When did strobes become common in portraiture?

Discussion in 'Lighting' started by Kirk Keyes, Dec 21, 2006.

  1. Kirk Keyes

    Kirk Keyes Member

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    I'm wondering when strobes became commonly used in studio portrait lighting? I'm assuming it was sometime in the 60s. Certainly in the 40s and probably 50s, hot lights ruled the studio. But when would a regular portrait studio have gotten a set of strobes?

    The reason I'm wondering is I'm planning on recreating some portraits taken of me when I was 6 months old in 1963 with my now 8 month old daughter. I suspect the photos were taken with hot lights - and it was a simple set up - subject (me) was facing to the right of camera, with key also to right of camera, fill to left and nearer camera, and a background light.

    While I'm not actually going to use hot lights, I will use a 6" dish (on fill) and 8" dish (on key) to try and simulate the harsher look of hot lights.

    Any comments on the history of studio flash lighting or my project are appreciated!
     
  2. wilsonneal

    wilsonneal Member

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    I am reading Karsh's memoir and he indicates that some portrait studio competitors were starting to use strobe in the 40s. Speedotron introduced a 300ws pack and head in 1939.

    I remember visiting a studio as a 3 year old in 1966 and my portrait was done with hot lights.
     
  3. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    One of the telltale signs of a strobe portrait, I find, is often the sharpness of the hair near the forehead or other detail in the sharpest portion of the image. There is a degree of sharpness that comes from the short exposure of the strobe that you just can't get with hot lights and a short exposure time.
     
  4. Jonathan Brewer

    Jonathan Brewer Member

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    I'd have to dig to come up with specific dates.........but the /60's were a turning point regarding interest in studio strobes, they were incredibly expensive, and dangerous. I can vividly remember reading one of my first articles on strobe equipment, where a photographer was so afraid of his strobes that he used a long stick to turn them on/off.

    'But when would a regular portrait studio have gotten a set of strobes?'....

    ......There weren't that many players/competitors then like there is now, and the equipment was cost probhibitive for the little guy.........Paul C. Buff and his original White Lightning units did a lot to change that, which pissed off the people who were getting a fortune for strobe gear at that time.

    Back then, you'd be forced to buy a WHOLE SYSTEM, nobody would sell you piecemeal, one light at a time, at the time I was just getting an interest in strobes, one of the few players would only sell a complete system for four-five figures, you weren't going to buy 1 or 2 monolights and start shooting. These folks weren't interested in any sob stories if you didn't have the cash.

    Articles were written about how the Paul C. Buff gear shouldn't work, these folks bought White Lightning units, took 'em apart, to find something they could to fault the units with, and couldn't. This went a long way in opening the door for the smaller outfits, and forcing the prices down, and think with the onset of roughly the mid to late 70's, and definitely the early 80's, you could then at least start w/a couple of lights to start shooting.
     
  5. dmr

    dmr Member

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    I'm trying to think ... yes, dangerous, I know ... but one thing I remember distinctly about a childhood portrait session that my parents took us to maybe 1959 or 1960 is that they used very bright flash (which I did not like) but they did not change bulbs between shots. This was when I was first starting to pay attention to things like this.

    I do remember cloth (diffusers) over the flash and how I thought the flash would kind of sneak through it. I know I did not enjoy that session because of the bright flash. I'm sure they had to work hard to get a good expression out of me, because the thing I remember about that session after all these years was the flash.
     
  6. greybeard

    greybeard Member

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    I, too, remember being photographed in the early sixties with strobe light, and by 1964 all of the school pictures in my area were done with "electronic flash". An old Kodak book that my father used in the 1930s illustrated a studio flash (I think it was the "Kodatron" that was a 2000 volt unit switched by a special relay. There was mention that the flash duration was so short that reciprocity failure required extended development to build contrast.

    As to the advent of "mainstream" studio photography with strobes, I would defer to those folks (if any will chime in) who were working in the studio business back then.
     
  7. eric

    eric Member

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    I worked with a guy who had a bunch of Ascor lights. It was a bank of power packs that took up half a wall at a studio. He was a hot light photographer and one day, he revealed these power packs. I didn't even know he can shoot with strobes. I turned it on and the entire studio was vibrating. Dangerous? I felt it was dangerous. I was used to Speedotrons and I've been shocked by them. But these Ascors....man, i'm telling you. When they went off, it went off with a big THUD!
     
  8. John Koehrer

    John Koehrer Subscriber

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    Each of the caps was 800 watt seconds & they could be daisy chained together(as I recall) to 96000 ws They had a head they called the sunlight that would take it all. It would actually rock a lightweight chair.
    Oh yeah, they could kill ya.
     
  9. eric

    eric Member

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    Exactly!!
    I remember lots and lots of cords on the floor and each of the packs were attached to each other. I was scared, real scared considering being blown by plugging in a light to a Speedo and the thing went "boom!". It was unplugged too. I guess it keeps a charge.

    The light output was impressive though.

    He did, however, show me the difference on how hot lights would "wrap" itself around an object as opposed to strobes. It had a more 3d effect. So ever since then, I always lean towards shooting continuous light. Just my preference though, don't want to start a you-know-what vs. some-other-thing.
     
  10. Charles Webb

    Charles Webb Member

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    In my own experience,we used Photogenic 1000wt hot light with 24 inch reflectors on the main and fill, spots of 1000, 5000 and the little 200 wt that is so popular even today. I got into Photogenics early strobes in the late fifties, and had move completely to strobes by the mid sixties. In the late sixties I think I purchased the first of my Norman units. In the seventies I went back to the hot light for a short period of time, but could not seem to get the same results with it as I did strobe. Still can't! I realize these comments of mine are of very little value, but I thought I would toss em in. BTW, One of the first things I learned when I went to work for Jafay Photographs in the Daniels and Fisher Tower in Denver was how to create "wrap around lighting" using electronic or strobe flash with Ascor studio units.


    Charlie...............................
     
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  11. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    i worked for a lady who had a portrait studio from the early 30s-around the mid 90s. she used hot lights into the 60s until she had trouble finding replacement bulbs and then used photogenics-i don't remember the model, but the switch was close to the floor and looked like a 60's vacuum cleaner ... she had a lot of trouble finding bulbs (long neck) for her solar enlarger too, and in about 1978 called every photo store in a 75mile radius of her studio and bought every bulb she could find.
    when i worked for her, the only hot light she had was for focusing ... the other 4-5 lights were strobes ...
     
  12. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    When I started my studio in 1976 I bought Photogenic Studio Master lights. They were sort of a mono light with the power pack in a tray on the rolling stand. These were sort of the Rolls Royce of studio portrait lights at the time. Luckily I got mine at cost.

    Some people mentioned that they looked like they were designed by a dental equipment company. I had seven of them of different configurations (main, main, "hogtrough" background, hair, spot, umbrella...). They are/were incredible lights and I've never changed any bulbs except a indicator light on the power pack. I still have 3 of them.

    I don't know when strobes were first popular in the studio, but by the middle seventies everybody had them. I'd guess the early to middle 60s.


    Michael
     
  13. Early Riser

    Early Riser Subscriber

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    From what I have been told Dr. Harold Edgerton invented the studio type flash. I have also been told over the years that the Ascor Sunlight strobes were originally designed for use in night time recon missions in WWII. I do not know the validity of that but given the ability of them to generate 96,000 wattseconds I can believe it.

    I had a set of Ascors, I had one of the later models and 12 capacitor/condenser boxes for them. I could put out 9600 watts in one pop with them. However 9600 watts of ascor was far higher than 9600 watts of other strobe brands because they used far larger and more efficient flash tubes and far higher amperage. They were extremely dangerous has they had the unfortunate tendancy to arc and given the high voltage and high amperage they could easily kill you. I worked with them VERY carefully. When unplugging heads or condensers you would have to brace yourself against the generator to get enough leverage to pull out the plugs, I never touched it, even when it had been turned off and discharged, without a rubber insulator. I used them as recently as 1999 because they had an extremely fast flash duration and could freeze almost any action while still providing very high power. They were used alot with splashes and pours. Just the thing you want to do with a potentially high amp/high voltage bomb nearby. When you would turn them on the floor would vibrate. When fired they did not "pop", they "BANGED!!!" very loud, very scary if you were not expecting it. They always sounded like an uncontrolled arc.

    Many of the old timers still used hot lights for portraits in the 70's. I remember the first day of assisting Arnold Newman I was amazed that he used hotlights for portrait on location.
     
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  15. Parsifal

    Parsifal Member

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    March 17, 1963 was the day they all switched.

    Don't forget that some of them bought into the idea of fluorescent banks in the all B&W era.

    By the way, some of those Ascors are still in use and they are extremely dangerous; a number of people have been killed by them.

    The very early units were tripped by relay switches which could wander in and out of synch. And the exposure times were 1/50,000 or less. It was a big adventure......
     
  16. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    This invites a a classic school debating society answer: define 'strobe', 'commonly' and 'studio portrait'.

    William Henry Fox Talbot took the first photo by electric flash (honestly!) but this was just a very powerful spark.

    A strobe, strictly, fires a sequence of flashes and this can be achieved mechanically with a constant light source and a rotating sector shutter.

    The date generally given for 'Doc' Edgerton's introduction of modern stroboscopic flash lighting is 1931 but I have not verified this. Electronic flash was reportedly used for aerial reconnaissance before the D-day landings.

    The Kodatron studio flash was certainly available in the late 1940s and may have been earlier. They were used in high-end advertising studios and may for all I know have been used for portraiture as well, but compared with the big troughs and focusing spots that were available for 'hot' lights they were incredibly limited. This would have reduced their usefulness for many kinds of portraiture.

    The earliest electronic flash I have owned dated from the 50s (early 50s I think) but this was a reportage unit, not studio lighting, and relied on a very high tension battery.

    As late as 1970, reasonably powerful studio flash was huge, heavy and expensive: the 5000 W-s Strobe Equipment box we used at Plough Photography in the early 70s was a monster. Each of the five 1000 W-s capacitor boxes was getting on for three feet square and maybe six inches thick.

    The first monobloc heads of which I am aware were from Bowens, the 100, 200 and 400 but these were famously 'BoJoules' not true Watt-second outputs. I believe these appeared in the 60s. The old blue Courtenay dates from the same era.

    The real weasel word is 'common', which we might take to mean 'used to take more than half of studio portraits', and that's going to be pure guesswork. My reasonably informed guess is that it was in the late 60s or early 70s, though as I say, there was no reason why some portraitists shouldn't have started in the 40s or earlier.

    Cheers,

    Roger (www.rogerandfrances.com)
     
  17. Kirk Keyes

    Kirk Keyes Member

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    Thanks for all the thoughts, peoples. That was interesting.

    And Roger - I'm still working my way through your Hollywood lighting book - I really like it.

    Kirk

    PS - commonly, yes, I would say about 1/2 of the population in the study would be the useful definition for that term.
     
  18. Richard Kelham

    Richard Kelham Member

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    Ye gods, yes I remember those things. He also produced a smaller "portable" 1000j unit (ie only likely to induce a single hernia). We had one of his "swimming pools" which was something like 6'x4' of opal prespex attached to a huge counterbalaced stand and built like a tank – he called it a SAE stand which I gather stood for String And Elastic: he clearly had a sense of humour, which is just as well since his gear was almost as lethal as the Anscos seem to have been. Mind you I remember using Balcars on a few jobs and they were none-too-safe either!

    To get back on topic, I would guess that in London at least, the big guys were using flash in the late '50s (George Nicholls certainly was) but that general usage out in the sticks might have had to wait for the cheaper Bowens/Courtenay units in the later '60s and '70s. In my days as a pro photographer (1972-1986) I never used anything but flash – and I was no pioneer.
     
  19. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    If you used the SWP, no doubt you also recall the FF and SFF (Fish Fryer and Super Fish Fryer) -- though this is the first time I heard of the origin of SAE.

    I was in the pub next door once ("Surely not!" I hear you cry) when an assistant came in and said he had 'dropped' the SWP. Not an easy trick, you might think -- but what he had done was jammed it under the roof of the cove and just kept pulling until the entire unit -- SWP and SAE -- had toppled...

    Then there was Jan Podsiadly ('Po-chudwy' for those unfamiliar with Polish) who casually pushed a loose 1000 tube in with his thumb. He was also known as Johhny Stud in the band 'Rocky Sharp and the Replays' (his girlfriend was Helen Highwater) and his brothel creepers saved his life. Last time I saw him, a quarter of a century later, he still had the scar, a circular burn the size of a sixpenny piece (US dime) on his thumb...

    As well as flash, we used triple-phase power for hot lights, especially for car photography. I remember at least 14 KW on one car shoot; I think we could handle 30 KW.

    Happy days. Mind you, the fact that we were all pissed as rats the whole time kept us happy...

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  20. Helen B

    Helen B Member

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    There's an article on the Kodatron Speedlamp in the Sept 1940 issue of Photo Technique. It mentions the standard 'readily portable and convenient' unit packing 24 Ws, but the article was about tests up to 400 Ws. The exposure information for Kodachrome Type B, with a colour balancing filter was: lamp 2 metres from the subject, 256 Ws, f/4.5. In the same issue there is an example of a nudie shot taken to advertise scales (weighing machines) that was shot with 5 kW of hot lights. 8x10 Tri-X, 1/5 at f/16.

    Speedotrons were available for $175, and the Lee Strobo-Speed Lamp was available in kit form. For comparison, an Argus A3 was $16.50, a used Leica III-A with Summar was $135 and a 5x7 Devin color camera was $300 without a lens.

    Up until this summer, the Garrett Wade catalog was shot with Ascor strobes. The power supply went on the fritz, and Dick Frank now uses Speedotrons for it (and an 8x10 Deardorff).

    Best,
    Helen
     
  21. Early Riser

    Early Riser Subscriber

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    Dick Frank is still shooting?!! Wow, he's been around a long time. I used to have the name of the one remaining guy who repaired Ascors. No one else would touch them, not even Flash Clinic. Also disposal of Ascor condensors could be a problem. They either used PCBs or Castor oil in them. The castor oil ones were ok to toss, but the PCB ones required EPA toxic waste disposal.
     
  22. Helen B

    Helen B Member

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    Hi Brian,

    Yes, Dick is still doing his magic. I had the pleasure of assisting him with some of his personal work just before Christmas, and he still does the Garrett Wade catalog.

    We found the guy who still repairs Ascors, but it meant shipping the pack and a head (he didn't have a head to test the pack with) to Milwaukee. The Ascor stuff hasn't been disposed of - it is still there.

    Best wishes,
    Helen
     
  23. jerry lebens

    jerry lebens Member

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    The "Strobe" company was still in business, in Wandsworth, until a couple of years ago - run by Tim Cecil, son of the original Strobe designer. I understand that Tim's dad had been an engineer in the RAF and a keen sailor - one look at a Strobe and you can see that it's part wellington bomber and part ocean going yatch.


    I still use my Strobe equipment, I've a 5000J "City" unit and a 2400J "Location", here in my flat, along with a couple of strips, several standard heads and an "SFF" (Super Fish Fryer!). Sadly, I don't get many opportunities to run the power up to full - if I did, I reckon it might cause passers by to blink somewhat...(It'd probably lift the ceiling by a foot or two as well...).

    Unfortunately, when I closed my last studio, the "Swimming Pool" had to go and live in the garage - along with it's 5000J Magnaflash power unit, which sat on the same trolley and acted as a humungous counterweight. I'd guess the whole thing stands 9 ft high and weighs about 250-300 kg.

    Nevertheless, it gives a lovely light and I don't think I could ever bear to be seperated from it.

    Jerry Lebens
    Ilford Master Associate
     
  24. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Dear Jerry,

    If I thought I could get it back to rural France, AND that I could get it up to my studio (15 feet above the back yard) I'd come begging, promising it all a good home.

    But as we both know, Strobe Equipment (I think that was their actual name) is dangerous to work on. I know one mechanic who discharged the residual charge in a Strobe capacitor -- and vapourised the screwdriver he used to short the terminals...

    SE's closure was noted in the BJ; I shed a silent tear. We shall not see their like again, unless Christian versions of hell are accurate. Imagine being condemned to repair Magnaflashes for all eternity -- in drizzling rain.

    It was, as you say, a lovely light. As far as I recall, we had one SWP (with the big counterbalance you describe), two 2000 packs, an FF, an SFF and four strips (why no funny name?) all based on 1000 W-s tubes.

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  25. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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    It would have been around 1950. The guys starting their studios after coming out of WW2 quickly switched to strobes, while the older, established studios took longer to make the change. I believe that Honeywell (or Heiland?) was first in the late 1940s with suitable big strobes for portraits which incorporated modeling lights.
     
  26. Helen B

    Helen B Member

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    Bill,

    The Kodatron, which was available in 1940, had a modelling lamp in the U of the flash tube, inside the protective glass envelope. The basic outfit was rather low energy, but it could be connected to an 800 Ws pack.

    My own flash units are mostly bang-up-to-date Dyna-Lite D804 IIs and a D804.

    Best,
    Helen
     
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