For the longest time, the differences in weight, size, power, and recycling times between speedlights and monolights were glaring, but this is no longer the case. Technologically, speedlights and monolights have become increasingly sophisticated, most notably in their respective TTL and wireless capabilities. At the same time, smaller and lighter monolights have been coming to market, including a few that approximate size and weight of speedlights while packing far greater levels of flash power. Although monolights and speedlights share many commonalities, it’s the differences one should consider before choosing one over the other.
Above photograph: Ian Van Der Wolde
Monolights or Speedlights?
As able as they may be, speedlights do have their limits. Perhaps the biggest limitation has to do with flash power. Most on-camera speedlights, including some of the most popular flagship models, only output a fraction of the power of the least powerful monolights, which limits the scope of their capabilities.
Anybody who has used a speedlight as a fill flash when shooting against bright backlighting will tell you speedlights work—and they work well. The challenge comes when you have to increase the flash-to-subject distance, light larger groups of people, shoot at smaller apertures, or any combination of the above. That’s where monolights rule because, when you’re out on assignment, it’s good to know additional output is there when you need it.
Although most monolights are larger and heavier than speedlights and primarily intended for use on a light stand or similar support, a number of compact monolights are small and light enough for on-camera use, mounted on a camera bracket, a short pole, or easily handheld.
It should be noted the term “Speedlite” is a Canon trademark and is only found on Canon Speedlites. Ditto the term “Thinklite,” which is Godox marketing nomenclature. For the sake of simplicity, the term “speedlight” will be used generically throughout this text. Similarly, some manufacturers use the term “monohead” in place of “monolight.” Here, too, monolight will be used for reasons of simplicity and consistency.
Flash Head Design: Sealed or Open
Few on-camera flash heads can be used in bare bulb fashion for omnidirectional lighting. Most speedlights feature flash heads in which the flash tube and reflector are in a sealed housing. Depending on the model, the head can be zoomed to cover the fields of view of 24mm to 200mm lenses. For wider-angle coverage, many speedlights feature foldaway or add-on diffusers or Fresnel screens that widen the angle of coverage, albeit with an additional loss of light.
Conversely, most monolights feature an open-head design that allows for interchangeable reflectors that enable you to adjust the angle of projection of the light more efficiently, resulting in less loss of flash power than you would with the zoom function built into most speedlights. As an example, Profoto monolights feature flash tubes that can be repositioned to maximize the flash output of whatever reflectors and/or light modifiers you are using at the time. Stenciled distance scales on the side of the head enable precise positioning for repeatable results.
On-Camera, Off-Camera, or Both?
Even though speedlights are specifically designed for on-camera use, many can be used off-camera via wireless remote or hardwired using a TTL (or sync-only) cable with little, if any, loss of functionality. With the exception of some of the newer compact monolights, which are small enough to handhold or mount on a camera bracket, monolights are primarily designed—but not limited—to being mounted on a light stand.
Light Modifiers: Surface Area and Scale of Design Matters
Another key difference between monolights and speedlights has to do with the choices, efficiency, and availability of light-shaping tools for each of these genres.
As one would expect for a product intended for professional use indoors and on location, there are a multitude of OEM and third-party reflectors, umbrellas, softboxes, barn doors, snoots, grids, and other light-shaping tools for monolights.
Light modifiers for speedlights are also available but they are smaller in scale and, as a result, they are proportionately less effective than their full-sized counterparts. For individual or small group portraits of two or—depending on the positioning—three people maximum, a speedlight system should prove sufficient. For larger groups, or occasions you need to shoot at smaller lens apertures for greater depth of field, monolights are a far better choice.
Scaling a product down in size that works well doesn’t necessarily guarantee an equal degree of efficiency in its reduced size. Smaller-size lightboxes, umbrellas, and other light modifiers simply cannot output the wall of light that larger surface areas are capable of producing. The only way you can somewhat replicate the look of a 2 x 3' softbox using speedlights is to cluster a group of them together, each with its own dedicated mini softbox. But even here, it would take an unnecessarily long time to balance all of the lights to replicate the larger light mass you get from a single large light source.
Brackets are available that enable you to mount speedlights on full-size softboxes and large umbrellas. The problems are twofold. For starters, depending on the size, shape, and position of the speedlight, you’re most likely going to have a hot spot due to the inability of the smaller surface area of the speedlight’s flash head and reflector to light the outer reaches of a midsize or large softbox or umbrella evenly.
Power Output: It’s More Than Smaller f-Stops
The second issue about using speedlights rather than monolights has to do with flash power. Unless your plans include shooting at wide lens apertures, speedlights simply do not have enough fire power to pass through a softbox or bounce off the surface of a large umbrella and still deliver enough light to shoot at small lens apertures for greater depth of field.
Five years ago, speedlights would have won this segment of the race hands down, but not so today. Small monolights packing upwards of 250Ws with weight and form factors comparable to the speedlights that currently occupy your camera bag have become commonplace. Although smaller than their full-size counterparts, they maintain all of the attributes of their larger brethren that encourage more creativity when lighting on location or in the studio.
AC, DC, or AC/DC?
Does your photography work require the ability to fire off an unlimited number of full-power flash exposures? If not, are you comfortable with heading out on assignment and working within the limitations of a handful of backup batteries and chargers?
Most speedlights are powered by AA-type batteries, which start off strong but quickly begin lagging in recycling time as you burn through them, especially if you are banging quickly through exposures. Depending on the speedlight, you can expect several hundred full-power flashes before you have to replace (or recharge) batteries, which can be a hindrance when working under pressure. Seasoned shooters dump and replenish batteries at the first signs of burnout or during lulls in the shooting so as not to run into agonizingly slow recycling times when the action starts up again.
About nine out of 10 monolights are AC powered, which eliminates recycling time issues. There are also high-capacity battery-powered monolights, as well as AC/DC models that offer maximum flexibility on the job. Many of the battery-powered systems also offer the option of AC operation using the unit’s AC battery charger.
When shooting fast and furiously, the additional firepower inherent to monolights also enables notably shorter recycling times between exposures, which is imperative if you plan on using flash as you burn through the 20 to 30 frames-per-second frame rates of which newer cameras are capable. Speedlights can keep up with these higher frame rates but for far shorter stretches of time and with a fraction of the light output.
It would be false to claim you cannot freeze action with speedlights. It would also be false to claim speedlights are as versatile at stopping action compared to monolights, especially the more powerful models. The more power you have, the smaller you can divide it and still maintain enough reserve to minimize, if not void, any traces of time delay between light bursts.
Overheating is also less of an issue when shooting rapid multiple bursts of light for long periods of time, whereas speedlights must perform at their limits to keep up with the action, and that’s assuming they can, based on the scenario.
Being able to preview the light emanating from your flash accurately is vital, especially when photographing one-time-only events, and this is a department in which monolights shine (pun intended). Depending on the make and model, monolights feature LED or tungsten modeling lamps of up to 300W that mimic the look of the actual flash exposure, enabling you to tune the light falling onto your subject finely.
Select speedlights offer LED or rapid flash-pulse modeling lights, but they further tax the batteries, which is why they are best used for short periods of time. If you rely on modeling lights for precision lighting, monolights are by far the best tools for the job.
Compatibility with Same-Brand Studio Systems
With few, if any exceptions, monolight systems can be easily integrated with other and/or more powerful lighting systems within their own brand, which greatly increases the creative possibilities when working on complex lighting configurations.
Monolights can typically make use of all of the umbrellas, lightboxes, snoots, grids, reflectors, and other light-modifying tools as their larger same-brand studio product lineups.
Speedlights can be clustered for additional firepower, but in terms of light modifiers and what you can do with them, they remain relatively limited compared to monolights.
Individual Units or Kits
Monolights can be purchased individually or as single and multi-head kits that typically include stands, an umbrella and/or softbox, and a case. Depending on your needs and budget, it’s easy to build a monolight head system slowly that fits your needs.
Are Monolights the Best Choice for My Needs?
In a word, no. The fact is there are times and situations in which monolights are overkill. As with all things in life, it’s always a good idea to choose the best tools for the job. There are monolights that share similar weights and form factors as speedlights, but because speedlights are designed specifically for on-camera use and workflow rhythms, they can often be better suited for specific applications.
If, however, you plan on incorporating flash into your workflow for work other than reportage, weddings, and event photography, monolights—even the least powerful of the bunch—will up your game as a photographer by enabling and increasing your abilities to control light with better precision.
Have you used speedlights, monolights, or both? If so, what are your thoughts about speedlights versus monolights? Let us know in the Comments section, below.