Studio Strobe vs Speedlite: An Epic Showdown

Here’s a match up of two lighting tools that should make for an interesting watch. Two professionals, both shooting with almost the exact same setup of gear, the same model, the same venue, and the same time of day. Except, while one photographer is using a powerful studio strobe, the other is using a humble Speedlite. Do you think the Speedlite has a chance? Let’s find out:

The battle lines were drawn and both photographers were armed with the lighting tool of their choice. Photographer Anthony Scott used a CheetahStand CL-360 studio strobe while Michael Andrew used Canon’s 600EX-RT Speedlite. The rest of their gear was almost the same. Both were using a Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L II lens.

In case you’re wondering, the strobe is way more powerful than the Speedlite in every assessment. It’s rated at 360 WS and 80 GN. The Speedlite, on the other hand, is rated at 60–70 WS and 58–60 GN. While the strobe recycles more quickly and lasts longer, the Speedlite powered with AA batteries runs out of juice faster.

The photographers selected the time of day when the sun’s light is at its harshest: high noon.

Common Problems Faced with the Speedlite

One of the aims of this exercise was to mimic the common incorrect approach to shooting in harsh lighting conditions and then show how those can be corrected. So Andrew shot some of the images with the Speedlite mounted on his camera, with this result:

shooting at high noon with a speedlite

Speedlite mounted on camera

The underpowered Speedlite clearly huffed and puffed, but it was short of breath. It failed to clearly expose the model from the telephoto distance that Andrew was shooting from. So, for his next shot he set up the light off-camera and brought it closer to the model:

shooting with speedlites at high noon

Off-Camera Speedlite

Clearly this was a much better attempt. The guiding rule here is the inverse square law. The Speedlite with its lower guide number was literally struggling to properly light the model from far away.

Even then, the Speedlite faced another problem—the quality of the light it produced. At such short distances (3 feet away), the quality of light was hard. To correct the problem Andrew used an umbrella to bounce the light. That produced much better results:

Shooting portraits at high noon

Off-camera speedlite bounced off of an umbrella

Scott, on the other hand, was using the bigger and better CL-360. It created a much larger amount of light and easily illuminated the subject from a distance.

The final problem that Andrew faced was depth of field (DoF). Here are two images shot by the two photographers side by side for comparison:

shallow depth of field in high noon portraits

Comparison of DoF of the images shot by both photographers

Needless to say the reason Andrew was getting such a vast DoF was because he was shooting at f/13. Scott, however, was shooting at f/2.8, and thus had a shallow depth of field. But why is it that Scott was able to shoot at such wide apertures and Andrew—in spite of the fact that they were shooting with the same camera and lens—could not? The answer is a neutral density (ND) filter. Scott was using a 4-stop ND filter which allowed him to stop a significant amount of light without having to bring the entire background into focus.

Now, if you have any doubt in your mind as to why the two photographers were shooting at high noon in the first place, consider this piece of advice from Scott:

“I like shooting at that time because the flash and the ambient light is almost the exact same color. If I shoot at dusk or I shoot at the golden hour then I will have to gel my flash. Then I am going to lose almost a stop of power because of that gel.”

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One response to “Studio Strobe vs Speedlite: An Epic Showdown”

  1. Mike Penney says:

    If you were working a real job and had a number of shots to do with various models and clothing changes… immediately you will discover a AA battery powered flash is close to worthless.
    My Canon stuff has a few miles on it and is now just a pile of junk… no reliability and no power… but still with a heavy price ($600 to replace a pop gun 580 ii).
    If you are thinking down the road get a light meter and real equipment… don’t waste your money on AA battery powered junk.

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