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Flashbulbs and Digital Photography

by Bill Storage
photos by Bill Storage & Laura Maish
updated July 20, 2006

Why Flashbulbs?

Even tiny miniature-base flashbulbs emit far more light

than most electronic flashes. This makes them attractive
for a few special artificial lighting situations. Cave
photographers like their high output and their long burn
time, which adds an appealing blur to moving water.
They are also useful for places where studio strobes aren't
practical, such as certain outdoor situations, and where
strobes would be destroyed, such as in destructive testing.
There is also some degree of nostalgia centered around
Hollywood glam shots of the '40s that has resulted in the
strange belief that bulb lighting produces a certain look
that cannot be achieved with strobes, e.g. Bill Cress'
claim that because bulbs ignite and burn from the center
of the bulb, they produce more intense light in the center
of the image plane (which he curiously dubs a "halo").
This is utter baloney. Everyone is entitled to their own
opinion, but not their own physics. The look of light is a
function of its size (softness), duration, direction and
color. The '40s glam look resulted from reflector
characteristics and a very low depth of field; and the myth
of its resulting from the magic of bulbs stems in part from
the marketing materials of flashbulb dealers.
Photo 1 - Lechuguilla Cave Passage lit by three M3B flashbulbs
manually triggered; no tripod.

The flashbulb mystique has resulted in the hoarding of some very old screw base bulbs. I bought small quantities of them over
the past 20 years from estate sales; and purchased a few boxes recently on EBay. Over the past year, we (Laura and I) attempted
about eight photo shoots using large bulbs, and detected what seemed to be a large variation in the light output of batches of the
same type of bulbs. We also found we had a lot of duds that wouldn't fire in a 4.5 volt Graflex gun, in Honeywell 9 volt guns,
or in Ron Simmons' custom-built waterproof 22 volt guns (see Photo 6).

Digicams with Flashbulbs - the Dilemma of High/Low Tech

Flashbulbs take a surprisingly long time to ignite and reach maximum brightness. In the old days, cameras had several settings
for delaying the time between hitting the shutter button - which started the ignition process - and opening the shutter. As bulb
technology progressed, cameras accommodated the delay for bulb ignition by adding "M" and "FP" synchronization settings,
corresponding to delays of roughly 10 and 20 milliseconds. FP (Focal Plane) bulbs were designed to allow high shutter speeds,
(above the camera's "sync speed") the faster shutter speed during which the window onto the film plane is completely open (as
opposed to a slit between two curtains traveling across the film plane - see Figure 1, FP Sync at 1/250).

FP bulbs effectively waste bulb output; much of the bulb's light is

striking the curtain blocking the film plane. Consequently, some
FP bulbs have huge total light output, making them attractive for
situations that need a lot of light, such as big rooms in caves.

Since flashbulbs have not been in general circulation for several

decades (one manufacturer, Meggaflash, still exists), modern film
and digital cameras tend not to have M and FP synchronization
settings. This means that a digital camera must use a shutter speed
equal to the sum of the times needed to catch the full burn of the
flashbulb plus the ignition delay for that bulb (Figure 1 - Digital
1/20). In mixed-lighting scenarios, this increases the likelihood of
blur, either from subject motion or camera motion.

Most digital cameras are designed to emit, either through a small

on-camera flash or through an attached flash unit, a so-called "pre-
flash". This small burst of light that the camera uses to set focal
length, aperture, white balance and/or main flash output occurs
before the camera's shutter starts to open. Unless the pre-flash can
be switched off, as it can on many newer digicams, it prevents the

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use of optical slave triggers unless the slave has a corresponding

delay. Several such "digital slaves" have emerged as a
consequence. With many digicams, you can also attach a low-tech
manual electronic strobe to trip slave sensors, but beware that
digicams are reported to tolerate only low hot-shoe voltages, so
many flashes cannot be safely used in this manner (see hot shoe
voltage links and discussion below).

While camera makers do not publish the pre-flash to main flash

(pre-flash to open-shutter) interval, experimentation with
flashbulbs and our Canon cameras suggests that it is
coincidentally about the same as the FP-synch delay in older film
cameras. Therefore, you can leave the pre-flash on, and reduce the
shutter speed by about 20 mSec, and still catch more than 90% of
some FP bulbs' output.

Photo 2 - Black Chasm lit by three flashbulbs - a No.40B on a

stand near the camera, an M3B above the man on rope, and an
M3B in a Simmons flash held 6 inches under water. Three Wein
Ultra slaves fired the bulbs simultaneously, initiated by an on-
camera electronic flash with black electrical tape over its head.
ISO 200, f/11, 1/30 sec.

Unfortunately, our testing showed a wide range in delay values for different FP bulbs. Initially we thought that different models
(e.g., No.3 vs. No.31) had greatly different sync delays. Further testing revealed huge variations within different batches from a
specific type and manufacture (here "batches" means groups obtained from different sources with apparent similarity within a
group, not manufacturing batches or lots). Sync delays of most batches of old bulbs that we tested were far greater than that
specified by their manufacturers - some exceeding one second. Apparently, loss of contained oxygen through the bulb base over
the years leads to slower ignition. More on this below.

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Figure 1 - Sample burn curves for electronic flash (strobe) and several types of flashbulbs, including open-shutter
timing and duration for several sync settings. Black/white rectangles indicate closed and open shutter at 5 mSec
intervals. Note partially open shutter when shutter speed exceeds sync speed (e.g. 1/250 FP). Based on
manufacturers' info, our testing, and Popular Photography's Photo Information Almanac '84.

Scenarios for Flashbulb Use

Caves are no doubt the most common subject of flashbulb photography. Since caves lack common visual clues of space, such
as converging parallel lines and landmarks of known size, backlighting is commonly used to enhance the perception of depth.
Backlighting also avoids the fog effect caused by light from a flash reflecting off mist between the camera and subject. Cavers,
for whom equipment size and weight is critical, are remarkably adept at shooting backlit shots with multiple bulbs, no
electrical/electronic synchronization and no tripod. Impossible, an outsider might think. But in a dark chamber, bulb-firing
cavers have learned to fire their bulbs with amazingly small time intervals after seeing a first flash go off. The photographer
opens his shutter (on the B setting), calls "fire", sees a flash, and releases the shutter. The shutter may be open for half a second,
but the opportunity for a blurred image exists only in the interval between the first and last flash, provided stray light from
headlamps is eliminated. The shot of Lechuguilla Cave (photo 1) used this technique with three flashbulbs. The interval was
perhaps 1/10 second. Any camera movement during this time was masked by the fact the intersection of the exposures from
each of the flashes is relatively small and is in a dark or uninteresting part of the photo.

Despite the relative weakness of portable electronic flashes compared to

flashbulbs, modern film and digital cameras are sensitive enough to allow
use of electronic flashes for many cave shots. But output isn't a bulb's only
advantage however. Cavers benefit from the fact that bulbs emit light in
all directions. They can use partial reflectors, vary the distance from the
bulb to a reflector, or use no reflector at all to control where the light goes,
and to control the transition from light to dark areas of a picture. A few
"bare bulb" electronic flashes can do this, but their domes tend to be rather

Finally, one aspect of bulbs usually seen as a weakness, burn time, often
turns out to be an advantage for cave photos. When raging torrents are
exposed for a few thousands of a second (the duration of an electronic
flash), their motion is unnaturally frozen. The 1/30 second burn duration
of an M3B bulb gives the appearance of motion, as seen in photo 3, a shot
of me on rope in Cueva de Agua Carlota, Mexico, by Jim Smith.

Big screw base bulbs are attractive for shots of very large cave chambers.
Their output-to-volume ratio is lower than that of small bulbs, but it is
often impractical to fire a large number of small bulbs. For impressive
big-room shots and discussion of technique, see the sites referenced at the

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Photo 3. Moving water effect of long exposure end of this article.

(James H Smith photo).

Mixed light photos can also require high output flashes. The model in photo 4 is primarily lit by diffuse daylight. That meant
that we had to use a small aperture, in order to properly expose the model with an exposure time slow enough to catch the burn
of two large screw base bulbs. A small aperture was also needed for depth of field; the far wall, seen above the model's head, is
about 100 feet into the cave. At f/11, we needed very bright bulbs.

A No.31B bulb with a Graflex 7 inch reflector is 30 feet directly in

front of the model, 2 feet above the water. 80 feet directly in front
of the model is a bare No.31B bulb a foot above the water. Both
bulbs are aimed directly at the camera, but are obscured by the
model. Small flashlights attached to the light stands allow
alignment of both bulbs and the model. Front light is diffuse
sunlight and an electronic flash to illuminate the model's legs from
the knees down, which was in shadow (note uncorrected slight
bluish cast on calves, and sharp shadow beside right leg). The
electronic flash also triggered the Wein slaves attached to the bulb
guns. Our favorite slave is the Wein Ultra. Smaller Wein slaves are
less sensitive. We bought two Firefly slaves, also very sensitive,
but found their reliability and durability to be poor.

The slaves worked a bit too well, occasionally firing when ripples
resulting from our walking in the water beamed sun rays into the
cave causing misfires. The big bulbs were another story. About ten
consecutive No.22 bulbs failed to fire (details below). This shoot
involved difficult logistics (travel, hotels, assistants). While cavers
might think shooting nudes underground would be the best of all
jobs, unrelenting equipment problems can be quite stressful,
especially when the model is paying for the shoot, and has to
arrange travel to the site.

Flashbulbs can also be attractive when studio strobes just aren't

feasible. We shot a series of pictures of San Francisco's vintage
street cars and cable cars for Market Street Railway, the non-profit
preservation partner of the San Francisco Muni System. For
dramatic effect, many of the shots were at night. We used bulbs to
light all or shadowed parts of some of the cars. Without the Photo 4 - Lighting test for an underground model session.
ISO 100, 1/15 sec, f/11.
backlighting on the side of this street car, the shot really lacked
depth and interest. Many other rail car shots are also on our
website (links below).

Photo 5 - Rail car backlit by No.50 flashbulb (just out of view at right rear) ISO 200, 10 sec, f/5.6.

Testing Flashbulb Output and Reliability

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Since modern flash meters cannot measure the output of bulbs accurately, we chose to measure only their output relative to
each other (or a baseline bulb) by comparing brightness of images recorded by digital cameras. To do this we wrote a computer
program that calculates the average brightness of an image, allowing the user to define upper and lower brightness thresholds to
be included in the calculation. We set the lower threshold to a high enough value that with low ambient light, dark portions of
the image would not be counted in brightness measurement. This covered the possibility that the image was larger than the area
lit by the flashbulb. The program also warned us if part of the image was overexposed, having a brightness equal to the
maximum value possible in a digital image, thereby resulting in an invalid comparison. We varied the threshold values for a
variety of flash tests, confirming that the evaluation was not sensitive to changes in the threshold setting between 0 and 10
percent of the maximum brightness value.

In photo shoots, we used about fifty Number 50/50B bulbs with only a few duds and non-fires. We opened a second, much
fresher-looking box of No.50s for the below tests. Eight of the eleven bulbs we tried from this box did not fire at all. The
previous owner reported that he had stored them in a dry basement since the mid 1950s. They showed no rust or mildew.

We shot thirty No.11 and No.40 bulbs with a no-fire rate of about 10%. We used twenty-three No.2As consisting of 10 shots of
two bulbs each with two misfires and one bulb that broke lose from its base, before sensing that their output was way under
what it should be. At this point we began the controlled testing, experiencing a somewhat higher rate of non-fires, as shown in
the data below. We also shot twenty-four GE No.31 (Class FP) bulbs with good results, but retained none for testing. FP bulbs
are discussed below.

The most reliable and highest-output

bulbs we found came from a batch of
Westinghouse Number 22s. Of ten
bulbs in a second batch of Number
22s, this time from GE, none would
fire with 9 volts. Screw base bulbs
expected to put out more light than a
Number 22, including No.3, No.3S,
No. 2A, No. 50 and No.3B, all showed
huge variations in their output. A few
seemed to burn for the better part of a
second, burning much longer and
dimmer than expected. None of the big
bulb types had a higher output than our
good batch of Number 22s. The
superiority of this batch of No.22s
undoubtedly owes much more to the
storage conditions of that particular
box of bulbs than to any inherent
superiority of the Number 22 type or to
Westinghouse manufacturing.
Photo 6 - Motion of a vintage trolley is partially frozen by a single No.2A flashbulb. ISO 100,
f/11, 1/2 second.

The results of these tests were far worse than we anticipated. In addition to the high failure (non-fire) rate, we found most of the
bulbs to be weaker than expected in comparison to the good batch of No.22s and to all brands of miniature base M3/M3B
bulbs. Note that while we did not attempt to measure absolute output of any bulbs, the relative outputs of No.11 and No.22 and
the much younger M3 and M3Bs is exactly as expected based on the manufacturers' data. This finding tends to validate our
testing methodology. Our No.22s average output was 1.5 stops greater than an M3. No.11s were 1/2 stop greater than M3s and
blue M3Bs are 1/2 stop dimmer than M3s. Our testing also shows that M3 bulbs are vastly superior to all screw base bulbs in
terms of light output per size (volume) or weight. Their reliability is also much higher; we have fired hundreds - maybe
thousands - of M3s in caves with only a handful of failures.

We also evaluated relative light output, within a bulb type, at different exposure times. Manufacturers' data states that class M
bulbs (M3, No. 11, No.40, and No.22) reach 50% power at 12 milliseconds (ms) and have a duration above 50% power lasting
15 milliseconds. Using a baseline of 1/15th second, we found the M3s to be down 1/4 stop at 1/30th and down 2/3 stop at
1/40th. Thus, M3s can easily be used at speeds up to 1/40 second. No.11s, however, based on a small sample, seem to be down
1/2 stop already at 1/20th. Significant differences exist between burn curves of M type bulbs.

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Photo 7 - Bulb flash equipment:

A Graflex 3 D-cell flashgun with 7 inch reflector with household connector socket
B Honeywell Tiltamite flash with 5 inch folding reflector (bayonet, miniature) fitted with RCA connector
C Waterproof Simmons flashgun with 4 inch polished reflector (miniature only) with RCA connector
D Bayonet-screw base adpater, allows Tiltamite to fire screw base bulbs
E Firefly 2 slave unit
F Wein XL8 slave
G Wein Ultra WP-SSL slave
H Household to RCA converter/extension

S-type bulbs (No.50, No.2A, No.3) are reported to reach mid power at about 19 milliseconds, and have a duration above 50%
power of about 30 milliseconds. While we would need to test more class S bulbs to be conclusive, it appears they were down
well over 1/2 stop at 1/30th second.

We found a wide discrepancy between manufacturers' data and claims made by enthusiasts about the burn curves of class FP
bulbs. A contributor to an online discussion forum reported that some FPs have a half peak duration of 27 milliseconds, while
the GE No.31 has a duration above 50% power of about 53 ms. In photo shoots, we found that we could use No.31 bulbs with
the Canon electronic flash in pre-flash (labeled ETTL sync in the below test data), thereby allowing us to shoot the large No.31
bulbs at a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/25th. Unfortunately, we retained no No.31 bulbs for lab testing. We did test the pre-
flash (ETTL-sync) arrangement with Class S bulbs, and found their output to be unacceptably low, due to the open shutter
being out of sync with most of the bulb burn.

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After having fairly good results with one batch of No.3B-S bulbs, we tested six bulbs from another batch of 100. These were
the newest looking bulbs and boxes we had seen. We mounted one in the test gun, a Graflex 3 D-cell unit, connected the slave
and opened the shutter. When it didn't flash I went to remove the bulb from the gun and it went off as I touched it. "Bad
connection", I thought and set up another. When the shutter opened, the second bulb didn't fire either. I took a step toward the
flash unit, but didn't touch it, and it went off - well over one second after the shutter. The next four bulbs behaved the same.
With a 2-second exposure, I finally caught the output of the 5th test on "film", and found it to be a bit over one stop below its
rated output. The 6th bulb fired with 120 volts, but I didn't meter it.


While the quality and available quantities of small flashbulbs (e.g., M2, M3) will support years of bulb photography, the future
of big-flashbulb photography appears fairly dim. While some enthusiasts report good luck with bulbs and only an occasional
dud, we found screw base bulbs to be generally not reliable enough for critical shooting. We carried an entire box to a fairly
remote location only to find that almost none of them would fire. We also found that the largest bulbs seem to have lost much
of their output and to ignite and burn more slowly than they did when they were new, more than fifty years ago in some cases.
In addition to the cost associated with big bulbs that fail, the risk of a failed photo shoot (travel, hotel, etc.) seems just too high.
The outlook for small bulbs seems much brighter. Finding M3 bulbs only 1.5 stops dimmer than large screw base bulbs, the
possibility of building bulb guns that can fire several miniature base bulbs simultaneously is very attractive. The M3 bulbs are
also suitable for more types of photography, being usable at shutter speeds (X sync) up to 1/40 second.

Update July, 2006

Diana Gietl and I have recently had some good results using inexpensive radio transmitters and receivers to trigger flashbulb
guns. These work well in some situations where optical slaves fail, such as back-lighting setups where the subject intentionally
shields a foreground gun from a strong flash aimed toward the camera. While their range is good (~100 feet) in open terrain,
they do not work well in sinuous passages, which apparently absorb or deflect the radio waves dramatically. We found that a
combination of optical and radio receivers was useful

Test Data

Bare vertical bulb (1/20 sec) comparison of M3 and screw base bulbs to establish relative brightness of M3 and screw base
Bulb type Sample number

Stops different from baseline

M3 Sylvania 1 0 - baseline
M3 Sylvania 2 -0.15
M3 Sylvania 3 -0.04

No.22 GE 1 -0.19
No.22 Westinghouse 2 1.52
No.22 Westinghouse 3 1.44

No.11 GE 1 0.55

No.40 GE 1 0.37
No.40 GE 2 0.75

Average good No.22 is 1.48 stops brighter than M3(1)
Average good No.22 is 1.42 stops brighter than average M3
No.11 is .49 stops brighter than average M3
Average No.40 is .60 stops brighter than average M3

4 No.11s would not fire with 9v
2 No.22 GEs would not fire with 9v

Graflex 3D w 7 inch reflector comparison of screw base bulbs to establish relative brightness of screw base bulbs

Bulb type Sample number Ex time Stops different from baseline

No.22 Westinghouse 1/15 0 - baseline

No.22 Westinghouse 1/25 -0.10

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No.22 Westinghouse 1/30 -0.40

8/8 No.22 GEs failed to fire.
65 Westinghouse No.22s remain in batch.

No.3B Sylvania 1 1/20 -0.34

No.3B Sylvania 2 1/20 -0.28

No.3 Sylvania 1/10 0.33

No.3 Sylvania 1/20 0.20
No.3 Sylvania 1/30 -0.51
No.3 Sylvania 1/30 ETTL sync -2.86

No.2A Sylvania 1/10 -0.16

No.2A Sylvania 1 1/20 -1.04
No.2A Sylvania 2 1/20 -0.60
No.2A Sylvania 3 1/20 0.16
One other No.2A from this batch did not fire with 4.5v. No.2A(1) glowed yellow for at least a second after firing.

No.3S Sylvania 1/20 0.16

No.3S Sylvania 1/30 ETTL sync -1.90
No.3S - batch 2 5 bulbs with > 1 sec rise time couldn't measure
No.3S - batch 2 6 2 seconds -1.20

No.11GE 1/10 -0.97

No.11GE 1/15 -0.96
No.11GE 1/20 -1.43
No.11GE 1/25 -2.87
4 of 8 No.11s failed to fire with 4.5v.

No.50 GE 1/30 -1.84

No.50 GE 1/20 -0.07
No.50 GE 1/20 ETTL Sync -1.44
8 of 11 No.50s failed to fire with 4.5v.
41 bulbs remain in batch.

Observations & Conclusions

No.3 is 1/2 stop brigher than average No.3B at 1/20 (note color difference)
Average No.2A is .18 stops darker than No.3B at 1/20 (note color difference)
No.11 is 1.0 stops darker than No.22 (as it should be according to manufacturer info)
Westinghouse No.22 has same brightness at 1/20 as No.50 GE
No.3 (all varieties) requires 1/20 second exposure, except batch 2 of No.3S, which required over one second
All screw base batches except No.3Bs, No.22 (Westinghouse) and No.11s show significant variance between samples
Westinghouse No.22 can be shot at 1/30. All others require 1/10 to 1/20
No.11s seemed to have retained their strength but require a longer exposure (maybe they alweays did - i.e., maybe they are as new)

M3 shutter speed and brand comparison

Bulb type Sample number Ex time Stops different from baseline
M3 Sylvania 1 1/15 0 (baseline)
M3 Sylvania 2 1/15 -0.12
M3 Sylvania 3 1/15 -0.06
M3 Sylvania 1/25 -0.03
M3 Sylvania 1/30 -0.20
M3 Sylvania 1/40 -0.67
M3 Sylvania 1/50 -1.06

M3 GE 1 1/15 -0.14
M3 GE 2 1/15 -0.05
M3 GE 1 1/25 -0.13
M3 GE 2 1/25 -0.20
M3 GE 1/30 -0.28

M3B 1/25 -0.47

M3B 1/30 -0.69
M3B 1/40 -1.23


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Flashbulb suppliers
Cress Photo http://www.flashbulbs.com/index.shtml - also has a lot of bulb output info
Cole's Cameras http://www.colescameras.com/flashbulbs.htm
EBay - Search on both flashbulbs and "flash bulbs"

Flashbulb manufacturers - one still exists:

Meggaflash http://www.meggaflash.com/ - your only option if you want big bulbs that haven't weakened over the years

Flashbulb usage and general info

Christopher Anderson's Darklight Imagery http://www.darklightimagery.net/flashbulbs.html - great cave photos too
Bob Biddix's Innermost Gallery http://www.innermostimagery.com/camps/campsarticle.htm
David Brittain's Flashbulb info http://dlbrittain.com/FlashCollect.htm
Graflex Site http://www.graflex.org/ - Graflex enthusiast site with good info on flashes, including links to Graflex instruction
Underground Photographer Flashbulb Resource http://www.dhios.co.uk/archives/flashbulbs/
Popular Photography 1954 article on the new M2 flashbulb http://www.popphoto.com/assets/download/1162004154246.pdf
Discussion of bulb output and cave usage http://medfmt.8k.com/mf/flashbulbs.html

Hot shoe voltage

While using these links, note that David Gibson, a reliable source on flash technology, stresses that the high voltage present on a
conventional flash circuit is usually at a very high impedance. Unless you measure this with a meter that has an even higher
impedance, the reading you get could be very wrong. See more from Gibson at http://www.caves.org.uk/flash/docs.html

Strobe trigger voltages http://www.botzilla.com/photo/strobeVolts.html

Voltage-protected sync cords http://www.paramountcords.com/vp.htm
Wein Safe Syncs http://www.weinproducts.com/safesyncs.htm
Non-dedicated flash with Digital Rebel http://www.covingtoninnovations.com/dslr/EosFlash.html

Night/street car photos of San Francisco


Cave photography tutorial

Dave Bunnell's Virtual Cave http://www.goodearthgraphics.com/virtcave/cave_photography.pdf

John Ganter assisted with testing and provided information used in this article. Bill Prewitt provided technical advice and produced
several delay circuits used to test pre-flash intervals.
Text and graphics copyright 2005 by William Storage. All rights reserved. Caching in search engines is explicitly permitted. Please link to this page rather than reproducing copies of it. This
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