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Photography Lighting - Strobe vs. Hot Lights


So you are going to buy your first studio lights. A quick look at the offerings from your favorite photography equipment supplier will likely leave you with more questions than answers. Hot lights, halogen, fluorescent, and strobe are terms you are likely to come across. So which lighting system is best? All of these different lighting types work very well for what they were designed to do. Knowing the differences in these lighting types will help you decide which one fits your particular photography needs.

Hot Lights (Continuous Lighting)
Hot lights are simply lights that stay on all the time. They got the name hot lights because the high wattage outputs required for photography produce a lot of heat when they stay on a long time. Newer bulb types have made great strides in reducing the amount of heat produced by continuous lighting. Color balanced fluorescent bulbs produce only a fraction of the heat of older halogen or tungsten bulbs.

The main concerns with continuous lighting are the heat and that they can be almost blinding to your subjects. However, continuous lighting has a distinct advantage when working with unpredictable subjects. Because the lights are always on you are not limited to recycle times of strobes, you can easily see any shadows that need to be corrected, and there is no sudden flash of light to scare animals or young children.

Strobes are large flashes. These lights flash quickly upon a signal from the camera (via a wire or remote). This means that high wattage bulbs can be used without heat issues. Newer strobes have much faster recycle times between flashes than older models, allowing for their use with more mobile subjects.

The main concerns of strobe flashes are the wires used to connect the flashes to the camera (a few systems use wireless remotes), the need for additional test firings to check for shadows, and the transformer boxes that require regular cycling (for occasional strobe users). Wires should be secured to the floor with industrial tape to prevent trips that could pull down heavy equipment onto subjects. With digital cameras, test firings are more accurate as digital previews can be reviews for shadows that might be missed when simply trying to spot shadows with the naked eye when shooting film. The transformer boxes must be recycled on a regular schedule to keep them working properly. This is usually not an issue except for those who only occasionally use their lighting equipment.
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