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 whobought 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.