeze action (eg. headshots). They're also really convenient because of the WYSIWYG factor that you won't get even using proportional modeling lights on strobes. Some LED's are also nice because of their portability, but these panel LED's also tend to suffer from the fact that you can't really swap modifiers on them. They're just shaped like whatever equivalent softbox and that's it.

There are pros and cons, but continuous LED lights are not going to be replacing traditional strobes anytime soon (if ever) simply because of the issues with using continuous light vs. a burst.

I use strobes a lot (primarily speedlights), but I can definitely see a place for LEDs, even though I'll never be a videographer, specifically product photography, which, for me, is more difficult to light with strobes.

But I have recently had a portrait shoot where LEDs would have been a huge benefit -- the lady managed to blink every, single time I pressed the shutter. Every time. Until I resorted to trickery -- "On three . . . One . . . Two . . . Four!" or some other similar nonsense. A set of LEDs would have solved the problem.