The Pros and Cons of Continuous Lights

May 12, 2014

By Scott Neumyer

© Nigel Cox

A Dior handbag photographed by Nigel Cox for Bergdorf Goodman’s Spring 2013 catalogue.

The debate among professional photographers about whether to use continuous lighting or strobes has raged for years, but recent technological advances are starting to change all that, with both lighting options now used by many pros.

The hard and fast rule used to be that, if you needed to stop motion in your images, you always went with strobes. The brief flash of a high-intensity bulb at several thousandths of a second was the perfect tool to stop even the fastest movement in its tracks.

On the other hand, if you had a stationary object or a subject that could sit still for a few seconds, the warm glow of a continuous light source was often preferred. But if you had children in the scene, you could forget about continuous lights as they rightly earned the moniker “hot lights” by getting hot enough to burn anyone within a foot of their bulbs.

But times have changed for studio lighting. Gone are the days of lights so hot that it felt like you were standing directly beneath the sun. Kino Flos, tungsten lights, HMIs and fluorescent continuous lights are not only now much more color-temperature-friendly, but a lot cooler to use.

As for motion, strobes are still the very best way to freeze action, but digital cameras are so advanced that a quick ISO and shutter speed bump can also help in that department.

With all these advances, the playing field for continuous lighting versus strobes is a bit more level. To get a glimpse of why some pros choose one light source or the other or, in some cases, use a mixture of both, we talked to several photographers to find out what they like about continuous lighting.

The Simplicity of Tungsten
Australian-born still-life photographer Nigel Cox has worked for everyone from Bergdorf Goodman and Martha Stewart Living to GQ, Esquire and Bon Appétit. Since moving to New York City in 1999, he’s seen just about every assignment a professional photographer can come across, and he’s approached each one as a blank slate.

“I try to keep a really open mind with any project,” Cox tells PDN. “I try not to get too fixated on the first image that pops into my mind when I hear an idea or get a brief.”

It’s an approach that has made his lighting technique change from job to job and even come full circle in the course of his career.

“I have been using a lot of tungsten lately,” he says about his most recent work. “I’d used it long ago and then I ended up doing a whole period of strobe for a long time. Maybe for ten years, I didn’t use a lot of tungsten. Just sporadically. But now I’m shooting it a lot more.”

For Cox, the decision to transition back to primarily tungsten lighting is about quality and fit for the jobs at hand.

“I like something with really direct light and crisp shadows,” he says. “That is the main driving thing with the tungsten; getting a really crisp, beautiful shadow next to an object. Then it just happens to be that most things look great under tungsten light, like they do under sunlight.”

And it’s also a matter of simplicity. Cox will often load a strobe-heavy shot with multiple lights, but the added power and consistency of tungsten has given him a chance to get back to the simplicity of one strong light.

“I use a lot more lights when it comes to strobe,” says Cox. “I might have eight lights on set, and a forest of C-stands. It becomes far more complex when I’m using strobe. That’s part of why I like how simple the tungsten is, in a way. It speeds up the process because you’ve got one light source to deal with.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Cox is beholden to the tungsten bulb. While nearly all of the photographer’s client-based work is still life, his personal work includes the juxtaposition of animals and still-life objects in a series called “Lucky Dog.” He’s not afraid to break out the strobes when needed to capture the spirit of the pups.

“Obviously, I’m not going to use hot lights if I’m shooting animals. I need strobes to stop the motion.”

High on HMI
For Richmond, Virginia, stock photographer and videographer Ariel Skelley, the use of strobes seems like a distant memory now that her business focuses so heavily on video capture with her HD-DSLR. After using strobes for over two decades, the transition into stock videography made Skelley swap out nearly all her lighting gear for continuous HMI lighting, which has created a brand new workflow.

“I was an assignment shooter out of New York City for 20 years,” she tells PDN. “In order to be a stay-at-home mom, I took a demotion to shoot stock. Shooting stock resurrected my interest in photography altogether, but it has necessitated switching out equipment. In one fell swoop, I got rid of all the Profoto strobes and bought Joker Bugs [continuous HMI lights], and started letting the action go for ten seconds instead of 1/250 of a second. Frankly, it’s a lot easier to tell the story in ten seconds. If it’s a kid opening a Christmas present, you get to see what’s inside the present.”

In order for her stock buyers to see those presents, however, Skelley needs powerful continuous lights, and not just for her video capture.

“The requirements for stock are really tough,” she says, “and there’s not much leeway. They’re real sticklers for, particularly, focus.”

In the past, strobes would have been Skelley’s go-to light source for making tack-sharp stock images, but the addition of video would have meant carrying around two completely separate lighting kits.

“I’ve got four Joker Bug 5600 lights,” says Skelley. “They’re beefy lights. I bring all four of those with me on location and sometimes I’ll bring a few Kino Flo lights with me, too. The negative side was the price ticket, but the positive side was not only that you get to work with this new media

but you also get to double your income.”

It’s not, however, just the efficiency or simplicity of continuous lighting that Skelley prefers. She recognizes that there’s a qualitative difference in her work with continuous lights as well.

“My favorite is constant lighting, but I consider the sun to be a constant light,” she says. “All any of us are doing—particularly in lifestyle imagery—is attempting to replicate what the sun is doing. The continuous lights also bathe the models in a nice glow. When people hear the pop, pop, pop of strobes, that’s become the audio signal to pretend you’re [posing for] a Vogue cover, which is so not what I need.”

And the advances in technology that have come along during her lengthy career aren’t lost on Skelley either. “I started in photography shooting Polaroids to test the light. Having continuous lights is nice to be able to see what you get.”

Mixing it Up
Perhaps the most interesting use of continuous lights comes from Jeff Brown. With clients that include The New York Times Magazine, Fast Company, Bloomberg Businessweek, WIRED and New York, the Brooklyn, New York-based photographer, recently chosen for PDN’s 30, has begun to make a name for himself with unique and striking portraits that feature stark contrast and bold lighting and are often just slightly askew from reality.

“There are a lot of really clean, incredibly efficient styles in photography,” Brown tells PDN, “but I just want things to be unique.”

Citing influences from such varied photographers as Yousuf Karsh, Richard Burbridge and Nadav Kander, Brown is far from simplistic when setting up his lights. Not only does he use multiple types of lights, often mixing strobe with his continuous light sources, but he also packs his studio full of numerous lights to get the effects he needs for each particular shot.

“The minimum is usually five lights and … all the way to seven,” he says. “I like to mix strobes with tungsten as well. I use a mixture for almost everything. I prefer hot lights, but I kind of like working with both. There’s a level of excitement and I feel like I’m a better craftsman.”

If you push Brown to make a choice between continuous lighting and strobes, he’ll come down on the side of hot lights, but don’t, for a second, think he’ll give up his strobes.

“The money jobs want everything super sharp so I might need strobes there to stop any motion,” he says. “I like to use long lenses as well so I’ll drop focus and stuff without strobes, but I prefer the hot lights. They wrap around the skin, whereas strobes kind of punch through it. In this way, it’s like the difference between a really sharp digital picture and a really sharp film picture. [The hot light] gives you the softer sharpness. There’s a thing about strobe where you can just tell the difference.”

Shooting with Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Mark III camera bodies, Brown will mix up his lighting kit to include both and, in certain cases, even bring in bigger and stronger continuous lights.

“If you want people moving around or if you want a full-length shot, then you need to get into larger lights,” he says.

And it helps that Brown rarely ever puts any diffusion between his lights and his subjects. One notable exception is his recent portrait of Texas Senator Wendy Davis for the cover of The New York Times Magazine. “Typically, I use straight lights, even for strobes,” he says. “No diffusion.”

It’s an interesting concept and a far cry from the lighting techniques employed by professional photographers just a decade ago. The technology has come so far that almost regardless of what types of lights photographers use, the results will often end up sharp, detailed and usable.

Lighting kits have become one of the most important ways that photographers can embrace their creativity and set themselves apart from others in the field. Rather than worrying about which light they have to use, they can now focus on which lights they want to use.

“I remember once, to stop movement when I was shooting catalogue, we wired up an elevator sensor remote control that opened and closed the doors, so that when the models stepped over that hairline trigger, they would be in focus and the camera would shoot,” Skelley says with a laugh. “That’s how we stopped movement at that time.”

Whether it’s continuous or strobe, it’s pretty clear that technology has gone a long way in helping photographers everywhere see the light.

Related: Pro Photographers Reveal Their Go-To Lighting Tools