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Speedlight vs Strobe, What Kind of Flash Unit Should You Use?

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So you want to start using flash for your photography, but not sure which route to go between using speedlights vs strobes/monolights? In this post, I’ll try to weigh the pros and cons of both options.

First some definitions:

  • Speedlights (aka speedlites): Portable and battery-operated flash units that can be used as on or off-camera flash units.
  • Strobe (aka studio strobe, monolight): These are larger flash units often used in the studio. Historically studio strobes have been powered using a power pack that’s placed on the floor or hanging on the stand. In the past few years, monolights have started to become really popular and are starting to replace the use of bulkier power pack setups for many photographers. Monolights are self-contained and for this post we’ll compare speedlights to mostly monolight-type strobes.

There’s no such thing as one type of flash unit being better than the other. It’s all about what you plan to use it for, the features you need, your budget, the type of photography that you do,… Let’s, therefore, breakdown some of the stronger comparative points of each type to help you decide what makes sense for you.

Benefits of Speedlights Over Strobes

Portable, portable, portable!

Speedlights are the pinnacle of portability and portability is their main differencing factor. Throw them in any backpack and bring them with you where ever you’re going. That makes them especially great for photography while you’re traveling or outdoor photography in general if you don’t want to bother with bringing more and heavier equipment.

Can be used as an on-camera flash

Speedlights can be connected directly on top of your camera’s hot shoe and used as an on-camera flash. For most situations, this won’t give you very flattering results, but it can really help in a pinch. Furthermore, the quality of the light can be improved by modifying it using accessories provided by the likes of Rogue or MagMod.

Cheaper

In general, and given a similar build quality, speedlights tend to be much more affordable then studio strobes/monolights. So if price is a huge factor in getting a first flash unit, then going the speedlight route may make sense.

Zoomable

There are fewer modifiers available to modify the light from speedlights, but one way that speedlight manufacturers try to help with that is by building a way to zoom the light in or out directly on the flash unit. This way you can widen or narrow the beam of light without having to use any modifier.

Swivel Head

Speedlights have swivel heads that can be twisted to affect the exact direction of the light easily without having to re-adjust your stand.

TTL mode

Most speedlights have the TTL (through-the-lens) functionality where the flash sends a preflash that your camera uses to determine the power to use on the flash for proper exposure. This can be especially great for beginners or when running in gunning or on a wedding day where there’s no luxury of time to correctly set the power of the flash manually, short of missing some critical shots.

If, like me, you shoot in the studio most often, you may find that you prefer using your flash units in manual mode at all time to give you maximum control. And if that’s the case, then TTL might not be important at all for you.

More and more monolights now also come with TTL functionality, so the TTL capability is not strictly a winning point for speedlights anymore.

High-speed sync

Most speedlights also have high-speed sync capability, meaning that a shutter speed faster than the camera’s sync speed can be used. That means that the ambient light can be further reduced.

That does come at a cost in terms of power and battery drain however, so you’ll want to make use of high-speed sync only when absolutely needed.

As with TTL, some monolights now can also do high-speed sync.

Great for starting out

Speedlights are easy to get started with, they are versatile and they are quite easy to use. If you’re just getting starting with using flash, they might be a perfect starting point for you, before moving on to more powerful units.

Good quality speedlights tend to keep their resell value, so you can always consider selling some extra units down the line to replace with a monolight.

Benefits of Strobes Over Speedlights

Power, power, power!

Strobes tend to pack much more power than speedlights. They can therefore be used with much larger modifiers, or used to overpower the sun. More power is the main differencing factor between strobes and speedlights.

Some brands sell brackets to use multiple speedlights in the same modifier, to try and mimic the power output from one strobe/monolight. At that point however, the difference in price becomes moot because you’d have to own multiple speedlights.

Monolight have more power output than speedlights, and studio strobes that use a power pack often will have even more power. It’s my feeling that most photographers find the power from most good quality monolights more than enough for just about any situation.

Faster recycle time

Another major benefit of using a studio strobe over a speedlight is that the recycle time tends to be much faster for strobes. Recycle time is the time it takes between flashes to be able to trigger another flash of the same exact output.

If you tend to shoot fast and shoot a lot, you might get annoyed that you have to wait seconds in between your shots when using a speedlight. And the difference becomes even more noticeable if you’re using a speedlight at higher power.

Consistent power

As batteries in a speedlight start to lose their power, it’s not uncommon for the power to start become slightly inconsistent between shots, especially if you shoot fast and don’t let enough time for the flash to regain its power.

With strobes/monolight, that becomes mostly a non-issue and you can shoot confidently knowing that your shots will have consistent exposure.

Modeling light

Studio strobes often will have an extra LED or incandescent bulb available as a modeling light. That means that you can preview the quality and shape of the light on your subject. This really helps in setting your lights so they are just right and fall exactly where you need them, instead of the trial and error often required when no modeling light is available.

If you’re shooting in a very bright environment, like in bright daylight, the power of the modeling light might not be enough for you to get a good preview of the light.

More modifiers available

In general, there are much more options available as light modifiers for strobes. Softboxes of all sizes, parabolic reflectors, octoboxes, beauty dishes, strip boxes, barn doors, ring flashes,… The sky is the limit!

Companies like MagMod have noticed that there was a lack of good light modifiers for speedlights, so they started producing excellent options to help modify the light from speedlights. For example, you can see there’s a MagGrip installed on the speedlight that’s on the cover image for this post.

Less battery charging/swapping

Most speedlights are powered using 4 AA batteries. Changing batteries multiple times during a long shoot is something that’s commonly needed when using speedlights.

Strobes are either plugged directly into the wall, plugged into a power pack or have a large rechargeable lithium-ion battery that lasts for a while. This way you don’t have to worry about running out of battery power as much, or not at all if you’re plugged into the wall.

Some speedlights nowadays are powered using only one rechargeable lithium-ion battery. That approximates more to what you’d get with a monolight, and there’s less battery swapping needed.

Won’t overheat as much

When you start shooting a lot and at high power on your flash units, speedlights can tend to overheat. At that point, they’ll slow down or just outright shutdown to prevent damage to the unit. That can become really annoying and cause delays in the shoot. That’s especially true for some cheaper speedlight options.

As for strobes, you can usually shoot away without having to worry about the unit overheating on you. They often come with a fan built-in that helps keep the unit cool as it runs.


Wrapping Up

As you were able to see, it mostly comes down to portability vs power, but there are also many other factors that can make a difference. I hope this was helpful in helping you decide what you next or first flash unit purchase should be.

Over time, many photographers who use flash end up owning both types of units so that they can benefit from the strong points of both depending on the photographic situation. Start with a type of unit that makes the most sense for the type of photography that you do now or that you plan on doing and go from there!

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