As the author of four books on lighting you can imagine that I've worked with, and tested, lots and lots of lights. From studio flash to fluorescent to LEDs. From tiny battery powered units to 2000 watt second power packs with separate heads. I've learned a lot over the years and I've made my share of mistakes and wrong assumptions but it's been a helluva lot of fun.
What I discovered recently is that it's possible to suffer from electronic flash nostalgia. I'm sure it stems from looking at work that was done in certain periods of my life which played into a style I liked to shoot and, coincided with the availability of portrait subjects who also landed within my aesthetic happy place.
There are just two brands of the ten or so I have used which have given me the lion's share of my favorite portraits. One is Profoto and the other is Elinchrom. I still have the same two Profoto 300
w/s monolights I bought several decades ago. They live in a Tenba rolling case, along with power cables and a couple of speedrings. In the Elinchrom family I have a big, portable power pack (Ranger RX AS) and two heads but the flash I remember with the most fondness from that Swiss company is the 500 w/s moonlight that I also acquired sometime back in the 1990's. It's also been around for about two decades. That's a long, long time to survive in my studio space. And, of course the happy thing is that both systems function flawlessly. As flawlessly as they have since day one.
When I spent my days shooting editorial and commercial portraits with a film Hasselblad, and slow films, my favorite main light source was always a large softbox. Sometimes I used several extra layers of diffusion on the front of the softbox just to pull down the overall flash power. The one thing newer flash system have given us that's convenient is the ability to dial down the power from sun challenging levels to the most delicate little pops.
Neither of these two, older systems has the range of diminution that the newer systems boast. I have a pair of Photogenic DL 1250 monolights that can be dialed down to next to nothing, and in tenth stop increments. In a large softbox I'm pretty sure I can dial the Photogenics down to the point where I can routinely shoot at f2.0. The Elinchrom 500 and the Profoto Compact 300's can only be turned down to 1/4 power. On a 500 watt flash that's still a whopping 125 w/s, or about as much light as a full power setting gives you on a big Nikon or Canon camera mounted flash!
If the old units have an Achille's heel then the inability to dial down power is it. But, in both cases, the older flashes seem more color consistent over their limited range than the newer units I've tested.
The problems of color consistency are important to take into consideration if you are using multiple flashes on one set. A flash set at full power might be warmer (lower color temperature) than a flash set at a much lower power level. Even if they are identical models.
Since we were not able to turn the power down beyond 1/4 with our older flashes we improvised with knowledge I picked up working with tungsten movie lights. If you are using a 1,000 watt tungsten movie light and you need to dial down power, you really have only two solutions. One is bad and one is good. The bad method is to use an in-line dimmer. This will turn down the power but as the power decreases so does the color temperature of the light. By a lot! While you can account for this in a one light setting with custom white balances in digital cameras, you are still in bad shape if you are using multiple light sources with multiple power settings because each unit will have a different color temperature. If you are aiming for consistency and matching throughout a scene you're in for a rough time.
The "good" way to reduce the power of a tungsten light is with wire screens. Light makers made screens of various density (all metal) which slide in front of the actual lights and block some of the photons. If you buy a Mole Richardson 1,000 watt open face tungsten fixture you can also buy a matching set of screens that come in two stop, one stop, half stop and quarter stop strengths. Putting a screen on the front of a light is like adding a neutral density filter to a light, except that the metal screen probably won't melt or catch on fire.....
The beauty of the screens is that there is no change in color temperature...at all. Nothing. Nada. Every light on the set matches.
I do a variation of that when I use the Profotos or the Elincrom for portrait work. I put my preferred lighting instrument into a large softbox, place the softbox where I want it for the appropriate fall off effect and then start adding layers of white diffusion to the front of the box until I get the exposure settings I want. It's easy and repeatable and it means that these flashes will always have value. To me.
I set up a 32" by 48" softbox with the Elinchrom 500 yesterday in order to take some portraits of my kid, Ben, before he heads back off to college. When I looked at the back panel of the flash I was amazed at how simple and straightforward it is. You certainly would not need to consult a manual to come to grips with this light.
From a top level science point of view all flashes do the same thing. Drill down a bit and you'll know that there are different ways of putting out a flash pulse that have to do with how long or short the duration of the flash is, how quick the attack and decay of the flash pulse is, and how consistent the color stays through the pulse. Tighter attack and decay mean shorter overall durations. It also means less color shift during the overall flash exposure. To get the benefits of these attributes the flash designers have to use a different quality level of components and more complex designs.
While there are a ton of A/C flashes on the market that will get the job done (good enough for government work?) there are few that optimize the design and manufacture of their flashes to ensure that they actually output a quality of flash light that people can see as "better." The four makers I can think of who do this are Broncolor, Elinchrom, Comet and Profoto. Flashes at the other end of the price spectrum work with a different set of compromises. The common parameters that most people look at when buying studio flashes, beyond price, are power specification (watt seconds) and recycle times.
Shoppers might be better off looking at things like t.01 flash duration and color consistency with changing power levels.
Both sets of my old flashes have well used, UV coated flash tubes which also effect the look of images. Some stuff just gets better and better (and warmer and warmer) with age.
When I am on location and need to quickly change exposure settings for flash to get super low outputs the newer flashes are great to have. But when I hunker down in the small, west Austin studio and shoot for pleasure I never mind the quick process of clothespinning a layer or two of diffusion across the front of a softbox because it means I get the chance to shoot in collaboration with old friends. The friends in this instance being the flashes that were, in some ways, partly responsible in helping me grow my own "look" and refine my ideas of photographic portraiture.
Sometimes the old equipment is the best....
A quick hint for keeping your flashes safe and reliable over decades of use and non-use: The parts in your flash most prone to decay and eventual failure are the capacitors. They must be formed or "exercised" on a regular basis to retain their integrity and reliability. They are similar to rechargeable batteries which perform best when they are charged at least once a month.
Whether you are currently using a flash system or not it's a good idea to get it out and set it up at least once a month. Turn on the flash and resist the temptation to immediately start banging on the "test/fire" button. Let flash sit with the power on for at least ten minutes before triggering it. This gives the chemistry of the capacitors time to stabilize. Once you're past the ten minute mark go over to your flash ten or more times during the next hour and pop off a one shot test fire. This pulls the energy out of the capacitors and then recharges them for the next flash.
After I've done ten or twenty test fires over a period of time I leave the flash plugged in and the flash switched on over night.
At no time do you need to have the modeling light engaged. And the flash, at idle will draw very little power from your electric grid. But you will add years of life and much reliability to older flash systems.
Worst case scenario? Leave a flash untouched for five or more years. Wait for a really cold, cold snap, drag the flash in from the unheated garage, quickly set it up, set the switch for full power and then pop off as many flashes as you can at the shortest possible recycle. What for something to go, "BOOM!!!!" Watch the smoke curl around the ceiling....