Emer­son Roberts

MD BOWENS IN­TER­NA­TIONAL LTD

ProPhoto - - INTERVIEW | EMERSON ROBERTS -

SPE­CIAL­IS­ING IN GIV­ING her­itage brands a makeover, Emer­son Roberts has big plans for stu­dio flash maker Bowens as it com­petes in a chang­ing mar­ket. In­ter­view by Paul Bur­rows.

Not a great many people know this, but Bowens was the first to come up with the con­cept of the flash monobloc – a com­pact unit which com­bined both a flash head with the ca­pac­i­tors and cir­cuitry to drive it. The year was 1968 and the prod­uct was the Mono­lite 400 and, of course, it rev­o­lu­tionised stu­dio flash pho­tog­ra­phy, par­tic­u­larly for por­trai­ture be­cause these por­ta­ble units were so much eas­ier to take on lo­ca­tion. In fact, such was the im­pact on the mar­ket that for quite a num­ber of years af­ter­wards, the word “mono­lite” was used gener­i­cally even for ri­val prod­ucts.

Re­cently-ap­pointed man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Bowens In­ter­na­tional Limited, Emer­son Roberts, agrees, even the com­pany it­self doesn’t make enough fuss about such an im­por­tant in­no­va­tion. To­day the monobloc is by far the most pop­u­lar type of stu­dio flash light­ing, par­tic­u­larly as sub­se­quent tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments have en­abled them to be­come much more pow­er­ful, and the in­tro­duc­tion of bat­tery-pow­ered so­lu­tions has built on the porta­bil­ity. The monobloc is still the back­bone of Bowens’ busi­ness, al­though the com­pany has also been build­ing flash power packs since 1979 when it in­tro­duced its first model, the fa­mous Quad 2002. How­ever, this sec­tor of the mar­ket has un­der­gone sig­nif­i­cant changes as many pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers have moved away from the more tra­di­tional big commercial stu­dio-based op­er­a­tions. In much of Europe, North Amer­ica and Aus­tralia, the num­ber of big, multi-pho­tog­ra­phers stu­dios has dwin­dled down to per­haps half a dozen or even less.

“We haven’t been as strong in this area as some of our com­peti­tors,” says Emer­son Roberts. “So we haven’t felt the im­pact as much. Where we’ve been tra­di­tion­ally strong is in the area of the smaller por­trait stu­dio, and while there’s been a bit of a de­cline here too, it’s hasn’t been nearly as wide­spread and, of course, quite a few businesses are ac­tu­ally thriv­ing. And this area is where our monoblocs have tra­di­tion­ally been a main­stay. It’s our core mar­ket.”

Emer­son at­tributes the rel­a­tively good health of pro­fes­sional por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy – even in this era of ev­ery­body us­ing highly ca­pa­ble dig­i­tal cam­eras – to “…a de­sire to have a proper pho­tog­ra­pher take pic­tures of me or my fam­ily. I don’t think this has ever gone away”.

Small Change

How­ever, the flash monobloc busi­ness is fac­ing other chal­lenges, par­tic­u­larly from the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of wire­less TTL flash sys­tems us­ing two or three ‘speed­light’ type units con­trolled from a D-SLR.

“Por­trait and wed­ding pho­tog­ra­phers who go out on lo­ca­tion us­ing our monoblocs is an­other strong part of our busi­ness,” Emer­son ob­serves. “Some people would have you be­lieve these D-SLR flash sys­tems are the way of the fu­ture, but the re­al­ity is that the qual­ity of light from a small speed­light-type flash is very dif­fer­ent – in quite a num­ber of ways – from what you get from a monobloc. And, to be hon­est, we haven’t seen much im­pact here so far. The monobloc is still the pre­ferred op­tion for pro­fes­sion­als who need a qual­ity por­ta­ble flash so­lu­tion.

“I per­son­ally think that the ma­jor trend over the next few years will be to­wards shoot­ing more video, and that will put pres­sure on our con­ven­tional flash equip­ment. That said, even then I don’t see the monobloc mar­ket go­ing any­where too fast. There won’t be any­thing to re­place a good monobloc. We will cer­tainly need to im­prove our range, par­tic­u­larly to make them work bet­ter wire­lessly, but I don’t think we’re alone here.”

While it’s prob­a­bly a bit cheeky to men­tion a ri­val’s prod­uct, Pro­foto’s B1 TTL-con­trolled monobloc sim­ply backs up what Emer­son Roberts is say­ing about where this par­tic­u­lar mar­ket is head­ing.

“It’s a very in­ter­est­ing prod­uct,” he con­cedes read­ily, “but it’s also a very ex­pen­sive prod­uct and, per­son­ally, I think they pos­si­bly missed a trick by mak­ing it solely bat­tery-op­er­ated. I think it would be a far more ver­sa­tile prod­uct if it could run on mains power as well. But that aside, it’s beau­ti­fully ex­e­cuted, and lo­ca­tional func­tion­al­ity is a very im­por­tant is­sue for many pho­tog­ra­phers. It’s some­thing we’re look­ing at very closely with our gear and I know we need to im­prove some things here, but I’m wary of com­mit­ting rel­a­tively small re­sources to a big task like de­vel­op­ing TTL be­cause I’m not so sure the re­turns will be there.”

Emer­son’s point here is a valid one, be­cause TTL flash con­trol is de­pen­dent on the cam­era’s

“Some people would have you be­lieve the D- SLr flash sys­tems are the way of the fu­ture, but the re­al­ity is that the qual­ity of light from a small speed­light- type flash is very dif­fer­ent from what you get from a monobloc.

maker’s pro­to­cols (the rea­son the B1 is so far only com­pat­i­ble with a few of higher-end Canon D-SLRs) and de­sign­ing hard­ware around these pro­to­cols is an ex­pen­sive busi­ness, es­pe­cially if they keep chang­ing.

Con­tin­u­ous Ver­sus Flash

Change, of course, is ar­guably the one cer­tainty in to­day’s pho­tog­ra­phy in­dus­try and, with flash, Emer­son Roberts be­lieves it may be as fun­da­men­tal as ask­ing “…will we even be us­ing flash tubes or is ev­ery­thing mov­ing to­wards LEDs?”

He par­tially an­swers his own ques­tion by adding, “For the time be­ing, flash will have a de­cent fu­ture, be­cause it has that freez­ing ef­fect which you don’t get with con­tin­u­ous light­ing. But we de­vel­oped our Limelite LED range pre­cisely be­cause of the way things are mov­ing with video.

“You can pull fan­tas­tic qual­ity stills from 4K video, but whether the whole in­dus­try will go this way isn’t clear. It’s cer­tainly go­ing to be a part of the fu­ture, but when we go to wed­ding and por­trait shows we’re demon­strat­ing both flash and LED pan­els… so that cross­over has be­gun as far as we’re con­cerned. The buzz phrase with LED is ‘what you see is what you get’, and that makes it in­ter­est­ing for many pho­tog­ra­phers… it’s just like shoot­ing in day­light. But you don’t get the drama that you get with flash. So I think that for the next ten years at least, the two can hap­pily co-ex­ist. Af­ter that I’d be a fool to make any firm pre­dic­tions.”

What Emer­son Roberts is more sure of is that, in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, the em­pha­sis is go­ing to be on de­vel­op­ing yet more por­ta­ble de­signs.

“The em­pha­sis every­where is to shrink things, to make them more por­ta­ble, and we have to go with that. I think the flash mar­ket is go­ing this way any­way, but, if you look at our cur­rent [monobloc] range, the pro units go up to 1500 joules. Now the re­al­ity is that no­body to­day uses that amount of power from a monobloc, be­cause the sen­si­tiv­ity of imag­ing sen­sors is so high, you just don’t need it. So our new range, when it comes out, will be topped at 1000 joules. We’ll still have a 200 joules unit right at the bot­tom; then 400, 500, 750 and 1000 full stop. They’ll all have the same ba­sic de­sign with our usual em­pha­sis on ro­bust­ness and re­li­a­bil­ity, but the fo­cus will also be on hav­ing a much-im­proved ra­dio con­trol sys­tem, specif­i­cally mov­ing to the 2.4 GHz fre­quency range.”

Pro­mot­ing Qual­ity

An­other chal­lenge for Bowens – and, in­deed, any of the ‘her­itage’ brands of stu­dio flash equip­ment

Coun­ter­ing the cheaper com­pe­ti­tion needs com­mit­ment in terms of on­go­ing prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and to mar­ket­ing cam­paigns that help po­si­tion us as a qual­ity brand.

– is the flood of low-cost prod­ucts from China and South Korea, par­tic­u­larly monoblocs.

“Well, I think we’re un­usual among our com­peti­tors in that we ac­tu­ally have a Chi­nese sub­sidiary and we sell a lot of prod­uct in China. As an aside, there’s a lot of pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers in China, but a lot of them ac­tu­ally don’t know any­thing about light­ing – so we’re find­ing it a very re­cep­tive mar­ket… we run sem­i­nars and work­shops be­yond just sell­ing our prod­ucts. We’re also em­pha­sis­ing the qual­ity of what we do – not just in terms of the prod­ucts them­selves, but how we sup­port them – so if we can get that mes­sage across in China then I think we can do it else­where in the world.

“Coun­ter­ing the cheaper brands needs com­mit­ment in terms of on­go­ing prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and to mar­ket­ing cam­paigns that help po­si­tion us. We’re putting more re­sources into both of these and, of course, it helps that we have good dis­trib­u­tors, such as here in Aus­tralia and in the USA.

“We’re in the process of de­vel­op­ing a pipe­line for the on­go­ing re­lease of new prod­ucts, but this takes three of four years to get up to speed. Once we’re there, though, you’ll be able to see that we have a proper prod­uct de­vel­op­ment plan in place. And in the past, we’ve held on to some of the older mod­els, par­tic­u­larly the monoblocs, but per­son­ally I don’t like that pol­icy, be­cause it has the po­ten­tial to cre­ate con­fu­sion. So, as I noted ear­lier, in the fu­ture we go­ing to have just five mod­els in our monobloc range – they’ll be multi-volt­age too, and I’m push­ing hard to even have an adapter plug – and I’m very con­fi­dent that they will be ev­ery­thing our cus­tomers ex­pect and want from us.”

“I per­son­ally think that the ma­jor trend over the next few years will be to­wards shoot­ing more video, and that will put pres­sure on our con­ven­tional flash equip­ment. that said, even then I don’t see the monobloc mar­ket go­ing any­where too fast.”

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