A strobe is a device that throws a large spark through a tube filled with gas in order to produce light. The light made by these units has a very short duration, on the order of 1/1,000th of a second to as short as 1/50,000th of a second. This short duration is one of the advantages of strobe light; you do not have to worry about movement in your subject or camera.
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Another advantage of strobe lighting is that the light has the same color as daylight, so you can mix strobes and daylight as you would with flash fill or in an architectural image.
The spark is made by storing power in a capacitor, then releasing the power at one moment. Since the capacitor stores power it is possible to make very powerful strobe systems that run off batteries. It is important to keep in mind that capacitors can store a lot of power, thousands of watt-seconds. To put this in perspective it takes about 150-200 watt-seconds to restart your heart with a defibrillator; strobe power packs have as much as 4000 watt-seconds. It is very important to maintain strobe equipment, by avoiding such things as water and to have service done by a competent professional. I always use Holly Enterprises (818)892-9020.
The light from the strobe tube is very harsh. This is because the light is from a small light source that defines texture and shape. Accessories are available and necessary to allow you to control the character of the light. Every strobe needs to have some sort of a reflector, this controls where the light is pointed.
My favorite accessories are umbrellas, these both smooth out and spread the light. Some umbrellas can be used from the front or the back, and some have different coverings to control the color of the light.
Softboxes are also used to smooth out the light, but the also offer the photographer a greater degree of control over where the light goes. Softboxes are available in different sizes because the size of a light directly affects how smooth the light is.
There are also accessories to target the light onto one part of a shot. A snoot fits onto a strobe and reduces the spread of a light quite a bit!
About Author / Instructor / Photographer, John H. Siskin
John Siskin is a commercial and fine art photographer who makes architectural, portrait and macro images. He has worked for General Motors and Disney Studios. He teaches the BetterPhoto course An Introduction to Photographic Lighting and is the author of the book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers.
In addition, he teaches studio lighting black and white photography at Los Angeles Mission College. His studio is in Reseda California and more of his work can be seen at www.siskinphoto.com
His work has been part of many exhibits. His photographs have been shown at the Brand Library, 2nd City Art Gallery, Harold’s Gallery, Farmani Gallery, and The Atelier. He has been a participant in the Valley Studio Tour several times.
John has published quite a number of technical articles about photography. His articles have appeared in Photo Techniques, View Camera, Studio Photography and others. He has written about photographic lighting, building lenses, framing, photographic lab work, building cameras, as well as some more speculative photographic subjects. Since he is so well versed in photographic subjects, he is often hired as a consultant by businesses.