Flash or continuous light for still life ?

Flash or continuous light for still life ?

Lighting for still life and reciprocity failure

I’m often asked “what type of lighting should I use for still life?)51MmMplq5CL

Well the answer is pretty simple, continuous light is really the only way to go. So why do professionals use flash? Well studio flash units have a continuous light bulb as well as a flash tube inside them. Therefore we can see exactly what the flash will do. Not the case with speed lights of course

Flash has been used for still life since the early 1960s, Why? The only reason is because of the film we used in those days, in fact up until around 2002, when the pros’ started using digital camera backs. Prior to thSinar-65LV-500at we had two choices of type of film, one for daylight and one for tungsten light.
Now all film suffers from an effect called reciprocity failure, that’s when a film becomes less sensitive too light as the exposure increases. For example imagine your ISO setting reducing, as an exposure gets longer. The effect was dramatic with film for examples when a 5 sec exposure is correct but you need more depth of field, what do you do? Don’t forget, no ISO adjustment with film, so we would close the aperture, meaning we would need a longer exposure.

If we stopped down from f11 to f16 that is of course a difference of 1 stop, meaning our correct exposure became 10 seconds. Not true ! Because the reciprocity effect would slow down the film sensitivity and we would need maybe 12 or 13 seconds to obtain the correct exposure.

As you can imagine if that happens with a relatively short exposure what would happen with a very long exposure like 5 minutes, well that could become 20minutes. So you can imagine the problems it caused.

I hear you say “ what why did you need 5 minutes” Well up to the age of digital, photographers working on images, that were to be used in magazines, books and advertising,

Needed to work on transparency film, my favorite was Fuji velvia, this was sold as a 50 iso film, I say sold as, because that was the iso when it was exposed at around 1000th of a second but when using nsinar-artec-web-2ormal exposure times it was nearer 32iso.

Don’t forget we were also working on very large format cameras, both 5×4 and 10×8 inch, we needed lenses that would have the possibility of incredibly small sinar_X diaphragms. The lens I used for most still life was a Rodenstock Apo Ronnar 360mm on 10×8 it stopped down to a tiny f240. This lens stayed incredibly sharp even at that aperture.

All this meant very very long exposures for still life, as depth of field was a must. The exposure could become very very long 50 or 60 seconds was a normal siuation.

Now where was I , ah yes why flash for still life ! Well with tungsten film as the reciprocity failure became worse and the exposure became longer, the color of the film would become greener, this was dramatic as well.

All this meant that we would use flash but lots of it with enormous softboxes. I used a softbox with 6 flash heads with normal bulbs incorporated, each one linked to a 4000w/s flash generator, a total of 24,000w/s !! That’s equivalent to a massive 349 speedlights yes three hundred and forty nine top of the range speedlites !!

That’s why it’s become almost a tradition to use flash for still life, although not speedlites !!! For a very good reason, try and place a mirror or any other sort of reflector while using a speedlite, it’s an impossible task without a continuous light to help, as you need a accuracy of about a centimeter for great still life, It’s like firing a gun with your eyes closed.


                      So either flash with a modeling bulb incorporated (known as studio flash) or continuous light is the only answer.

<- but not one of these






Retired advertising photographer, now living in the Gers France and having a great time.


  1. Wow—and to think that only a few years ago I desperately wanted to buy a medium format camera to shoot polaroids and film! I’m glad my cousins talked me out of that one! They’re both trained photographers—one learned it during his national service (back when we still had that in Germany), the other one in New York & San Francisco. Neither of them shoot anymore, although one of them won the Oscar Barlack award a few years back, has published a book and exhibited her work. Just lost interest in it, I suppose; she’s a sculptor now. Go figure! 🙂

  2. Thanks, Phill, I get the message 😀 Actually very useful post, especially all the info on reciprocity failure on long exposures, lenses and f-stops used on large format cameras etc. Are there particular formulas to calculate the correct exposure times? Do they vary by film? I seem to remember that Agfa had a slow B&W slide film, Agfapan something-or-other. Did you ever use that, or was it more for reprographics?
    In terms of f-stops, if you were working at f240 on 8×10, would the f64 of Ansel Adams’ namesake group have been considered “wide open”? I’m totally fascinated by all this, my dream is to one day shoot on a large format camera. Richard Alvedon’s “In the American West” is my favorite photo book right now! Are there digital backs for cameras of that size? If so, they must be excruciatingly expensive. I remember your tutorial on Sinars, would you consider doing one in more detail, showing what all the various adjustments along the plane of focus do, and how to adapt one for a DSLR?
    To come back to the original point of the post (I do tend to get sidetracked, I’m afraid), I quite understand about the need for continuous light, but for the foreseeable future I will have neither the space nor budget for studio flashes. So I need to make do with the dreaded speedlights, which has the benefit of making me think hard about how I want to light a scene and to look very closely at each exposure as I build up the lighting one speed light at a time. Time-consuming, yes—but also wonderfully relaxing, I find! 🙂
    Thanks again for the post!

    • There are digital backs for 5X4 inch cameras, although I don’t think full frame probably 6X7cm but as you say very expensive. I demonstrated the first one made by leaf about 20 years ago, the quality was amazing even then. The large format lenses started at about f8 f64′ was certainly a normal setting for me Although f 128, was used often. I was talking to one of my assistants the other day about this the other day, he remembers a 480 mm app that we used fully closed af f300, causing an exposure of 64 flashes in a studio with all the lights off. I don’t remember that because I would have been in my office while he sat pushing buttons.
      5×4 and 10X8 film still exists as does the polaroid 5X4, the problem is the cost in my day we were talking about about £18 a shot processed . I can’t imagine what it must cost these days. We would shoot on occasions well over 200 sheets on a shoot, we would buy film 200 boxes of 10 sheets at a time so the manufacturing batch was the same meaning, the same filtration, as that could change batch by batch. 2 or three orders a year would get us through.

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