flashvstrobe

I finally got around to covering a question that I get asked so often from readers here on the blog, and that is:

“What is the difference between off camera flash (like a Nikon SB-800 or SB-900, or a Canon 580 EXII), and a Studio Strobe?

If I have time, I sometimes answer people back with a direct email, but I’ve gotten this question so many times, I haven’t been able to answer them all. So, I thought I’d put together an example to show you my typical response to the question, which is purely my own opinion on the subject.

What I usually say is something along the lines of:

“Whether you use a small off-camera flash, or a studio strobe, what you get is a bright flash of white light aiming toward your subject.”

I know that sounds pretty simplistic, but that’s what it is. For example, two of the shots below were taken with a Studio Strobe with a small softbox, and one was taken with a Nikon SB-800 with the same small softbox.

three-test

First, see if you can tell which one of the three photos above was taken with the SB-800 (by the way; I know the shots themselves, which are unretouched right out of the camera) are kinda lame, but try to get past that part and just focus on  the light). Now, choose which one you think it is in the poll listed below. If you get it wrong; don’t feel bad. Joe McNally was in my office the day I shot it, and I asked Joe to tell me which one he thought was which.

He studied them for a few moments, and said something very telling; he said “The fact that it’s taking me a minute to figure out which one is which, says something, doesn’t it?” That’s the whole point right there! If you have to think for a few moments, the difference isn’t that obvious. Anyway, not surprisingly, Joe did get it right first time, but he too commented on how slight the difference was, and I agreed. It’s not “night and day.” It’s a subtle difference.

So, if the quality of light is at least somewhat similar (as long as you do something to diffuse it, like adding a softbox or shooting through a diffuser), then what are the advantages and disadvantages to using one over the other? (By the way, the correct answer is “The One On The Right”).

Here’s my short list of pluses and minuses:

Studio Strobes: Advantages

  • These are generally much more powerful than off camera flashes like the SB-800, 900 or Canon 580 EX II), so they can throw a lot more light when you need it.
  • They were made to have softboxes attached, so you don’t have to have special adapters, specially made softboxes, etc.
  • They come with continuous modeling-lights built-in. These help you see your subject, they help your camera’s auto-focus lock on (try focusing in the dark), and they give you a preview of how the shadows are going to fall on your subject.
  • Since they plug into the wall, they recycle very quickly, and so you can fire off lots of consecutive shots (great for shooting fashion, or kids), without waiting for the flash to recycle, which is something you always have to do with off-camera flash.
  • They don’t use batteries, so you can fire the strobes without ever worrying about the batteries dying, or the power of the flash changing as the batteries wear down during your shoot.
  • They have a light stand mount built-in, so mounting them on a light stand doesn’t take any special adapters.
  • There are lots of accessories like reflectors, grid spots, barn doors, etc. that are made for use with strobes.

Studio Strobes: Disadvantages

  • You have to plug-them in (though for some you can have a separate battery pack for on-location shooting, but these packs are fairly expensive, and like any battery—they run out of juice)
  • You can’t just toss one in your camera bag—-they’re too big, so they usually need separate protective cases to go outside your studio.
  • Although most decent strobes are fairly rugged, at certain points in the process, the flash bulb is exposed (like when you’re changing a soft box), so you have to take a certain amount of care not to break the flash bulb, especially if you’re shipping it for a location shoot.
  • These require a wireless transmitter and receiver to fire them wirelessly.
  • Good strobes are fairly expensive (though I think the new Elinchrom BXRi 500s are a steal at their price of around $600 each, with built-in wireless receivers).
  • You’re not mounting one of these on your camera’s hot-shoe.

Off Camera Flash: Advantages

  • They are small, lightweight, and you can mount them right on your camera’s hotshoe
  • They are battery powered, so you don’t have to have access to an electrical plug to make them work, so they’re ideal for shooting outdoors, in a church for weddings, at the beach, or anywhere that “plugging-in” doesn’t make sense.
  • You can fit one easily in most regular camera bags, so your flash is always with you.
  • You can set them to be wireless, so there are no cables to deal with.
  • The transmitter and receiver to be wireless are already built in (in most cases) so you don’t have to buy them separately.
  • A really great off-camera flash is usually cheaper than a really great Studio Strobe.
  • You can carry a bunch of these in a very small travel case.
  • These were made for location shoots, and that’s where they really shine (though they work fine in the studio, because after all—like a studio strobe; they produce a bright flash of light aiming at your subject.
  • You can place these little suckers about anywhere—inside a car, inside a box, down on the ground, up in a tree, hanging from a handrail, etc., which gives you incredible flexibility about where you place your light.

Off Camera Flash: Disadvantages

  • They’re not generally nearly as powerful as a studio strobe (though you can buy some high-powered off-camera flashes, like a Quantum Q-Flash).
  • There is no modeling light in most cases, so they don’t help with seeing your subject, auto focus, or getting a preview of how your lighting will look.
  • They need fresh batteries a lot.
  • There aren’t nearly as many softboxes or accessories available for off camera flash (although new stuff is showing up much more frequently now than ever).
  • You can’t fire the strobe as rapidly because they recycle slower than most studio strobes.
  • You need a special adapter to put one of these on a lightstand.
  • You need to have an accessory of some sort to soften and diffuse the light.

So which one should you use?
Well, here’s the thing; It depends on what you’re shooting, and what your budget is. If you primarily shoot on-location, then you’ll probably want an off-camera wireless flash. You can use these in the studio, too, and they’re not crazy expensive.

If you want to do just studio work, get a studio strobe called a Monoblock (or a monolight), which means it plugs right into the wall. You can buy some really inexpensive ones these days, but with stuff out like the Elinchrom BXRI’s, you can now get a really good strobe for near the cost of an off-camera flash.

If you need to do both: lots of studio work but occasionally some location work, you have two choices:

  1. Just use all off-camera flash. They work in the studio and out in the field (but know the limitations I mentioned above).
  2. Buy a studio strobe that uses a battery pack. That way you have the advantage of studio lighting on location. However, this is a fairly expensive way to go.

OK, so how does the pricing compare? Let’s take a look at two set-ups that I use myself:

Off Camera Flash (for Nikon Users):

Two (2) Nikon SB-900s off-camera flashes ($450 each)
Two (2) Bogen light stands ($56.50 each)
Two (2) Lastolite EZ-Boxes with light stand adapters ($164 each)
One (1) Smith-Victor carrying case for lightstands ($37.50)

————-
TOTAL: $1,411.50 (B&H Price)

NOTE: If you have a Nikon D3, D3X, the new D-5000, or any lower-end model without a built-in commander unit, you will need an SU-800 Commander Unit to control your wireless flashes, which would be an additional $249, or you could buy another SB-900 flash, but a commander is much cheaper.

UPDATED TOTAL: $1,660.50 (with Commander unit)

Off Camera Flash (for Canon Users):

Two (2) Canon 580 EX II off-camera flashes ($420 each)
Two (2) Bogen light stands ($56.50 each)
Two (2) Lastolite EZ-Boxes with light stand adapters ($164 each)
One (1) Smith Vector carrying case for lightstands ($37.50)

——–

TOTAL: $1,315.50

NOTE: To fire your wireless Canon flash you need either another Canon Flash unit, but it’s cheaper to buy their ST-ET Transmitter, which adds an additional $220.

——–

UPDATED TOTAL: $1535.50* (with transmitter)

(Note: you could save some money on either system by buying a cheaper light stand, a cheaper softbox—or maybe even a shoot-thru umbrella to cut the cost more significantly, but what I broke down here is pretty much the rig I use myself).

Studio Strobes
Two (2) Elinchrom BXRI 500s studio strobes
Two (2) Bogen Lightstands
Two 26″x26″ Softboxes
Two Carrying Cases (one for strobes, one for light stands)
Wireless Transmitter (the wireless receivers are built into the strobes in these models).
TOTAL: $1,550 (B&H Kit Price for everything above)

(Note: you can buy cheaper strobe kits than this, but this is what I would recommend to a friend. A good quality strobe is like a great lens. It makes a difference).

I think the most surprising thing here is that the price difference between off-camera flash and the studio flash is not all that big. So, it really comes down to what kind of stuff will you be shooting; where you’ll be shooting it, and which type of system suits your (wait for it….wait for it….) personal preference. At the end of the day, that’s what it eventually come down to. Which set-up appeals the most to you.

I’m sure we’ll have people arguing back and forth to make the case that their way is “better,” but the bottom line is; they both will do the job. They both create bright flashes of light that aim at your subject. You just have to decide, for your type of work, which one works best, because the quality of light isn’t so much going to be determined by the flash or strobe itself; it will be determined by what you use to diffuse it, and where you choose to position it once diffused.

I think the cool thing is; we have some really great choices. We have great gear available today, that’s becoming more affordable, with great accessories that make our job easier, that are powerful, flexible, rugged, and a lot of fun to use. . :)