EPZ Exclusive: 20% off ALL fotoVUE books (use code EPZ at checkout)!

John Duder Sheds Some Light On Flash Photography

John Duder Sheds Some Light On Flash Photography - Flash has come a long way in the last few years, and if you haven't kept up with developments, now is a good time to review what modern units can do for your photography.

 Add Comment

Studio Lighting and Flash


Sony camera and flashes

 

Long ago, and in a distant galaxy...I don’t have my first flashgun – I swapped it, as I recall. It was a rather antsy little device, marketed by AICO, and it ate AA batteries four at a time, pushing out a fraction of the light that flashbulbs (which I'd used until then) did. But, even with the battery consumption, it was cheaper than bulbs!

 

Sunpak DC-3 on top of a Zorki 4 – note the cable for flash synchronisation – neither camera nor gun had hot shoe connections.

Sunpak DC-3 on top of a Zorki 4 - note the cable for flash synchronisation - neither camera nor gun had hot shoe connections.

 

My second gun (which I swapped for the AICO) was a game-changer - a Sunpak DC-3. Still rather weak in output, it came with a charger and two NiCad batteries. It was tiny, and recycled with far more enthusiasm, and was popular with everyone from press photographers (because it fitted in a pocket, unlike their Metz and Braun hammerhead guns, with their shoulder battery packs) to teenagers. It was a bit lost with a brolly reflector, though, and you needed to use the table on the side to work out the aperture that you needed to set for your film’s speed and the subject distance.

 

The exposure guide on the side of the DC-3, showing the apertures needed for various combinations of film speed and distance. My experience is that almost all such tables are overoptimistic by at least one stop.

The exposure guide on the side of the DC-3, showing the apertures needed for various combinations of film speed and distance. My experience is that almost all such tables are overoptimistic by at least one stop.

 

After some variations on a theme, I bought a Metz hammerhead gun. It has a big solid battery pack, and (as they say at Rolls Royce) 'adequate' power. Short of mains units, I’ve not met anything with as much wallop. Mind you, it looked a bit silly the day I did my first ever wedding photographs as the official photographer. My SLR died the night before, and I had to pair it with a borrowed Olympus 35RC - a compact camera that, very fortunately, had a flash sync socket as well as a hot shoe.


Then came a Rollei gun with a sensor, so that it could work automatically – you set an aperture, and the gun did the rest of the work.

 

How I did my first wedding - tiny camera, big flash. This Metz unit was the first flashgun I had that was exactly as powerful as it said on the table, and the autoexposure function worked well, too.

How I did my first wedding - tiny camera, big flash. This Metz unit was the first flashgun I had that was exactly as powerful as it said on the table, and the autoexposure function worked well, too.

 

 

Mains Power

With an increasing interest in studio work, I have bought a variety of mains-powered units over the years. I love the rapid recycling, complete freedom from AA batteries, the ability to use f/11 as a matter of course, and, best of all, the 'what you see is what you get' facility that modelling lights provide.

 

Home studio setup – mains-powered flash has long trailing wires for the power connection, but the recycling time is short, and doesn’t deteriorate as the batteries fade. The model is Rach W.

Home studio setup - mains-powered flash has long trailing wires for the power connection, but the recycling time is short and doesn’t deteriorate as the batteries fade. The model is Rach W.

 

I’ve watched, appalled, as the cost of camera top guns have risen so much, that they can now rival a camera body for price! And, I’ve remained innocent of TTL flash as well as the more recent high-speed flash. A 3-unit flash kit, with trigger, softboxes and stands can be purchased for well under £200 - it’s not up to professional use, but it is perfectly adequate for a domestic studio.

 

Easy To Use - Once You’ve Memorised The Manual

A query in the Critique Gallery made me investigate dedicated speedlights and I now own a Godox speedlight. It cost £135, complete with a trigger unit, an adaptor and a softbox. Intriguingly, the adaptor will allow me to fit Bowens light modifiers to the gun and it allows High-Speed Synchronisation.

 

The Godox speedflash with the softbox adaptor clamped to the head. The softbox that came with the kit fits over the edges, but on the front, you can see the three slots for standard Bowens softboxes and other modifiers.

 

I’ve been playing: exploring what HSS can do, and how well and easily a modern flash will light a subject. I’ve also had to read the manual with far more attention than I’m used to! The controls are very complex and the instructions are in that charming version of English that confuses as much as it enlightens. Maybe it makes sense to people who are used to speedlights.

 

Illumination from the Godox TT695 speedlight through a softbox, at full manual power.

Illumination from the Godox TT695 speedlight through a softbox, at full manual power.

 

In order to compare the speedlight with a conventional studio unit, I needed to use the adaptor to fit it to the same softbox as I usually use on the DE-300, and the remote flash unit. It took 20 minutes, and repeated reading of the manuals (one for flash, the other for the trigger unit) to be able to trigger the flash when it's not on the camera.

 

At least a stop brighter, and recycling in half the time – a mains-powered Godox DE-300 flash – which also has a modelling light.

At least a stop brighter, and recycling in half the time - a mains-powered Godox DE-300 flash - which also has a modelling light.

 

HSS

There are occasions when you want to combine flash with sunshine - the classic occasion is photographing a wedding on a sunny day where you find out about a camera's maximum sync speed – the fastest shutter speed that both blinds of the shutter are fully open at the same time, so that the flash illuminates the whole picture, rather than a slice of it. On my first SLR, this was 1/30 second, which requires a very small aperture indeed in bright daylight. Typically, it's 1/160 to 1/320 with the highest spec DSLRs available now - still quite restrictive, and certainly no good for action shots. The best action-stopping shots used to be taken in near-darkness with only flash illumination, because the flash can have a duration as brief as 1/20,000.

 

Model Deisa Pearl with the TT695 providing fill light for the shadows.

Model Deisa Pearl with the TT695 providing fill light for the shadows.

 

Along came a clever idea...HSS flash gives a series of light pulses, so close together that they have the same effect as continuous light. This allows very fast shutter speeds and flash to be combined, though my first experiments suggest that it’s not perfect: see the banding here. I’ll be interested to hear from people with more experience of speedlights.

 

Enlarged section showing banding. Shutter speed was 1/6400.

Enlarged section showing banding. Shutter speed was 1/6400.

 

 

Trigger Warning

It’s always worth thinking carefully about safety with electrical kit and with flash, it pays to do your homework, especially if you own or acquire older flash kit.

Old cameras used a mechanical system to close the flash circuit and this is very robust. Modern cameras use an electronic mechanism and this is sensitive to higher voltages: and older flashguns typically used dozens, sometimes hundreds, of volts. Put that through your DSLR and you’re likely to need a new camera. I once, a very long time ago, shorted the capacitor in a flashgun with the back of the blade of a carving knife and it left two little indentations where the current had melted the Sheffield steel.

 

Closeup of the edge of a carving knife that shorted a flashgun capacitor. It created enough heat to melt Sheffield steel, and blow it away from the point of contact. I was incredibly lucky not to hurt myself very badly. DO NOT try this at home!

Closeup of the edge of a carving knife that shorted a flashgun capacitor. It created enough heat to melt Sheffield steel and blow it away from the point of contact. I was incredibly lucky not to hurt myself very badly. DO NOT try this at home!

 

There are a few guides on the web, giving the trigger voltage for a lot of guns - here’s one I’ve found useful: Botzilla Strobe Volts

An alternative solution is to buy a trigger set – a sender and four little receiver units that will happily handle the voltage from old flashguns cost me around £20. It seems to be able to double up as a studio trigger, too, if you take the time to lace up an old-fashioned flash lead.

And, of course, remember that the flash unit contains a capacitor that stores up electrical charge which the gun then discharges through the flash tube to produce light. It’s sufficient to melt stainless steel: I was lucky that that charge went through the knife blade, and not me. Don’t use flashes in wet locations, and don’t take them apart!

A couple of elderly flashguns with a universal trigger set – you can link just about any combination of camera and gun with these, whatever their ages.

A couple of elderly flashguns with a universal trigger set – you can link just about any combination of camera and gun with these, whatever their ages.


 

Resolutions And Decisions

 

So to sum up…

  • Flash has come a long way in the last few years, and if you haven’t kept up with developments, now is a good time to review what modern units can do for your photography. However, I remain a fan of studio units, for all their disadvantages and weight. Power per pound is vastly higher, and it takes a good deal of experiment and imagination to be able to previsualise the effect of flash without a modelling lamp. Seasoned professionals can do it – but most don’t if they can avoid it.
  • There are now some portable lighting kits that include LED modelling lamps, so that you can have all the advantages of studio units on the move. So far, though, these are in a higher price bracket than speedlights - Godox charge over £500 for their AD600BM unit with battery, and this is the cheaper end of the market. A two-head Elinchrom kit passes the £2,000 mark.
  • Beware using older flash units on modern electronic cameras. If in doubt, don’t - there are more compatibility issues than with legacy lenses!
  • Action pictures with ambient light are now possible with flash, although the power restrictions mean that you need to have the flash quite close to the subject.
  • You need to view speedlights in the same way as lenses - they are dedicated to specific cameras, and if you change systems, you will probably have to change flash units as well.
  • A few sets of really high quality rechargeable batteries will be a good investment if you plan to use speedlights a lot. Otherwise, look for a frequent flyer discount wherever you buy your AA cells.
  • Read the manual. Probably more than once, and carry it with you!
  • And if you want to do serious high-mileage studio work, you will probably find that investment in mains-powered units is immensely worthwhile financially. The only batteries you need are for the trigger units...

 

Never underestimate the power and control that studio flash units offer.

Never underestimate the power and control that studio flash units offer. 

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder celebrated fifty years since developing his first film last Christmas - on Christmas Day 1967, the only present that mattered was a developing tank and chemicals, so that he was able to develop a negative film in the morning, and process a film for black-and-white slides in the afternoon. He doesn’t remember Christmas dinner - but he was only 14 at the time.

A way of saving money developed, so to speak, into a lifelong obsession. He’s now trying to turn it into a source of income through tuition and writing - or, at least, into less of a negative cash flow.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits, and nudes. He’s been a member of ePHOTOzine since 2003 and joined the Critique Team a few years ago.

When he was younger and had children under ten, he was frustrated by two weeks of grey weather on a holiday in Porlock. He has since rethought his approach to holiday photographs.

Join ePHOTOzine and remove these ads.

Explore More


Comments


dudler Plus
15 737 1410 England
2 Nov 2018 6:09PM
After writing this, I realised there are a whole host of questions I haven't even started to address. I await the ones I don't have answers for with trepidation...

Join ePHOTOzine for free and remove these adverts.

JJGEE 13 7.3k 18 England
3 Nov 2018 9:04PM
I wonder if the future is, perhaps, now with the LED systems like Rotolight ?

dudler Plus
15 737 1410 England
4 Nov 2018 12:47PM
I am hoping to lay hands on a Rotolight in the fairly near future to find out, Jeff.

A recent review in Amateur Photographer suggested that the power is quite low compared with studio units, and the cost is certainly rather high at 300 for the most basic one. But it does stuff that flash doesn't... Definitely a good idea for professionals, who will sweat the assets, and who can require Philip Hammond to aid their purchases, and possibly near-essential for people who shoot video.

A side-by-side comparison may be worth finding (or arranging!)
Tooma Plus
2 997 1 Scotland
7 Nov 2018 1:53PM
An interesting read, John. The Godox looks like good value. I am now doubting whether I should use an old gun I came across with my FZ2000. My thanks. Tom.
dudler Plus
15 737 1410 England
8 Nov 2018 10:34PM
Tom - if in doubt, use the sort of universal trigger set that I mentioned and illustrated - easy to find on eBay.

Before that, though, see if the gun is listed on the WEBSITE I mentioned. As that page says, you can use a voltmeter to measure the individual gun's output - if you don't own a meter yourself, I'm sure you'll know someone who does. Playing with a cheap digital meter, I found hte results to be pretty much in line with the figures in the table for the flashes I own.
Tooma Plus
2 997 1 Scotland
8 Nov 2018 10:56PM
Cheers, John. I shall take your advice - I know a lad who will likely have a voltmeter - and if I think the results may be of interest to anyone, I shall post here.
dudler Plus
15 737 1410 England
9 Nov 2018 11:11AM
SmileSmileSmile

Sign In

You must be a member to leave a comment.

ePHOTOzine, the web's friendliest photography community.

Join For Free

Upload photos, chat with photographers, win prizes and much more.