7.22.2017

Thinking about the closure of Bowens. Where is the flash industry headed?


People on various forums and on photo industry blogs have suggested that Bowens, a long time maker of electronic flash equipment for photographers, was forced out of business because they either could not compete with the lower priced gear coming out of China or because they were unable to innovate fast enough in order to stay relevant to consumers. 

Of course I think there is a quite different reason for their demise and it's one that must be haunting Profoto, Elinchrom, PhotoGenic, and even Alien Bees. I think there is a tidal wave of change coming in the practice of photography and it's rendering traditional working methodologies, gear and business constructs obsolete. And it's happening at an accelerating pace...

While photography is a growing hobby and pastime the traditional approaches to photography as a business are in flux. The mainstay customers for studio electronic flash gear (especially stuff that plugs into the wall); the kind of lighting Bowens was selling, was aimed at, and mostly purchased by, photography studio owners. The gear was set up in a "camera room" and used on a daily basis for years and years. Every studio had its own collection of electronic flashes and as technology advanced the studio owners might upgrade or add to their collection. 

In the beginning nearly everything on the market was some variation of a central power pack/generator and an orbit of flash heads with long cables that were plugged into the generators. When I taught photography in the early 1980's the only people we knew who
bought monolights were location advertising and corporate photographers with advertising project budgets. Location documentarians and journalists used speed lights like the Vivitar 283...

By the turn of the century pack and heads systems were relegated to the category of special use tools. Professionals who needed thousands of watt seconds of power bought them as did photo illustrators who needed special features such as powerful but super short flash durations to freeze high speed movement. Everyone else migrated toward less cumbersome moonlight packages.

As digital has matured the need for lots and lots of power is ---- dissipating. We still need lights to create lighting direction, color consistency, certain "looks" and all the things that make flash desirable but there is an almost universal belief that the days of requiring 4,000 or 2,000 or 1,000 or 500 watt seconds of flash power in each of three or four lights is a thing of the past. This, more than anything else, is driving the deceleration of studio electronic flash equipment purchasing. 

A second almost equal reason for the rejection of big, heavy and expensive studio flashes has been the consistent decline in budgets for assignment photography across the spectrum of specialties. As budgets for work fall so do budgets for equipment acquisition. Professionals have always been the big buyers of expensive flash systems but as day rates stagnate and more and more work is done by an in-house person with a Canon Rebel or with a phone fewer and fewer professionals have adequate incentives to make long term investments in gear that may or may not deliver a return on investment. 

I'll be shooting yet another portrait today. I already have my multi-use office/studio set up and ready. Today's portrait (just like the last dozen) will be lit by three speed lights and one light that's an inexpensive cross between a speed light and a monolight (that's the Godox AD200, illustrated above and below).  The speed lights cost between $125 and $150 each and the mini-mono light cost a whopping $300. All of them match pretty well for color and all are easily controllable and triggered with remotes on camera. My total expenditure for four good lights is less than the cost of one lower powered Profoto monolight ! They can also be used on-camera, in tight spaces, etc. I've come to think of them almost as disposable. If I drop one or destroy it the pain of replacement is so much less.

They are also cost effectively scalable. I can always add more if needed. 

I can't be the only working professional who has figured out the economics of speed lights versus traditional lighting instruments. I'm just not that smart. 

Just like the perceived value of photographs Bowens was done in by the consensus of the masses of buyers about the value of a flash. A usable flash, in the eyes of the mass market, should cost somewhere south of $200. Like most other things in our transactional culture the value of intangibles is no longer important in the calculation of overall value. Need a modeling light? Add a small LED panel. Need endless power? Buy the units with big Lithium Ion batteries. Need better modifiers? Buy mounting hardware that allow you to use traditional reflectors and soft boxes. 

There's a big market out there. One or two of the high end makers will continue to survive and sell their products to the top 5-10 % of photography earners who've figured out how to prosper either by serving the cream of the old guard or the members of a newer paradigm. There's a huge market of hobbyists and they will support a series of products that are 90% as good as the ones they are replacing as long as the new products are half the price of the old ones. But the middle of the professional market will no longer support last century solutions to this century's lighting needs. 

A final nail in the coffin of traditional (flash) lighting manufacturers is the shift in most pro and semi-pro market workers to doing more and more assigned video work and less and less assigned still photography work. The reason is simple: Videographers have no use for flash. It's a non-starter for them. And if they come from the world of still photography chances are good that they'll be snapping up LED lights instead. Why not? They can use good LEDs to light in either field. 

Given that the main contingent of buyers for well made electronic flash brands from European manufacturers were studio photographers in the disciplines of consumer portraiture and advertising studio photo-illustration, I am amazed that other companies making higher end flash products are still in business. Nearly every city in the U.SA. (and other prosperous regions) used to have numerous physical studio spaces; each filled with flash equipment. Now, even in the most prosperous cities like Austin, there are very few remaining studio spaces. Each closed studio is one less opportunity for traditional light makers. Compound that by the wide availability (and even wider acceptance) of photo equipment rental shops on line. Places like Lensrentals.com. People no longer want to own gear that's not in constant use, they are comfortable renting it for projects. In effect we've moved from a situation where each of say, one hundred people all owned their own gear and used it frequently to a time where most of those hundred people are only using electronic flash intermittently and are happy renting it. So fewer systems are coming in to circulation and those that are serve many more people per unit. 

In my case I've been shedding monolights from Profoto, Elinchrom and PhotoGenic for the last three or four years. Fewer and fewer of my jobs call for them. We're doing more work on location and the work we do there is at a different pace that before. We don't have time to look for wall outlets and to run extension cords. I no longer always have the budget for the assistants that used to schlepp this stuff around and spend time setting it up and tearing it down on day long shoots. 

Now we head into most jobs with wheeled case, pop it open and grab out a few speed lights. We're able to put them up in minutes, shoot and move on. It's a different way of working. We couldn't do it in the same way with the traditional gear that was the backbone for some of the traditional flash companies....

Much of this evolution was presaged in a book I wrote in 2007 which was published in 2008. It's called, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography. In it I showed a set up with then co-CEO of Dell Computer, Kevin Rollins, in which I used nothing but speed lights and had six or seven interwoven in our overall scene. All were controlled by IR triggers. The photograph was used as Mr. Rollin's official company portrait. The outcome of the shoot was in no way impaired by the change from traditional lighting gear; in fact, we could do more in a shorter amount of time that we'd been able to do in the past. 

It's easy to think that a market for devices is stable year after year and it's only a misguided stumble or self-inflicted wound that takes out a long term player from a market. The reality is that the evolution of photography has been ever accelerating in the last decade and the "slice of pie" for each established light maker has shrunk. From a market point of view something has to give. The most efficient players or the ones with the most affluent embedded markets will be the winners on one side. The companies that bring the greatest number of feature sets for the lowest price will take the other side. As we say in Texas, "The only thing in the middle of the road is dead armadillos." Sadly, Bowens occupied a position pretty much right in the middle of the road...



Smaller, faster, cheaper. 


18 comments:

Jon Porter said...

The on-camera flash market went through this winnowing-down process decades before studio flash. When I got into photography in the late '60s every photographer wanted or needed a large "potato masher" flash strapped to his camera for weddings and other events. By the 1980s those Honeywell, Metz, Graflex, and even Norman handle-mount strobes had largely been replaced by a Vivitar 283/285 and battery pack. Nowadays it's a dedicated shoe-mount flash, with or without a battery pack, and usually the same brand as the photographer's camera.

Mark Davidson said...

A spot on analysis of the market.

I learned on pack and head flashes in the 70's. In the 80's the debate was whether a new studio should use those or get monolights.
I could not even fathom the notion of using strobes on location but I loved the idea of redundancy that monolights offered. I had been left high and dry with pack failures more than once so I was wary of all the eggs in one basket scenario.

Over the last five years I have transitioned to battery powered flashes with newer, lighter, and more powerful gear replacing the older, heavier, and weaker gear.
I still have Bowens in the studio and have never thought of replacing them as the demands are very simple. Fire, charge, repeat.
No TTL, HSS or portability needed.

OTOH, the vast bulk of my work today is on location and the Godox gear that I use has transformed my on site experience. Set up is quick. The shoot is brief. Load out is prompt. Images have been approved on my CamRanger before I even return to the studio.
TTL and HSS are nice for those who need/want it but in truth the stability of manual operation is what I feel serves the pro best. However I recognize the need to sustain the volumes of sales that make my tools/toys available.

Dave Jenkins said...

Things have changed a lot in my lifetime. I only wish I had gotten into commercial and editorial photography 10 or 15 years sooner. Commercial photography in my area began winding down around 1997, to the point that I closed my studio in 2000 and began working from home doing location photography only.

When I opened my business in 1978, my first professional flash units were a pair of Bogen Monolites, made by Bowens. The 400 watt-second units were bigger than a tall can of Folger's coffee. The 800 watt-second unit was a real beast. Quite a load to put on top of a nine-foot stand! But they were reliable and worked well for me. I later moved on to other brands, eventually winding up with a set of three smaller and lighter units which I still use for business portraits and some other commercial work.

I was an early adopter of your minimalist lighting strategy, and once did a complete set of room shots for a large bed and breakfast inn with my minimalist kit of a Canon 580 EXII and three Nikon SB28s. I also have several Vivitar 285s and 283s, but haven't used them in years. Likewise the massive old Speedotron 1600-watt-second power pack and head that was the mainstay of my last studio. I would give it away if I could find someone who wants it, but I can't imagine who would.

In a way, my first minimalist kit was a pair of 283s with home-made battery packs that I carried to 25 or so countries on documentary assignments in the late '80s-early '90s. Those were the days! It's been an interesting career, and one which, no offense intended, I'm glad to be winding down without having to do video, which I tried for a while in the early '90s and hated.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave Jenkins, I'm with you nearly every step of the way. If I felt like photography could be wholly sustaining I doubt I would have dipped my toes into video... But I don't want to change into an entirely different pursuit...

Dave Jenkins said...

Certainly not denigrating your business decisions, Kirk. You need to do whatever is necessary to continue to make a living for another 10 or 15 years, while whatever work I get is, at this point, a pleasant addition to my retirement income. I keep on working because I love what I do. In fact, one of the considerations in my mind when I embarked on this career (I was a high school teacher at the time) was that I wanted to do something that no one could make me retire from.

Gato said...

Again I think you are on point. The flash makers, like the film manufacturers, and, to some extent, the DSLR camera makers are up against very challenging market conditions.

Lately I've been thinking of that "who moved my cheese" thing that was around a few years back. Seems like the cheese is in constant motion and moving faster every day.

Always good to hear other folks who still remember the Vivitar 283. I bought the first two my dealer could get back when they came out. He had not heard of them -- I had to show him a magazine ad to convince him to order. When I heard they were discontinued I jumped online and bought the last two new units I could find and kept using them until I switched to Yongnuo. I used 283s in the studio with the Varipower controller dangling from the remote cord so I could see and change power settings without having to lower the flash or use a step stool. I thought that was pretty cool stuff before cheap radio remotes came along.

I'm planning to add a Godox AD200 to the set next time I have spared cash or a job that justifies the price. And plan to get 2 of my last 3 monolights on a for-sale forum soon as I have time.

Malcolm Myers said...

One aspect that I think has also been a factor is the improved sensitivity of cameras. Before 2000 if you wanted a good picture you used ISO 100 and that was so that you could print large. I'm not sure what the latest Sony user would consider as base ISO, but I'm sure you could use ISO 1600 without anyone noticing. That's a 16x reduction in the amount of light needed to get a good photo, especially if it's for the web. And, as you have pointed out, small flashes have been getting better, cheaper and more practical.

TMJ said...

Bowens are still going strong, but they don't appear to sell to dealerships in the USA.

http://www.bowens.co.uk/

Wolfgang Lonien said...

I have two 300Ws "Simock" heads - cheap but sturdy (metal) Chinese flash heads with German tubes. For the first one I paid 200€ *including* a 36" octabox and a stand, the flash heads alone are even cheaper. And like most things coming out of China, the mount is Bowens, so almost every third party modifier fits.

I still use them regulary, and with my Olympus cameras (their native ISO is labeled "200", but measured it's more like ISO 125), I never needed more than these 300Ws. Thinking about getting a third one as long as they're still around.

Of course you are right about video: my wife does that mainly, and for her these are utterly useless, even with their modeling lights. For me, video is too complex - the thought of moving cameras alone drives me off, even with today's possibilites like hand-held gimbals and such. But I'm only a hobbyist, so I can afford to ignore video (I *do* try to help my wife with sound tho, as I've learnt this years (or decades) ago). And starting with sound, I also rediscovered my love for music, so after a 35 year hiatus, I bought a bass ;-)

Kirk Tuck said...

TMJ, sorry to be the one to tell you but it was announced last week that they are liquidating. Announced by the company, not anonymous sources on the web. It's "real" news.

Kirk Decker said...

@ David Jenkins, I'm would be interesting in talking with you further about the Speedotron strobe and head. I'm working on a project that involves shooting paper negatives in an old 8x10 camera. The paper has an ASA of about 6 and I'm looking for a strobe with some oomph. My current method is to fire 3 White Lightning Ultras into a panel and while it works, it's pretty awkward.
https://www.instagram.com/p/BTdLnRoAoEp/?taken-by=kirkdeckerphoto&hl=en
Thanks,
Kirk Decker

neopavlik said...

I look forward to the day when they make a relatively lightweight LED fresnel that tosses out big power (ISO 100 F5.6 at 1/160 of a second constant) , can run off batteries and can also flash and do HSS.

Until then I'll keep using my Einsteins, White Lightning x3200, Flashpoint Xplor , and LEDs.

TMJ said...

Kirk, thank you, how sad.

Dave said...

A few years ago I bought an old friend's $3000 flash setup for $1,000. It was fun to have a full studio in my basement, add a portable batter and shoot urban stuff for some of my fashion minded clients. Two years later I unloaded all the gear for $500 and counted myself lucky. Technology and culture have passed that kind of set up by for the serious semi pro in my opinion. Ten years ago it was considered a serious move for the semi pro to get a home studio set up. Now I'd rather explore Indy style video shooting and not be anchored down.

Cornelius Madsen Photography said...

"Everyone else migrated toward less cumbersome moonlight packages."

Moonlight? Ah - it must be those 0.001W/s units that only works at full power a couple of days every month... ;-)

Greg Brophy said...

I will take the speedatrons! People who shoot wet plate at ISO 1 need about 4800 watts of power.

Mohammad Shafik said...

Ha! Just saw this and I immediately thought of you. I love Godox flashes as much as you do.

https://m.dpreview.com/news/8438206823/godox-unveils-the-a1-an-off-camera-flash-and-flash-trigger-for-smartphones

Shmeeko said...

Thanks for a very interesting article. To the comment made by Malcolm Myers about the ability to get usable and high quality images from ISO of 1600 or so...add the desire for shallow depth of field to that and suddenly you're shooting at f2 or f1.4 with even less need for light output. On a recent shoot, I used two Canon strobes with umbrellas, mostly set at 1/16 or 1/32 power to match the wide apertures needed for the "look" the client requested.

How would an Alien Bee have handled that, let alone a 2400ws Speedotron? My own days of shooting large format at f45 are long gone...the equipment has to match the needs now, just as it did then.