Is Flash Photography Dead? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Is Flash Photography Dead?

by David Peterson 7 comments

Flashes, the age old staple of the modern photographer. They’ve been around as long as photographers have needed some kind of portable light source. But all of that might change very soon. The newest L.E.D. lights are not only inexpensive, they draw much less power than their fluorescent and incandescent counterparts. Plus, when compared to flash (which you can only see for a fraction of a second), they provide the kind of real-time feedback photographers love. Is it the end of flash photography as we know it?

Continuous v.s. non-continuous.

It seems there are two schools of lighting for photography these days. One of them advocates the use of multiple off-camera flash units while the other prefers a portable studio sort of style. There are a number of costs and benefits to each approach, and depending on your shooting situation, you might have to choose one over the other.

The issue with continuous lighting will always be the power drain. If you’re far off in some exotic shooting location with little access to power, it just doesn’t make sense to provide continuous lighting for your subjects. You’d have to bring multiple generators with you, and if the shoot is somewhat elaborate, your budget will have to be equally elaborate. That’s why a lot of photographers have gone with the next best option.

Portable strobes are just like the pop-up flash on your camera, but you can place them in a bunch of key locations off of your camera to light up certain areas of the scene. When you sync them up together, you get the benefit of portable lighting with none of the power drain. The only issue with this setup is the added complexity and expense that comes with using so many flash units. Each flash will cost you at least $500, and the technology to sync them up costs a pretty penny too. Plus, with so many failure points, there’s a pretty good chance something will go wrong in the course of getting all of the flashes to fire at once.

L.E.D. lighting. The low cost solution?

Enter the L.E.D. light. It’s been undergoing some steady improvements over the past few years. Industry experts have been tweaking L.E.D.s and manufacturing more efficient setups that don’t drain nearly as much electricity. What does this mean for you as a photographer? Now, instead of carrying a generator, you can carry a few batteries in your backpack. And because the light is continuous, you can get feedback just by looking at your subject.

L.E.D.s are bright enough to illuminate your subject at fast shutter speeds too, and they eliminate a lot of the complexity that goes along with using a flash. If you’ve got L.E.D. lights, you don’t have to worry about the speed of your shutter interfering with the speed of your flash. The lighting and the camera are two separate things (as I believe they always should have been).

L.E.D.s produce a soft and adjustable light that’s idea for macro photography.

Now photographers are carrying an entire studio lighting setup that folds up in a backpack. When they leave the location, they don’t have to be extra careful with their lighting equipment. L.E.D. setups are fairly durable because they are made up of multiple lights arranged in an array. If one of the bulbs breaks, who cares? You’ve got the rest of the array. Try to do that with a compact fluorescent bulb.

The same goes with flash bulbs. Because they are designed to produce a high intensity burst of light, they tend to go out eventually too. Not so with L.E.D.s. The lighting setup you purchase today will last you for years and years. You’re buying photography gear that will actually last you a long long time.

Color correct light

When you fire a flash (particularly one that sits directly on the camera), it gives an incredibly harsh light that can completely blow out the colors in the picture we’re taking. Most professional compensate for this by getting a bigger flash unit, mounting it on their camera, and then bouncing that flash off of the walls. While this does work, there’s always the issue of tainting the light.

What do I mean? If you bounce white light off of a white wall, you get white light back. No problem. But what happens if you bounce white light off of a red wall? That’s right, you get red light, and your subject’s face has some extra warmness that you might not have wanted (then again, you might have wanted it too).

With L.E.D. lighting, there is no bouncing light off of walls or reflectors. You just bring in whichever lights you need, fill in the shadows, and you’re done. L.E.D.s come in a neutral white, and some of them even allow you adjust for coolness or warmness in your shots. If you want to create a chilly ambience in a winter shoot, you can adjust your L.E.D.s to blue and shoot away. It’s a lot easier than trying to do the same thing with a portable flash unit.

What I like most about L.E.D.s

First let me tell you what I hate about flashes. In order to start using some of the really nice high end flashes, you also have to purchase a nice high end digital SLR camera. Not everybody has that sort of budget. More importantly, not all of us are ready to invest that much money into gear so quickly. We’d prefer an in-between step, and I think portable L.E.D. light panels provide that.

For around $300, you can buy a high-powered battery operated L.E.D. light panel that functions as an off-camera flash replacement. At that price, it’s a hell of a lot less expensive than purchasing a $500 flash unit along with an expensive camera body to handle the operation of said flash unit. Do you want to pay $1700, or do you want to pay $300? I think the answer is quite clear. Particularly when prices of L.E.D. light panels are decreasing all the time.

Welcome to the 21st century where flashes are a dying breed. Flash manufacturers don’t want to admit it yet, but it won’t be long before L.E.D.s take another unprecedented plunge in price. At that point, all of this ridiculous syncing (and the crazy expense that goes along with it) will be gone for good. I welcome a much more simple lighting solution that allows you to take your photography studio anywhere you want to go. L.E.D.s are gonna revolutionize the industry!

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  1. Sanjay Sagar says:

    I am a professional photographer shoot foods, jewelries, tabletop products and also weddings sometime. I use LEDs for most of my shoots and get amazing results. When I shoot fast moving objects then only I use strobes. In Indian weddings when the rituals are photographed and where the movements are not quite fast LEDs give me the choice of using my creativeness. The same shoots I did earlier with strobes but LEDs have much better results than strobes.

  2. Rob says:

    Interesting article but there is one thing constant light sources can't do that flashes can. Freeze motion. I shoot events and would never even consider using constant light sources. I hardly think flash will be dying anytime soon.

  3. jON says:

    It foolish to predict the end of flash - while people want to take pictures of people it will endure Think it through.. under constant light subject look like they are on drugs - flash is quicker than the eye

  4. Joe says:

    most slr mention certain lighting, like tungsten, sunny, flourescent, cloudy, but where does using LED light for indoor nights shoots fit? I will be photographing people with heavy shadow and using LED light to hightlight the area I want photographed.. I have a canon RebelT3i.. new to photography but have some experience

  5. Bej says:

    Thank you, David, for the time and knowledge you share with others. As a novice, I appreciate that your directions are so clear and easy to understand. I look forward to reading your articles.

  6. HVAmin says:

    Thank you for all you do for us. I am learning a lot with understanding that your ideas are generally for wide audience. I am not in a position to dispute with you since you have proved a lot by being read and followed by lot of photographers around the world. Clarification is fine but I will not try to write a comment to disagree with you since there are multiple answers to an art form and I have fraction of your knowledge. My shallow understanding of subject matter does not make me better than you. I truly respect what you do for others.

  7. harry says:

    Hi David extracts from your (Tips) of which most are excellent.

    Is Flash Photography Dead?
    Posted by David Peterson on 26 Jan 2012 as Tips

    From David: When you fire a flash (particularly one that sits directly on the camera), it gives an incredibly harsh light that can completely blow out the colors in the picture were taking.
    From Harry: Flash compensation & or iso adjustments can correct this. From David: Most
    From Harry: ( NO NO NO NO)-- S O M E --
    From David: professionals compensate for this by getting a bigger flash unit,
    From Harry: ( no no no no again, Should read.. More Powerful flash unit not bigger,
    From David: mounting it on their camera, and then bouncing that flash off of the walls. While this does work, theres always the issue of tainting the light.
    From Harry: Don't simply knock Flash, why not use a brolly. Lets have ALL THE FACTS, NOT JUST A FEW PREJUDICED ONES. I am also looking at LED lighting, but I don't knock flash for the sake of it. There are modelling lights to some flash units. Maybe the manufacturers can get a Flash/LED unit together. maybe there are some & I just have not seen one yet. Then everyone will be happy. Are you receiving Royalties from someone?

    From David: What do I mean? If you bounce white light off of a white wall, you get white light back. No problem. But what happens if you bounce white light off of a red wall? Thats right, you get red light, and your subjects face has some extra warmness that you might not have wanted (then again, you might have wanted it too).
    From Harry: WHY NOT USE A BROLLY ? or Don't bounce it off a Red wall, point it forward & use a diffusing filter. The old methods are not necessarily wrong, just different. I am all for modern methods .....If & when they work. I recently took some Manually focussed shots & was asked, "Why are your shots better focussed than mine, we used exactly the same cameras" My reply. "I know how to use my camera"
    Ps: 80% of the time I use A/F...its quicker. Harry.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.