MD BOWENS INTERNATIONAL LTD
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”.
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.”
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.”