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Flash or LED light?


Article for beginner photographers. The market offers a huge number of LED lights and I am very often asked the following questions: “Shall I get a LED light or a flash?” or “What do you prefer? A continuous light or a flash?” I always try to explain it as clear as possible, but I don’t always succeed. That’s why I thought I could try to put it all together here. I hope I’ll manage to shed some light on this topic because many people clearly struggle with it.

It’s been a while since I started serious photography. I also have experience from working as a lighting assistant for many photographers I look up to as they are real pros. Clients rely on them with the most demanding projects. I’ve never heard these photographers say: “Look, man, there’s nothing like daylight,” or “Flashes are the best, everything else is of no use,” or anything like that. They know how to work with all these light sources and use them as necessary. Sometimes they choose flashes, then they decide for LED lights, and the next time they work with daylight. They know what is best for their situation.

I might go into detail about the technical aspects – the function and parameters of flash and continuous light, but I don’t think that anybody would read it. I’ll rather try to dumb the topic down to a short article.

When to use flash?

We use flash when we want to make the best of our camera and lens and to achieve the highest quality attainable. We adapt the flash to the camera, not the other way round. That is the main rule for using flashes. Why is that? The flash gives us a tremendous light intensity at one short moment when the camera shutter opens. Thanks to the powerful flash, we can use a high aperture and create a great depth of field of the photo, eliminate noise with a low ISO, and use a short shutter speed to avoid motion blur.

We can for example set the shutter speed at 1/200 s, the aperture at f/8, and ISO at 100. This is not a universal setting. Each project requires a unique approach. After that we set the flash. The flash has to be adapted to our camera settings. With enough experience, we are able to estimate what flash power we need to set. If we don’t know how to set it up, we just give it a try. We check whether the exposure is too dark or too light and we adjust the power accordingly. The last option is to use a flashmeter, which will tell us what flash intensity is needed, and we set it up. We don’t need to care about the camera settings, we just set the light.

What about image quality and sharpness? Is it worth your attention or is it too much bother? Well, it depends. If you work on free art, then a bit of noise or blur is nothing you should worry about. However, if you take a photo for an advertisement graphic design that will be printed on billboards and exhibited in prestigious places, then you need to provide the graphic designer with the maximum quality attainable to enable further processing and making full use of the photo.

Thanks to their performance, flashes are also great as fill light when shooting outdoors in daylight. Battery flashes Digitalis Pro T provide about 300 – 400 flashes at full power. With a power of 600Ws, we can get enough light for a photo of a cyclist or even for shooting a portrait that stands out from the background.

The colour temperature of flashes is about 5 400 – 5 600K, which is often hard to mix with natural light indoors. Very often, they include what is called pilot light bulbs. They are sources of continuous light that makes focusing easier. Sometimes it is even strong enough for shooting. But we’ll get back to this later.

When do we use LED lights?

The situations are plenty. LED lights are suitable for photo as well as video shooting, which makes them different from flashes. To start with, I have to say that their performance is far lower than the performance of studio flashes. That’s why the camera settings need to be adjusted to the LED lights.

In many cases, LEDs are a more appropriate choice for complementing another light source in the scene, as they usually allow you to change the colour temperature or even the colour, which makes them very adaptable and creative. We can use them for example when shooting in a hotel room where there are lamps or daylight, without disturbing the atmosphere of the environment. The huge advantage is that there is absolutely no difference between what we can see in real time and what will appear in the photo.

Can the same photo be taken with LED light and flash? It probably won’t be exactly the same, unless we reduce the potential of the flash and set the power to minimum. The camera settings – the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO values – will most certainly differ. If we use the same light scene settings and the same modifiers, we won’t see any difference in the atmosphere, the colour tint, and the first impression. There may be a difference in noise and the depth of field.

Let’s have a look at specific examples

I’ll try to elaborate on several specific photography tasks and explain what is suitable for them.

Indoor portrait

Image 1

There are no strict rules for indoor portraits, it pretty much depends on the taste of the photographer. The portrait above was lit using Digital Pro X 500. There was one from the front and another used as a backlight. There were softboxes with honeycomb filters.

When shooting indoors, you can use flashes as well as LED lights – even small ones such as LED BAR 17W, or hobby LED lights BASIC HOBBY LED. It mainly depends on whether you’re a perfectionist and require maximum quality or whether you can do without complex settings options as long as your picture is good. I like to work with LED lights when I need to have a full control over the lights and shadows and want to play around with the atmosphere. They make shooting easy and comfortable. However, when I shoot an assignment for a client who needs photos for further graphic processing or who has high demands, I always use flashes in order to achieve the maximum quality.

Outdoor portrait

Image 2

This portrait was lit in dim light. It was getting dark, so I used LED MINI 15 with a softbox to light the model from the front. The backlight was provided by a streetlamp. This is an example of the use of LED lights outdoors.

What we need is a shade or at least half-light. A person in a shade on a bright day stands out at least a bit against the background. However, if we want the light to be stronger or the surrounding background to get darker, we need to use a flash because only a flash can give us enough power to set a sufficient aperture. High-speed synchronisation is an advantage in this case, because shooting outside with a limit of 1/200 is not exactly a win.

If I was to choose lighting for outdoor shooting, I would definitely go for flash because of its output, which can be reduced if you want to use a small aperture. High-speed synchronisation of battery flashes allows for an increase in the shutter speed and a subsequent darkening of the scene.

Glamour / nude

Image 3

The same rules as for the portrait apply. However, I have to admit that for this type of photography, I prefer using efficient LED lights with a Bowens mount, because they allow me to pay more attention to details of the female body – I can see them right in front of me lit by continuous light and I can get everything prepared before I take a picture. Working with them is the same as with flashes – at least in terms of lighting and light modification. This photo was taken at ISO 400 and I didn’t mind that at all, because today’s cameras have no problem with such a sensitivity. Even if I went the old-fashioned way and shot on a film, I would hardly notice any noise. I actually think that LED lights are a more creative choice for glamour and nude photography, providing that no unwanted light is getting into the scene (e.g. fluorescent lamps), as it could spoil the colours in the photo or create undesired bright areas.

What matters is your idea and the environment you want to shoot in. For shooting this kind of photography in a studio, LED lights are my choice.

Product photography

Image 4

In this case, I don’t really have any doubts and I can honestly say that whenever possible, I would always choose studio strobes, whatever the situation. Product photography requires that we achieve a great depth of field, good sharpness of the photo, maximum quality without noise, and a perfectly white background. I’m not saying that it is impossible with LED lights, but it is needlessly laborious and inefficient. The settings of the flash allow me to reach a maximum quality output without too much bother.

What would it look like if the photo was taken with LED lights? We’d need a very long shutter speed to be able to shoot at a high aperture. That means using a very stable tripod which enables taking photos without a quiver. Only then could we approach the aesthetic side of the photo. The flash power enables me to pay attention to aesthetics right from the beginning, as I don’t have to make any compromises due to a lack of power.

Product photo taken with a phone

Image 7

Yes, this is something we can easily witness these days. Quality requirements for cheap and small products are not very high and if you own a mobile phone with a good camera, it is possible.

The solution is to shoot with LED lights. It is clear that someone who wants to photograph products with a mobile phone is not after an expensive approach. The affordable set of two LED lights with a product desk can be used here too. The desk gives us an endless white background which is what we need in the photo. The two LED lights with a power of 38W and a colour temperature of 5,600K are suitable for dark places and rooms where the windows can be blinded, because it is necessary to prevent light of a different colour from getting into the photo. Thanks to diffusion sleeves for both the lights, shadows and reflections on products can be softened. To achieve softer light, it is necessary to use an umbrella which is also a part of the package.

It’s very convenient to have an app with advanced camera settings, which enables you to set the shutter speed, light sensitivity, and focus. On most mobile phone cameras, the aperture is fixed and it can’t be changed. In some phones, this issue has been solved by multiple cameras, where changing the aperture means using a different lens.

Is it possible to use a studio flash when shooting with a mobile phone? Mobile phones are not able to work with studio flashes, at least not yet. The flash is too strong and even if it could be synchronised with the phone’s shutter, the image would be white because of the fixed aperture.


Image 5

For sports photography, I’d also definitely choose flash, even though I understand that for a specific creative project, someone might go for LED light. However, flash has the ability to freeze motion, it has enough light to darken the surrounding environment as well as to create contours, or to provide fill light for the athlete if we shoot against the sun. In all photographic disciplines, what matters the most is your idea.

This photo was taken with high-speed sync battery flashes on a clear and sunny day in Špindlerův Mlýn. It was thanks to the flashes that I managed to darken the surroundings of the scene.

Photo booths  

Unfortunately, I don’t do photo booth shooting very much and I don’t have any illustrative photo booth picture. However, at events where I photographed the guests and printed the photos for them, I always used flashes. There’s no time for creativity. It is important to have everything prepared in advance and to waste as little time as possible setting the scene. With flashes, you don’t have to worry about the environment you are in and about the light – you simply suppress it. Once I even took photos outside on a bright day with the Kunětická Hora Castle as a background. The flash allowed me to highlight the whole figures of the people who came to have their photo taken, even though we were shooting on green grass on a clear day. And that is exactly what a photo booth photographer needs: a high-quality power flash.

Newborn / animals

Image 6

Here, on the other hand, I would always choose LED lights. It is true that there are some photographers who don’t mind the flickering of flashes, but for children and animals it is certainly not pleasant.

Why does actually flash bother children and animals’ eyes so much? The eyes get accustomed to the environment – e.g. the studio – and the pupils grow bigger, so that the child / animal can see better. However, the wide-open pupils absorb a shock amount of light produced by the flash which, at best, scares the child / animal. It’s probably not dangerous to health but it’s not beneficial for photography either. Continuous light may seem intense, but it is far more pleasant for the eyes because it gives you the opportunity to ‘close down the aperture’ – i.e. to narrow the pupils and get used to the light. You can verify it when there is strong sunshine outside: if you walk out of a dark flat, you don’t mind the sunshine and you easily get accustomed to it.

The photo of the dog was taken with LED 300B and a 120 cm octabox.

Go for it!

The goal of this article is to provide basic information for beginners, so that they get to know the main principles. After a while, you may say to yourself: “I think I need a different softbox,” or “I need a flash with a more powerful pilot light bulb because I also shoot videos every now and then.” That means you’re moving forward, and you already know how things work. That is probably the most important thing. Practice, practice, practice. That’s the way we learn best.

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