LED Lights v.s. Studio Flashes: Detailed Comparison When to choose LEDs and when to choose Strobes and why

Can you use LED lights instead of strobes for still shooting? what are the advantages and disadvantages of using LEDs and strobes for stills shooting (and to some degree for video as well)? In the video above, professional photographer, Karl Taylor discusses several of these questions and gives examples based on real-world measurements.

LEDs v.s. Strobes – the Basics

Before we dive deeper, we first need to understand how both LEDs and strobes work. a LED is a type of continuous light, it can be a panel or a more “point” light source like a COB. This means that it pushes out whatever light you set it to all the time (until you change it of course).

A strobe is a very different “animal”. It will only output the amount of light you set it to when it gets a signal (typically using some sort of wired or more typically today wireless command from a trigger connected to the camera whenever you press the shutter button on your camera). The rest of the time a strobe will emit no light unless you choose to turn on the modeling lamp.

A modeling lamp is not the same as a LED (at least not in the sense that you can use it for shooting). Whenever you take a shot with a strobe and the modeling lamp is on it will turn off for the duration of the actual flash pulse, so the modeling lamp is just there to help you visualize where the light of the flash hits.

As Taylor mentions in the video – you can, in theory at least use a modeling lamp for video shooting but on many flash heads it is set to 3200K so it is very yellow and typically not that powerful (it can also produce a lot of heat on many existing strobes although some new strobes do use LED modeling lamps now so maybe in the future when LED technology will evolve we will see strobes with better video shooting capabilities).

To sum things up – LED COBs/panels are continuous lights while strobes are pulse lights (even if they might not appear that way because they have the modeling lamp turned on all the time).

LEDs v.s. Strobes – Practical Differences

Now that we understand this basic difference, what does it mean in practical terms? here are a few points that Taylor brings up:

  • Different power settings – With many strobes, you can set the flash to fire at a specific power and have the modeling lamp operate at different power, either constant or proportional to the flash power (so the brighter the flash pulse setting the more powerful the modeling lamp will glow).
  • More convenient for the model – Having a modeling light that is significantly less powerful than the strobe (and being able to set it to a lower setting or even turn it off) means that if you are working with a model, he or she might not have to endure a constant output of very bright light in their eyes which is difficult if you want them to have their light fully open for the shot (It also means that if you are working on set with food that can melt for example you can only use the flash and turn the modeling lamp off so to not produce excess heat which you can’t really do at the moment with LEDs).
  • Dark room – When working with LEDs you need to turn off all other lights in the room and make sure your windows are darkened. This is not possible in every room and this is mostly impossible when shooting outdoors otherwise you set the risk of contaminating your light with other lights (this of course doesn’t mean that you can’t use LEDs outdoor at all – video productions and movie sets use continuous lights outdoors all the time – but you will need to take ambient light into consideration and use very, very powerful lights if you want to overpower the sun for example).

Shooting food with LEDs (notice the darkened room)

Shooting food with LEDs (notice the darkened room)

  • It’s all about power – Talking about power, Taylor measured the max output of a LED COB vs. a similarly sized Strobe and got a 9 stop difference (we actually feel that this test was a bit exaggerated, more on this below, but even than the difference is still huge).To put this in perspective – if you shoot an image with the strobe he used at ISO 100 you will need to use ISO 51,200 ISO (!) on the COB he used (Broncolor LED 160) to get the same exposure. This means that LEDs like these are still far less powerful than strobes.
  • What you can and can’t do with LEDs – if you are mostly shooting still life (products, foods, etc.), you can simply extend your exposure and use LEDs (setting aside the ambiance light limitations we mentioned before). However, for any type of moving subject and especially faster-moving subjects where you need above 1/100-1/160 sec shutter speed (that means even a model that is not sitting fixed) – most existing LEDs are not going to cut it unless you push up the ISO considerably.
  • Freezing action – if you are trying to freeze action (a dancer jumping in the air, paint splashes etc.) no amount of continuous light will do (well nothing that at the consumer level at least). Strobes however freeze motion not just by how much light they put out but also by how quickly they do so (the amount of light per unit of time if you like). If you can put the same amount of light for a shorter period of time you can freeze movement more effectively. It is of course more complex than that but the bottom line is that strobes can freeze action (some much better than others) while continuous lights typically can’t.
  • Color temperature – this one is simple. No strobe that we know of at the moment can change its color temperature (they are mostly set at around 5600K, the modeling light is typically much warmer at 3200K which can be confusing to some). Strobes can also be a bit less accurate when it comes to color temperature (especially some of the less expensive brands when pushed to their limits).LEDs on the other hand can change color if you are using a bi-color COB or panel (where you might be able to move from 3200K-5600K and in some cases even through a wider range). There are also no RGB strobes available on the market but there are RGB panels (and maybe RGB COBs in the not too distant future). If you want to change the temperature/color of a strobe you will need to use gels (these cost extra money, and have their own set of issues).

LED-strobe hybrids

LED technology is moving forward quickly, actually much more quickly than traditional strobe lights. Some manufacturers are starting to experiment with a new type of hybrid LEDs that can function as strobes as well. The way they do so is to use the LED to produce a shorter flashlight burst (just like a strobe) at an output that is greater than that of the LED at 100% continuous power (we are not sure if this can influence the longevity of the LED but we should assume that manufacturers are taking this into consideration).

Godox is one of the pioneers of this technology (being both a LED and strobe manufacturer) and their FV150 and FV200 LEDs come with a strobe mode. How powerful are they? Photographer Robert Hall published a video comparing the less powerful FV150 to a popular AD400 PRO strobe (both from Godox) and came up with a 4 stop difference. Not as much as Tylor but still a pretty big difference in real-world use – think ISO 1600 instead of ISO 100). The FV200 is probably a bit more capable but it seems that Godox still has some work getting closer to the performance produced by their own strobes with LED-hybrid lights.

Photographer Robert Hall testing the Godox FV150 LED compared to a Godox Strobe

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A look into the future

As we mentioned above, LEDs are evolving at a very fast rate in the last few years and the industry (not just the photo/video LED industry but the commercial LED industry as a whole) is huge and billions are invested in R&D all over the world each year.

We are aware of several manufacturers (we can’t disclose names so please don’t ask), that are actively working on very high power LED-strobe hybrids that should reach the market in the not too distant future. We haven’t tested those yet so we can’t give actually numbers but based on what we do know we can say that the performance is likely significantly better than what currently exists on the market.

Those types of next-gen LED-strobe hybrids might be able to operate at stills or video mode where they either output full power constantly or put out a “modeling light” style output and cut it out and produce a very fast burst or burst of powerful flash/es of light.

LED hybrids to bring in all sorts of possible options that do not currently exist on traditional strobes like zero recycle times, color, and possibly even RGB modes and of course the versatility of using a single light for both still and video work.

Conclusion – what to choose Strobes or LEDs?

To some degree, the old division which suggested using strobes for stills and LEDs (or continuous lights in general) for video, is as true today as it was years ago. However, things are starting to change and even today there are niches that can benefit from using primarily LEDs and this will only increase over time.

Here are our suggestions on what to choose:

  • For video – this is easy – go with LEDs. While you might be able to use the modeling lamp on your strobe for video shooting in a pinch, it isn’t designed for that, it typically has a very yellow (3200K) color, is very warm, and can add obnoxious fan noise to your shoot. There are so many good (and affordable) LEDs that are way better and much more powerful than any modeling lamp on a strobe that it is simply a no brainer.
  • Hybrid shooters (stills & Video) – This is more complex. Ideally, you should get both and use what you need for each type of work, however, this is not always possible for many reasons (monetary, portability, etc.). You can use LEDs for still shooting as long as you remember that your ability to freeze motion is much more limited (if you don’t want to push ISO) and you will have to control ambient light or work with it to get the results you want. Shooting stationary subjects with LEDs is certainly doable (we have done so successfully for years), shooting anything that moves with LEDs (for stills) is much more of a challenge.
  • Still Shooters – if you shoot mostly (or only) stills, your best bet at the moment are still strobes, especially if you don’t want to restrict your subject’s movements (there is a reason why event photographers almost always use flashes/strobes and not LEDs). However, keep an eye on some of the new LEDs that will be released in the next year or two as other options might be coming sooner than you might think.

Shooting a model with only LEDs – possible, but limiting

Shooting a model with only LEDs - possible, but limiting

You can check out more of Karl Taylor’s video we posted in the past here on LensVid. Keep track of new LEDs here.

Iddo Genuth
Iddo Genuth is the founder and chief editor of LensVid.com. He has been a technology reporter working for international publications since the late 1990's and covering photography since 2009. Iddo is also a co-founder of a production company specializing in commercial food and product visual content.

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