Speedlights vs. Strobes

In Portrait by Jim Harmer14 Comments

(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.


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.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..


  1. 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. 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. 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. 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!!

  5. I am about to purchase my first lights. I am drawn to TTL for the speed of use in different conditions while it still has manual option and HSS. I can get two speedlites and Westcott Rapid 26″ Octobox and maybe a larger Phottix on cheap end.

    Or get 1 speedily and the Rovelight which ppl who have them like them. HSS and no cords. Battery can be removed from strobe to recharge. Other options is the Phottix Indra. Which has been getting a feedback. It is the same as the Profoto B1 but had the price and does the same thing. The Indra is 2x as move as the Rovelight though.

    I like to shoot boudair, hotels, ppls homes, outside in random places. I could always use a ND filter if sun is bright? I on’t now if the results are equal to the HSS. I am guessing it would be. I do want to get and use the http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/904243-REG/impact_lbg_st_m_fabric_grid_for_strip.html

  6. Will it hurt my monthly electricity bill if I use at least 3 120w studio strobes continuously for weekends (both Sunday and Saturday) say for a month?

    Say for example. I’ll be shooting for 8 hours a per weekend day, and will do 600 clicks on my camera hence my 3 strobes will flash for like 600 times in a day.

    Your response is much appreciated; I am seriously considering if my studio strobes are affecting my electricity bill or if the spike on my electricity bill is because of some other source.

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