Strobe or Flash?

Over recent times there appears to be an increasing propensity for both retailers and on-line photographic tutorials to refer to electronic flash photographic lighting equipment as "strobe".

There are similarities between "strobe" and photographic "electronic flash", both utilising the same (but not always) light emitting source, better known as flash tubes. Simply explained a flash tube is a sealed glass tube with electrodes either end and is filled with either Xenon or Krypton gas. A capacitor is also in the kit as well as a few other bits and pieces not necessary to discuss here. The capacitor stores electricity acquired by either battery or mains power for use in short high voltage pulses. The lag time experienced between flashes is the "charging up" time for the capacitor. When the capacitor is fully charged it can be discharged of its electricity within milliseconds, hopefully when its called upon by a camera, creating a rising electrostatic field in the flash tube ionising the Xenon or Krypton sealed inside...and voila a flash of light. Correctly referred to as electronic flash.

In layman's terms a whole bunch of electricity is fired through some weird gas contained in a tube and the gas lights up very brightly and for just a few milliseconds.

Electronic flash units can be large and powerful, small hand held devices or even housed within the tiniest of cameras. They all work on the same principal previously described.

So where does the term "strobe" originate?

"Strobe" is an abbreviation of the word "stroboscopic" and is derived from the Greek word "strobos" meaning "act of whirling".

A stroboscope or "strobe" is a device used to produce regular pulses of light. Most stroboscopes do use electronic flash to create their flashes of light, though repeated pulses of light can also be mechanically created. Anyone familiar with nightclubs knows the wondrous effects of a strobe light pulsing away on the dance floor. Stroboscopes are quite handy to science and in the photographic world create splendid "step and repeat" effects where a moving subject can be rendered multiple times in the same image...and without any post editing.

It is my belief that the confusion with nomenclature commenced many years ago when there once existed a company named Strobe Equipment. Strobe Equipment produced professional photographic electronic flash or "flash" gear. The exact date the Strobe Equipments gear went into production and when the company ceased to exist seems lost to history...or perhaps lost by Google. I remember the gear existing in the sixties and I also remember them still being popular up until the nineties.

Strobe Equipment was owned built and designed by a guy called David Cecil and his staff in a building near Farringdon Road tube station in Smithfield Market, England. Why David Cecil chose to name his company Strobe Equipment is also lost to history and again to Google. His professional electronic flash gear did utilise the same light emission system common in most stroboscopes. Perhaps earlier in the companies history he did produce strobes (stroboscopes) but in so naming his company he created considerable confusion.

Strobe's CITY 5000 Joule Console flash power pack.

Back in the 70's when I was an assistant I had to learn to use Strobe Equipment's gear. It was monstrous, heavy and sometimes dangerous gear, especially the Strobe 5000 Console power pack or flash driver. A flash power pack contains the capacitors etc and most of the controls. Within it's Dalek-like hammer-finished outer skin each 5000 Console contained asbestos and many heavy things including four very heavy "wet" capacitors. Each wet capacitor could be manhandled out of the 5000 console's frame so each could be carried separately. This made transportation of the beast by many an overworked assistant possible.

Minimally incorrect usage of the 5000 Console could result in an extremely nasty electric shock that could fling a surprised but often not unsuspecting assistant or photographer across the studio. Admittedly other manufacturers of electronic flash units at the time created units that had similar nasty habits.

Along with the 5000 Console, Strobe Equipment also made less powerful floor power packs and an array of flash heads (where the flash tube is contained and connected to the power pack by an electric cable), accessories and stands with pulleys and ropes that would not have looked out of place on the Cutty Sark. None the less Strobe Equipment's gear was considered and probably was the best "Electronic Flash" gear of it's day.

The Strobe Equipment 5000 Console may have been gigantic, dangerous, cumbersome and cost the equivalent of a brand new motor vehicle but awe-inspiring in appearance and most importantly sheer power (5000 Joules still being a tremendous amount of light!) it most certainly was. Looking back now I actually find the units quite beautiful,

bearing in mind that I am a lifelong Dr Who fan.

Strobe Equipment's gear is still available second-hand of course and apparently can be serviced and maintained by a Mr John Kent of Luminary Lighting London.

Flash photography has existed since the nineteenth century, though flash back then was created by the open ignition of chemicals like magnesium, most often in a powdered form, which along with a brief flash of intense light, also created a considerable amount of smoke. In the early twentieth century flash powder was replaced by flash bulbs where the light emitting chemical reaction was contained within a bulb and for obvious reasons. The flash bulb was a once-off affair and a new bulb was required for each individual shot taken.

Then in the early sixties (arguably earlier) along came electronic flash. An electronic flash light source could be used over and over again with no smoke and no need to be constantly replacing flash bulbs. This new electronic flash technology allowed photographers to shoot far more images, far quicker and also far cheaper once the initial cost was recouped.

Flash bulbs and electronic flash were used concurrently for quite some time; flash bulbs being still in fact available now. Flash bulbs remained the far cheaper option for the amateur or perhaps die hard professional not willing to step up to the mark and endure the dangers of early electronic flash gear.

Electronic flash and flash bulbs have different peak light outputs That is; the maximum amount of light, and measured in milliseconds, is achieved at different times. Basically electronic flash peaks its light output very quickly and flash bulbs comparatively slower. Remembering that this is all happening in milliseconds the lens or more accurately the shutter should be open at the peak light "moment". To correctly synchronise shutter and flash was made possible by switching between two settings that can still be seen on many older SLR (and other) cameras. "M' or medium being one setting used for flash bulbs and "X" or Xenon being the other setting for use with electronic flash. To set these two options incorrectly has nasty exposure effects; either over or under exposure being the result...and a result often of considerable significance.

So if you've ever wondered what those M and X settings on granddad's old camera are all about I hope my explanation is satisfactory.

At no point here have I referred to flash or electronic flash as strobe, simply because it isn't. Use of the "term" would only serve to confuse. Strobes (stroboscopes) are electronic flash, not the other way around. Quite profoundly and to the best of my knowledge no manufacturers of electronic flash equipment use the term "strobe" to describe their products...unless they are referring to stroboscopes they perhaps also manufacture. Strobe was the common abbreviated name for Strobe Equipment's lights so why would another manufacture name their lights by another (though defunct) manufacturers name.

Assault rifles are referred to as assault rifles by their various manufacturers not Kalashnikovs...there being very obvious issues with that confusion.

Though the use of the term Strobe appears to be gaining popularity and perhaps becoming part of photographic vernacular it is inaccurate. Photography is both an art form and in many ways a science and at its heart is accuracy. And I'll be bold enough to state that an inaccurate photographer is a poor photographer. In the days of film, accuracy determined a photographers road to success or almost instant "dismissal" from the profession.

With the inception of digital photography not much has truly changed, in fact accuracy in many ways has become more important particularly for the photographic manufacturer. Post work or editing may help but if you ain't got the shot you ain't got the shot. There is a veritable excrement storm of photographic foul-up-possibilities not fixable in post.

I would implore any young or new photographer to learn not to make mistakes. It's a vital asset. How does one learn not to make mistakes? Initially and a very good way is to learn and to use correct photographic terminology as photographic nomenclature has served us well. Or how have we come so far? Additionally there is much to be gained by not listening to too many on-line tutorials intent on selling you yet another gadget, which if you thought outside the box for a while, you may not even need. There's good online tutorials, it just takes a while to wade through the crap.

Tread lightly at the on-line store selling "strobe equipment", as unless they've got a stockpile of the old beasts somewhere, they most certainly can't sell you Strobe Equipment. They can only sell you electronic flash, flash, flash gear, flash heads and flash equipment as the manufacturers of such equipment would most certainly attest.