Strobe lighting for portrait photography (beginners guide)

Strobe lighting photography is a lighting technique that uses short flashes of light from strobe heads, with or without light modifiers, mounted on lightstands to illuminate the subject. Learning to use strobe lights for studio based portrait photography and as off camera flash outdoors means you can photograph any time, anywhere.

One of the key features of strobe lights is their ability to freeze motion, so they’re ideal for capturing fast-moving subjects, such as athletes or dancers. But strobe lighting isn’t just for capturing movement.

The biggest benefit of using strobe lighting, in my opinion, is that it puts the photographer in charge of the light, instead of relying on natural light.

Strobe lighting offers a huge variety of ways to light a subject, whether that’s:

Adding light modifiers, such as softboxes, umbrellas, reflectors, barn doors and grids, shapes and controls the light for even more creative possibilities. More on this in a moment.

To use strobe lights effectively you need to know how light works, lighting ratios and lighting patterns. Today we’ll start by exploring the basics of strobe lighting in photography.

Outdoor portrait lit with strobe lighting

I took this image outdoors in the late afternoon using strobe lighting balanced with the ambient light for increased contrast between light and shadow areas

What is strobe lighting photography

Strobe lighting falls under the broader term of flash photography, popular with many professional photographers, and is also referred to as flash lighting. While both strobes and speedlights are types of flash light, strobes differ from speedlights (aka flashguns) as they’re much bigger and more powerful than speedlights and are mounted on lightstands.

Strobe lighting is a type of artificial lighting in photography, which can be either flash or continuous light.

  • Strobe lights provide a short burst of light to illuminate the subject and you can’t see the impact of the light until you’ve taken a photo. Strobes are, however, more powerful and therefore more versatile than a constant light source.
  • Continuous lights (also known as constant lighting) provide a steady stream of light, which is easy to see during a photoshoot.

The learning curve with flash photography is steeper than with continuous lighting, but with practice you’ll know exactly how to set up strobe lighting for a particular look.

Key features of strobe lights

As with most things, the more expensive strobe lights offer more features and higher performance. That doesn’t mean that budget options aren’t good, in fact they’re ideal for amateur photographers.

However, professional photographers depend on the reliability and higher performance features of their photography equipment, so invest in the best lighting equipment for their needs.

Strobe lighting features include:

  1. Light output
  2. Flash duration
  3. Recycle time
  4. High speed sync
  5. Power source
  6. Wireless trigger
  7. TTL metering

Now, let’s take a closer look…

1. Light output

Light output (light intensity) in strobe photography is the amount of light produced in a flash of light. Adjust light output for different creative needs and lighting conditions. For example:

  • Lighting someone on a sunny beach, where you’re competing with the sun, requires a lot of power and therefore more light than lighting someone in a dark room
  • When setting up multiple strobes, set your main light (key light) to a higher power level than your fill light
  • Different looks require different amounts of light, such as high key vs low key photography lighting setups or using light to create a dark background

The power output (light output) of a strobe light is measured in watt-seconds, which is the amount of energy the light produces in one second.

The higher the watt-seconds, the more powerful the strobe light and the brighter the light output. So, for example, my Profoto B1x, with a flash output of 500 Ws, is more powerful than my Profoto B10x, which has a maximum energy output of 250 Ws.

Fabric movement frozen by studio strobes

Photographed with studio strobes using a short flash duration to freeze the movement of the falling silk that the model tossed in the air just before I clicked the shutter

2. Flash duration

Flash duration is the amount of time a flash (strobe or speedlight) emits light, and it’s this feature that allows you to freeze motion with flash. The shorter the flash duration, the less time the subject is lit, so the less movement is captured.

When photographing with natural light only, you control movement blur with shutter speed. With flash photography, however, you can use a slow shutter speed and still freeze movement, as long as the flash duration is short enough for the speed of movement.

Flash duration is shorter at lower power settings, so to freeze movement, you need to take both power output and flash duration into consideration. For very fast action shots, you’ll need a much shorter flash duration than slower movement.

In strobe photography, flash duration is usually between 1/1000th and 1/10,000th of a second, depending on the strobe make and model.

3. Fast recycle time

The recycle time of a flash unit is the time it takes to recharge after firing.

You need a fast recycle time to capture multiple shots in quick succession (aka burst mode). Waiting for the light to recharge means you’ll miss some shots.

4. High speed sync

High speed sync (HSS) capability of strobe lighting allows you to use a faster shutter speed than your camera’s flash sync speed. High speed sync is useful for outdoor portraits when you need to set a higher shutter speed so that you can use a wider aperture to blur the background. However, a slower shutter speed uses less power, so as HSS uses a lot of power it’ll use up battery charge a lot faster.

The biggest misconception of high-speed sync is that it’s for capturing fast-moving subjects without motion blur. This is definitely not the case, and in fact the opposite is true.

Depending on your camera brand, the flash sync speed will be between 1/160th and 1/250th of a second.

5. Power source

Strobe lights can be powered by mains power or battery power, depending on the type of strobe. Mains powered studio lights are great if you photograph indoors only.

On the other hand, you can use battery powered strobes anywhere, which is why I use them. I love the creativity of using strobes on location for portrait photography. Plus, when I use my battery powered strobes for studio shoots I don’t have to worry about finding a plug or tripping over wires.

Different brands have different battery pack options. I highly recommend choosing a brand that offers a compact design with the battery included in the strobe head (as opposed to a separate battery connected to the strobe head with wire). They’re just easier to take on location.

6. Wireless trigger

Off-camera lighting is fired using a wireless trigger or a sync cable to connect the strobe light to the camera.

A wireless trigger fitted to the hotshoe of your camera allows you to remotely trigger strobe lights. This is particularly helpful when working with multiple lights or to adjust your lighting from a distance.

The more expensive lighting brands offer better triggers with more options.

7. TTL metering

Through The Lens metering isn’t essential, but is a great advantage of more expensive strobes as it measures the amount of light you need for your camera settings. Without TTL metering you need to measure the light for a good exposure.

However, light meters can’t measure light at the extreme shutter speeds used for high speed sync. In this instance TTL metering is invaluable.

Light modifiers for strobe photography

Portrait lighting modifiers help control and shape light to create mood and define your subjects’ features. Use different light modifiers to create different looks and effects.

The most common light modifiers for portrait photography are:

  1. Umbrellas
  2. Softboxes
  3. Reflectors
  4. Barn doors
  5. Grids

1. Umbrellas

Umbrellas are popular light modifiers for off camera flash, because they’re cheap, versatile and easy to pack up. They’re also easy to set up and use, so umbrellas are usually the first type of light modifier strobe beginners use.

The two types of photography umbrellas are reflective umbrellas and shoot through umbrellas. And they come in different sizes and materials, including silver, white, and translucent for different uses and effects.

  • Reflective umbrellas with a silver interior create a hard, specular light, while white interior umbrellas produce a softer, diffused light. Because light from reflective umbrellas is indirect light, especially when fitted with a diffusion panel, they’re great for creating soft, wrap-around light.
  • Shoot through umbrellas are made of a translucent white material. Because the flash is actually aimed at the subject through the translucent material, the lighting isn’t as soft as with reflective umbrellas.

Umbrellas can easily catch the wind, so they’re not ideal for using outdoors, even with an assistant holding your lightstand to prevent it from blowing over.

Classic female portrait with softbox lighting

2. Softboxes

Softbox light modifiers are popular for portrait photography, because they produce a soft, even light. They come in a large variety of shapes and sizes, including:

  • Rectangular
  • Square
  • Octagonal

Rectangular softboxes are great for natural-looking light indoors that mimics window light and creates window-like catchlights in the eyes. If the shape of catchlights matters to you, use octagonal softboxes outdoors for round catchlights that mimic the sun.

Softboxes give you more precise control over light spill than umbrellas. However, they’re not as quick as umbrellas to set up.

3. Reflectors for strobes

Unlike the type of reflector used for bouncing light to fill in shadows, reflectors for strobe lighting are made of metal and fit onto the front of the strobe. The interior is silver, so they produce a hard, specular light.

4. Barn doors for strobe lighting

Barn doors attach to reflectors, sometimes directly to the strobe head, to control the direction of the light and prevent light spill onto areas you don’t want lit. They’re made of non-reflective black metal and have flaps that can be opened and shut like doors, hence the name, to direct light.

5. Grids for light modifiers

Grids are light modifiers that attach to the front of another light modifier to help control the spread of the light. They come in different sizes and produce a narrow beam of light for highlighting specific areas of the subject and preventing light spill and shadows on the background.

Two types of grids are:

  • Metal grids, also called honeycomb grids, because of the shape of the grid, are for reflectors
  • Material grids, also called egg-crate grids, because of the shape of the grid, are for softboxes

Strobe lighting photography practical considerations

Buying strobe lights is a big decision, because they’re not cheap. So you need to decide what matters to you and then choose a brand accordingly. Consider:

  1. Budget
  2. Build quality
  3. Battery life

1. Budget

As with all photography equipment, strobe lighting has different price points. While it’s possible to find quality off camera lights on a tight budget, the more expensive options offer:

  • Better build quality
  • More features
  • Better performance

That said, when you’re learning, you don’t need the best strobe lights on the market.

2. Build quality

Build quality is an essential consideration when choosing strobe lights. Higher-end strobes are usually built with better materials, so are sturdier and therefore longer lasting. They can take the knocks that come with heavy use of professional photography.

If you plan to use your strobe lights frequently, or in demanding conditions, I highly recommend investing in one of the top brands – it’ll cost less in headaches, lost shots and money in the long run.

3. Battery life

The battery life of strobe lights for on location work is a hugely important consideration.

In my opinion, the worst thing about rechargeable battery powered lights is that batteries need to be recharged. Always start a photoshoot with a fully charged battery (or two), and be aware of how much power you use during the shoot.

Full-power flashes use more battery than flash at lower power settings. Practically, what this means is that the battery of a 250 Ws strobe used at full power will run out before the battery of a 500 Ws strobe used at half power.

If you use your lights frequently and at higher outputs, consider investing in an additional battery pack and/or a more powerful strobe.

Two light setup in the studio using studio strobes

Using strobe lights

Once you become comfortable using strobe lighting, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it. Learn the two essentials of using studio strobes for portrait photography:

  1. Using manual mode
  2. Understanding where to place lights

1. Manual mode

You need to shoot in manual mode with strobe lighting, because you must manually adjust shutter speed and aperture to control exposure and lighting. The other shooting modes don’t give you the same control over camera settings.

Strobe lighting camera settings depend on:

  • The amount of ambient light in the scene and whether you want to include or exclude it
  • How much depth of field you want – i.e. front to back sharpness or a blurry background
  • Whether or not there’s subject movement and if you want to blur or freeze it

2. Off-camera lighting

Off-camera lighting is much better than on-camera flash, also known as direct flash, and not just because of the power offered by strobes. The biggest advantage of off camera flash is that you can place your lights where you want for the best results.

In portrait photography the five most used lighting setups (also known as portrait lighting patterns) are:

  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Loop Lighting
  • Butterfly lighting
  • Split lighting
  • Rim lighting

Good quality strobe lights also have a modeling light, which is a separate bulb for low powered constant light. A modeling light helps you to set up your lighting as you can see where the light will fall on your subject when you trigger the flash. 

Modeling lights are useful in low light situations to shine light on the subject so that their pupils don’t dilate between flashes.

Demonstration of how modeling lights in low light reduce pupil size

I took these images outdoors after sunset. On the left you can see that her pupils dilated to see in the dark. So I switched on the strobe’s modeling light and on the right you can see how her pupils contracted for a better portrait look.

3. Strobe lighting color temperature

Strobe lighting for outdoor portraits is impacted by the amount of ambient light and the color temperature of light outdoors at different times of the day.

The color temperature of strobe lights is 5600 Kelvin, which is the same as the midday sun. At other times of the day direct natural light will be warmer or cooler than strobe lighting, and open shade outdoors will be a lot cooler.

So, when combining flash with ambient light outdoors, you might need to use color correcting gels with strobes to match the color temperature of natural light. Use a CTO gel to warm up flash light and a CTB gel to cool down the color of flash light.

4. Flash photography outdoors

Strobe lighting gives you consistent and controlled lighting when photographing outdoors, where lighting conditions can be unpredictable.

Use strobe lights outdoors to:

High contrast low key portrait of man sitting

Low key portrait using a studio strobe without light modifier to create hard light in Rembrandt lighting setup

5. Studio photography portraits

Studio photography is endlessly creative, because you can create any type of light and look you want with studio strobes. For example, depending on how you set up your lights, you can:

Strobe lighting conclusion

Using strobe lighting in photography ensures that you always have enough light for photos. Plus, being able to adjust lighting to your liking, while ensuring that your subject is perfectly lit, helps to create a recognizable photography style.

When starting out it’s not a bad idea to go for a cheaper option. However, as you improve you’ll want the added power, faster recycle time, better battery life and superior build quality and features of more expensive strobes.

Frequently asked questions

What is strobe lighting in photography?

Strobe lighting in photography is a technique that uses short bursts of light to illuminate a subject.

How do you use strobe lighting in photography?

To use strobe lighting in photography, switch your camera to manual mode and attach a trigger (preferably wireless) to your camera’s hotshoe. Place a strobe light on a lightstand and position it for flattering portrait lighting. Measure the light with a light meter and set the exposure on your camera. Use strobes with or without light modifiers attached to control light quality and spread of light.

What is the difference between flashing and strobing?

Flashing and strobing in photography both refer to using a burst of artificial light to light the subject. However, flash refers to all types of flash photography, from the built-in flash on your camera to studio lighting. Strobes are much bigger and more powerful than speedlights and are mounted off camera on lightstands.

What effect does strobe lighting have?

Strobe lighting effects for creative photography include freezing motion, creating dramatic high contrast light that adds depth and dimension to a photograph, or soft lighting with minimal shadows.

Can strobe lights be used outdoors for photography?

Yes, strobe lights can be used outdoors for photography, if they’re battery powered. You’ll need balance the ambient with the flash light by adjusting the strobe’s power output and your camera settings.

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