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Not so long ago, AC-powered studio lights were the only option for serious studio photography, and low-cost starter sets like this Two Monolight Portrait Studio Kit¹ were a fixture in every neighborhood camera shop. With the digital revolution and explosion of consumer photography, speedlight-style² portable flash is increasingly sophisticated, cheap, and powerful.

If I'm building up a new portrait studio, what are the advantages and disadvantages of cheap "monoblock" studio strobes like those in that kit vs. speedlights? In what situations would one choice have an advantage over the other? I assume the AC-powered strobes are much more powerful than a typical³ speedlight; how much more powerful — and when does it matter?

What about as we go up the price range? Do the pros and cons change if I have a lot of money to spend? Are there advantages that expensive studio lights have that the low-end kit doesn't offer?

Fundamentally, if you're buying a digital camera, buying a cheap (perhaps used and out-modeled) interchangeable lens camera gets you into a whole different level of system, better for really learning photography than than a fully-automatic point and shoot which might even cost more. Do studio strobes offer similar advantages in what you can do, or is it a different situation?


1. Chosen at random. Not an endorsement. / 2. We sometimes call them hotshoe flash, but in this case they might be in a cold shoe controlled wirelessly. / 3. Extra question: products like the GN80 bare-bulb, separate-power-pack yet hotshoe mount Godox Witstro 360 seem to blur the lines; how do this and similar products fit in?

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+100

Buckle in for a long answer.

There are three primary advantages that "studio" flash have over hotshoe flashes. The first, and most obvious is power; even the lower-powered "serious" units (we're not talking about AC-powered lightbulb-shaped slaves) tend to start at at least the equivalent of 2 "full-sized" speedlights (of the Nikon SB-910/Canon 600EX-RT/Yongnuo 560 class, which will weigh in at around 40-50 joules, or the equivalent thereof, depending on the zoom and dispersion settings of the built-in reflector, etc.) at about 100 joules (or watt-seconds), and of course we go considerably higher.

The second is duty cycle. That's primarily down to cooling. Even the monster units, like the Godox/StreakLight/Bolt bare bulb units, and the similar units from Quantum, lack active cooling or, for that matter, large heat sinks. Studio lights almost all have active fan cooling, and even those that don't (mostly hobbyist cheapies) will have significantly better passive cooling than flashes designed primarily to mount on a camera or bracket.

The third is modelling lights. Seeing what you're doing while you're doing it — where the shadows are falling, catchlights, reflections from eyeglasses or jewellery — is actually a good thing from time to time.

Apart from the duty cycle, the advantages for studio portraiture in the digital age, at least in the current digital age, aren't nearly what they were in the film era. For one thing, you can use considerably higher ISO settings on any reasonably-current digital camera than you would have dared to load as (colour) film, particularly if you are imagining printed output larger than 8x10 or 8x12. ISO 400 (colour) film in a 35mm camera was entirely inadequate, and a 16x20 from ISO 400 was iffy with a 6x7 (unless you were pushing the film and selling the effect). If you were shooting for publication, you'd probably be shooting chromes at ISO 25 to 100; for prints, you'd probably be shooting Vericolor III (or later, Portra) at 100 or 125 (it was a little thin at 160). These days, if you want to use a ginormous modifier with eleventy layers of diffusion in front of it with a more-or-less static subject, you can crank it up to 400 without batting an eye, and there are many cameras that don't really penalize ISO 1600 (unless you're addicted to pixel peeping). For formal(ish) portraits in a small space, it can often be difficult to get some monoblock (or pack-and-head) systems down to a low enough power these days: smaller formats mean larger apertures even if we disregard the shallow DoF trend, and ISOs lower than 100 (and sometimes 200) are scarce as hens' teeth on affordable cameras. (The D810 will go there, as will CCD MF backs, but everything else marks it as a "special Low" setting, which means "I'm going to let you overexpose here, try not to clip anything important".)

There is also a school of thought that says that chimping means the modelling lights don't matter anymore. I tend to disagree, but then I prefer my subjects to be a little freer (and a little less prepared for the click) and watch the shadows and highlights as they happen. But that's a shooting style preference now. It took a week (or, if you had deep pockets, several hours) to chimp in Ye Olde Dayes. It's certainly possible to work without the modelling lights, but if you're not actively posing your subjects, your keeper ratio goes down. But that may not matter much anymore either, since deleted bits don't cost you enough to bother with. (So you have to replace a memory card a month sooner. So what? It's not like wasting three or four rolls of souped film.)

There's no way around the duty cycle, though. You can hang some pretty heavy-duty batteries off of a speedlight (or use one of the lithium-powered units), and gang flashes to further reduce recycle times, but eventually your flash is going to either melt down or go into thermal protection mode if rapid firing is the order of the day. And it can be, depending on who you're shooting and how you're trying to portray them. Kids can eat up a lot of frames quickly, as can athletes and dancers when they're being shot as athletes and dancers.

But there can be very good reasons for having more power than a hotshoe flash can provide. Now, you can always go all Joe McNally on the scene and use a dozen or so small flashes, but it's often easier and cheaper to use studio lights. More often it's just easier.

In this question, for instance, the "target" D&G shot used a huge main light, probably a Broncolor Para 333 or the similarly-sized Profoto Giant 300 from a distance of about 4.5 meters/15 feet to get a certain combination of softness, directionality and minimal fall-off. You can probably fake most of the effect using a 7-foot parabolic umbrella, or even a wall bounce or a large silk (or, say, a king-sized bedsheet clamped to a couple of light stands playing the part of a silk), but it still needs to be 12-15 feet away from your subject and you still need to fill the modifier with light and get that light to your subject. And that's for a static subject; you'd need to pull it back further to allow your subject to move in the full frame without changing the exposure significantly, and you need more power to keep a moving subject within the zone of acceptable sharpness. A barebulb 360, or even a small gang of one-piece speedlights can probably do the job, but you'll be running at the ragged edge of full power, long recycling and overheating. You'd be right in thinking that perhaps that's not always a relevant situation in a home or small studio setting, but flying lights through a window and standing down a hallway to shoot is a thing too. (Never underestimate what you can do in a small or awkward space if you're determined to get the shot despite constraints.) A 500 joule (or better) head that recycles in two seconds or less can come in awfully handy. Two 3200J packs that can feed a single twin head in alternating sequence with a single trigger and keep up with a D4 or a 1DX at 500 joules can be even handier sometimes. (You'll know when that "sometimes" is when you run into it.)

Honestly, a hobbyist can do an awful lot these days without going anywhere near the pro gear. A lot of what drives the hobbyist into the pro market is just a bad case of GAS or some psychological need to be "just as good as the pros" (like the quality of the pictures you take can't do that by itself). A half-dozen YN560III/IV units (I've picked the cheapest fully remote-controllable units I know of, not endorsing Yongnuo in particular) and a controller, along with a relatively current enthusiast-or-better camera, a lens that's up to the task, and some relatively inexpensive stands, brackets and modifiers is a better, more versatile setup than most mid-level pros would have had at their disposal a decade and a half ago, and with a little thought, practice and effort can allow you to take pictures that would have been a real production effort at the tail end of the 20th. It may take you a little bit longer to get the shot in the can is all.

But there are still times when time is important, and the set-up and tear-down and it-just-fits-togetherness of studio gear usually beats the heck out of speedlight and speedlight accessories. Sometimes there's no substitute for space when making a shot, and with it the flash power that space demands. Sometimes you actually do need high power and fast recycling at the same time. It depends what you're shooting and why. It depends on whether or not you need to, or have plans to, make money at the game (a common though unfortunate affliction). If you can get 95% of the way there with 50% extra time spent, you can save thousands of dollars and probably wind up feeling happier and more fulfilled. If you're under the gun and that final 5% means you lose to another photographer the next time the client asks for bids, the situation is a little different. (And you won't be buying anything "just 'cuz"; if you don't actually need it, you won't get it... most of the time. The gear is unquestionably seductive. Your accountant usually isn't.)

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    Great answer and lots of details! You clearly know what you are talking about, so thank you for sharing! I've only ever owned speedlights but I have yet to really run into the cycle time issues you described, at least for the shoots I have. I could see it for higher volume shops but I've had no problems with a few hundred shots of my kid in one session. – dpollitt Mar 10 '15 at 2:43
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    Thanks, and welcome to the site! No pressure or anything, but I hope you register on the site and stick around — we could all benefit from your expertise! – mattdm Mar 10 '15 at 12:40
  • Excellent answer. I think most hobbyists could get away with using speedlights, but the more serious you get the more your are going to want the studio lights. The only advantage I see with speedlights is portability (irrelevant in a studio) and TTL. Not a lot of people will use TTL anyway, but it can be useful outdoors with changing lighting conditions or experimenting with the same shot at different apertures. – Robin Mar 10 '15 at 15:59
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I'm sure there will be very comprehensive answers to this well-structured question, this one is just from the perspective of someone who doesn't own anything more powerful than a speedlight. Besides the ability to pop flashes brighter/farther/faster/longer (nothing I need for my modest purposes), what seems like a game-changer to me is the point where a modeling light is included. Being able to see what you're setting up for more than an instantaneous flash seems like it would be really helpful for any serious purposes, and is probably what would motivate me to gear up if I had any serious purposes. I'm curious, though, whether this turns out to be less important than I think for people who spend enough time with this stuff, and develop a sense for it...

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    Modeling light is handy for shadow and highlight determination visually, but it's not make or break there because the intensity levels are not always high enough to get a really good sense of how sharp or diffuse those shadows will be depending on ambient light. – John Cavan Mar 10 '15 at 3:24
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The advantages of studio strobes over speedlights for off-camera lighting is not as much like getting a dSLR over a P&S, as it is like getting full frame over crop. While the advantages are there and undeniable, speedlights may actually be sufficient to your usage, especially in these post-Strobist days as a lot of speedlight-specific gear is hitting the market. You have to figure out on your own when/if you need to make the move to the bigger lights. For some folks, it'll be obvious, for others less so.

Pros of Studio Strobes

Power

As you say, this is the biggest and most obvious advantage of a studio strobe vs. a speedlight. The more power you have, the more situations you can shoot in. Situations where a lone speedlight would be outgunned by studio strobes would be groups shots (the larger the number of people in the group, the happier you'll be with a larger light), and shooting day for night in bright sunlight. Think of the power output of your light the way you'd think of maximum aperture on a lens--the more you have, the more versatile the light becomes. Just pay attention to where the low end of the range on the flash is, too and how close you like to work. The minimum power setting available on a high powered strobe may still be too much light when working in small spaces or at close distances. Likewise, a super powerful strobe if you shoot macro product photography may be overkill.

Batteries optional

Traditionally, studio strobes are powered from a wall plug. The difference between that and using AA batteries is like water delivery with a hose vs. small buckets. You don't have to wait for a capacitor to fill up with sufficient charge for a burst. These things are built to take repeated high power pops (built in cooling/heat dissipation), so no waiting around for a flash to cool down before you can use it again. You aren't worried about your batteries going flat. You aren't managing dozens of AAs and multiple rechargers. If you do choose to use a battery pack to take a studio strobe on location, it's more like having a water tank than buckets.

Having such a reliable even flow of power, rather than the up-and-down waves from batteries and a capacitor also gives you more consistent power (i.e., speedlights can get weaker as the batteries empty), and the color remains more consistent shot-to-shot.

You can replace the bulbs

Not only is the strobe built for harder usage than a speedlight, it's also expected that your light will outlast your bulb(s). Studio strobes generally allow for you to replace a burnt bulb without a massive amount of disassembly and needing a soldering iron. Speedlights, not so much. And you can replace not just the flash tube, but also the bulbs for the modeling lights.

Modeling Lights

Speedlights attempt to fake having a modeling light with a lot of pulses of the main flash tube. Continuous it ain't, and it's mostly useless while it really runs the risk of overheating/damaging your speedlight. Studio strobes have actual continuous lights that can approximate the result of the strobe's output while you're setting up. Basically you can see what you're doing without needing to chimp, adjust, and reshoot over and over. Just move the light, see what happens. No strain to the main flash bulb. Seeing what you're doing is a good thing. And if you have a live subject standing in as you're setting up, it's far less annoying to them than multiple strobe pops.

Buit-in Optical Slaving

Studio strobes tend to have a "dumb" optical slave as a built-in feature. With speedlights, this isn't always a given. You don't have to buy radio triggers or sync cables to start using a strobe. Granted, a lot of the Strobist-style cheapies come with this feature these days, but the high-end OEM flashes from Canon don't.

Made for Modifiers and vice versa

Studio strobes have actual mount rings on them for modifiers. No need for umbrella swivels or adapters to use umbrellas and softboxes and reflectors and beauty dishes. And the array and variety of modifiers is a lot larger than for speedlights, because a studio strobe can basically just be the bare bulb. You can choose the reflector dish that goes behind the bulb, as well as the modifiers that go in front of it. With speedlights, nearly all of this stuff is jerry-rigged in some way, and almost none of it connects directly (and stably) to the flash itself. With speedlights, it's hard to get the light to point to the center of an umbrella. Not a problem for a studio strobe.

Of course you have to consider the type of mount ring, often called a 'speed ring', that's on the strobe. There are several different 'systems' (Bowens, Paul C. Buff/PCB/Alien Bees), Elinchrom, Einstein, etc). You might need to determine which system has the modifiers you want to use the most. Many modifiers from quality manufacturers are available in different mount rings (kind of like third party lenses) and can be swapped over from one type of speed ring to another using adapter rings, but the adapter rings tend to cost as much as a budget level speedlight!

Better Character of Light

Studio strobes are bigger. The character of the light they give, even bare, reflects this. Speedlights are smaller, more concentrated and the falloff is more abrupt. When both are used with a larger modifier, a larger light can fill that modifier more evenly. However, used with a smaller modifier, you may not see any difference. This difference is subtle, but recognizable. Think of it, in some ways, as the difference between shooting full frame and crop. Crop is often sufficient for your needs and can be indistinguishable from full frame. But if you see and need that difference, then only full frame will do.

Midway Point: Bare-Bulb Flashes

Say, however, that you're used to shooting with speedlights. You just want a little more power, a little more even spread on the light, better juice to the heads, but you don't want to lug a studio strobe out onto the beach cliffs. This is where the barebulb flashes may come in. They're sort of the midway point in terms of light output, power behavior, cost, and eveness of spread between speed lights and studio strobes. They're only slightly larger than speedlights (not including the external battery pack), can be used on the hotshoe, and have a lot of the same types of modifiers as studio strobes.

Cons of Studio Strobes

Cost

Studio strobes cost more. While a low end-end studio strobe can cost less than a high-end OEM speedlight, a high-end one can cost like a full-frame body. And a super-low-end speedlight can be supercheap. In addition, when you start out as a newb, the chances are you may already have a speedlight hanging around to learn with, while it's doubtful you already happen to have a studio strobe in your gear bag.

Size/Weight/Portability

Speedlights rock on being portable. Studio strobes are harder to lug about, and as bigger and heavier gear, the support gear (stands, booms, etc.) will also need to be bigger and heavier (and probably more expensive). Speedlights are made for batteries while studio strobes are happiest with a wall plug nearby. And because they're bigger, you may be more limited in how you can place them. There are little nooks, corners, or odd placements you can easily tuck a speedlight into that may not take a studio strobe.

Exposed flash bulb

The flip side of having a replaceable bulb is that that bulb is exposed most of the time. It can be more easily damaged in transport. You have to make sure you're protecting that bulb or have extras on hand. Speedlights have their bulbs tucked away and well-protected so throwing one in a bag isn't quite as fraught with possibilities.

No hotshoe triggering

Lower cost studio strobes typically don't have any other slaves than "dumb" optical slaves, and require cables to connect any other kind of triggering system--including radio slaves. Today, a lot of lower-end radio triggers come with hotshoe connections that only speedlights can take advantage of. So your tradeoff about worrying about the condition of your AAs is that you're worried about the condition (and connections) of your trigger cables. And, of course, studio strobes typically can't be dual-purposed for on-camera event shooting, and look a little silly if used that way [see Quadra, Profoto B2].

Manual-Only

Lower cost studio strobes are manual-only. If you're used to shooting with a hotshoe flash, then no TTL, no HSS, no menu control, no "smart" slaving in CLS or wireless eTTL. I know, you're a tough (cheap) Strobist that does everything in Manual and this doesn't scare you. But maybe you're a YN-622 or Odin shooter who's used to all these features and convenience and it'll bug you to be able to dial in remote power on the two speedlights you're using for background and rim, but then have to walk up to your key to set the power.

Remote Control Restrictions

Remote power control is also less likely with a budget studio strobe. At best, you'll have to use a same-brand trigger that works with built-in power control on the strobe--which won't control the power on your speedlights.

What Mo' Money Buys You

Brand Name

As with anything, more money can buy you a more upscale label. Yes, you can peel the cartoon bee off the back of an AlienBee if it bugs your clients, but maybe it's more impressive to have Profoto on the lights. And the fit and finish, color consistency, power output, and features can go up the scale as well. Today, there are studio strobes that can do TTL and HSS, and have built-in radio triggers that will integrate with those features and grant you full remote control with your speedlights as well, without having to stack triggers (see Phottix Indra and Odins). An Einstein gets you better output and color consistency than an Alien Bee. And, of course, there's always warranty, reputation, build quality, and resale value to consider if you're thinking of cheaping out with an eBay special.

  • Making this community wiki because I've never even touched a studio strobe, and figure those with practical experience will have corrections/additions to make. – inkista Mar 14 '15 at 20:45

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