Strobe vs Video Light for Still Photography

Can video lights be used to replace strobes for still photograph? I’ve generally answered “NO” to this question, but for off-camera lighting video lights are a simple and effective solution. We put our 10,000 lumen videos lights to the test in Madison Blue Cave (Florida), here’s what we found.

Let me first say that I still don’t believe video lights can effectively replace strobes for on-camera lighting for serious shooting scenarios (ie. those attached to camera). Modern strobes win hands down when it comes to output/intensity, weight, cost and duration. When it comes to off-camera lighting though, high lumen video lights are a viable solution due to simplicity – they provide a “what you see is what you get” approach, avoiding many of the pitfalls that come with managing off camera strobes. Let’s break down the pros and cons associated with each:

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Left: Dual Ikelite DS-160s (full power) on divers back; Right: Single LD-100V, handheld under divers arm; Settings for both: 1/80s @ f/10; ISO1250

Video Lights

  • Simple – video lights are simple, not requiring remote triggers and sync cables
  • Real-time – photographer & model can see where the video light is pointed in real-time
  • Availability – video lights are often more on-hand, or people shoot video on same dive
  • Mounting – mounting a video light on a model will quickly become a liability, so you’re limited to handheld use
  • Duration – video lights have a limited burn time compared to strobes
  • Safety – constantly beaming 1000’s of lumens in a cave/wreck reduces communications (and pissed people off!)

Strobes

  • Shutter Speed – strobes enable fast shutter speeds to be used (unlike constant light sources)
  • Duration – you get hundreds of frames with strobes, versus a limited burn-time/shooting wind lights
  • Complexity – strobes require slave sensors and sync cables, and can fail to fire
  • Guesswork – models often have to guess where a strobes beam will fire
  • Mounting – strobes can be mounted on a diver’s back, tanks, etc… hands free & only firing when triggered
  • Cost – bang for buck, strobes will give you more light and shooting time

Of all the variables, shutter speed and duration are perhaps the biggest advantages of strobes. Fast shutter speeds in cave environments gives you crisp images (albeit with the loss of primary light beams), whilst not having to worry about burn-time and power levels is pretty handy.

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Left: 1/200s @ f/10; ISO1250 – Dual DS-160s; Right: 1/60s @f/7.1; ISO1250 – Single LD-100V; Working to the strengths of the video lights can yield great results, pulling the diver off the background wall.

In contrast, video lights win out when it comes to simplicity, real-time viewing and availability (depending on the project/location). What you see is largely what you get, though you will have to shoot with a slow shutter speed to make it work (e.g. 1/60s). Inexperienced models often approach a video light with more familiarity and willingness. Minimizing the distance to subject will also maximize the impact of a video light, so get closer!

As can be seen from our test shots in Madison Blue, off-camera video lights for still photography are a viable tool. You will need to manage certain constraints, but they can enable great shots to be taken in the right environment. Of course, why not mix it up as we recently did in Twin Cave, using strobes, video and primary lights all in one go.

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