Speedlights vs. Strobes


(Note for those who receive these posts via email–this article makes reference to a video explanation of this topic that can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buFyMnCDctM&feature=youtu.be)

The title of this page, “Speedlights vs. strobes” is somewhat of a misnomer.  I use the term “strobes” here as short for “studio strobes,” but in reality, a strobe simply means a flash.   The proper name for a strobe in this sense is a “studio strobe” or a monolight.  Anyway, now that we have the terminology out of the way, let’s get on to the differences.

Speedlight and a strobe next to each other in a photography studio

Speedlight vs. strobe

What is a Speedlight?

A speedlight (sometimes referred to as a “flash gun”) is a portable flash that can be fired on the hotshoe of the camera, or fired wirelessly on a cold shoe.  The real advantage of a speedlight is that it can be less expensive, and much more portable.  Because speedlights almost always run on AA batteries, they are easy to chuck in your camera bag so they are available whenever needed.

The disadvantage of using speedlights is that they are not as powerful as a studio strobe.  A studio strobe can generally pump out at least double the light compared to a speedlight.  Also, speedlights have a slow recycle time, which means that you often have to wait between 1.5 and 5 seconds between pops of the flash when the flash is turned up to full power.

What is a studio strobe?

A studio strobe is a larger light that is powered with AC power.  You have to either plug it into the wall, or carry a large battery pack (think small car battery) to power it.  Studio strobes have lightning fast recycle times, so the photographer never has to wait for the flash to catch up.

Strobes sound great on paper, but they can be quite a bit more hassle to use than a speedlight, because they are not nearly as portable.  Also, studio strobes are quite expensive.  A quality studio strobe costs between $500 and $1,500.   That price increases even more when you consider that lighting modifiers (like umbrellas and softboxes) are more expensive for strobes because they have to include a heavy metal speedring.  The price of strobes is increased EVEN MORE when you consider that you’ll probably want to purchase a battery pack so that you can use your strobe when no power outlet is available to you.

Conclusion

If you’re just learning flash photography and you won’t be working in a dedicated studio, I would strongly recommend starting with a simple inexpensive speedlight kit like this one.  If you’ll be working in a studio, and your favorite passtime is money laundering, then you might enjoy this studio strobe kit at the bottom of the page.

Generally, I use speedlights for shooting wedding receptions, candid photos of my family indoors, as well as 3 or 4 light photo shoots indoors and outdoors when I simply don’t want to carry around the bulk of a studio strobe.

I use strobes every time I’m doing photography in the studio, and I often take it to shoot portraits when I’ll be outside and competing with a lot of sunlight.

 

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Thanks for explaining the advantages and disadvantages of each type of lighting. I learned what I needed to know. Your new wall looks great. Dustin’s mike seemed to be not working or not putting out enough sound. I could hear him, but not at the same volume.

  2. Yash Patel says

    Jim, I was one of your student in early photography class. I was wondering that if you can create small video tutorial for taking pictures for indoor events like baby shower and party with all those complex tungsten light in the hall. How to handle flash, Gel or other setting.

  3. ab says

    hi jim !! thanks for the great post. i have had the exact question in my head for days – monolights or speedlites. so thanks for clearing that up. Btw – i have a nikon sb-400 speedlite…do you know if this is compatible with the flash triggers you have mentioned in your other posts? and is the sb-400 a good option for off-camera flash photography?

  4. AH says

    Can you clarify your conclusion on this-
    “Generally, I use speedlights for shooting wedding receptions, candid photos of my family indoors, as well as 3 or 4 light photo shoots indoors and outdoors when I simply don’t want to carry around the bulk of a studio strobe.

    I use strobes every time I’m doing photography in the studio, and I often take it to shoot portraits when I’ll be outside and competing with a lot of sunlight.”

    Do you use the strobe indoors then, and what do you mean you use 3 or 4 light photo shoots? Thanks for all the great info!!

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