Flash Photography with Film CamerasBlog by
Mark F. O’Brien
I have noticed a trend in film photography over the past few years — that is, many newcomers using film cameras seem to embrace “natural” lighting and eschew using flashes. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. However, upon asking some questions, I find that using a flash is a mystery to them. Perhaps it’s not so much of a problem for those using flash with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. The immediate feedback is a great learning tool…as well as a crutch. People going to film cameras after using digital are trying to learn all these new things, and flash is something even more mystifying. I’m going to try and demystify what using a flash with film cameras entails, as well as provide some basic information that should be helpful for those looking to purchase new or used flashes and accessories for their cameras.
A Brief Flash History
Before the introduction of the electronic strobe, flashbulbs were the norm after 1930 for providing a portable light source for on or off-camera flash. While there are some cameras still in use that require flashbulbs, such as the Instamatic cameras and Polaroids, flashbulbs are pretty much a niche item, and the stock of them dwindles every year. Depending on their size, flashbulbs can put out a prodigious amount of light, and of course, heat. It turns out that Hollywood has been one of the biggest users of flashbulbs for special effects, and prop people buy them whenever they turn up in quantity. If you are old enough, you may remember seeing a “Magicube” or a “Flip Flash” on a camera. It’s hard to forget the heat, intense light, and smell of a flashbulb used a few feet from your face. The beauty of a flashbulb of course, was their inherent simplicity. All a flashbulb needs is a small current of electricity to cause a contained conflagration of magnesium wire within a glass bulb. Therefore, even the cheapest of box cameras could be used with a flashbulb, so long as the flash holder could contain a penlight cell or two. You press the shutter, which the metal contacts allow a circuit to be completed, and the flashbulb goes off. Flashbulbs are one-time use, so you have to pop out the bulb (be careful, they are hot right after being used) and insert another one to take another flash photo. Kodak came out with the flash cube in 1961, which meant that you got four flashes before having to change the unit to a fresh cube. Before that, small “peanut” bulbs or AG-1 bulbs were used individually in a pop-up flash holder. There is a wealth of information of flashbulbs, and this reference (http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Flashbulbs) is quite accurate. You may encounter a setting on your vintage camera that has X, M, and/or FP. Those are settings for X-sync – Xenon Flash (or electronic flash); M-sync – Medium fast flashbulbs; and FP-sync – Focal Plane flashbulbs. X-sync is what we will be using with our electronic flashes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_synchronization For more information on the history of flash photography, see: http://www.photomemorabilia.co.uk/Ilford/Flash_History.html
There are basically two ways to connect a flash to many film cameras, unless they have a built-in flash. They are the PC socket and the hotshoe. It was not until the late 1970s that cameras came with a built-in flash and the option to use an external flash.
A PC socket does not mean that you connect your camera to your computer. PC refers to Prontor-Compur, two leaf-shutter manufacturers that came out with a ⅛” coaxial socket that Zeiss standardized in 1953 on their leaf-shutter cameras, and other manufacturers soon followed suit. PC sockets are rarely seen on inexpensive cameras today. They do remain as an option on professional DSLR cameras to connect both studio strobes and external-mount flashes. However, they are regularly found on many older film cameras.
The accessory shoe is seen on a lot of cameras – rangefinders, SLRs, pocket cameras, and also on some twin lens reflex cameras. Accessory means just that. If it has no electrical contacts, then it is a “cold shoe.” If it has a center electrical contact, it is a “hot shoe.” A camera can have a cold shoe, and a flash with a PC cable can attach on the cold shoe and connect to the PC socket elsewhere on the camera. On most SLRs, the accessory shoe is located on the top of the prism housing, centered over the lens.
A hot shoe’s electrical contacts are on the side rails and the center metal spot. Some cameras may have additional contacts as a series of smaller connecting points within the U-shaped hotshoe. These typically are brand-specific to control the advanced flash systems that are used with those cameras (usually an SLR). Some cameras such as the Nikon F, F2, and F3 have removable prisms, so the hot shoe contacts have been relocated on the left side of the camera body. Many of the older SLR cameras had an optional cold shoe that was attached via a connector that went around the eyepiece. Since the hot shoe was established as a standard attachment method, it is also referred to as an ISO-hot shoe. Minolta introduced a different style of hotshoe with their Maxxum series of autofocus SLRs that followed the Maxxum 7000. Those are incompatible with flashes that have a standard ISO-shoe foot unless one has an adapter.
Leaf shutters (found on TLRs, some medium format SLRs, and folding cameras) usually sync with the flash at all speeds! On focal plane shutters, however, the shutter curtain must be fully open while the flash is at maximum output. Focal plane shutters may sync with electronic flash at 1/30, 1/60, 1/90, 1/100, 1/125, or 1/250 sec depending on brand and age of camera. The sync speed is usually indicated on the shutter dial in a different color than the rest of the numbers, or may have a small flash icon or an X next to the shutter speed. You will be also able to sync with the flash at speeds below the indicated sync speed.
What kind of flash can I use with my camera?
Unless your camera’s flash falls into the non-standard types listed above, any generic flash should work with your camera, though it may only work in manual modes on more recent auto-focus SLR cameras. Generic flashes have only a center connector on the bottom of the flash foot. Cameras with more advanced flash control may have optional connectors that the flash foot connects to, such as the Nikon shown here. These allow TTL flash control.
What is manual or auto versus TTL flash control?
Manual flashes make you do all the work. You need to set your ISO on the flash, and depending on the features and amount of automation that the flash incorporates, there may be. You simply set your camera to the flash sync speed. The distance to your subject determines your aperture. Those flashes usually have a wheel on the back that serve as a guide for setting your camera’s controls for a particular film ISO and distance. The manual flash will usually have a preferred aperture setting for a specific range of distances. Set your aperture to that value. Now you are ready to use your flash in most situations and get a proper exposure.
Manual flashes often have an Auto mode, where you simply select the ISO and the flash controls the output for any given aperture setting. Auto flashes have their own sensor to adjust the exposure, and are the ones that I recommend as they will work with any film SLR. They do more of the calculations and usually have additional switches and buttons for the intensity of the flash, the angle of the flash, and the focal length of the lens. At minimum, you just need to make sure that you set the flash to the same ISO as the film you are using and whatever the recommended aperture is at a given power setting. The sensor in the flash determines the flash output.
TTL – Through The Lens control
TTL flashes on the other hand, use the metering system in your camera to determine the flash output in concert with the flash electronics. That makes them pretty amazing , since it simplifies using the flash, and gives you more options, which I will explain later. Many TTL flashes have a Manual as well as Automatic and TTL settings. TTL flashes made for film cameras will usually not work in TTL mode on digital cameras, because the TTL flash expects a reading off the film to make its adjustments. Obviously, there is no film to read off of on a digicam. You MAY be able to use a flash made for digital cameras on a film camera if it has a manual mode. TTL flash connections are brand-specific (dedicated), so if you are using a Nikon N80, or a Nikon FE, the dedicated flash will have to be a Nikon Speedlight (another odd name for electronic flashes) such as an SB-15, SB-20, etc. There are equivalents for Canon, Minolta, Pentax, and Olympus. However, not all camera-branded flashes are TTL. Many earlier flashes are just automatic flashes with one connector. Some third-party brands do offer dedicated flashes for specific camera systems.
What about third-party brands?
From the 1970s through the 1990s, a few brands became predominant in the market. Vivitar is well known for its versatile and high-powered Vivitar 283 Thyristor flash. First appearing in the 1970s, the flash is still being used today. The more recent version is the Vivitar 285HV, which has lower power sync voltage that is compatible with DSLRs. Sunpak is another popular brand, as are Metz, Yongnuo and Nissin. I have a bunch of older Sunpak flashes that have proven to be quite reliable over the years. Some of these older flashes are perfect for off-camera flash using radio triggers or optical slaves (more on that later). I have a bunch of third-party flashes, some of which I have used for 20 years.
What is Sync Voltage?
This allows voltage supplied by the flash to flow through the circuit back into the flash and fire the strobe. Some older flashes have significantly higher sync voltages of over 200v that could potentially fry the circuits in a DSLR or a modern electronic AF film SLR. However, for manual film cameras, this is not a problem.
My flash says “Thyristor” what the heck does that mean?
Thyristor flashes are slightly different from a full manual flash. All flashes use a capacitor to build up enough of a charge to fire the xenon strobe that makes the flash. Older flashes gave a complete discharge of the capacitor to fire the flash, and then it had to recharge from the batteries all over again. Thyristor units use the light sensor in the flash to discharge just enough to to fire at a given intensity, and channel the rest of the current back into the capacitor. A thyristor flash will thus be able do many small low-power flashes without waiting for the batteries to completely recharge the capacitor. Definitely better than the old full-manual flashes!
Buying Used flash units
If you are in thrift stores, etc., it is likely that you will run across a lot of older flashes, some of which may have names you have never heard of. My first rule of thumb is to check the battery contacts inside the flash. If there is any corrosion or battery residue inside, leave it be. It is more than likely it is not going to work. If the flash has a Ni-Cd battery pack, it’s also not a keeper. Sometimes you’ll run across a tiny manual flash that takes 2 AA batteries. If it is in good shape, it’s worth a buck or two. They work great with toy cameras. Looking at eBay, you can certainly pick up a quality used flash for less than $20. The Vivitar 283 flashes are often less than $10 on ebay.
Make sure that you remove the batteries from any flash before stowing it away. It may be some time before you use it again, and you won’t have to worry about the batteries leaking in storage. I always carry a second set of cells for the flash.
You’ll often see Velcro strips near the front of the flash. Diffusers and flash modifiers are easily held in place with velcro strips. Some of these you can make yourself from easily found materials and discarded containers. https://expertphotography.com/10-diy-speedlight-flash-modifiers/
What is off-camera flash and how does it work?
If you want to avoid that direct glare from a flash that’s really close to the camera lens, you need to elevate the flash away from the top of the camera, or bounce the flash off the ceiling. Some people really like that washed-out direct flash look, but it’s not very flattering for most people, and I find the “Terry Richardson look” to be shitty photography. Most point and shoots have the flash very close to the lens, and to combat “red eye” there is often a preflash that causes the subject’s pupils to contract before the actual flash goes off when the shutter opens. Red eye is the light bouncing back from the retinas when the flash goes off and enters dilated pupils. Because the flash is close to the same plane as the lens, you get red eyes. Moving the flash higher avoids that. There are a couple of ways to accomplish this: bouncing the flash, or moving the flash off the hotshoe away from the plane of the lens.
If the flash has a rotating head, it can be directed at the ceiling to bounce the light towards the subject. This gives a more diffuse and softer light, as the light spreads out more. In lieu of a ceiling, you can use a white card or bounce diffuser to accomplish the same result. Take a photo of anything with the flash pointed directly at it, and then do it with the flash bounced. The bounced light will give you superior results. For auto and TTL flashes the flash will compensate for the bounce and light the subject appropriately.
Back in the day, flashes were often connected to the camera via a PC sync cable. The flash could be held in one hand while the camera (usually on a strap or tripod) was controlled with the other. A flash bracket could also hold the flash support connected to the base of the camera via the tripod socket. This puts the flash away from the camera enough that it avoids the red eye. Good-quality handle-mount flashes can be rotated so that they bounce the light just like the smaller on-camera flash units. The flash brackets are especially handy when shooting with a TLR and other medium-format cameras. If your camera has only a hotshoe and no PC sync port, you can purchase an adaptor with a PC port that slides into the hotshoe.
As a long-time Nikon user, I have a coiled SC-17 sync cable that connects the Nikon TTL flashes to the hotshoe, allowing for off-camera flash. Other manufacturers have similar cables for their cameras. This allows all of the flash’s TTL functions to work as if the flash were in the hot shoe with the special connections. A plain PC sync cord does not give you the ability to do that. This works especially well with flash brackets. A plain PC sync cable can also connect your camera to studio strobes, which is another topic entirely.
Two other options are available for off-camera flash:
- Optical slave units
- Wireless flash triggers
Optical slaves are sensors built into either a tiny adapter or into the body of a flash. They are called slaves because they do not fire until the light from the main flash of Master, reaches them. Some of the optical slave units are tiny and fit into the PC socket on the slave unit flash. This allows them to be almost anywhere, so long as the Master flash can reach them. It’s a low-cost solution to studio settings and works very well.
Wireless flash triggers are more often seen with digital cameras, but yes, they can be used with film cameras as well. This allows you to connect the flash units via a radio signal, and is really useful in all types of situations. It’s especially useful when the off-camera flashes are not in line of sight, and an optical trigger won’t work. There are some very inexpensive wireless systems out there, and you can have all sorts of fun trying different lighting configurations.
If you are using flashes off-camera and not on a bracket, you’ll need supports for the flashes. Typically, they are small units that the flash foot slides into with a ¼-20 tripod thread on the base. You can use mini-tripods for table-top setups. Larger tripods or more often, light stand, are used for normal lighting situations. The light stands may also hold flash modifiers such as umbrellas. Light stands are much less expensive than they used to be, and now sell for as low as $20 each. You can also make or purchase clamps that allow you to attach a flash to chairs, etc.
Flashes have a power rating, called a Guide Number, often abbreviated as GN. The higher the GN, the more light output the flash produces. A GN is the best way to compare the power of flashes, and a flash with a small GN provides less light than a flash with a large GN. How large? Guide Numbers refer to units of distance. In the US, feet are most commonly used for GN calculations, which are based on distance, the film ISO, and aperture. With modern automatic and TTL flashes, you don’t need to worry about the GN, as the flash electronics will adjust accordingly to the situation. However, to give an example of figuring it out manually, go to this excellent calculator: https://www.scantips.com/lights/flashbasics1c.html
Did you ever wonder what type of photos resulted when you’d see all those flashes from point and shoot cameras go off in stadiums and indoor events? Nada. If those people had known about the inverse-square law as it applies to a point source of light, they would not have even bothered. What is that, you ask? Okay, the inverse square law basically states that if you double the distance from the light source to the subject, the light reaching the subject is ¼ the intensity. So, let’s say that you use a flash at 10 feet. The aperture at that distance is f/16, but at 20 feet, it would be f/4, because you have ¼ of the light intensity. This is even more easily seen with a flashlight. The farther away you move from the subject, the more spread out the beam, and the less intense the light is on the subject. So, those folks using a flash in the stands that are a hundred feet (or more) away from their subject will essentially have a very dark image with anyone in the immediate foreground well-illuminated. Why do you need to know this when your flash is automatic? There is a limit to how far you can be from your subject at a given ISO and still have it well-illuminated by a flash.
Multiple continuous light sources such as LEDs, CFLs and incandescent lighting are easy to work with, since you can see the effect of any adjustment before you takes the photograph. Metering off the subject is easy. That’s certainly something in favor of using continuous lighting instead of a flash. However, it’s rather difficult to carry all that with you and be a mobile photographer. That’s why flashes are used so much. While a flash puts out a lot of light within a very short time, it’s difficult to gauge the exposure with more than one flash unit. That’s where a flash meter comes in handy. Studio strobes often have “modeling lights” which allow you to check for shadows and placement of the flash. However, a flash meter is still necessary for getting a proper exposure.
A flash meter is a pretty ingenious device that senses the flash output at the subject, and then provides a readout of what your aperture should be for a given ISO. It measures the brightness and the flash duration via a photocell that engages the electronics of the meter to give you a number that you can use — usually the aperture of what you should set your camera. The flash meter is great for anyone using completely manual cameras without internal meters, and flashes that are completely manual. You can use them with studio strobes, as well as on and off-camera flash. To use the flash meter, you place it where the subject would be, or have the subject hold it, aimed towards the camera. Manually fire the flash(es) and see what reading the meter gives you. You then set your camera accordingly. There are a variety of flash meters on the market, and you ought to be able to find a used one fairly inexpensively. They are most useful where you have multiple flashes going off, such as at a portrait session.
From the very first time someone used a flash, whether a flash powder, flashbulb, or electronic flash, the photographer realized that the light was often very harsh, with uneven lighting. Enter the flash modifier, which while most often a diffuser of some sort, can also be a concentrator of the beam for special effects or a spotlight of sorts. This article is a useful guide to start with: https://www.shutterbug.com/content/guide-best-flash-modifiers-flash-good-modified-flash-even-better For some DIY tips, go to https://www.popphoto.com/DIYLighting
The most common light modifier is a flash diffuser, which can often be nothing more than a piece of white translucent plastic in front of the flash.
How do I get started?
Check your camera. If it has a hotshoe, then all you need is a flash unit. While many SLR cameras produced in the 1980s and later may have multiple contact points in the flash shoe to connect with dedicated flash systems, all you really need is the center contact and a generic automatic flash unit to take photos using the flash. I suggest getting a flash unit with a rotating head so that you can bounce the flash when necessary. Let’s use the Vivitar 286 HV (reviewed here: https://www.popphoto.com/gear/2008/12/vivitar-285hv-review) flash as an example. It is a modern, non-dedicated flash, and generally sells for about $20 used. The manual is online here: https://finearts.uvic.ca/sim/equipment/manuals/_photography/vivitar_285.pdf
Use fresh batteries – The Vivitar 285 HV takes 4 AA cells, which is pretty normal most flash units.
Set the ISO on the dial in the side (image) to match the ISO of the film that you are using.
Make sure that the arrow on the inside ring of the dial is set to FULL power, and that the adjustable setting on the front of the flash is rotated so that you see a blue setting in the little window on the right side of the circular housing.
In the circular dial, you will see that the blue area has f/8 aligned with it at 15 feet.
Set your lens aperture to f/8, and your shutter speed to the flash sync speed (usually 1/60 or 1/125 on most cameras, though on the Nikon FM2N, it’s 1/250th sec.
Attach the flash to the hotshoe
Move the flash head to “NORM” if you are using a lens that is around 50mm focal length.
Turn on the flash, wait for the ready light to glow. With new AA cells, it should only take a few seconds.
When the flash is ready, compose your image and fire the shutter!
Another example using a simpler flash unit
Perhaps you found one of the many flashes that are very simple auto flash units, such as this Sunpak 121 (image). The only control is the sensor in the flash, and the aperture that you set your lens at using the chart on the back of the flash (image). Millions of units similar to this were sold. They are quite simple, and will certainly work with any camera with a hotshoe. All you need to do to use it in Auto mode set the switch on the back to A and set your aperture to the column in green for the 12 ft distance according to the ISO of your film. To use in in manual mode, set the switch to M and set your aperture according to the chart. You can see from the chart that this is not a powerful flash, but is useful for scenes that are less than 15 feet from the camera. It’s small and fits easily into a pocket, and uses 2 AA batteries. Certainly it’s better than no flash at all! There is a video showing a similar model here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtW8ih4wM6U
There you go. You have illuminated the scene using a flash.
As with any technique, it takes a while to develop your ideal exposure based upon the flash output and location, the distance to your subject, and the lens focal length. While this is an automatic flash, it is not a dedicated flash, and will work on any camera with a hotshoe or PC connector (if you have the cord that came with the flash.) The 285HV can be used on a film or digital camera. If you have a camera with Program or Aperture-priority settings, set it to Manual so that the flash will go off and your shutter won’t be open for more than the time required by the flash. On any fully manual camera, merely setting the shutter dial to the flash sync speed will be all that you have to do regarding the shutter speed. If you have a DSLR, you can experiment quite a bit and see your results. Keep notes so that you’ll know what to set your flash at with your film SLR.
The Vivitar 285HV is a very good workhorse flash, and there are many other flashes out there that will work fine. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what different flash techniques will do for you.