Basics of Flash Photography
Four Fundamentals we must know

Other Differences - Continuous light vs. Flash

Shutter speed does not affect flash exposure - The previous page discussed that flash is faster than shutter speed, therefore shutter speed only affects the continuous ambient light, room light or daylight, but not flash exposure. Which makes shutter speed be an optional control for flash pictures, affecting how ambient is mixed in, or not (More at Part 4).

Other differences

Power differences (why continuous lamps are woefully underpowered for photography)

Sunlight is intensely strong, but continuous lamps indoors are relatively weak. Flash is typically strong - stronger at close range. It may be a struggle, but flash can match the sun for fill in bright sunlight (if close enough, within several feet). Moving picture video does of course require continuous light, but still pictures can use flash.

Exposure of continuous light depends on open shutter duration. Fast shutter speeds drastically reduce the exposure. Time is a factor.

FWIW, there is a difference in power and energy. Power is a rate of use, and a 100 watt light bulbT consumes 100 watts (power), regardless if it is turned on for one second, or for all day. Our electric bill will be different then though, because we buy and use the total energy consumed. Power is a rate of use, but its accumulation over time is energy. Energy = power rate x time duration used. So, the units of electrical energy are: Watts x seconds = watt seconds of energy (one watt second is same as one joule of energy). Our home electric bill uses the same but larger unit of energy, watt seconds converted to kilowatt hours.

Because flash delivers a more instantaneous energy, the concept of any continuous "rate" (such as watts) is not meaningful. Studio flash units are rated in watt seconds, which is the total accumulation of the input electrical energy in that brief flash. But it is not a perfect process, there is also an efficiency of creating light involved. All things vary, types and sizes vary, but a fluorescent bulb might be around 3 or 4 times more efficient making light (more lumens per watt) than an incandescent bulb (which tends to make heat instead). And flash units have about the same efficiency as fluorescent (both are ionized gas instead of a heated glowing filament). But the huge difference is that the flash capacitor accumulates stored charge during a few previous seconds, which can then all be instantaneously released (very bright). Then it has to recycle (recharge). The continuous light just keeps on burning steadily.

This input electrical energy aspect is computed in watt seconds, like this:

The "power" of a flash (actually it is energy) is rated in watt seconds (not watts). Studio flash are rated as watt seconds. Speedlights use Guide Number, but a regular size fully powered speedlight will typically be near about 75 watt seconds. Smaller ones a bit less, and studio lights can be much larger. For flash, watt seconds is computed as 1/2 CV², where C is flash capacitor capacitance, in farads, and V is the charge voltage of the capacitor (the electrical input energy). A Nikon SB-800 flash uses a 1400 ufd capacitor at 325 volts, which computes 73.9 watt seconds of energy.

Watt seconds is not a measure of the light output (which can be measured in lumens), it only measures the electrical energy input. Then efficiency at making light is a variable affecting output. Flash and CFL bulbs are relatively high efficiency, incandescent bulbs are lower efficiency.

Continuous light... can run all day, but the light can only be useful to camera exposure for the duration while the shutter is open.

Let's say 150 watts of incandescent light.

If a one second shutter, then 150 watts x 1 second = 150 watt seconds of electrical energy.
If a 1/200 second shutter, then 150 watts x 1/200 second = 0.75 watt seconds.
But the efficiency of incandescent bulbs making light is pretty low, 2 or 3%. The rest is heat. Maybe 15 lumens per watt.

Let's say a 45 watt CFL bulb is said to be equivalent to 150 or 200 watts of incandescent (fluorescent is 3 or 4 times more efficient than incandescent.

If a one second shutter, then 45 watts x 1 second is 45 watt seconds.
If a 1/200 second shutter, then 45 watts x 1/200 second is 0.22 watt seconds
But higher efficiency, producing more light with less power, and less heat. Perhaps 60 lumens per watt.

False CFL ratings have offended me, which involves some techie complications. CFL bulbs do have an internal power supply in them, for electronic ballast and also to change 50 or 60 Hz AC (which flickers in fluorescents) to be a very fast rate, maybe 15,000 Hz, which does not flicker. However, this transformer inductance causes voltage and current to be out of phase, which is an inefficiency named Power Factor (PF < 1.0 is an inefficiency). Volts and amps combine less effectively if out of phase, so watts is actually volts x amps x PF. Efficiency and output are reduced by Power Factor. It's very normal, and PF applies to all fluorescent lights (and to transformers and AC electric motors). But heating elements and incandescent bulbs are a pure resistance, without power factor losses (with PF = 1.0, so watts and VA are actually equal then). See a Google search of VA and watts and power factor.

My first large 45 watt CFL bulb was no-name, no brand mentioned on bulb or packaging. And its power was marked falsely. It claims 45 watts. And it does measure 44 VA, but VA is NOT the same thing as watts. The measured VA and 0.6 power factor means we see only 26 watts of effective power, so this one is falsely marked, it should be marked 26 watts. I assume fraud over ignorance - if they know how to make CFL bulbs, they know better. It was my bad choice, I shouldn't be so cheap. :)

This is a 45 watt no name CFL bulb from China (the only larger CFL I had). I know all CFL will necessarily have a significant power factor, but I checked three other branded 13 watt CFL, and all three brands of them marked power correctly - they all measured 13 watts and 21 VA, which is the same 0.6 PF, but which is honestly marked. I assumed most are honest. But I don't know now.

So needing a redo here, I bought a Fovitec Studio Pro 85 watt CFL (I went cheap again, but it's a top choice at Amazon. Amazon says vendor is Fovitec, but the bulb and packaging have no names on them. It is marked 85 watts, however it measures only 51 watts and 88 VA, 0.58 PF. Again mislabeled falsely, it obviously is not 85 watts if it only uses 51 watts. The bulb is huge, but it is not 85 watts.

Very puzzling why this is allowed? USA law requires the packaging labels of light bulbs (with the common medium screw base) to show lumens and watts. But these were a plain box, did not mention lumens, and the watts were false. So I'm thinking we should choose a choice that at least mentions lumens. If they have anything to say, they will say it. My next Amazon search for CFL will instead be for "CFL lumens". And a high CRI would also be needed for photography (also should be mentioned).

And hurray! Mention of lumens does seem a good thing. I ordered a third that way, and the Alzo 45 watt CFL is labeled 45 watts, 2800 lumens, 5500K, and it does in fact measure 47 watts and 88 VA. It is a little larger bulb than the first 45W (that doesn't), 70mm diameter vs 55mm, and one inch taller. The Alzo 45 watt CFL claims 2800 lumens, and the 150 watt incandescent claims 2640 lumens. The Alzo also claims 91 CRI, relatively high for CFL (Color Rendering Index, see Spectrum, towards bottom below).

Our regular size camera hot shoe speedlights (at 75 watt seconds energy) will run circles around continuous lights for photography. Maybe the flash charges at a 25 watt rate for 3 seconds, and then can discharge at a 75,000 watt rate in 1/1000 second (both numbers are 75 watt seconds). At any usable shutter speed (up to maximum shutter sync speed, typically 1/200 second), exposures like f/8 ISO 100, or f/11 ISO 200, are possible for portraits with speedlights in close white umbrellas (full power level with main light's reflected fabric at four feet). Battery recycle time will be slow at full power level however, to replace the energy after each shot.

A simple test. Capability of a 150 watt incandescent bulb, a 45 watt CFL bulb, and a speedight.

10 inch clamp-on reflector used for
the CFL and incandescent bulbs.
Speedlights have reflectors too.
This one seems too small for CFL though.

Electric power was measured with a Kill-A-Watt meter.
The exposures were metered with the Sekonic meter and verified with the camera pictures (white balance and crop were adjusted).

All lights were placed on the same unmoved stand at the same 8.33 foot distance (2.54 meters). Fake flowers, and a Nikon D800 camera. All pictures are ISO 100.

150 watt incandescent bulb
158 watts, 1.0 PF
ISO 100, 1 second, f/7.1
White Balance 2900K -1 tint

Nikon SB-800 speedlight
Direct flash, Full manual power
ISO 100, 1/250 second, f/11
White Balance 5900K +1 tint

Yongnuo YN565 speedlight
Direct flash, Full manual power
ISO 100, 1/250 second, f/11
White Balance 6450K -10 tint

Alzo 45 watt CFL bulb
47 watts, 88 EV, 0.54 PF
ISO 100, 1 second, f/5.6
White Balance 4850K +13 tint

No-name 45 watt CFL bulb
26 watts, 44 EV, 0.6 PF
ISO 100, 1 second, f/5
White Balance 2900K -3 tint

This No-name CFL from Fovitec (#4) claims 45 watts, and equivalence to 225 watts incandescent, which are both false claims. This one does measure 44 VA, but only 26 watts (this false rating ignores the difference). Instead of being equivalent, this no-name CFL metered a stop less than the 150 watt incandescent. That's about 50%, or equivalent to 75 watts incandescent (however, it is fair to say the CFL could use a better deeper reflector than I provided). It claims 5500K Daylight, but I see it as 2900K. The false rating of this 26 watt CFL is not very equivalent.

The Alzo CFL (#3) does accurately consume its rated 45 watts, and is roughly equivalent light to the 150 watt incandescent (Alzo claims 2800 lumens, the Sylvania incandescent claims 2640 lumens). However here, it meters 2/3 stop under the incandescent, which is probably my fault. This little reflector is pitifully small for the even larger Alzo bulb, and can't be a fair comparison (the smaller CFL bulb is shown in the reflector). The incandescent sits deep in the reflector, but the Alzo CFL extends out of it, within an inch of the protective wires. When metering all three individually at 6 feet in a bare socket (no reflector, to be an equal situation) shows 150W incandescent 5.7 EV, 45W Alzo 5.6 EV, and No Name 45W CFL 5.0 EV.

However, the flash (#2 and #2b) is certainly worth attention. The flash exposure is independent of shutter speed, it could have even used one second too, with this same flash result. But it didn't here, and this 1/250 second shutter speed obviously was possible, and is sometimes rather important to us. The camera settings used here for flash were in fact 9.3 EV greater (a huge number, 29.333 is 645 times more) than the 150 watt incandescent bulb could provide. The D800 camera can sync flash at 1/250 second, however 1/200 second is the maximum number for many cameras, which is a 1/3 stop difference, and still 512 times more than the continuous light bulb. Both flashes were set to 35mm zoom.

The incandescent bulb (#1) was used at 150 watts x 1 second = 150 watt seconds, but being about 1/4 efficiency of the flash, compares at about 150ws/4 = 37 watt seconds, or about half of this speedlight 75 watt seconds. And with the one second exposure, the incandescent aperture is in fact about one stop less light, or half the power of a speedlight (only if at one second). However, shutter speed is a big deal for us too. The flash can easily use 1/250 second, and the light bulb cannot. This often matters. I'm trying to say that flash is rather a big deal, quite advantageous.

But the 150 watt incandescent light at one second can compete with the speedlight if a slow shutter speed is acceptable. So for pictures of still life that does not move, the continuous light can be extremely usable. Possibly even arguably better for still life, because we can see continuous light (can see to adjust it on our subject), and the camera can meter continuous light. Neither is true of flash, so we have to learn different procedures for flash. But it is not hard at all, very many do use flash, and the ample light is well worth it. You will want flash for portraits of humans. An Equivalent Exposure of the incandescent IS0 100 one second f/7.1 would be ISO 800, 1/50 second f/2.8, which is about where we hopefully end up working with continuous lights. Without flash, it's a hard fight to win well.

ISO helps both flash and continuous equally. We can turn the flash power down of course, but the longer 8 foot distance for comparison was so the speedlight flash would not overwhelm the exposure. And f/11 at ISO 100 is a substantial requirement (the other lights need a couple of seconds exposure to touch it). Doubling the number of bulbs or watts would create one more stop of exposure, as would doubling the number of flashes or watt seconds (double is one stop).

This was not about lighting, it was about comparing the intensity of the types of lights. But the smaller 2 inch wide flash reflector does cast a harder shadow than the larger 10 inch incandescent reflector. And the larger CFL bulb not being as deep into this reflector allowed more stray room spill to scatter. See soft light, an umbrella can really make all the difference. For White Balance, here I merely clicked on white things in the scene, specifically the white paper numbered label here, which is copy paper (relative to Daylight WB about 5000K, a lower temperature K is yellow, a higher temperature K is blue. A negative tint is green, a positive tint is magenta.) FWIW, the first reflector picture shows blue windows because the white balance is for an incandescent overhead ceiling light used for it (kinda cool though).

If shopping for studio flash, be aware that ISO is important too. You should be aware that ISO 100 with 320 watt seconds will give the same exposure combinations that ISO 200 users see with 160 watt seconds. Both cases likely shoot close portraits at f/8, and between 1/8 and 1/4 power level. Or full power on both should allow f/8 for groups with white reflected umbrellas at ten feet. That seems plenty of power, and excessive power can be an issue in the living room. We can only turn a big flash down so low. What needs more power is greater distances (school gym maybe, or fill flash from behind the camera is more distant too), or small apertures like f/22, or trying to overpower the sun outdoors.

See possibly useful info to give the idea about the minimal hardware needed to use your speedlights in umbrellas

Metering capability

Our camera's light meter easily meters continuous light, but it does not meter flash. We must have a flash meter to meter flash. The exception is TTL flash, which the camera meter can meter. Even then, the automatic exposure settings that the camera selects are only about the continuous ambient light. The camera meter reading is NOT about the TTL flash at all (flash has its own metering system, invisible to us). Camera exposure settings are done by camera automation according to only the ambient continuous light. Or of course, we may set the camera ourself manually. Then the TTL flash system necessarily uses that preexisting aperture setting to meter the TTL preflash, and it sets flash power level accordingly for it.

The flash system does not change the camera settings, it only changes TTL power level. However, there are two exceptions, not related to exposure (the ifs and buts can get confusing). In camera S or M mode, we can manually select any shutter speed, regardless if the flash can sync or not. But in camera A or P mode, the camera automation enforces a Maximum shutter sync speed with flash, so that flash can work. And in A or P modes, the camera automation normally enforces a Minimum shutter speed with flash, so in dim places, we normally always see 1/60 second instead of a too-slow shutter like perhaps 1/4 second shutter (which the dim ambient actually meters, but Slow Sync or Rear Curtain Sync are exceptions allowing it). But if we are using flash, the dim ambient is probably unimportant to us, it's why we use flash. Shutter speed has no effect on the flash exposure, but it does affect the continuous ambient exposure. Part 4 here has more about controlling the ambient light existing in a flash picture.

No matter what aperture you use, the automatic TTL flash system will try to automatically provide the right flash power level for it, if possible - if the flash has ability to provide that much power. Therefore, regardless of aperture, we always get the same TTL flash exposure (in that one metered situation). And shutter speed has no effect on flash exposure. So about any and all camera settings will give the same TTL flash exposure. Therefore, two big things to know:

This stuff is a BIG deal, this is the tools we have to use. Aperture and ISO does affect the amount of flash power needed, so of course aperture and ISO have great affect on Manual flash, but TTL flash tries to deal with readjusting flash exposure automatically. Saying, we can change aperture and ISO (and shutter speed), but TTL flash will still meter the appropriate power level, so the flash exposure stays the same. Flash Compensation is how we adjust TTL flash results.

The camera systems with the fancy TTL wireless remote flash features can operate a couple of their own flash units in an automatic way. For example, Nikon's CLS Commander/Remote flash system is quite awesome, a point & shoot remote wireless multiple flash system, which instantly and automatically does the equivalent of several minutes of manual setup to equalize the two lights at the subject. It has pros and cons, here is a discussion of that. We can also specify the lighting ratio between main and fill by simply specifying it, and the Commander does it. It has many fans, but automation always gives up some control of course, and there are associated downsides, like the preflashing that makes our subjects blink in the picture (but there are solutions).

But for manual flash, we can tweak flash power level by trial and error, or a good solution is a handheld flash meter, like Sekonic. In a studio situation with multiple lights which work in manual flash mode, we meter each flash individually to manually set its power level so that it does in fact meter what we want it to meter. This is big plus, a huge advantage called "control". We can set them exactly like we want them. For example, maybe we meter the main light (alone) at the subject to give f/8. We meter the fill light (alone) at the subject to give our lighting ratio, maybe to be one stop less if desired, or to meter f/5.6. We meter the background light at the background to give f/8, or whatever effect we want there. We meter the hair light at the subjects head, to give maybe f/11 for black hair (more light) or f/5.6 for light hair (less light), whatever we know we want. Then we also meter the main and fill light together to get the lens aperture setting (both together will be a fraction of one stop more than the main light, depending on lighting ratio). This is full control, consistent and repeatable, which we can easily do again when we setup next time.

The incident flash meter for manual flash has another advantage: The automatic camera TTL meter necessarily uses reflected light, which is dependent on the light reflected from the bright or dark color of the subject. For example, we get different readings if the subject's dress is black or white (see metering). But the incident manual flash meter is pointed at the camera instead of at the subject, and it measures the actual light intensity itself (at the subjects position), which is totally independent of the subject, and frankly, is pretty awesome. Any subject will come out about right then.

Shutter Speed Sync differences

We can of course use any shutter speed with continuous light, like sunlight. Faster shutter speed does limit the amount of light seen, but we simply open the aperture for any other equivalent exposure.

Flash is different. Shutter speed may not affect flash exposure, but our camera has a maximum shutter sync speed for flash, in the ballpark of about 1/200 second for the focal plane shutters used on most DSLR. The shutter must be fully open when the flash fires, to expose the entire area of the photo frame in that instant. At faster shutter speeds, the focal plane shutter is never fully open all at once, it is only a narrow open slit moving across the frame. This means faster shutter speeds cannot be used for flash, or else we would get a dark unexposed band in our picture, where the total frame area was not open. The fastest shutter speed when the shutter is in fact 100% open all at one time to allow flash to pass through is the definition of the "Maximum shutter sync speed" (found in camera specs). It is a hard limit for speedlights, but see Auto FP HSS flash mode which some flash and cameras offer.

Spectrum differences of CFL

Even if the lamp is called "Daylight", no fluorescent has a continuous color spectrum, which can make matching White Balance be a special problem, an exact match with every color is never possible. Fluorescent lamps have a CRI rating (Color Rendering Index) - which is how well fluorescent is able to render colors. See the spectrum test at top of this CRI link, shown by single slit diffraction - discrete lines vs. continuous spectrum. CRI 90 is possible today for best tri-phosphor types (but not common). Basic fluorescent bulbs may be CRI 50. When choosing new bulbs, a high rating (CRI 80+) has better color - not perfect, but better, often nearly acceptable, but a lower CRI is poor for color photography (and also poor in the closet where your wife selects her clothing - she wants high CRI too, CRI 80+). Perhaps most colors look OK, but the colors not in its spectrum won't look right. But fluorescent will not be CRI 100%. And LED is likely worse.

In contrast, incandescent lamps do have a continuous spectrum and they are the definition of theoretical maximum CRI 100. Incandescent may be orange, but it can easily be matched, all of the spectrum is present (from tungsten filaments). Direct sunshine is continuous spectrum too, and flash virtually so, but fluorescent and LED lights simply are not continuous spectrum.

Flicker of older Fluorescent lighting fixtures with magnetic ballast

This is speaking of older fluorescent light fixtures specifically using magnetic ballast. It is NOT speaking of CFL bulbs, nor of newer lighting fixtures using electronic ballast (these don't flicker).

Fluorescent lights are continuously on, except they are powered with AC. Using the old magnetic ballast, they flicker with the AC line frequency - twice per cycle of 60 Hz in North America (120 times a second), 50 Hz in many other places (100 times a second). The 60 Hz AC voltage swings plus and minus, passing through zero 120 times a second. This is a big problem for shutter speed duration, which can randomly sample partial cycles and see varying color from shot to shot (often this problem randomly sees a strong brown cast). I am speaking 60 Hz, but the solution is in setting the shutter speed to match the AC line frequency, either to 1/60 second, or double at 1/120 second (in North America, or 1/50 or 1/100 second in 50 Hz locations) helps to see only complete cycles for more stable color. Slower even fractions of 1/60 second work OK (like 1/30, 1/20, 1/15, 1/10 second, capturing a few complete cycles), but faster shutters, like 1/80 or 1/90 or 1/400 second, would be a bad match, capturing incomplete cycles of flicker.

However, modern electronic ballast (since 1990's) has changed this situation greatly today, which converts fluorescent operation to about 20,000 Hz - for no flicker (in newer light systems). CFL bulbs, and desk lamps too, use the electronic ballast, inside the bulb base. And many new ceiling light installations too, but the old magnetic ballast is still available to buy. I recently replaced an ordinary two 40-watt tube fixture, and the 25 year old ballast was magnetic, and the new ballast was electronic (and much smaller).

You can determine if your florescents flicker, this way: For this, do NOT use Auto WB (Auto WB changes what was real). Shutter speeds of 1/60 or 1/120 second should match the 60 Hz cycles, but your test is seeking flicker, so any intentional faster shutter would be good, or rather bad - it captures incomplete cycles of the flicker. 1/250 second at 60 Hz captures 120/250 = 48% of a cycle, incomplete cycle for old magnetic ballast, incomplete color, which can vary randomly from shot to shot. Or 1/200 second for 50 Hz lights captures 50% of a cycle. But in newer electronic ballast, 1/200 second captures many complete rapid cycles, for complete color. You can aim the camera directly at the lamp for this test, for brighter light to achieve faster shutter. Take several, 5 or 6 all the same, without Auto WB to mess it up. If color results vary dramatically (a few are randomly brown), that's flicker. If all of several results are the same color, no flicker. If all the same, but color is off, that's just White Balance, not flicker.

But regarding White Balance... Even if the lamp is called "Daylight", no fluorescent has a continuous See the preceding Spectrum section. When choosing new bulbs, a high rating (CRI 80+) has better color - not perfect, but better, often nearly acceptable. Direct sunshine and incandescent bulbs are continuous too, but fluorescent and LED lights simply are not continuous spectrum.

Incandescent bulbs heat a filament which does not flicker at AC frequencies. However, Sodium vapor and Mercury vapor lamps have similar flicker problems, and much lower CRI ratings than fluorescent bulbs. Saying, you will probably see this flicker effect shooting under football stadium lights too.

Differences Stopping Motion

Continuous light is continuous of course, and cannot stop motion at all. Flash is a nearly instantaneous burst, illuminating the subject for only a brief instant, faster than the shutter speed, so the flash can freeze the subject movement. This assumes the flash intensity is significantly stronger than the ambient continuous light (indoors for example). If both sources are significantly present, the continuous ambient light can continue showing blur that the flash alone could have stopped. The ambient needs to be underexposed a couple of stops.

A speedlight is called a speedlight because the way it reduces power level is to cut its flash duration short, which reduces power, and also effectively stops motion (when the only light lasts only a very short duration. A speedlight at maximum full power level might be 1/350 second duration (t.1), pretty fast itself. But 1/4 power level will be like 1/2500 second duration, and lowest 1/128 power level could be like 1/40,000 second duration (Nikon specs are in the spec chart in rear of flash manual). Lowest power level might only allow a range of about one foot at ISO 400 f/16, but still very effective for water drop splashes, bursting water balloons, etc .This is how high speed flash is done, and it is amazingly effective.

Indoor vs Daylight Shutter Speed differences

Indoors, the continuous ambient light is usually dim and insignificant (the reason we need flash). Shutter sync speed will be limited to ballpark of 1/200 second, but this is rarely any concern indoors, since the flash duration is faster, especially speedlights. We may set the Manual shutter speed slow to emphasize the ambient a little (camera A mode likely uses 1/60 second minimum with flash indoors), or we may set shutter speed fast (maximum sync speed) to keep any ambient out of the picture (to keep white balance more pure, etc). Generally shutter speed is little issue indoors, it only affects the ambient, which is dim and insignificant.

For fill flash in bright sunlight, the continuous ambient is very significant, we must deal with it. To expose it properly, the Sunny 16 Rule says for ISO 200, typical exposure in bright sun is 1/200 at f/16. If using flash, we simply cannot use equivalent exposure of 1/400 f/11 or wider, because the shutter cannot sync the flash faster. This means with flash fill in bright sun, 1/200 at f/16 is about all that can work (due to sync speed requirements). Camera mode P knows this, but camera mode A will allow you to set f/4, and then fuss at you about it being unusable (HI warning). Mode P is a good thing for flash in bright sun.

But in bright sun, it would seem great to have a way to increase the sync speed so we can open the aperture. This is simply impossible with the focal plane shutters, but many DSLR systems do have a way (sort of a kludge) to allow this, called High Speed Sync flash (Auto FP). However, it does reduce the effective power of the flash to about 20% (maximum distance range will less than half).

Maximum Shutter Sync Speed, continued on next page.

Copyright © 2008-2016 by Wayne Fulton - All rights are reserved.

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