Category Archives Lighting


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.


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. . :)


I got a few comments on Friday asking how I did the “beauty style” headshot featured in Westcott’s new Lighting catalog, and so I thought I’d show how to light it here. The shot you see in Westcott’s catalog (which was taken with 2 Spiderlite TD-5—scroll down to the next post to see the shot), was taken before Brad started working with me, so unfortunately I don’t have any production shots from that particular shoot.

However, I recently did a shoot using that exact same “beauty look set-up” (the shot at the top of this post is from that shoot) but I used strobes instead, and luckily this time Brad was there to capture the production set-up, which is shown below. So, just to clarify: what you’re seeing is the same exact position for the lights—which is what this post is all about—but in the production photo below I’m using strobes instead of continuous light Spiderlites. I use both Spiderlites and strobes in the studio, and I choose one or the other based on what I’m shooting that day (or based on what’s already set-up in the studio and ready to go. Sad, but true).


There are only two lights used for this look:

  1. You’re actually using a large softbox as your background (you can see the subject standing in front of a large Octabank above), but you tilt the light back at a 45° angle (as seen above). NOTE: For the shot in the Westcott catalog, I used a 36″x48″ Westcott softbox behind the subject instead of the Octabank. Worked just as well (the Octa is actually a little overkill). By having your subject stand directly in front of the large softbox behind her, it makes the light wrap right around her face on both sides.
  2. The 2nd light in this case is a Beauty Dish (the one shown above is actually a White Lightning strobe with a beauty dish attachment, but we’ve since replaced that rig with an Elinchrom strobe and beauty dish. I’ll discuss why in just a moment). NOTE: In the Westcott catalog, the front light was another Spliderlite TD-5, with a smaller 16×22″ softbox, but in the same overhead position as you see here. This light you put up high—directly in front of your subject, but angled down at her at a 45° angle (so basically, the two softboxes are aiming at each other).(2a) You also need a reflector down low bouncing some of that light back into your subject’s face (as shown above. By the way; that’s a celebrity guest-reflector holder; Photoshop World digital video instructor Rod Harlan). The reflector should be placed about chest level, just below the bottom of your frame (I just kept telling Rod “Lower….lower…lower…until I couldn’t see it in my frame any longer). NOTE: Since this shot was taken, I’ve gotten a Lastolite Tri-panel reflector (which reflects from three angles, using three different reflector mounted on one stand, and I would now use that instead—-that thing works wonders!).

Because you’re aiming directly at a softbox (the one behind your subject), there’s a decent chance you’ll get some lens flare back into your lens, so you could try and block the light as much as possible (by putting up some large black flags in front of you, and then shoot through a small slit between them), but instead what I do is just know that it’s going to be a little washed out when the Raw photo comes into Lightroom (or Camera Raw), but the fix is incredibly easy—-all you do is drag the Blacks slider to the right (as shown below) until the photo looks balanced. Works like a charm.


OK, so why did I ditch the White Lightning strobe and beauty dish? Honestly, it’s not really a bad rig at all for the price, but I had to to chuck it for two reasons:

  1. Because this light winds up on a boom stand, each time we have to adjust the power output of the light, even the slightest bit, we either have to pull the boom stand down (right when we had it positioned exactly where we wanted it), or we have to climb on a ladder to adjust the power. Ugh! By using an Elinchrom strobe with a Skyport trigger, I can change the power output for my beauty dish from right on top of my camera (on the Skyport transmitter). You can adjust everything (even the light behind her) without ever putting down your camera or leaving your shooting position.
  2. The second reason is; the White Lighting use sliders for adjusting the power of the strobe, and the modeling light, which makes the process kind of imprecise (to say the least). If you want to lower the power just 1/10 of stop—good luck–especially when you’re trying to do that on a ladder. Double-Ugh!

We finally couldn’t take it anymore, and ordered an Elinchome beauty dish. It’s been worth every penny (we had an Elinchrom strobe; we just needed to buy the beauty-dish attachment).

So, that’s how this look is done. Two lights and and a reflector: one right behind your subject, tilted back at a 45°; one light up high, directly in front of your subject, aimed down at your subject at a 45° angle. Put a reflector at chest level tilted back at your subject’s face. Have your subject pull her hair back in a pony tail (so the lines of the face are clean), and fire away (This was shot with a Nikon D3, at 200 ISO, at f/8 at 1/200 of a second, with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens out at 200mm).

Once the shot is in either Camera Raw or Lightroom; move the Blacks slider to the right to bring back shadow saturation and you’re in business.

One last thing: I want to give credit to well-known fashion photographer Mary DuPrie, as she is the one who taught me this lighting technique. She teaches workshops on how to pose and work with professional models, and there is just nobody better! You can read about my experience at her workshop right here.

Hope that helps. Have a great Monday everybody. :-)


After I posted my video review of the Elinchrom BXRI-500 strobes earlier this week, I was contacted by the folks at Bogen Imaging (who distribute Elinchrom gear here in the US), and who watched my review and saw that one of my few minor “dings” about them was the fact that you needed to keep the instruction manual around for assigning groups.

They let me know that they had created a downloadable quick chart (in PDF format) that BXRI users can now download, which has all the programmable controls laid out in a very simple and easy-to-use format (plus, the chart includes more than just how to assign groups). You can download their free quick chart right here.

My hat’s off to Bogen for making this available so quickly (I’m going to print and laminate two of them, then attach them to the lightstands so they’re right there when I need them).

NOTE: If you’re new to studio lighting, and you go to Bogen’s Web site, these will be listed under the heading “Monoblocks.” All that means is that strobes don’t require a separate power pack to power them—they plug directly into a regular wall-socket like any other electronic device.

I’ve been working with the newly introduced Elinchrom BXRI-500 studio strobes, and I did a video review for you guys (below) to look at the pros and cons of this new mid-level set-up.

Here’s the link to the complete Elinchrom BXRI 500 kit at B&H Photo (They currently show it selling for $1550, with two 500 watt strobes, two 20″ softboxes, two 9′ light stands, the wireless transmitter, two cases, etc.).

Here’s the kit with 1-500 and 1-250 (but still includes all the other stuff).

Here’s the kit with two 250s. (also includes all the other stuff).

NOTE: There’s only a $200 difference between the two 250s and two 500 watt system. There’s only $100 between the one with one 500 and one 250, and the two 500 watt kit. In short; spend the extra money and get the two 500-watt strobes system.

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