Return of Garbo

Welcome to another guest blogger. Ryan Brenizer is a professional wedding photographer and contributor to the Amazon Photo blog. You may remember Ryan from his previous appearances on the TWIP podcast. Welcome Ryan.

In the days of Strobist, it’s easier than ever for new photographers to get a handle on how light works in photography. You have the ambient light … whatever’s around. Whatever color, however bright, it tends to be a continuous source. Then there’s the light we bring, impossibly fast flashes of bright, bluish-white light. Entire careers have been based on just learning the relationship between the two. But more and more photographers are trying a third way … bringing your own continuous light. Whether we call them
video light, hot lights, or just flashlights, they can unlock new creative options.

The traditional breakdown between strobes and continuous lights go something like this:

Strobe light:

  • Freezes your subject by firing at speeds much faster than your camera’s shutter, creating a “two-shutter effect”
  • can be very bright while consuming little power
  • produces little heat
  • cannot be previewed with 100 percent accuracy.
  • can only light an entire frame if fired while your camera’s shutter is all the way open (the shutter speed at which this starts to fail is called flash sync or x-sync speed.
  • Almost always starts a bluish-white daylight-balanced color, and must be gelled to be warmer.

Continuous light is the opposite in every way. You already know most of the things you need to about how they act, because they’re everywhere. Flashlights, light bulbs, the sun … continuous lights. Whatever your shutter speed is, that’s it. If you’d like to light an image but still creatively use motion blur, then you have to use continuous lights. A flash will superimpose a sharp frame onto the blur from the moment it went off. Sometimes that’s what you want, but not always.

The downside is that continuous light sources are called “hot lights” for a reason. Really powerful ones tend to be hot, and suck down power like nobody’s business. LED lights break that trend, but it’s still really, really expensive to get enough to have decent power. But in the age of cameras that produce clean ISO 3200, we don’t always need powerful lights. With the right camera and lens, even a pen-light can go a long way. But good luck overcoming other ambient light sources.

In the studio, the best thing about video lights is that they don’t care about what your camera’s sync-speed limit is. Want to shoot at 1/8,000th? Go for it! This is handy because it’s often impossible to shoot at wide apertures with big studio strobes. I shot the photo above at f/1.8, hard to do on even the lowest power setting of big strobes. Modern speedlights have offset that disadvantage with high-speed sync modes, which essentially turn them into continuous light sources.

But the biggest advantage of video lights is simple: You can see what you’re doing. You don’t have to keep adjusting a flash and taking test shots to see whether it’s strong enough, whether the shadows are hitting exactly the way you want to, whether the colors are right, any of that. Just use your eyes. Video lights are great for people who have to work really quickly, because you can just keep moving the light around until it’s producing exactly the effect you want, no guessing.

Oh yeah, you can also use them to shoot video. Take heed, 5DII and D90 owners.

You don’t all have to run out and buy a dedicated video light. Some of the cheapest essentially are flashlights, so start experimenting with them. Better lights, like my Lowel id-light, will allow you to shape the beam and control the light intensity, but you can get pretty far by just taping a napkin over a flashlight and seeing what happens. Keep in mind that, if you’re used to strobes, you will find battery life to be atrocious. These are best used in small doses.