While ambient light can look extraordinary, it’s not always easy (or possible) to tame or predict. At worst it could be terrible or non-existent, and that’s why artificial lighting is so important to both photographers and filmmakers. Lighting gives you the control and the power to turn your vision into a reality. Natural, lurid, clean or evocative…when it comes to aesthetic effects, lighting offers virtually endless possibilities.
There are two main types of lighting: flash (used for photography) and continuous (used for video and photography). Understanding each will help you decide which option/s will best achieve the shot or clip you’re after.
Here’s an introductory guide to flash and continuous lighting.
Available in the form of a speedlight or studio strobe, photographic flash emits a spit-second, high-powered flash of light that (with the aid of a radio trigger) can be timed with the pressing of your camera’s shutter. Multiple (compatible) flash units can all be fired simultaneously.
Flash generates enough light for a correct exposure even at high shutter speeds, thus enabling photographers to ‘freeze’ motion. The power controls on a flash unit usually correspond with exposure increments, allowing you to precisely adjust the light’s brightness in sync with your aperture, shutter speed or ISO.
A speedlight is a compact, lightweight, battery-powered flash unit that can be mounted on your camera’s hotshoe, handheld, or placed on a lighting stand or flat surface. Speedlights offer a lot of power for their size, which makes them suited to many situations. You can usually adjust the width of the beam they cast and angle or swivel the flash head to bounce the light off reflective surfaces (e.g. walls, ceilings) to create a softer, more flattering effect on your subject. Light shapers/modifiers can be attached to them to shape and channel the light.
You can also extend the reach of your lighting by placing one or more speedlights on stands and firing them remotely. This greatly expands the possibilities for creative lighting scenes, especially when using multiple speedlights.
Commonly used in studios but also on location, strobes are flashes fuelled by electricity, battery packs or rechargeable batteries, making them powerful, long-lasting and often portable. A strobe’s power source may be separate (which makes the flash head lighter in weight) or built in, i.e. a moonlight. Strobes’ power enables you to illuminate a larger or more distant subject; overpower the sun on an outdoor shoot; and use a narrower aperture, lower ISO and/or higher shutter speed.
Mounted on stands or suspended from the ceiling, strobes can be precisely positioned and directed as desired – ideal for achieving a consistent result. Various light shapers/modifiers (e.g. umbrellas, soft boxes, barn doors) can be attached to strobes to shape and channel the light.
For strobes to work properly, you need a compatible trigger and receiver (which may be built into the flash unit, or a separate item). The trigger attaches to your camera’s hotshoe and fires the flash (via the receiver) when the shutter is pressed. Additional flash units—known as ‘slaves’—can be fired simultaneously; usually they’re triggered by the light from the receiving (‘master’) flash.
For film or video shooters, continuous or constant lighting (measured in brightness/’lumens’ rather than power/’Watts’) is the only lighting option. Though less powerful than flash (and therefore unable to freeze motion, but more conducive to wide apertures), it’s also becoming more and more popular for photography thanks to modern cameras’ superior performance at high ISO values.
Unlike flash, which is only suitable for shooting individual frames, continuous lighting is—as its name suggests—always on. So you don’t need any triggers/receivers and can see exactly how the light and shadows will look in-camera before and while shooting. It also means there’s no recharge time, so you can shoot through subtle changes in a subject’s poses as quickly as your camera will allow. And because continuous light doesn’t flash, it won’t startle subjects such as babies or animals.
There are many types of continuous lighting (including halogen, tungsten and fluorescent), but LED lighting has become the most popular. Continuous LED lights have numerous advantages over the other types: they’re cool to touch, lighter in weight, durable, highly energy efficient, dimmable and often colour adjustable. Powered by battery or electricity, they’re incredibly long lasting. And they come in a myriad of different forms, e.g. panels, ring lights, waterproof cubes. Many feature built-in diffusion (which creates a soft, even, cinematic sort of light) and there’s an ever-growing range of lighting modifiers to choose from.
Colour Rendering Index (CRI) measures the ability of a light to reveal a subject’s colours accurately. The higher the number, the more accurate the colours will appear in your images. Opt for continuous lights rated with a CRI of 90+.
As you can see, flash and continuous lighting each have their distinct benefits and drawbacks. One or the other may not always work best for every situation so—whether you shoot stills, video or both—it’s great to have both options.
Some products actually incorporate both flash and continuous light (such as the Profoto B10). Alternatively, many studio strobes have a modelling light that’s designed to let you preview the effects of the flash. This can double as a continuous light, although modelling lights can get very hot if left on for long periods and aren’t necessarily as precise in output or colour temperature as a dedicated continuous light.
A surprising amount can be achieved with one light (and, ideally, a reflector). However, we recommend two or more lights (to act as a key light plus one or more of a fill light, hair light and background light) for much greater flexibility and potential. They allow you to illuminate larger spaces, objects or groups of people, and achieve more sophisticated results.
Lighting kits—studio flash or continuous—usually include a range of essential, compatible items (such as stands and modifiers) that present excellent value for money.
Depending on your budget, you may prefer to acquire individual elements as you need them. When planning future purchases, just remember that certain products/accessories will only work with certain systems.
As with many things, you usually get what you pay for with photographic lighting. Cheap lighting is often inconsistent in output and colour temperature (which means more work in post-production) and, in the case of flash, takes longer to recycle. High quality lights from a reputable brand will perform much more consistently and reliably…and last much longer.
We hope this guide sheds light (excuse the pun) on the possibilities afforded by flash and continuous lighting and what kind of setup might be best for your photography or videography.