Thursday, October 25, 2018

A flash from the past, or resuscitating your ancient press flash.

 I like flash bulbs, flash cubes, and flash bars They are a perishables from the days of photo past that never perish. I could use an electric flash when I shoot my Polaroid Automatic 450(1963) packfilm camera, but I prefer the crackle and little whisp of smoke that comes from the Hi Power flash cubes. The 450 camera adds a little analog fun to the already primitive exploding bulbs with little metal louvers that let just the right amount of light through based on the distance from your subject! Not bad for 60s tech. With the flash bars and cubes, there is the added fun of watching the afterglow as the plastic around it buckles from the heat.
I am sorry, purist- natural light seeking photographers. I like the unique effects caused by a flash as well. A shallow flash will brighten up the subject while leaving all else in darkness, as if you had put up a black background cloth. A harsh and dramatic shadow is often cast behind the subject, somehow making the fleeting second of a photo even more compressed. Natural light is not everything- think of the tenebrism of Caravaggio, candle light creating distortions on the subjects' faces. Directing flashes is an art form in itself.
On a photo blog(sorry, I cannot remember which one) an old timer with a past life as one of the paparazzi told a tale of how you would set your Speed Graphic up with two flash guns. You would put a bulb in the first one with some of the plastic coating scraped off the surface , and a regular one in gun number two. The first one was fired to get the subject's attention, as the damage to the coating would make it explode with a very loud report. Then, when the subject was looking at you in terror, you took the shot!
A friend who spent most of his working life in photography told me that in the early days he would run around changing flash bulbs that were still quite hot until he didn't have much of a fingerprint. He said that when you were working, you often stashed spare bulbs in your pocket. There were many times that the static electricity of the carpet and his wool jacket were just too much for the bulb- giving him quite a surprise when he went to fish fresh bulbs out of his pocket!
I love using these old flash guns, but many have bit the dust. Though the bulbs themselves have withstood the test of time(if you can find them), the flash guns often have the all too familiar problem of a dead capacitor and hard/impossible to locate specialized batteries. Lately, while exploring the flash possibilities for my Polaroid 110a conversion, I decided to figure out a way to start using my 5b and 25 b flash bulbs. These were some of the ubiquitous bulbs that some early press cameras used. My goal was to find a way to breathe new life into these broken flash guns.
This DIY adventure is just part one, and what I discovered made it quite likely there will be a part two and three! My first victim was a Polaroid BC flash model 281, as it was the standard flash included with the Polaroid Pathfinder 110A that I just customized to take modern film(I blogged about that, too).
It used a Polaroid accessory hot-shoe, a capacitor, and a 15v no. 504 battery. Though you can still buy a reproduction of this battery online from china, I have found that these oddball no name batteries don't tend to last and will set you back 15 dollars a battery. The battery is almost exactly the same dimension as a common camera cr123a, so that is what I did first. I put a fresh 3v battery in, not expecting much. It did not disappoint- nothing happened. The combination of a 15 dollar battery and paying for a replacement capacitor had my cheap hobo senses tingling. I was not ready to waste money.
Then I remembered a comment on another blog about how much better batteries are today compared to the fifties. I also remembered my friend's burnt fingers from a pocket of fire! What if I dumped the capacitor altogether and just tested it with a couple volts of fresh batteries?
I held the bulb pinched to a wire with a pair of pliers. The wire ran to two cr123s in sequence. The other wire was in my nervous hands and I eased it towards the end of the bulb, wincing already from the anticipated shock I would experience. It worked! I was blind, and my heart was hammering, but it worked! Next I set about removing the capacitor and resistor in the 281 flash. With everything neatly removed, I popped in the one cr123. I grabbed a fresh flash bulb and started to load it into the socket and -Wham!- I was briefly blinded and my heart was galloping all over again! Proof of concept- though I clearly needed to isolate the battery better, a modern 3v battery can easily take the place of an old 15v and a capacitor.
Though the camera had a hot shoe built in, I wanted to bypass it and just use a pc hookup that I could use for either the flash bulb or electric flash. I simply wired it negative to ground and outside of bulb, and positive to white pc cable, then black pc cable to hot on the bulb. There was a small tab connecting the hot to the hot-shoe. I severed it so the battery would not bleed down accidentally, making it a cold-shoe.
I hooked it up and shot with it. The flash went off fine. The picture was a dud! Then I remembered my flash 101. I had it in X(electric flash) mode, not M mode, the mode for flash bulbs. Then I took the next shot- totally workable!
I can't wait to walk around with a pocket full of fresh bulbs, my 110a , and some Fuji FP100c. I really want to try that paparazzi trick!

Remove the old battery, capacitor and resistor.
Cut the connection to the positive tab so the hot shoe is non-functioning.
Connect negative battery terminal to ground(yellow wire added).  Hook one wire of the pc cable up to the positive battery terminal and the other up to the center of the bulb socket.
Insulate area around battery terminals with electric tape to avoid shorting.

Pop the battery in and put the dish back on- you are ready to try it!
Here is the flash using the cold-hoe mount.
It also points to the side- you've never had it this good!

Here is the flash mounted on a bounce bracket pointing up.

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