If you’re a portrait photographer, chances are you started out with a continuous light source. I remember my first “hot lights,” inexpensive tungsten lights reflected through a simple silver reflector. Imagine a household lightbulb being reflected by a large silver dinner plate, and you get the idea.
As the name implies, the lights were hot, and I “melted” many models trying to get my lighting right. Later, I moved on to strobes, and today these are my primary lights for most assignments. From speedlights to large battery-powered strobes, they all come on our shoots. But things are always evolving in the photo industry, and lighting systems are no different.
Recently, a new generation of lights has hit the market, including some innovative continuous light sources. These lights are small, durable…and, most importantly, have more power to work in bright outside conditions. But do you really need continuous lights if you already have strobes? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of these different types of light?
Read on and see what you think works best for your photography. If you’re like me, you may find you want both types of light in your lighting kit.
Types Of Continuous Lights
Continuous lights come in a variety of sizes, shapes and color temperatures. Deciding what is right for you can be confusing.
The most basic type are photoflood lights. These lights use a simple, incandescent light bulb and reflector. They are very inexpensive and the simplest way to get into continuous light.
Quartz light systems are the next step up. Similar to photofloods, these incandescent lights use bulbs filled with halogen gas that produce more lumens per watt, meaning they are brighter than standard photoflood lights.
A big step up in price and performance would be HMI (hydrargyrum medium-arc lodide) lights. Unlike the previous lights, these bulbs are daylight balanced. And HMI lights produce significantly more power. If you have ever been to a movie set and seen those huge lights, they’re most likely HMI lights. The bad news is HMI lights are also very expensive.
Photoflood, Quartz and HMI all have another thing in common: They get very hot during use. But the next two styles of continuous lights are “cool lights:”
Popular with both video and still photographers are fluorescent continuous light systems. Many photographers think of the nasty green glow fluorescent tubes produce. But these systems can use daylight-balanced tubes for beautiful flicker-free light. They also range in price to match almost any photographer’s budget.
LED lights are the last type of continuous lights. They’re also my favorite.
LED continuous lights are rapidly evolving with exciting new features. First, the lights are cool, so you won’t burn your fingers changing light modifiers. Next, LED lights are very compact and range in styles from square panels to traditional strobe heads. While these lights are daylight balanced, many offer a really useful feature; you can change the color temperature from daylight to incandescent by simply turning a switch.
Another benefit of LED lights is many have both battery and AC options, and some flashes can do both in the same unit. Being able to unplug your light and head out into the street using battery power really opens up creative options.
Continuous Light Versus Strobes: If you shoot video, the choice is obvious; you need continuous light for your movie. The biggest reason still photographers like continuous light is that WYSIWYG quality, or “what you see is what you get.”
If you’re just starting out, continuous lights make it easy to learn about light characteristics. During photography workshops, I often demo how light modifiers work by using a continuous light and moving its position relative to the model. Students can easily see how shadows change direction and quality as I move the softbox.
Another benefit of continuous lights is you don’t need a transmitter to fire the flash. You are working with a continuous light source similar to the sun. So you determine exposure just like you normally would. If multiple photographers are photographing a model, everyone can shoot at the same time using continuous lights. Continuous lights eliminate the glitches of wireless signals between camera transmitter and flash. And don’t worry about flash sync speeds; just set your exposure based on the light in the scene.
As mentioned earlier, some continuous lights allow you to change the color temperature of the bulbs. This is really handy, and you don’t have to worry about taping gels onto your lights. I often photograph using incandescent white balance. With my strobes and speedlights, I need to attach gels over the lights for this to work.
But there are some limitations when using continuous lights, and it’s where traditional flashes have the advantage. The most prominent advantage of traditional strobes and speedlights is their power: A burst of light from a flash is incredibly powerful. Trying to get the same amount of light from a continuous light is going to require a very powerful, and expensive, continuous light.
Take this example. If I am photographing during midday, the sun is a challenge to overpower. But if I use my Elinchrom ELB 1200, a powerful strobe, I can easily overpower the sun even shooting through a large softbox. To get the same effect using speedlights, I could shoot at 1/8000 using high-speed sync. This wouldn’t be possible with many continuous lights unless you use a very powerful light.
If you use photoflood, quartz or HMI lights, you will deal with a lot of heat produced by the light. This isn’t a big problem outdoors but can be a real challenge in a small studio. The entire room will heat up, and your model will start to sweat unless you keep things cooled down.
Which light system is best for you? If you shoot in a studio or in low-light situations, then you might decide to use continuous lights. Continuous lights have enough power in these situations and are very helpful to see in real time how your lights illuminate the scene. But if you work outside on location, strobes might be a better choice. You won’t have any problems overpowering midday light.
We use both styles of lights on our shoots. I really enjoy using continuous lights for portraits in low light and still-life sets. I can easily see how simple light modifications change highlights in the image. When we shoot on location in bright conditions, we bring speedlights and Elinchrom strobes for the task. We often photograph in bright, sunny conditions, and strobes have the power we need for these images.
Using continuous lights: A major advantage of continuous lights is how easy they are to operate. Simply turn on the light, add a modifier like a softbox and adjust the light until you get the result you want. What you see is what you get. I like to shoot in aperture priority when using continuous lights. Generally, my subjects aren’t moving, and depth of field is very important.
If you photograph outside, you will have to adjust the power relative to the ambient light. For portraits, I like to have my model slightly brighter than the background. I turn up the power on my continuous lights until my subject is slightly brighter than my background. I just did a shoot on Route 66 in New Mexico. We placed our model in front of the iconic Blue Swallow motel at twilight. As the ambient light got darker, we lowered the power on our continuous lights to match the ambient light and blend nicely with the neon lights.
Three of my favorite continuous lights: There are many impressive continuous-lighting systems on the market. Decide where you will do most of your shooting and how much power you’ll need. Indoor studios can use lower-powered lights that plug into AC power. Outdoor shoots require powerful lights and battery power.
When we need a lot of power on-location, we use Light and Motion CLx8 lights. These LED lights put out 8000 lumens at full power, which means you can use these lights in brighter ambient light situations. The CLx8 works seamlessly with Elinchrom light modifiers and also can be used with many other brands of softboxes. One feature I really like about these lights is they can be used with battery power or plugged into AC power. At full power, the battery runs for 55 minutes. Another handy feature is the power can be adjusted using a wireless remote, so you don’t have to lower the lights each time to adjust power. The CLx8 is incredibly durable and weather resistant, perfect for harsh conditions we often encounter photographing on location.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was an LED continuous light that could also be used as a flash? That’s exactly what the Rotolight Neo 2 does. This unique continuous light can also be triggered as a flash using an Elinchrom transmitter and utilizes high-speed sync so you can trigger the light at fast shutter speeds to overpower midday light. The Neo 2 has variable color temperature and uses AA batteries or can be plugged into AC power. At just over 1000 lumens, this light works well indoors or as fill light in brighter conditions. I like the hot-shoe mount, which makes it easy to attach on-camera for quick front-light photographs or video. And being able to change color temperature from daylight to incandescent to match existing light conditions is really convenient.
Sometimes big things come in small packages, and the Lume Cube checks this box. Think of this light as the GoPro of lighting; small, waterproof and mountable just about anywhere. These lights are about the size of a 50mm lens and can be placed in tiny places. They put out 1500 lumens from a small point source, great for adding fill light or even accent light in a studio portrait. The lights can be controlled via an app on your phone and are recharged using a USB port on the back of the cube. I have the Professional Lighting Kit, which includes two lights, gels, snoots, grids and diffusion domes. These lights are great to illuminate small areas in a scene and are nearly indestructible.
Photography is all about light; without light, there’s no photograph. Continuous lights are a great choice to create light in your photographs. From studio still life shoots to alley portraits, these lights show you in real time how your final image will look. It doesn’t get much easier, and “what you see is what you get.”