Flashbulbs and Flashguns for the'30s Era Advanced Amateur

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by karl_borowski, Dec 8, 2006.

  1. I'm looking into getting a small flashgun that takes bulbs that are still
    readily available from some botique sites on the internet and at camera shows.
    I've a flashgun of my own, but I think from the box it came in, and it's large
    size that it is more of a '50s model for semi-pro work. I've searched the
    internet and some volumes of a '50s era photo encyclopedia I've found, but to
    no avail as to my specific question.
    Did amateurs really shoot with flashbulbs at all in the late '30s? What
    selection of guns are out there, and how powerful, in terms of guide number,
    can a small gun take you up to (with the right bulbs mounted of course)? Also,
    I've noticed a lot of cameras of the time don't have a synch cord. Did people,
    with the ~100 ASA fastest films of the late '30s, just pop the shutter open at
    say f/8 or f/11 and fire the bulb and then close the shutter manually again?

    Thanks for any historical info you can provide.


    ~Karl Borowski
  2. That is certainly before the period when amateurs were using flashbulbs, or any form of synchronized flash. None of Kodak's cameras had flash sync in 1934. I think that they had just stopped pushing flash paper -- probably too many injuries.

    Kodak only started flash sync in earnest in their post-war cameras. The Monitors and Vigilants with Supermatic shutters were changed to Flash Supermatic shutters. The Flash Bantam was released in 1947. I suspect this was concurrent with the availability of the Press 25 or 5 flashbulbs.

    Sure, there were flashbulbs in 1930, Weegee used lots of them with his Speed Graphic. Big honking Edison base ones like numbers 8, 11, and 22, with solenoid flash sync systems. A few rich amateurs might have had them, but not many.

    Now, Leica did have a "new" synchronized flash unit in their 1937 catalog. $22, back when a Leica III with an Elmar was $132. That's a LOT of money in 1937, not what was selling to "Amateurs". You could buy a new 1936 Dodge car for $640.

    Heck, a Recomar 33 was only $55 in 1934, it was one of Kodak's most expensive cameras. The Kodak Six-20 was $14, $17.50, or $37.50 depending on lens. The Leica flash outfit is just not popularly priced...

    What Kodak was pushing for indoor/night photography in 1934 was Kodak Super Sensitive film. It was sensitized to be extra sensitive in the red region, so that it was faster by a stop under tungsten light, a whole blazing ASA 100! That and two photoflood lights, and you were in business. (By comparison, Kodak Verichrome was orthochromatic, and ASA 50.)

    Also, what started pushing flash photography for amateurs was Kodachrome and Kodacolor film, and those really didn't take off until after 1945.
  3. You don't ask easy questions, do you? :)

    I'll try to touch on these in order:

    >Did amateurs really shoot with flashbulbs at all in the late '30s?

    Yes, though I think you really have to qualify it as *advanced* amateurs; flash really didn't become easy and inexpensive until after WWII.

    >What selection of guns are out there, and how powerful, in terms of guide number, can a small gun take you up to (with the right bulbs mounted of course)?

    I have a couple from that era, and many are pretty unique. Most of 'em are packed away, but if you're trying to answer the question of what flashgun most amateurs would have used in the U.S. back then, I'd *guess* the safest bet is the "Kodak Accessory Flasholder (sic)". A lot of Kodak cameras had proprietary or semi-proprietary flashguns, like the Brownie Flash 620 and Brownie Reflex Synchro, but most more advanced cameras could be used with something more standard...

    Most "amateur" flashguns of that time would have taken only the #5 and similar-sized bulbs; A #5 has a GN of 190 at up to 1/30th synch, 170 at 1/60th. I'm not sure when blue-coated bulbs were introduced for color-balanced flash with color films, but I'm sure someone here does. :) Some would have also taken the older, larger, screw-mount bulbs, but they're so uncommon (and expensive) these days it's really not worth messing around with, IMO.

    >Also, I've noticed a lot of cameras of the time don't have a synch cord. Did people, with the ~100 ASA fastest films of the late '30s, just pop the shutter open at say f/8 or f/11 and fire the bulb and then close the shutter manually again?

    You could, and Kodak did recommend that. There were, however, external synchronizers you could get, that attached to the cable-release socket in one fashion or another, and tripped the flash that way. The "Automatic Synchronizer" for the Kalart Speed Flash is one I've seen many of, but post-war and designed for use with press cameras. I have one wierd synchronizer and flashgun from the 1930s, but all the other ones I have, have seen, and have seen references to have been postwar.

    I just dug the 1930's one out of the big box o' flashguns (how on earth did I wind up with three handle-mount Heiland flashguns?); it is a "Goodspeed", a strange thing patented in 1932, and thus, I'd guess, one of the first flashguns made; it takes six, I think, AA batteries, is designed for Edison-screw bulbs, but easily adjusts to use an adapter down to smaller-sized bulbs, and has two sync sockets on the back - one an 'AC' or household plug, and the other quite similar to a Graflex-style bipost connection (two ~2mm plugs on ~1/4inch centers). The synchronizer is a little metal dongle that screws into the cable-release socket; two cloth-covered wires come out the side and terminate in a bipost-like plug, and there's a threaded socket where the cable-release screws in. Inside is some sort of mechanical action that fires the flashbulb a few milliseconds before the shutter is opened. I've used it a few times, and it works, but all the paperwork that came with it it really marketing fluff, and not instructions, so I don't know if it was designed for a specific range of shutter speeds, or what. It's designed to mount in an accessory shoe. I'm honestly kind of doubtful that this was really an "amateur" flashgun, but...

    Hopefully that helps a little bit, anyway. I suspect some of the smaller Kalart shoe-mount flash units (Compak Speed Flash, et cetera) of bakelite and brushed aluminum were prewar, but really don't know for sure. In a way, I suspect that most non-folding (Agfa, Tilt-a-mite) shoe-mount flashes were probably intended for amateur use, as the Speed Graphics and other "pro" cameras of the '30s-'40s-early '50s rarely had accessory shoes. (Mind you, none of the camera shown in the 1943 Kodak book "How to Make Good Pictures" - the Vigilant and Junior Vigilant, the Monitor, the Medalist II, the Reflex, the Kodak 35s, Bantams, and various Brownies - appear to have accessory shoes, so my theory might be unfounded. On the other hand, I don't think the uber-proprietary Kodak made any shoe-mount flashguns, and it's important to remember there was photographic life outside Kodak back then...)
  4. In the early 40's I had a flash (3rd party) for my Kodak Vigilant. It had a metal bracket that attached to the tripod socket. The synchronizing mechanism was inline in the cable release that both made an electrical contact and tripped the shutter. You had to adjust the time delay initially and from then on it was fine. When I bought a used Kodak Monitor in the late 40's I used the same system. Most flash bulbs took some time to burn so timing ws easier. Focal plane shutter bulbs were very slow burn to allow the shutter slit to traverse the film gate, even on a 4X5 Speed Graphic. Argus C3's (1939) had a dedicated, synchronized flash that plugged into the camera body with a couple of pins.
  5. It's interesting to read Dr. Paul Wolff's description of using flash with his Leica ("My First Ten Years with Leica"). Essentially he used open flash technique, only with flash bulbs instead of flash powder. Sometime in the '30s the Geiss-Kontact was made for Leica, using the rotation of the shutter speed dial to synchronize the flash. In addition to Heiland synchronisers with solenoids, there were some units (Kalart?) which had two connected cable releases, one snapping the shutter, and the other triggering the flash unit.
  6. i had a metal ( 8 exp 120 film) sort of box camera ( tapeziod shape)
    that had flash contacts in 1948. it was a 2 pin plug -in deal
    it used the screw based bulbs and i got an adapter to use the smaller bayonet based bulbs.
    later, 1n 1949-50 I talked my parents into getting a Franke Rolfix 120 folding camera and the flash unit used screw based bulbs.
    the pc contact was flakey so I used a "synchronizer" that screwed into the cable release socket.
    I had mack camera in union nj repair the camera and install a pc contact with a flange and hopefully not as wobbily.
    the side of the shutter was very thin!

    with the screw-in synchronizer,
    you had to press a HYPO style plunger and it was very awkward.
    the plunger pressed on 2 hollow tubes thay were drilled thru the 3/4" diameter synchronizer body and they served as holes for the cord.
    the plating was zinc? and made poor contact.
    flash synch was very flakey and uncertain.
    it was crude..

    after the repair which cost as much ( $29.95) as the camera.
    I could use the pc contact.

    the flash had a plastic tube like a flashlight and an adjustable 5" diameter shallow reflector.

    I saw , but could not afford other "synchronizers" that were spring-
    loaded and would fire the flash and allowed you to use the
    body shutter release. I later bought one at a grarage sale
    I never used it ansd should still have it.

    they sold a flashligt bulb in an adapter so you could adjust the synchronizer. you had to use a slower speed to guarantee synch.

    I bought a 35mm camera after I got married in 1960.
    but used an argus c-3 on my honeymoon.
    most flashes used an AC plug to pc connector.
  7. I may be mistaken but I believe that "Aniversary" Speed Graphics and their contemporary Graflexes were introduced shortly before WW2 with flash contacts in the focal plane shutter. The Mendelsohn solenoid synchronizer was the earliest I recall for use on leaf shutters such as the Compur, and though they could be adjusted to be relatively accurate they were clumsy and sometimes unreliable. Soloman O Lindahl invented the "Sol" solenoid which was later perfected by Heiland ( Honeywell). After the war introduction of Compur and similar leaf shutters with internal flash contacts eventually obsoleted the solenoids for most amatuer photography and the miniature and peanut bulbs made flash practical for amatuers. Ultimately the small electronic flashguns of the sixties obsoleted the use of flashbulbs and by the late eighties they were not universally available thought some can still be found at "colllector" prices.
  8. Dan, my Anny Graphic(early model)DOES NOT have flash contacts on focal plane shutter. I believe that started at the next model. I don't believe there is any way to sych flash to the Anny FP shutter.
  9. The flash socket on a Pacemaker +1947 Speed Grpahic is on the side; its used for flashbulbs.
  10. Xenon strobes were in usage before WW2. In studio work they were available in the 1940's. The Kodak Medalist syncs at X sync. Flashblubs are still used to illuminate caves, big objects, they are simple to use. They are just hard to find, and pricey. Here I still have 50B's that I still use. In the 1950's thru 1970's many "potato masher" strobes could be direct fed with a 510 volt DC battery, for quick cycling. Earlier 127mm Kodak Ektars on speed graphics didnt have any X sync for strobe, my 1950's models do have x sync as stock.

    Some variants of the flash bulb units are worth more to a starwars chap than a photo user. In a speed graphic settup folks often had edison base to dinky bayonet adapters, so smaller modern flashbulbs could be used. Folks also used a test bayonet NON flash bulb to checkout the solenoid, flash batteries, cords .
  11. BRIAN: My Anniversary Speed Graphic was bought just before I went into the Army in 1943. It had a round socket with two contacts that were connected to the focal plane shutter. I could not find the proper cable but discovered that the plug of a Schick electric shaver would fit and provide the necessary connection. I used it with an old Mendelsohn battery case and reflector. The Mendelsohn solenoid was undependable when used with the Compur shutter so I did all flash work with the FP. It had issues, but was also useable with barrel lenses. When the Hieland came on the market after the war I had the solenoid mounted on the lens board and also had one fitted to my Rollei. Later when I started using my Leica seriously I obtained a "Hakosyn" that used a lobed cam fitted to the shutter speed selector and actuated a microswitch mounted on the accessory shoe. Of course a lot of the stuff we got in the forties had been developed before the war but was not readily available to civilians until production began again. It is certainly possible that the first "Anny's" didn't have the flash contacts but mine surely did.
  12. I have a brace of "Miniature Speed Graphics", the 2x3 pre-Pacemaker version, which came with (original?) prewar (German-made) lenses, and both have focal-plane flash sync. Kalart (again!) used to make an adapter for the larger sizes, around that time period; I've seen ads for it that touted "Flash with your back shutter!", as far as I can tell it was a delayed-action mechanism that screwed into the cable-release socket for the focal-plane shutter, on the side.

    The little 2-cell flashgun for the Argus is surprisingly well-designed and -made; I regularly use one for cave photography and similar situations; it's easy to trigger by shorting the two contact pins with my wedding ring...
  13. Okay, Dan, thanks for the clarification. It sounds like you got a lot of use out of your Anny!

    Perhaps there were "early" Anniversaries and "earlier". I just looked at mine again and if there is any kind of socket on the FP shutter it is invisible to me. Also didn't see any mention of FP flash sychronication in the manual -- either operator or repair.

    My camera appears to be quite early - the tata plate is on top, handle held with tabs screwed to top and bottom, rather than to side, and the lens is a No 31 Kodak in dial-set Compur. It apear to have been upgraded with a synchronizer solenoid and Graflock back. I still can't find the serial nubmer -- don't quite know where to look and don't know if there has been a serial number/year listing ever published.

    If you can recall where that plug was, let me know! When I got the camera it came with a cord that I don't recognize: 3-in-a-row female to AC.
  14. The serial is probably inside the top or non rangefinder side. you open up the camera, and use a glancing light to the read the serial in the wood.
  15. Thanks Kelly... it was there.

    BTW... flash bulbs in caves??? For 10 years I photographed in underground mines. In coal mines and where ventilation wasn't guaranteed we needed to use specail (low guide number, no less) strobes.
  16. Maybe more of a vamp cave like a dive bar too, ie goth. :) One place i lived had a joint called the cave too. :)
  17. Firing a flashbulb in a unknown cave might result in you last photo you shoot, and is usually only done to illuminate an entrance, or done long ago when folks didnt have portable small strobes.
  18. Right you are. I got interrupted when typing the last post. The special strobe was EXPLOSION PROOF... or at least that's what the MSA certification promised. We also used sealed cameras - Nikonos. It was a real PITA and a real challenge since we couldn't open a camera underground. I was often concerned that the last picture I took would be my last.
  19. Dan, the Mini Speed Graphic (2x3 Anny, more or less), has focal plane flash sync with the terminal at the upper left hand corner of the back (as seen from behind). Very simple, there are pieces of metal on the shutter curtain, one below each slit, that bridge a pair of contacts that, IIRC, come straight out of the terminal.


    Another different Dan
  20. Would they actually have designed the 2x3 different from the 4x5? Mine is a 4x5 -- I should have mentioned. What size was yours, Dan (#1)?
  21. I don't have any cave stories.

    You can check Cress Photo at www.flashbulbs.com. I bought an adapter that mounts AG1 bulbs in bayonet sockets, and AG1s are much more available and less expensive. The bulb, however, is usually matched to the reflector shape and size, so the light pattern spread with an adapted bulb takes some experiementation.

    The Tilt-a-Mite flashgun is small, versatile, and will take anything from AG1s to M-3's, and it's available on th used market for a song. Batteries are available, and so are replacement capacitors.
  22. Hi Jeff: It sounds like a Tilt-a-mite is my best bet, as the others seem to be rare, unusual, or
    hard-to-find. Was this available as of '40 or '41 at the latest? I guess having it a few years
    later wouldn't kill me, but I'm trying to find a flash that fits the same time period as the
    camera I'm using.
  23. BRIAN: Years have clouded my memory but I seem to recall that the socket was located on the back in the upper right hand corner.
  24. Michael G., I ended up going with your hunch and getting a cheap Kalart flashgun with an inline cable release that trips the shutter at the same time. Now, I've still got to snag a camera, and I'm probably going to go with a Kodak 6-16 as they are cheap (although the film is going to cost $30 for the first roll, after which I'll probalby just respool from a bulk roll of 70mm). Do you or others here know how to tell the pre-war ones apart from the post-war? If there's no way of telling, then oh-well, but I'm trying to find one from 1940 at the latest again.

    One other thing: does anyone know off the top of their heads what size bulb a "Kalart Compak Passive Speed Flash" takes? I have no literature to go with it at the moment, and I haven't heard back from the guy I bought it from as to whether or not he knows.

    Oh, P.S., any tips for shooting with these cameras and actually having the pictures come out good? I'm spoiled shooting with high ISO film, (comparatively) fast glass, and either single or twin reflex viewing, so there is probably going to be a learning curve with this. I know that I am probalby going to have to practice holding the thing steady at a 50th of a second outdoors.

    Thanks again,

  25. The "Compak Passive Speed Flashes" I've seen all take bayonet-base flashbulbs, like the #5/Press 5; there are adapters available to use the smaller miniature M2/M3 bulbs (and adapters to go from *that* down to baseless AG-1 style, and adapters to go *up* from one size to the next, and all other sorts of possible combinations...), if you're so inclined, but I've found them to generally be a PITA, in that they're hard to eject the (hot!) expended bulbs from. I do not know how to date them; you could try looking for patent numbers, and searching for their dates in the USPTO database, but that would really only work in an exclusionary fashion. As for flashbulbs in caves, if I was worried about the air quality, I wouldn't be in the cave in the first place. :) Around here, flammable gases aren't the problem that they are elsewhere; I'm more concerned about cumulative radon exposure and irritable raccoons than anything else. That said, I've fired flashbulbs in sanitary sewers and lived to tell the tale - and have a couple good friends who've done candlelight photography in sanitary sewers and even sewage-filled caves, but that's not something I'd recommend or encourage. There are a couple of underground flashbulb photos on my website, findably by clicking on my name; there are also a number of underground candle-lit shots there. If I can get my scanner working again, I might post some shots here that are more technically-interesting than aesthetically attractive, for kicks. Karl, if you're looking for a beginner's guide to flashbulb exposures, let me know, and I'll post a set of interesting (post-war) "Quik Set" instructions for neophyte photogs with press cameras, from Kenneth Tydings' Speed/Crown/Century Graphic handbook. They require a goodly amount of arithmetic (and thus introduce room for human error!), but are relatively fascination, in my opinion.
  26. Please post the guides. Any advice for shooting with a Kodak folder for someone used to
    Mamiya RBs and 35mm SLRs? I'm going to be handholding with a Kalart flashgun perilously

  27. Ask, and thou shalt receive! :)

    (From Kenneth S. Tydings, _The Crown Century and Speed Graphic Guide_, New York, Greenberg, 3rd ed., 1953)


    "Single Lamp Flash for Distances in Depth"

    When only one lamp is available to cover a great depth, this method is used to compute your exposure:

    1. Determine the depth of your subject, e.g., if your subject depth is from 8 to 24 feet, the total subject depth is 16 feet.

    2. Estimate your flash exposure for 3/4 this distance; 3/4 of the 16 foot depth equals 12 feet.

    3. Add this 3/4 distance to your nearest subject point. 12 plus 8 equals 20 feet. Calculate your guide number for 20 feet. Aim your flash at the 20 foot distance.

    4. Focus for 1/3 the subject depth. 1/3 of 16 is approximately five feet. Add this figure once again to your near subject point. 5 plus 8 equals 13 feet.

    5. With your factors Safe-Set, approach your subject until a sharp image is seen (this will be your 13-foot subject) and release your shutter at the peak of the action. The single flash will cover the subject depth with as evenly exposed lighting as is ever possible with only one lamp.

    The beginner and professional must make every picture count. As a definite help for a sure-fire, push-button type of flash photography, I recommend the Safe-Set Method. You will have pre-set your distance, your iris, and your shutter speed. All you need to do then is to approach your subject until the pre-set distance is correct, view with the viewfinder for the peak of action or expression, and release the exposure meter. [sic]


    There you go. It's relatively complicated, and it's kind of painful to think the whole purpose was to turn a fully-controllable camera like a Speed Graphic into something like a point-and-shoot box camera, but it worked (and works). ("f/8 and be there", as they used to say.) I guess the big advantage is you aren't fiddling with shutter speeds and apertures...

    If you don't want to go thru that hassle, you can calculate basic flash exposure with a flashbulb the traditional way, where the guide number (for a given film speed, shutter speed, and synchronization method) equals distance from flash to subject divided by aperture. For example, a 5B is GN 370 at any sync setting at shutter speeds up to and including 1/30th second with 400-speed film; a subject 20' away would be photographed on Tri-X at (370 / 20 = 18.5) "f/16 and a bit". (I think the Compak Speed Flash has a brushed reflector, not polished, so you'd cut a stop or so off the indicated result; "f/11 and a bit", or an even f/16.)

    I'm not sure how many people are still viewing this thread now it's slid down the page, so you might want to start a new topic for advice on using your Kodak folder of choice. I use Zeiss folders a lot, and I'd guess the advice would be similar - make sure the lens is clean, make sure there are no light leaks, and make sure the lens focusses somewhat correctly (a piece of waxed paper taped across the film plane is useful to check). After that, sacrifice a few of the cheapest flashbulbs you've got to make sure your synchronization method is at least sort of working, and have fun. :)

    Oh, almost forgot - if you can't get to the bulb contacts in the flash with a pencil eraser or some kind of polishing cloth, after you insert each bulb, spin it around 360 degrees or so, to make sure you've got good electrical contact. There's little so irritating as pushing the shutter button, expecting a big "pow", and getting a quiet little "click" instead. Oh, and always insert bulbs into the reflector with the whole thing pointed somewhere harmless - like *not* at your face, or someone else's. ;)

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