We've come a long way, my friends
Many, many years ago I worked as a photo assistant in New York City. In 1979 I started at a catalog studio on West 23rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. Yes, that is where the New York High Line is now. Back then it was an abandoned elevated train track full of weeds and dead birds. In that studio we primarily used Mole Richardson hot lights to photograph things like ceiling fans and large room sets for Montgomery Ward and other similar retailers' catalogs.
These were 750- to 2000-watt hot lights. Within the first few days on the job you quickly learned to have a pair of leather gloves hanging from your belt along with some wooden clothespins to use when adjusting the lights. Ouch! And the lights were often mounted on large boom stands that had big maroon color counterweights on one end of the boom arm. Somehow, one of those counterweights, at about forehead level, often managed to find its way to a spot between the elevator and the light switch. Ouch!
There was a fashion studio on one of the floors, though, that used electronic flash. Balcar was the brand. I don't recall if they were 1200 or 2400 watt second packs. But I do remember the small rectangular plugs that had a habit of arcing. One day the photographer I was working with, who was a bit ditzy, decided to change a head by himself. Unfortunately, I was standing next to him and he unplugged the light as I was yelling at him to turn the power off first. BANG! Lost my hearing for an hour or two. Luckily he didn't electrocute himself.
And that brings me to the subject of this post. My buddy Tony left this studio to go work as a photographer at another studio over on 7th Ave between 25th and 26th street. Shortly after that he brought me over there as a still life product photographer, too. This place was more modern and we used Speedotron 2400 watt-second packs and heads. (As an aside, I still have a Speedotron 2401A pack and one or two model 105 heads that still perform great. I even have a Dyna-lite D804II that is probably 40 years old and still going strong. See the photo below of these units alongside a modern Interfit strobe.)
This studio also had a fashion studio, but it had these monster ASCOR Series 800 Sunlight strobes (which ASCOR called speedlights, noting in the instruction manual that strobe was a misnomer, as strobe implies repetitive flashing).
The ASCOR Sunlight
I have to assume that most of my readers might not have any idea what these Sunlight units were like. So, I will quote some things from the instruction manual for these monsters. Before that, I just want to add that almost everyone I talk to who was familiar with these speedlights mentions needing to keep a wooden broomstick nearby just in case they had to pry someone away from the unit in the case something went wrong.
So, from the user manual, dated around 1955...
"ASCOR has long stood for the best in electronic flash. The company (starting as Parker & Young and the trademark Fotolux in 1946, changing to American Speedlight Corporation in 1948) has, from the beginning, specialized in building the most advanced types of speedlights for exacting professionals."
"The tremendous number of speedlights in all shapes, sizes, and prices exhibited at recent photo shows leaves even the electronic flash engineer confused. With all the claims, counter-claims and partial information, it is no wonder that the dealer is wary...think of the poor customer...it is amazing that so many have the courage to buy. What is sorely needed are a few simple facts that can be used as a basis of comparison."
Not much has changed
Wow, not much has changed since the 40s and 50s. The manual then goes on to talk about guide numbers, and the "serious faults" in using guide numbers. 1. high guide numbers can be achieved by concentrating the available light in a narrow beam from the reflector, which results in uneven coverage or hot spots. 2. a guide number can honestly be chosen over a wide range, depending on how the film is developed, the latitude of the films, etc.
They next talk about watt-seconds, "For too long most people have rated speedlights in watt-seconds. Just what is a watt-second? If you really know, you are one of the unusual photographers. Then again, what photographer really cares? Watt-seconds is not a rating of light output of speedlight equipment. The use of watt-seconds, microfarads, and other terms has so confused the photographer that many are thoroughly baffled about electronic flash."
How do you compare lights?
So, what are the points of comparison between various studio strobes? "Speedlight is just light." Photographic effectiveness comes down to...
Strength of the light
Color of the light
Coverage of the reflector
Speed of the flash or exposure
Recharge or recycling time of the equipment
"The ASCOR Speedlight (ASCORLIGHT) is an electronic device for converting electrical energy from a relatively small power source into a high-speed, high intensity flash of light. Essentially, the energy is drawn slowly from the power line or battery, converted into hight voltage, and stored in a capacitor (an electrical storage tank). Then at the moment the flash of light is desired, the energy is dumped instantaneously out of the capacitors through the flashtube (watt-seconds) which converts the electrical energy into light."
Enough of the boring stuff. What I really wanted to point out was the size of the units and the simplicity of operation. The manual then lists 23 important features of the ASCORLIGHT SERIES 800. Things such as "from 800 to 40,000 watt-Seconds" and "Economical (average power drawn is less than drawn by a 200-watt light bulb." But the one that really stands out to me is #22: "Designed for One Man Operation and Portability." Keep the word portability in mind as it then lists the specifications.
There were two power supplies available. The power supply is the control unit and does nothing on its own until you add condenser (capacitor) units to it. The Sunlight Maste Power Supply A801 weighed 85 lbs. The Super Master Model A805 weighed in at a svelte 355 lbs! The A801 dimensions were 9-38"H x 12-1/8"W x 21-3/8"L. The A805 was 42"H x 22"W x 17"D. Remember, designed to be "portable." And this is just the power supply.
In addition to the power supply, you need condensers. Each condenser stores 800 watt-seconds of power and each weighs in at 60lbs. These are metal boxes filled with oil as the dielectric element. Slightly smaller than the A801 power supply, each condenser was 9-3/8"H x 8-5/8"W x 21-3/8"L. Remember, "portable." And we still haven't added a flash head and the required cables. The manual doesn't list the weight of the heads, but they were pretty substantial. If I remember correctly, the flash tube was around 9" long. The standard head reflector was 14" across and other reflectors were available from 9" to 24" across. And we still haven't added the light stands, which could range from 10 to over 100 lbs each. The model 503 flash head could handle up to 3200 watt-seconds of energy. The model 623 head used a model FT623 flash tube, and could handle up to 45,000 watt-seconds and could be attached to forty-eight (48!!) condenser units. 48 metal boxes, weighing 60 lbs each. That is almost 1-1/2 tons of lighting gear for one flash head!
You are advised to "Stack the model A802 condenser units on the Type 3200 Dolly (M251) which is designed to hold six condenser units. Place the Platform Adapter M261 on top of the condenser units, this Platform Adapter will fit down over two condenser units placed side by side. If the model A801 Power Supply is to be used, it is placed on the Platform Adapter." At least the dolly has wheels (portable!). Then you took these very thick 3-foot and 6-foot cables and plugged them in between the power supply and condenser and then between each additional condenser and then plug the 25-foot cable to the flash head into the end of the chain. Then use dummy plugs to seal any condenser or power supply connectors not being used.
"Next, connect the Power Cord AC, D102, to the power supply outlet and plug it directly into any 117 volt 60 cycle AC source, "NOTE: MAKE A SOLID CONNECTION OF AC CORD: If a flimsy connection of the AC cord is made this condition can cause trouble. A momentary interruption of the power will cause the discharge relays to make contact. If the power is then applied before the capacitors are allowed to discharge, and arc can be started, which can damage the relays and the discharge resistors. The third wired should be attached to a ground." In total, there are 15 steps (each a paragraph) involved in turning on the unit. Step 15 is to plug your camera sync cord into the end of the sync cord which is connected to the power supply. Flash the unit by tripping your camera." Whew! Portable and fast operation.
They then talk about strobing or repetitive flashing. That is done by "firing several speedlights successively with the ASCOR Strober, each unit powering its own set of lights. The operator can vary the speed of flashing and ONE POWER UNIT IS REQUIRE FOR EACH IMAGE DESIRED ON THE FILM." Emphasis mine. You want 10 images of the swing of a tennis racket? That means 10 power supplies and at least 10 condenser units. At least you could attach two lights to each condenser unit. A spider box was available if you wanted to use three heads.
Many of you might have heard of sync voltage of older flash equipment and the damage it could do to digital cameras as the current goes through the shutter contacts. Well, ASCOR took care of that way back when. "ASCORLIGHT units use an electronic tube in the triggering circuit or sync circuit which directs the current through the flash tube--not into the shutter contacts. NOTE: Here we have incorporated ANOTHER SAFETY FEATURE to prevent electrical damage to the shutter contacts and to personnel."
For my friends such as Tony Corbell and Matthew Jordan Smith who live by the light meter, I should mention flash meters here. Take a look at this page from the ASCOR manual that pictures the M333 General Radio Light Meter in use. Might be why Joel Grimes says he doesn't want to know what a flash meter is. It is bigger than my cameras.
So, how much light did these monsters put out? The manual claims that using one condenser (800 watt-seconds) at 6-feet using the standard reflector would give you F/22. They don't list an ASA or ISO number, but earlier refer to daylight Ektachrome. I don't know the ASA rating for 1950s Ektachrome. However, they do provide a nomograph that says at ASA (ISO) 100 the guide number for one condenser would be about 400. So that is F/40 at 10 feet.
A modern flash, like the Interfit S1 that is 500 watt-seconds gives me f/18 at 10 feet with the standard 7" reflector. That is 2-1/3 stops more light with the ASCOR (which was rated at 800 w-s), and which has a brighter, more focused reflector. It is also with the ASCOR weighing in at close to 160 lbs plus a heavy-duty light stand, while the S1 weighs in at 6.3 lbs and is battery operated. We have a very different view of "portability" now.
I am sorry, but I don't know who to credit the photos of the ASCOR equipment to. If these are your photos, may I please ask for permission to keep them in this blog post?
If you used these ASCOR lights and have any stories about them please share them in the comments here. We've come a long way since these units from the 40s. Let's keep some memory of them alive.