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A flash is a device used in photography producing a flash of artificial light (typically 1/1000 to 1/200 of a second) at a color temperature of about 5500 K to help illuminate a scene. A major purpose of a flash is to illuminate a dark scene. Other uses are capturing quickly moving objects or changing the quality of light. Flash refers either to the flash of light itself or to the electronic flash unit discharging the light. Most current flash units are electronic, having evolved from single-use flashbulbs and flammable powders. Modern cameras often activate flash units automatically.
Flash units are commonly built directly into a camera. Some cameras allow separate flash units to be mounted via a standardized "accessory mount" bracket (a hot shoe). In professional studio equipment, flashes may be large, standalone units, or studio strobes, powered by special battery packs or connected to mains power. They are either synchronized with the camera using a flash synchronization cable or radio signal, or are light-triggered, meaning that only one flash unit needs to be synchronized with the camera, and in turn triggers the other units, called slaves.
The earliest flashes had a quantity of flash powder consisting of a mechanical mixture of magnesium powder and potassium chlorate that was ignited by hand. The first such flash-lamp was invented by Joshua Cohen (a.k.a. Joshua Lionel Cowen of the Lionel toy train fame) in 1899. His patent describes a device for igniting photographers’ flash powder by using dry cell batteries to heat a wire fuse. Within a few years, other types of lamp were being employed. In some, an electric circuit triggered a fuse to ignite explosive powder (such as magnesium). By 1905, non-explosive electric lamps were being used, such as when a French photographer employed carbon arc lamps.1
The use of flash powder in an open lamp was replaced by flash bulbs; magnesium filaments were contained in bulbs filled with oxygen gas, and electrically ignited by a contact in the camera shutter. Such a bulb could only be used once, and was too hot to handle immediately after use, but the confinement of what would otherwise have amounted to a small explosion was an important advance. A later innovation was the coating of flashbulbs with a plastic film to shield the bulb in the unlikely event of its shattering during the flash. A blue plastic film was introduced as an option to match the spectral quality of the flash to daylight-balanced colour film. Later bulbs substituted zirconium for the magnesium, which produced a brighter flash but tended to temporarily blind people.
Flashbulbs took longer to reach full brightness and burned for longer than electronic flashes. Slower shutter speeds (typically from 1/10 to 1/50 of a second) were used on cameras to ensure proper synchronization. Cameras with flash synch triggered the flashbulb a fraction of a second before opening the shutter, allowing faster shutter speeds. A flashbulb widely used during the 1960s was the Press 25, the (about 1 inch (25 mm) in diameter) flashbulb often used by newspapermen in period movies, usually attached to a press camera or a twin-lens reflex camera. Its peak light output was around a million lumens. Other flashbulbs in common use were the M-series, M-2, M-3 etc., which had a small ("miniature") metal bayonet base fused to the glass bulb. The M-number referred to the size of the reflector. An M2 bulb was designed for a 6-7 1/2 inch polished reflector, while an M3 bulb was designed for a large studio reflector.2
The all-glass AG-1 bulb was introduced in 1958. Eliminating both the metal base, and the multiple manufacturing steps needed to attach it to the glass bulb, cut the cost substantially compared to the larger M series bulbs. The AG-1 (along with the M2) had a faster ignition time (less delay between shutter contact and peak output), so it could be used with X synch below 1/30 of a second -- while most bulbs required 1/15 on X synch to keep the shutter open long enough for the bulb to ignite and burn.3
In the late 1960s Kodak improved their Instamatic camera line by replacing the individual flashbulb technology (used on early Instamatics) with the Flashcube. A flashcube was a single-use module with four flashbulbs mounted at 90° from the others in its own reflector. For use it was mounted on a swivel mechanism atop the camera that also provided an electrical connection to the shutter release and a battery inside the camera. After each exposure, the film advance mechanism also rotated the flashcube 90° to a fresh bulb. This arrangement allowed the user to take four images in rapid succession before inserting a new flashcube.
The later Magicube (or X-Cube) retained the four-bulb format, and was superficially similar to the original Flashcube. However, the Magicube did not require electrical power. Each bulb was set off by a plastic pin in the cube mount that released a cocked spring wire within the cube. This wire struck a primer tube at the base of the bulb, which contained a fulminate, which in turn ignited shredded zirconium foil in the flash. Magicubes could also be fired by inserting a thin object, such as a key or paper clip, into one of the slots in the bottom of the cube.
Flashcubes and Magicubes look similar but are not interchangeable. Cameras requiring flashcubes have a round socket and a round hole for the flashcube's pin, while those requiring Magicubes have a round shape with protruding studs and a square socket hole for the Magicube's square pin. The Magicube socket can also be seen as an X, which accounts for its alternate name, the X-Cube.
Other common flashbulb-based devices were the Flashbar and Flipflash which provided about ten flashes from a single unit. The Flipflash name derived from the fact that once half the flashes had been used up, the unit was flipped over and re-inserted to use the remainder.
Electronic flash was developed after flashbulbs, and eventually superseded them as prices came down; flashbulbs are virtually obsolete. A typical electronic flash unit has electronic circuitry to charge a high-capacity capacitor to several hundred volts. When the flash is triggered by the shutter's flash synchronization contact, the capacitor is discharged almost instantaneously through a flash tube, producing a flash of very brief duration almost instantaneously (i.e., the flash duration, often around 1/1000 of a second, is no longer than the fastest practical shutter speed, and full brightness is reached before the shutter has time to close appreciably). Synchronization of full flash brightness with maximum shutter opening was problematical with bulbs which took an appreciable time to ignite and reach full brightness; electronic flash does not have these difficulties. Electronic flash units are sometimes called speedlights or (erroneously) strobes in the USA.
Simple electronic flash units are often mounted on or near the camera; many inexpensive cameras have an electronic flash unit built in.
In a photographic studio more powerful and flexible studio flash systems are used. They usually contain a modeling light, an incandescent light bulb close to the flash tube; the continuous illumination of the modeling light lets the photographer visualize the effect of the flash. A system may comprise multiple synchronised flashes for multi-source lighting.
The strength of a flash device is often indicated in terms of a guide number designed to simplify exposure setting. The energy released by larger studio flash units, such as monolights, is indicated in watt-seconds.
An air-gap flash is a high-voltage device that discharges a flash of light with an exceptionally short duration, often much less than one microsecond. These are commonly used by scientists or engineers for examining extremely fast-moving objects or reactions, famous for producing images of bullets tearing through light bulbs and balloons (see Harold Eugene Edgerton).
A camera that implements multiple flashes can be used to find depth edges or create stylized images. Such a camera has been developed by researchers at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL). Successive flashing of strategically placed flash mechanisms results in shadows along the depths of the scene. This information can be manipulated to suppress or enhance details or capture the intricate geometric features of a scene (even those hidden from the eye), to create a non-photorealistic image form. Such images could be useful in technical or medical imaging.4
Unlike flashbulbs, the intensity of an electronic flash can be adjusted on some units. Small flash units typically vary the length of time of the discharge, larger (studio) units typically charge the capacitor less. The disadvantage of charging the capacitor less is that the color temperature may change, necessitating corrections. With advances in semiconductor technology, there are some monolight (studio) units which can vary the time of the discharge.5
The flash duration is typically described with two numbers: t.5 is the length of time for which the flash impulse is above 0.5 (50%) of the peak intensity, while t.1 is the length of time for which the impulse is above 0.1 (10%) of the peak6 (t.3 of course, would be above 30%). For instance, t.5 can be 1/1200 sec whereas t.1 can be 1/450 sec for the same flash at the same intensity. For a small flash controlling intensity by time, the t.5 and t.1 numbers decrease as the intensity decreases. On flash units controlling intensity by capacitor charge, the t.5 and t.1 numbers increase as the intensity decreases (i.e. takes longer for the capacitor to discharge to that point). These times become important if a person wants to freeze action with the flash (as in sports).
Flash intensity is typically measured in stops or in fractions (1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 etc.). Some monolights display an "EU Number", so that a photographer can know the difference in brightness between different flash units with different watt-second ratings. EU10.0 is defined as 6400 Watt-seconds, and EU9.0 is one stop lower, i.e. 3200 watt-seconds.7
Although they are not yet at the power levels to replace xenon flash devices in still cameras, high-current flash LEDs have recently been used as flash sources in camera phones. The major advantages of LEDs over xenon include low voltage operation, higher efficiency, and extreme miniaturization. The LED flash can also be used for illumination of video recording as well as metering and AF assist.
Electronic flash units have compatibility issues with focal-plane shutters. Focal-plane shutters expose using two curtains that cross the sensor. The first one opens and the second curtain follows it after a delay equal to the nominal shutter speed. A typical modern focal-plane shutter takes about 1/200s to cross the sensor, so at exposure times shorter than this only part of the sensor is uncovered at any one time. Electronic flash can have durations as short as 50 µs, so at such short exposure times only part of the sensor is exposed. This limits the shutter speed to about 1/200s when using flash. In the past, slow-burning single-use flash bulbs allowed the use of focal-plane shutters at maximum speed because they produced continuous light for the time taken for the exposing slit to cross the film gate. If these are found they cannot be used on modern cameras because the bulb must be fired *before* the first shutter curtain begins to move (M-sync); the X-sync used for electronic flash normally fires only when the first shutter curtain reaches the end of its travel.
High-end flash units address this problem by offering a mode, typically called FP sync or HSS (High Speed Sync), which fires the flash tube multiple times during the time the slit traverses the sensor. Such units require communication with the camera and are thus dedicated to a particular camera make. The multiple flashes result in a significant decrease in guide number, since each is only a part of the total flash power, but it's all that illuminates any particular part of the sensor. In general, if s is the shutter speed, and t is the shutter traverse time, the guide number reduces by √. For example, if the guide number is 100, and the shutter traverse time is 5 ms (a shutter speed of 1/200s), and the shutter speed is set to 1/2000s (0.5 ms), the guide number reduces by a factor of √, or about 3.16, so the resultant guide number at this speed would be about 32.
Current (2010) flash units frequently have much lower guide numbers in HSS mode than in normal modes, even at speeds below the shutter traverse time. For example, the Mecablitz 58 AF-1 digital flash unit has a guide number of 58 in normal operation, but only 20 in HSS mode, even at low speeds.
As well as dedicated studio use, flash may be used as the main light source where ambient light is inadequate, or as a supplementary source in more complex lighting situations. Basic flash lighting produces a hard, frontal light unless modified in some way.8 Several techniques are used to soften light from the flash or provide other effects.
- Softboxes, diffusers that cover the flash lamp, scatter direct light and reduce its harshness.
- Reflectors, including umbrellas, flat-white backgrounds, drapes and reflector cards are commonly used for this purpose (even with small hand-held flash units).
- Bounce flash is a related technique in which flash is directed onto a reflective surface, for example a white ceiling or a flash umbrella, which then reflects light onto the subject. It can be used as fill-flash or, if used indoors, as ambient lighting for the whole scene. Bouncing creates softer, less artificial-looking illumination than direct flash, often reducing overall contrast and expanding shadow and highlight detail, and typically requires more flash power than direct lighting.8 Part of the bounced light can be also aimed directly on the subject by "bounce cards" attached to the flash unit which increase the efficiency of the flash and illuminate shadows cast by light coming from the ceiling. It's also possible to use one's own palm for that purpose, resulting in warmer tones on the picture, as well as eliminating the need to carry additional accessories.
- Fill flash or "fill-in flash" describes flash used to supplement ambient light in order to illuminate a subject close to the camera that would otherwise be in shade relative to the rest of the scene. The flash unit is set to expose the subject correctly at a given aperture, while shutter speed is calculated to correctly expose for the background or ambient light at that aperture setting. Secondary or slave flash units may be synchronized to the master unit to provide light from additional directions. The slave units are electrically triggered by the light from the master flash. Many small flashes and studio monolights have optical slaves built in. Wireless radio transmitters, such as PocketWizards allow the receiver unit to be around a corner, or at a distance to far to trigger using an optical sync are also popular.
- Strobe: Some high end units can be set to flash a specified number of times at a specified frequency. This allows action to be frozen multiple times in a single exposure.9
- Colored gels can also be used to change the color of the flash. Correction gels are commonly used, so that the light of the flash would be the same as the tungsten lights (using a CTO gel) or the fluorescent lights.
- Using on-camera flash will give a very harsh light, which results in a loss of shadows in the image, because the only lightsource is in practically the same place as the camera. Balancing the flash power and ambient lighting or using off-camera flash can help overcome these issues. Using an umbrella or softbox (the flash will have to be off-camera for this) makes softer shadows.
- A typical problem with cameras using built-in flash units is the low intensity of the flash; the level of light produced will often not suffice for good pictures at distances of over 3 metres (10 ft) meters or so. Dark, murky pictures with excessive image noise or "grain" will result. In order to get good flash pictures with simple cameras, it is important not to exceed the recommended distance for flash pictures. Larger flashes, especially studio units and monoblocks, have sufficient power for larger distances, even through an umbrella, and can even be used against sunlight, at short distances.
- The "red-eye effect" is another problem with on camera and ring flash units. Since the retina of the human eye reflects red light straight back in the direction it came from, pictures taken from straight in front of a face often exhibit this effect. It can be somewhat reduced by using the "red eye reduction" found on many cameras (a pre-flash that makes the subject's irises contract). However, very good results can be obtained only with a flash unit that is separated from the camera, sufficiently far from the optical axis, or by using bounce flash, where the flash head is angled to bounce light off a wall, ceiling or reflector.
- On some cameras the flash exposure measuring logic fires a pre-flash very quickly before the real flash. In some camera/people combinations this will lead to shut eyes in every picture taken. The blink response time seems to be around 1/10 of a second. If the exposure flash is fired at approximately this interval after the TTL measuring flash, people will be squinting or have their eyes shut. One solution may be the FEL (flash exposure lock) offered on some more expensive cameras, which allows the photographer to fire the measuring flash at some earlier time, long (many seconds) before taking the real picture. Unfortunately many camera manufacturers do not make the TTL pre-flash interval configurable.
- Flash distracts people, limiting the number of pictures that can be taken without irritating them.
- Photographing with flash may not be permitted in some museums even after purchasing a permit for taking pictures.
- Flash equipment may take some time to set up, and like any grip equipment, may need to be carefully secured, especially if hanging overhead so it does not fall on anyone. A small breeze can easily topple a flash with an umbrella on a lightstand if it is not tied down or sandbagged. Larger equipment (e.g. monoblocks) will need a supply of A.C. power.
- air-gap flash
- BC Flash
- Guide number
- Flash synchronization
- Inverse-square law
- List of photographic equipment makers
- Ring flash
- Flash Comparison
- Through-the-lens metering
- Editorial staff (February 1905), "Taking instantaneous photographs by electric light", Popular Mechanics 7 (2): 233.
- See references in Flashbulbs. Camerapedia.
- AG-1 Flashbulb History. Photonet.
- Nicholls, Kyle. "Non-photorealistic Camera". Retrieved 28 December 2011.
- Langford, Michael (7th ed. 2000). Basic Photography. Focal Press/Butterworth Heinemann. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-240-51592-2.
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