Like anything in life, it’s important to choose the right tool for the job. When it comes to shooting portraits you can choose strobes or constant lights for your lighting. In this article, I’ll chat a little bit about my workflow for portraits with photographic film and why I choose a certain light type for a certain shoot. My hope is that you can use some of my experience with lighting portraits for film and apply that to your own tests, experiments or workflow.

I shoot mainly 4×5 for my portrait work nowadays, so I’m going to focus on how lighting works for me for that specific format — but a lot of what I talk about applies to all film photography formats.

A significant number of my tighter portraits are lit with LED lights. Using 4×5 film and f/5.6 lenses means I need a faster ISO film to achieve a reasonable shutter speed that won’t risk motion blur in my subject. ILFORD HP5 PLUS pushes really well to EI 800 — especially in sheet form — so it’s now my go-to for these types of portraits.

Using LED lighting and EI 800 for an f/5.6 aperture, I can consistently achieve a shutter speed of 1/60-1/125th of a second, which I find more than acceptable for my style of shooting.

I run LEDs when I’m in an environment that I can 100% control the ambient light. Battery-powered LEDs also really help when I’m travelling or shooting on location. It just means there’s one less thing to worry about when I’m setting up, especially if I’m more than a few dozen feet from the closest power source (it happens…a lot).

Another great benefit of LED lighting is that you are able to see the changes in real-time when you’re moving lights or changing power settings. Not all strobes have modelling lights, which can be an issue if you’re not using digital cameras or Polaroids/instant film to see those changes before shooting your next frame(s).

I put together a very quick video example here:

While LED technology has made huge leaps in the last 5 years, it’s still not quite there when I need to compete with the sun. This is where strobes come into play.

I use strobes when I need to balance the ambient light in the portrait. They allow my shutter speed to control the ambient light balance and tend to work the best to give me sharp images and achieve dramatic lighting effects.

High speed sync isn’t really available for film cameras, so using an ND filter will give you the ability to shoot a shallower depth of field and cut down the amount of ambient light influencing the image, producing a more dramatically lit image.

Technical issues can cause problems with strobes on certain occasions… sometimes a trigger will go to sleep, or a sync cable will fail, or the strobes just fail to fire. If you’re trying to eliminate your ambient light and just have a strobed exposure, this can lead to blank frames and wasted money. Sync speeds can also be an issue when using strobes. Each camera system is different and it can be fairly limiting with what you can do when mixing ambient and strobe if your sync speed isn’t high enough (ie Leica at 1/50th or even some 120 (not mm) format cameras at 1/30th.

Using lighting in portraits is a total blast and if you haven’t experimented yet, I’d get on it! I’ve always felt that your lighting style can separate you faster than almost any other aesthetic in photography.

There’s lighting available for all budget levels… ANY light is better than NO light. 

Before I go, here are a few lighting suggestions for small, medium and large budgets:

My Suggestions for smaller budgets: ~US$75

For an affordable entry into lighting, a basic plug ’n’ play LED panel like the Neewer 40W Slim Panel is a good start. This will allow you to experiment with lighting and not shell out a ton of cash up front.

The diffusion material in the light will take a bit of the power away, but it will limit the multi-shadow lines you get from open diode LED panels. 

Neewer Super Slim LED 40W Panel.
Image source:

The affordable “strobe” choice would be some sort of speedlight.

I like the Godox brand for price and reliability… The TT600 is well under US$100 and will get you started into experimenting with strobe lighting. Make sure you buy the appropriate trigger for your brand of camera, or at least one that’s compatible with multiple brands, so that you can trigger the flash off camera. 

I use a Fuji trigger and it works on all my cameras, with the centre pin hotshoe contact. 

Godox TT600 2.4G Wireless GN60.
Image source:

My Suggestions for mid-sized budgets: ~US$300

If you’re looking to step it up a bit and can spend a little more cash on lighting, I’d look at getting something like this Neewer LED kit (they’re bicolour, so you can use them with daylight or tungsten film).

Neewer Advanced Dimmable Bi-Color LED Kit.
Image credit:

Alternatively, this Godox FV150 150W for strobe/LED — yep, this light is both a strobe and an LED, so you get the best of both worlds:

Godox FV150 150W.
Image credit:

My Suggestions for larger budgets: ~US$1000

If you’re thinking about diving right in and don’t mind spending the $$$, here are a couple stellar options for LED and Strobe, the Aputure Light Storm C300d Mark II and Godox AD600Pro Witstro, both linked here to B&H Photo Video.

Aputure Light Storm C300d Mark II.
Image source: B&H Photo Video.
Godox AD600Pro Witstro.
Image source: B&H Photo Video.

There you go; six suggestions to get you started. They’re not exhaustive, they might start a litte high for some pockets and will definitely be a little low for readers currently torn between buying a new Rolls Royce vs a Bentley but they are suggestions nonetheless. If you have others to add, I welcome it. Drop your thought sin the comments section.

Before I leave you, one final piece of advice:

Get used to one light first.

Use that single light and really see what you can accomplish with it. Overcomplicating your setups can get frustrating and may push you away from really learning to light your subject matter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what works for you. Leave a note in the comments below along with those alternative lighting suggestions!

~ Ryan

PS. A word on sponsored links: there are none. The Amazon links above won’t earn me or this website a penny. They’re my suggestion as one photographer to another.

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About the author

I'm a full-time portrait/commercial photographer. In the last 2 years, I've slowly migrated almost my entire workflow to film. I'm currently living on a sailboat on the Pacific Ocean, shooting and developing aboard.

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  1. People always think ‘panel’ for LED’s but recently I discovered that LED globes/bulbs in the 27W – 40W range are now available at moderate cost. They’re often use for lighting in public area like shopping centres. I found an old set of photoflood stands with lamp holders/reflectors for nothing, renovated them (black paint outer and a search around for barn doors, etc.) and tried them out. The LED globes are as powerful as old photoflood lamps in the 200-400W range with two advantages – they run almost cold and they come in daylight output – 5000 degree Kelvin or so. Oh, and they don’t die if you bump them when running or still warm like old hot lights might. They are also well diffused and being cool running, you can drop a bit of white nylon cloth over the reflector for a small softbox effect. Cost per bulb around US$20-25 and with. a claimed life of 20,000 hours! (We’ll see but the old photofloods were more like 20 hours even if you were careful!). I started with a couple of Osram branded 27W and then experimented with some no-name Chinese 30W and stronger. They come in screw or bayonet and in cool or warm so be careful to get the right ones if buying online. I’m thinking that this style of continuous light worked very well until electronic flash took over. They don’t have the output of my old floor pack flash outfits of course but then, better high ISO performance from digital cameras these days can compensate for that. Lightweight too and you can set up a three light outfit for – well I spent under $100 to get started. Much more portable than flash gera too. I wonder if I can run them off a car battery with an inverter….

  2. Good day, have you tried LED lights with orthochromatic film? I’m getting an FV150 soon and will be trying it with Ilford Ortho Plus. Curious if exposures will be accurate with my Minolta flash meter IV.

    1. I haven’t tried it yet… I only have one roll of Ilford Ortho right now, but if I can get my hands on some 35mm, I might fire a few frames with it as a test. The FV150 is daylight balanced for LED/Strobe, so it should be alright. Due to the green/blue sensitivity, you may need to add a little exposure time to get a more normal/lighter skin tone.