Shooting with flash used to be a lot more challenging
I’ve been shooting with flash pretty consistently for about the past 15 years or so. Before that, I had a couple of speedlights but didn’t really know what to do with them at the time. These days, we take them for granted.
But flash wasn’t always as simple – or as relatively inexpensive – as it is today. Flash used to be a consumable – and an explosive one at that. In this video, Technology Connections explores the history of the camera flash.
Today offers a lot of convenience
In 2024 (and for the past several years), I have at least a dozen studio strobes, many with a battery option, and another half a dozen speedlights. I can communicate with and adjust all of these using a single little box sitting on top of my camera.
And I can fire as often as I like. At least, I can fire as often as I like until the overheat warnings kick in. Then I have to relax a little. But aside from this one little inconvenience, flash is a bit of a dream to use these days.
There’s a lot of choice with complete control from our cameras, not to mention features like TTL and High Speed Sync. And yes, they may sometimes command a sizeable up-front cost, but that’s all you ever need to pay.
You’re not replacing it every time you need to do another shoot.
And new units are being released all the time, like the recently announced Godox V1 Pro (buy here), improving on the previous generation’s features. We also have another device that didn’t even exist 20-30 years ago. Remote controls.
The best that photographers of the past could hope for is an infrared trigger that allowed one flash to fire when it saw another one go off. Now, flash triggers give us full remote control of every light, with automatic and advanced functions like TTL and HSS. And they’re tiny, too!
There are a lot of devices out there now targeting different needs and shooting styles.
It wasn’t always this way
Even as recently as the 1980s, flash was still pretty basic for most people – if it was an option at all. There were studio strobes and speedlights out there for professionals, but for the masses, most people who used them were using disposable flashes.
These were a one-time-use thing. Or a collection of one-time-use things stacked up on top of each other or arranged in a cube. I can remember my mother having a couple of flash units for her little Kodak Instamatic that would look absolutely alien to photographers coming up in today’s technology.
They were relatively inexpensive but still expensive enough that people didn’t buy them unless they really needed them. Because once you’d used up all the flashes in each unit, you’d need to buy another.
We really do take things for granted today.
A Slo Mo look at flash
It’s a fascinating look at flash’s beginnings in the consumer world. Gav from the Slo Mo Guys also appears partway through the video to show us exactly what happened to these flash bulbs whenever they were fired in his usual slow-motion fashion.
This is where things got really interesting, as we see the events fold out at a tiny fraction of their normal speed. At one point, Gav mentioned that a second of real-time was being slowed to last almost two hours in the playback.
If you’ve ever wondered how consumer flash began, this video goes into its origins and how it works in depth. It’s an excellent place to understand what it was all about and why it’s probably best left in the past.
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.