How Light Is Used To Create Images-4

(Electronic Flash)

by William Lulow

Most photographers these days use various types of electronic flash units to provide illumination for their images. The gamut runs from simple, inexpensive on-camera flashes to large, studio ones. The studio models can cost thousands of dollars and even the smaller, portable units can be expensive as well. They are designed to replicate the effects of hotlights so, in order to use them correctly, an understanding of how light works is necessary. In the previous article I introduced the various types of electronic flash units as well as the smaller speedlight.

Here are some examples of flash generators for the studio:

Broncolor Lithium Ion Power Pack  Speedotron Power Pack  DynalitePack

The relative power of these units is measured in WATT/SECONDS. (How much power is put out in a one-second flash).  This is usually not very helpful when comparing  studio flash units. What is helpful is knowing that if your exposure with a 500 watt/second unit is f/8, say, with a 1000 watt/second unit you would have twice the light output , allowing you to shoot at f/11.  Some studio units are rated at 3200 watt/seconds or higher. This enables studio photographers to achieve a fairly high degree of light output allowing them to do things like stop motion, create stroboscopic effects, or to shoot at very small lens openings. This used to be important in the days of large, studio view cameras and slow film that required small lens openings to carry focus (lots of depth-of-field) and provide crystal clear images for advertising and catalog use.

Today, with digital camera sensors that are far more sensitive to light than film ever was, such large amounts of studio flash power are simply not needed. I have photographed products with settings of 1/125th of a second at f/22 with only 500 watt/seconds of power. The flexibility of these studio flash units allows the photographer to connect several lights (known as flash heads), to one power pack. Many of them can power three or more heads and some can power up to five heads.  Of course, the more flash heads you plug into one unit, the more the power to each is diminished. This is the reason that many studios have several flash generators and multiple heads in order to cover various lighting needs.

These are some sample flash heads:

Dynalite 4000W_S Flash head  Broncolor Flash Head  Dynalite Flash Head

These flash heads are all professional quality and capable of flash output of around 2400 watt/seconds. But having many flash heads and power packs are of no use unless one knows how to use them. These units must also be powered by a generator and although portable, are nowhere near as easy to carry as many, lighter, off camera speedlights.

The term “speedlight” refers to smaller, less powerful flash units like the one below:


These are not professional studio flash units and, by comparison are only capable of putting out  only around 100 watt/seconds of power, but they are small and very handy. They can be mounted on a camera or used off-camera when mounted on a light stand or other place, but even though light modifying accessories are available for them, they probably don’t have enough power to be used with umbrellas, and setting them up with umbrellas can be tricky. But today, these may be the only lights you may need. Unless you are doing regular studio shoots requiring one of the larger units above, one or two of these speedlights may suffice for many events and other outdoor use.  One should get used to using these speedlights by following some of the earlier articles detailing specific lighting effects obtainable by placing these lights in different positions. (If you wish more information, kindly refer to the blog archives).