Using Flash the old fashioned way

While its great to get out outside, with classic camera, and capture the world, sooner or later you find yourself inside with a bunch of people, and its just too dark to take pictures using available light. At this stage that natural reaction is to panic, and wish you had something with a built in flash that could do everything for you. However it turns out that shooting with flash is even easier than working in natural light - your flashgun never goes behind a cloud, and will produce consistant lighting in a repeatable fashion. Once you've figured it out you can totally forget about setting up exposure, and concentrate on taking photo's.

Plugging it together

Using flash simply isn't possible with many 127 camera's - they simply don't have a place to connect one. However most of the better ones have a PC connector - the standard way of connecting a flash even on modern cameras. There are PC connectors on the Yashica's, Rollei and Komaflex. Some of the older camera's such as the Brownie's have either "Plug and Screw" connectors or any number of unique connections - chances are these wouldn't work with a modern flash even if you could hook them up due to the timing (more on that in a momment).

Some flashes can plug directly into a PC connector, but most moderm small flashes are designed to fit in a hot-shoe. You therefore need a pc->hotshoe adapter, which is basically a cable with a PC connector on one end, and a shoe for the flash at the other. Plug them together and you're ready to go.

The images on this page were all taken with a Yashica 44, and a very cheap and nasty National flash. While the flash does include a sensor which should allow it to operate semi-automatically, I found it to be unrelable, and so keep it in fully manual mode.

Flash Timing

There are basically two types of flash - modern electronic flashes, and old style flash bulbs. While old camera's are capable of great results, old flashes are a lot less fun, and realistically obtaining flash bulbs (and the esoteric batteries required for old flash guns) makes them totally impractical. However you need to be aware of how the two differ - an electronic flash can dump its stored energy into the scene more or less instantaneously (or at least in 1000th's of a second), while a flash bulb takes much longer. The timings required are therefor different - for a bulb flash, the flash is fired, then the shutter is opened so the flash has had time to build up its intensity. Try that with an electronic flash and its all over before the shutter has even moved. Electronic flash systems open the shutter, then fire the flash.

The camera therefore needs to know what sort of flash is being used. On the Rollei, Yashica 44 (and 44LM), and Komaflex there's a swich labeled M/X. M stands for "medium" speed flash bulbs, while X is for electronic. Ensure that this is in the X position (on the Yashica, the M position can seriously jam the self timer mechanism, so keeping it in the X position is a good idea anyway). The Yashica 44a only supports X mode. If you happen to have a Bencini Comet-s then this seems to be timed for bulbs, so it can't be used with modern flashes even though it has a PC connnector (or maybe mine's just broken! Anyone got it to work?).

Exposure

The big mystery of using flash is "what exposure settings do you use?". There's probably a table printed on your flash, but unless you want to spend the evening reading your flash rather than taking pictures then just ignore it - all you need to know is one magic number.

Shutter Speed

Perhaps the most bizzare feature of working with flash is that your shutter speed doesn't matter! Strange, but actually pretty obvious - remember that an electronic flash can put out all of its light in under 1000th of a second. As long as the shutter is fully open when that happens, it doesn't really matter what happens the rest of the time - its dark then anyway.

On some camera's the shutter doesn't open fully at fast shutter speeds, so these speeds can't be used with flash. The fastest shutter speed at which these shutters DO fully open is called the flash sync speed. However this is mainly a problem on camera's which have focal plane shutters - most 127's (apart from the Exacta) have leaf shutters which can sync at any speed. We can therefore pick any sensible shutter speed - say 1/100th.

Aperture

A flash generates a fixed amount of light, which illuminates the scene. Some of this bounces back to hit the camera. The required aperture is therefore a function of the power of the flash and the size of the scene. While the relationship between these us potentially complex, all of the work has been done for you and can be summed up as a single number, known as the guide number.

Assuming you know the guide number for your flash, simply divide it by the distance to the subject to get the apperture. For example my National flash has a guide number of 20, so if the subject is at 2 meters, then 20/2=10. 10 is near enough 11, so I use f/11. My Metz on the other hand has a guide number of 45, so for a subject 2 metres away we need to set the camera at f/22 (45/2=22 ish).

If you don't know the guide number of your flash its pretty easy to work out by looking at that table one last time. The table printed on the flash gives apertures and distances, so just pick a set and multiply them together. You can check your maths by picking another pair - they should all give roughtly the same value.

Most guide numbers are given in meters but if you prefer to work in feet, then simply multiply your guide number by 3(and a bit). When you divide by the subject distance in feet you'll get back to the same result you would have got.

Film Speed

Of course none of this takes into account film speed. Guide numbers are typically given for 100 film - which is convenient if you're using efke 100. If you're using faster film then you need to adjust your guide number.

For each doubling of film speed you need to multiple your guide number by 1.4, so with 200 film my National flash would be rated at 28 (20x1.4). With 400 film it doubles to 40 (20x1.4x1.4). This photograph was shot on HP5 (400), at a distance of 2 meters, with the National flash: adjusted guide number=40, 40/2=20 so I used f/22 (the slighty burnt out areas are just a bad scan - the film is pretty well exposed).

In Practise

Though this is pretty simple in theory, its a bit of a pain in practise - especially doing candid shots of people. The first two images on this page were shot at a wedding reception, and I wanted to catch people relaxing and having fun. Focusing is bad enough under this kind of preasure - actually winding on is complex enough under this kind of preasure! Adding in a bunch of mental arithmatic is just asking for trouble.

Fortunatly there's a simple solution - pick a distance. Choose a distance that works for a resonable composition with lens you have, that is close enough that your flash can easily cope . I selected 2 meters. Focus at that distance and set the aperture correctly (Guide=20, 20/2=f/11). Now check your depth of field - according to the scale on my Yashica at f/11 and 2 meters my focus is good from about 1.5 to almost 3 meters. Now simply don't touch anything for the rest of the evening - wander round, get 2-3 meters way from something interesting (close enough to get a good view, without intruding), and take the picture without worrying about the flash.

A more powerfull flash (or faster film) can really help here byb allowing you to stop down. With a guide of 40, I can either use f/11 at 4 meters (good for street stuff), for stop down to f/22 at 2 meters so there's no need to worry about focusing.

Automating things?

Most electronic flashes have some kind of sensor which allows them to operate in an automatic mode where the light bouncing back from the scene is measured, and the flash switched off when it thinks that enough light has come back. Unfortunatly to use this you'll need to know what film speed and apperture it thinks you're using - generally not worth the bother, especially as the sensors aren't necessarily that accurate. I found that the National required an aperture of 2.8 (at iso100) to expose even vauguely correctly, which would make focusing a nightmare.

Moving up scale a bit, a serious professional flash will allow you to program in the speed and apperture that you're using. This gives you a little more flexability, as you can choose your f/stop and get the flash to put out the right amount of light. However thats just a whole bunch of extra technology - take it or leave it as you choose. Once you've done it manually you'll be able to make an informed choice.

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