The Return of Hot Lights

With the advent of affordable electronic flash in the 1970s, hot lights (incandescent/tungsten) were almost abandoned as a tool for still photography. Why are hot lights, and all constant lights for that matter, becoming so popular again?

The main reason is because continuous lights provide a ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ result. Another reason is because modern digital cameras are able to shoot in relatively low light levels, so low wattage continuous lights are bright enough for portrait shooting.

Regardless, this subject deserves some attention.


All photos copyright 2011 Jeffery Jay Luhn. All rights reserved.

History: From 1930 through 1970 hot lights ruled the photo studios. What made them popular and why did they fall out of favor?

Back in the days of glass plates, photographers were unable to get the high shutter speeds they needed to capture movement by using continuous lights. Many photographers used explosive flash powder to create enough light for an outdoor photo, but that technique led to numerous accidents and fires indoors, so most portrait studios used natural light from 1865 through about 1920. Up until 1920, most photo studios had special chairs with headrests so their subjects could hold still for five seconds or longer. Even with the faster films developed by the Hollywood film industry, portrait subjects had to sit still for at least a 1/10 of a second. Tungsten lamps got bigger and brighter through the 1920s and eventually the spotlight and more sensitive films became a popular combination.

What about flash bulbs? Around 1930 commercially available flash bulbs made flash photography more convenient by creating an explosion of magnesium threads in a contained glass globe. Early flash bulbs occasionally shattered, but manufacturers solved that problem by dipping them in liquid plastic to create a safety shield. For the first time photographers could make one quick bright burst that lasted about 1/100 of a second. Early flash bulbs were often three or four times brighter than daylight. Some were big and bright enough to take night time photos of cities from airplanes. No kidding. But flash bulbs were expensive, so most neighborhood photographers didn’t use them for portraits.

During the 1930s photographers began buying collections of Hollywood style light fixtures, each with their unique characteristics: Broad light, Fresnel, Inky Dinky, Ellipsoidal, etc. There are more than 100 different styles of early tungsten fixtures and many designs are still in production. The golden era of Hollywood, and the clever lighting designs, inspired a period of dramatic portraiture from 1930 through 1950 that remains a high point to this day.


This was a two light setup with red and yellow gels (spotlights added in post).

Electronic flash became available for scientific use in the 1930s but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that portable units became available for photographers. Many photographers still preferred to see the scene as it would appear in the photo, so modeling lamps were employed in the design of studio strobes to help photographers envision the final result. By 1975 tungsten lamps were rarely used in portrait studios and some would say that the era of commercial dramatic portraiture came to an end.

Current Trends:

The problems that led to the decline of hot lights have been solved with modern digital sensors. Photographers are now able to raise camera sensitivity to levels that allow shooting hand held shots and video in low light. The invention of camera steadying technologies, such as the Nikon Vibration Reduction feature, also help to get good results in low light. Hot lights are back and retro style lighting is quickly gaining popularity.

Constant lighting will never replace flash, but it will continue to grow in popularity, especially among photographers that want to achieve stylized results.

Pros, cons and FAQs about constant lighting.

The pros of constant lights:

1- Constant lights produce constant output, which make them a more predictable light source than flash, especially in the hands of inexperienced photographers.

2- Strobes, especially shoe mount flashes with no modeling lights, require a lot of testing and practice to achieve competency.

3- With so many new DSLR cameras coming with HD video capability, constant lighting is a necessity.

4- Improved image quality at higher ISO levels is allowing us to shoot effectively under lower light levels. 1000 watts of hot light illumination, or the equivalent 350 watts of fluorescent, is adequate to produce sharp portraits at ISO 400.

5- As higher ISO levels produce acceptable results, constant lighting may overtake strobe as the light of choice for general interior photography.

6- Neither strobe nor fluorescent lamps have (affordable) focusing light fixtures for creating adjustable spots for dramatic effects, but there are hundreds of focusing hot light fixtures.

7- Thanks to the endless designs of hot light fixtures, the extreme control they offer is quite satisfying. For that reason, many high end product photographs and virtually all Hollywood films are shot with hot lights.

8- Hot lights produce a host of retro-effects that no other class of light can equal.

9- Hot lights help heat your studio in the winter.

What are the drawbacks?

1- Hot lights use a lot of energy and they get HOT.

2- Only 20% of the energy results in light, the remainder is expressed as heat.

3- A 1000 watt lamp uses as much electricity as a hair dryer, electric room heater or quad toaster.

4- The bulbs are expensive, especially if they are rated for a specific Kelvin (color) output.

5- The professional 3200 degree Kelvin lamps are yellow compared to daylight.

6- Mixing light sources, such as daylight, fluorescent and tungsten may produce unattractive color casts that can be almost impossible to correct in a JPEG. Shoot RAW in those situations.

Some frequently asked questions:

Q- Tungsten spot lights achieve the control and drama that focusing fixtures deliver, but what if someone wants the option of getting soft light? Isn’t it dangerous to use high wattage lamps in a softbox?

A- You betcha. You should only use soft boxes that are rated for high temperature lamps. The Photoflex® nxt series of LiteBoxes uses special heat resistant fabric and contain vents to dissipate the high heat associated with hot lights.

Q – Can I use shop lights or other general purpose hot lights to rig up do-it-yourself lighting setups that deliver good quality?

A – Frankly, it’s not worth it. The temptation to insert a higher wattage bulb that exceeds a fixture’s rating accounts for thousands of house fires every year. Get a photographic fixture that’s designed for at least 500 watts. I consider 1000 watts to be the convenient minimum. The Photoflex® StarLite fixture is durable, safe and inexpensive. A second reason to get a photographic fixture is the availability of accessories such as dish reflectors, softboxes, umbrellas, etc. You want a fixture that’s part of a system.

Q – How many lights do I need to produce professional quality portraits or product photos?

A- One, if you use reflectors, mirrors, and other light control devices. That said, you’ll never stop there, so here’s what I suggest to build a good beginning inventory:

1 - Choose at least one fixture that will accommodate high output fluorescent lamps as well as compact fluorescent (CFL). The Photoflex® StarLite® Medium Digital Kit 1 (Accepts 1000 watt tungsten or 150 watt CFL) or Photoflex® Constellation®3 Medium SilverDome® Kit (Accepts three 1000 watt tungsten or three 150 watt CFL lamps)

2 – One open face light such as a 300 or 600 watt Arri

3 - One focusing spotlight such as an Arri Junior 300 Watt Fresnel.

4 – Photoflex® 42 inch MultiDisc® combination diffuser and reflector



If you want to see the beautiful results of constant lights, just go to a movie theater. Every Academy Award winning film is shot with hot lights. All those dramatically lit scenes from Gone with the Wind (best picture 1939) through Crazy Heart (best picture 2010) are a testament to the enduring effectiveness of tungsten lighting.

Go into the world. See, interpret and create. Remember to turn off the lights when you’re done.

*Hot lights include tungsten, quartz-halogen, incandescent or any other lamp with a small glowing filament. Although hot lights are included in the category of ‘constant lighting’, along with cooler fluorescent and LED, they distinguish themselves by being… well... really hot to the touch.

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