LED vs. CFL: Which Is Better for Studio Lighting?


When selecting lights for your photographic studio, you must choose the best bulbs and lighting kit, yet with various types of light to choose from, it’s hard to know what you should select. When it comes to LED and CFL, the differences in light quality and cost can make or break a shot. 

LED lights are better for studio lighting. They are affordable, efficient, and generate minimal heat, so you can use them continuously on a shoot. With high CRI LED lights, you are assured of accurate colors with no tricky post-production repair. 

This article breaks down the differences between LED and CFL bulbs, weighs up the pros and cons of each type of light, and includes advice on choosing the perfect, affordable bulbs to equip your studio. Read on to learn everything you need to know about LED and CFL.  

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LED Lights: A Brief Overview

LED lamps work due to the movement of electrons passing through a semiconductor. They produce the same light quality as less efficient tungsten bulbs, which were once the industry standard. Compared to tungsten lights, LEDs are remarkably energy efficient. A minor 10% of the electricity traveling to the bulb transfers into heat, which gives the bulbs an advantage: they remain cool. 

According to Green America, a 16.5-watt LED bulb is equivalent to a 20-watt CFL bulb. Now, when you’re choosing your LED bulb and suppose you’re concerned about the power of light it will cast, it’s useful to know that LED bulb packaging tends to advertise two wattage ratios. One is the real wattage, and the other details the equivalent wattage. 

Real wattage describes the amount of power the LED bulb uses. Equivalent wattage represents the bulb’s power as if it were a standard (non) LED bulb with which we’re so familiar. Take, for example, a 5W LED bulb. Its equivalent wattage is 30W. A bulb with these ratios will cast the same light as a more expensive, less efficient 30W tungsten bulb.  

Additional benefits of LED lights are that they come to full power as soon as an electric charge passes. They will cast high-quality light at the throw of a switch. What’s more, you can select either LED bulbs or LED panels. Dracast produces such LED panels in its S Series LED 500 Bi-Color Panel

The Dracast S Series LED 500 Bi-Color Panel has a color temperature range from a warm 2700K to daylight 6000K. It has a CRI of around 95, which means your colors should be accurate under this light, and you can combine it with natural daylight, too. 

Alternatively, why not look at the PortaBright Bi-Color LED Monolight by Genaray? Consider its price an investment. It’s a self-contained lighting unit with a CRI of 97, and you can adjust its color temperature from warm white to cool white. It’s lightweight, compact, has a variable beam, so you can spread it over 120-degrees or hone it down to a 45-degree spread.

With our overview of LED lamps complete, let’s summarise their pros and cons. 

Pros of LED Lights

We believe LED bulbs are a great investment, and it’s because of the following positive factors:

  • Longevity: These bulbs have a super long lifespan that falls anywhere from 25,000-35,000 hours, which means LED bulbs can last up to 4 times longer than a CFL bulb.
  • No heat: When your bulbs remain cool, so do your models. If you’re shooting portraits or food, you want a bulb that produces minimal heat.
  • Energy-efficient: LED bulbs draw fewer watts yet still generate powerful light output equivalent to more powerful tungsten bulbs. Expect lower electricity costs and to be able to power your studio on a substantially more efficient electrical circuit. 
  • High CRI potential: CRI matters to photographers, and the higher your CRI, the less work you have to do in post to repair color aberrations. LEDs with high CRI are available, and they’re affordable. 

Cons of LED Lights

There aren’t many drawbacks to LED lights, but we’ve rooted out a couple of negative aspects. They are:

  • Cheap LEDs have low CRI: They create a greenish tinge to your final image and work for you in post-production. 
  • Color quality: Without the means to adjust color temperature, LED bulbs cast brilliant cool white light, which is harsh, so expect to use diffusers to maximize and soften the light.
  • Upfront cost: LED bulbs cost more, but they last longer, which reduces their overall cost since you buy fewer bulbs over a period of time.

Now, it’s time to compare CFL bulbs and consider whether you should use these to light your studio. 

CFL Lights: A Brief Overview

Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) generates light when an electric current passes through a tube that contains argon and a tiny amount of Mercury gases. A chemical reaction occurs and generates ultraviolet light. In turn, the UV light reacts with a fluorescent coating on the bulb’s interior. The reaction between the two components produces visible light. 

Suppose you’ve ever calculated the time it takes between switching on a fluorescent light and reaching optimum light output. In that case, you’ll appreciate that CFL bulbs take a while to get their optimum output. 

As CFL lights age, their efficiency wanes. Older bulbs require greater voltage to produce the same amount of light as a younger CFL bulb. This degradation is a clear downside to CFL bulbs, but nothing like the downside of containing Mercury gases. Mercury is a neurotoxicant, so we feel it’s critical to highlight this drawback, though the amount of mercury in a CFL bulb is less than the tip of a pencil. 

If you plan on using CFL lighting in your studio, invest. Cheaper CFL bulbs run at low CRI, meaning the color will look off. One of the better CFL bulbs on today’s market is Westcott 0050 50 Watt Daylight Balanced Fluorescent Lamp. If you find yourself tempted by cheaper bulbs, we insist you think again and lean towards LED lamps instead. 

Let’s summarize the advantages and disadvantages of CFL lamps. 

Pros of CFL Lights

  • Longevity: While CFL bulbs do not have an LED lamp’s lifespan, they still last longer than tungsten bulbs. Expect to get 10,000-15,000 hours from one bulb. 
  • Efficiency: CFL bulbs are around four times more efficient than an incandescent bulb, yet they’re still not as efficient as LED bulbs.
  • Cost: A lower upfront cost than LED bulbs plus the lifespan of CFL bulbs make these bulbs cost-effective.

Cons of CFL Lights

  • Mercury component: Despite the small amount of mercury within a CFL bulb, the fact these bulbs contain mercury concerns some people. In reality, there is minimal risk involved in working with these types of bulbs, but you must dispose of them properly. 
  • Time to reach maximum temperature: CFL lights do not produce their optimal light output the moment you switch them on. Expect to wait for the light to come to temperature. 
  • Degradation equals reduced efficiency: CFL bulbs age, and with age, they demand more volts to produce maximum light output. 
  • Non-color variable: CFL bulbs are non-variable, so the temperature they produce is unalterable. 
  • High CRI CFL bulbs are expensive: Expect to hand out a significant amount of money for a bulb that has high CRI.

Which One Should You Choose?

Given the simplicity, versatility, and efficiency of LED lamps, we’d opt for LED lights every time. With options such as Dracast S Series LED 500 Bi-Color panel or PortaBright Bi-Color LED Monolight, you’re setting yourself up for excellent lighting set up in your studio that’ll last and give you options.

Final Thoughts

Without a doubt, when you’re setting up your photographic studio, LED lamps reliably produce high-quality light output that’s powerful and cost-effective. Be sure to get lamps with variable color temperature and high CRI. 

Check out our ultimate guide to home photography studio lighting here!

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Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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