Q&A: Will My Old Flash Fry My New Remotes?

Reader Samora Chapman asks:

I'm new to all this and I dug up my dad's Vivitar 285HV. I just got some Phottix radio triggers. Is it okay to connect them to the old Vivitar? Im scared of frying them!

Ah, the trusty old Vivitar 285. The older ones are great flashes, but with one potentially fatal flaw. You don't want to go sticking that flash on just any camera or remote…

A Word About Trigger Voltages

No, don't glaze over on me. This is important stuff. If you do not understand flash trigger voltages—i.e., how an older flash can fry your digital camera—read this earlier post first.

It also points to this very helpful listing of various flash models and their trigger voltages. If you use older flashes, you should definitely read that page, too.

Long story short, as long as you do not connect a high trigger voltage flash to your camera directly (hot shoe, sync cord, OCF cord, etc.), your camera should be fine.

Much like a cordless phone being safe to use in a thunderstorm, a wireless remote will insulate your camera from danger. But you can potentially fry your remote, too. And no one wants that.

What Kind of Vivitar 285?

There are many different versions of the venerable Vivitar 285 that have been produced over the last 30-odd years. The good news is that the newer ones—including all units designated as "HV"—all have safe trigger voltages. So, Samora, you should be safe for using either remotes or direct connection.

The bad news is that there are some very early Vivitar models, before the "HV" designation, which had sync voltages as high as 350v. So those are definitely dangerous flashes.

The further bad news is the most recent Vivitar 285's are being produced in China by a company which just bought the old Vivitar name and they are UTTER CRAP. Avoid.

What About the Remotes?

So, Samora is safe. But what about other old flashes? Is it safe to hook them up to a Phottix remote?

More good news: Phottix builds their remotes to withstand all but the very highest trigger voltages. I checked with Steve Peer at Phottix and he said you are safe up to 300v.

Which is pretty cool of them, actually. But that still leaves you 50v of pucker factor in the small chance that your particular Vivitar 285 (i.e., had it not been an "HV") is one of the 350v versions.

Short answer: Your camera is safe if using an old high-voltage flash with a wireless remote. Your Phottix remote is probably safe. (But maybe not!)

If you want to be totally safe, (UPDATE: Not always—see the comments) you can always use an optical slave on the mystery flash and use it as a second (or third, etc.) light source.

One Other Danger

In talking to Steve he brought up something else that I would not of thought of. He said they have seen some problems with people putting older flashes (with high trigger voltages) directly on the "pass-through" hot shoe that is included on some of their transmitters.

Remember, "pass-through" usually equals a direct connection. And if you do that with an old, high-trigger-voltage flash to a sensitive new digital camera, you might cause your camera to release it's magic smoke.

Your camera needs that magic smoke to work. And once the smoke escapes, it is very difficult to get it back inside. So, read up and be careful.

In Summary

1. If you are using an old flash, you should know its sync voltage. If it is high, do not connect it directly to a newer digital camera via hot shoe or wire of any kind.

2. If using a remote with it, you should know your remote's safe trigger voltage. If the remote company does not publish this number, I would not hook the old flash up to your remote. And maybe consider choosing a different remote, because manufacturers owe you that info.

3. Magic smoke is very hard to get back into your camera.


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Blogger Scott Kantrowitz said...

Maybe mention Wein Safe-Sync?


February 22, 2013 9:10 AM  
Blogger Greg Embree said...

A year ago I made a crude but (I think) adequate YouTube video with my iPhone showing how to measure the trigger voltage on a Vivitar 283. I presume the technique would work on a Vivitar 285 as well. The video is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yo9tPDCsE7s .

February 22, 2013 9:45 AM  
Blogger Rashad said...

Having released the magic smoke from a wireless router once, I can assure readers that magic smoke is not only difficult, but impossible to put back.

I'm going to be chuckling for the next week over this blog post.

February 22, 2013 9:58 AM  
Blogger david said...

I was testing an eBay optical slave trigger with a Norman 200B with a trigger voltage of ~300V. After having tested it out with several flashes from the camera, I got distracted by something else and left the slave trigger and the Norman just sitting and running.

After a couple of minutes, the Norman flashed unprompted by me because I was distracted and without any flashes triggering it in the room. It would not flash again when I pushed the trigger button or used the camera flash.

The optical slave trigger popped and failed, apparently as a short because the Norman's test button worked again as soon as I unplugged the slave trigger.

Long story short: Not all optical slave triggers currently available can withstand the high trigger voltage of older flashes.

This whole incident prompted me to dig into the 200B and convert it to low voltage internally.

February 22, 2013 10:10 AM  
Blogger Jeff Geerling said...

Back when I still used a few Vivitar 285s, I wrote an article with some illustrations that guide you through the process of measuring the exact voltage on your 285. I hope it helps!

February 22, 2013 10:17 AM  
Blogger PluxXX said...

I fryed my poverty wizard with an old unomat. No smoke, no nothing.

February 22, 2013 11:06 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thus the term, "poverty." :) Real PWs protect up to 200v on the flash port, 100v on the flash/camera port. But God only knows what the voltage was on the "Unomat" flash. Any idea?

February 22, 2013 11:16 AM  
Blogger Tim Dustrude said...

LOL David, I LOVE your sense of humor. Thanks! I too will be chuckling about Magic Smoke for a while!

February 22, 2013 4:02 PM  
Blogger John said...

Excellent advice. In fact, magic-smoke-containment important on almost ALL electrical/electronic equipment. Recently suffered magic-smoke seepage from geothermal air-handling unit, required expensive AHU motor replacement... :-(

February 22, 2013 5:28 PM  
Blogger DPS Bob Hunt said...

I've been aware of this dilemma for a while. As retired pro turned hobbiest I have researched many srobes and have settled on Vivitar 550D with a 5-8volt trigger voltage.
Working in manual mode with a inexpensive chinese set of remote triggers I fire these units in banks or standing alone. The great & safe results keep the smoke down in my cameras. Photo Bob ,Wilmington DE

February 22, 2013 11:08 PM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

Reasons to be cheerful....1,2,3. Remember the original post on this topic, you saved my camera/radio sync from the fryer. So big thanks to you indeed David, take a bow.
Anyone out there had a camera go up in smoke?

February 23, 2013 6:03 AM  
Blogger johnf said...

Anyone want to comment on how to actually measure this voltage ? I've got an old Vivitar 283 from the highschool days ( the wonderful 70's). It's just collecting dust from not being used since the film days. I'm afraid to even try it with my phottix remotes (stratto's). Probably just safer to pitch this and buy one of the cheap manual flashed that are now available anyway.... Thanks for the reminder about all of this!

February 23, 2013 11:54 AM  
Blogger Greg Embree said...

@johnf re how to measure trigger voltage on a Vivitar 283, see the second comment in this thread, above.

February 23, 2013 12:42 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Well I learned it the hard way. I have two Vivitars 285's and i tested the sync voltages at 5.70v I had used them so very well with the Pixel soldiers separate receivers for each of the 285s and they worked perfectly. i.e until the time i was sleepy and plugged in one the 265's into the pixel soldier receiver. Nothing happened and the flash just did not trigger. then I realize the 265 in there and i knew something must've gone off. ( i had tested the 265s trigger voltage at 172v. That receiver worked no more for triggering anything though it receives the signal and a very modest charge of around .04v can be felt on the center pin and around 5v on the bottom small pins on the receiver, funny thing is that, this can still be used as a camera trigger and it works fine.

February 23, 2013 1:11 PM  
Blogger Bernhard A S said...

The old Metz optical slave Mecalux 11 was built to withstand the earliest Metz 45ers which were also around 350V.
This is my save bet for the nastiest flash.

February 23, 2013 1:56 PM  
Blogger Ed from Ohio said...

I use the Phottix Strato II Multi with the Vivitar 285 and 285HV from time to time. So yes, they do work.

That said, I tend to stick with a few Nikon SB-28's most of the time because the recycle time is MUCH faster. The only time I bring out the 285's is when I've run out of all my other flashes, which isn't very often.

February 23, 2013 6:39 PM  
Blogger Robahob said...

I recently bought a few Vivitar 283's from fleabay, 2 had trigger voltages of ~110v and one ~8v. I intend to only use these off camera butn was still concerned about the damage to my triggers.
I took the plunge and connected one of the higher voltage models to my PT-04 receivers, No problem!
however I built a couple of circuits from the design by Zenobe on Instructables (this was my first foray into electronics and they were a doddle).
Despite the fact that they wouldn't work when wired into the flash as per instruction, I found that if I wired the (voltage out side) of circuit directly to the hot shoe lead PERFECT. Exactly 4VDC. These worked out at about 50p each to build and if you have some electrical capability should be easy enough (remembering to watch that bloody great capacito).

February 24, 2013 5:50 AM  
Blogger Adam Lyon said...

I remember this being an issue back in the mid 90s also. I heard horror stories of folks frying thier new Kodak DCS 460's on the first shot with strobes and a PC cord. I was taught at the time to only use remotes with digital cameras. unless you wanted $25,000.00 worth of magic smoke!

February 25, 2013 12:58 PM  
Blogger Paul LeFevre said...

It's also a good idea to *know* what your camera's max sync voltage is -- not all of them are all that "sensitive." Most of Canon's recent offerings in the past 4 years, for example, have a listed 250V limit (that applies to both hotshoe and PC port, if they have one). Some previous models could do 250V on the PC port, but only 6V on the hot shoe. At any rate, find out what your DSLR's voltage rating is to be smart and safe :)

February 25, 2013 2:55 PM  
Blogger Marc Charbonnier said...

Thanks for this post! I've found an old flash for my strobist project... and I was afraid to use it on my new Yongnuo 622c... I think I will keep them safe!

February 27, 2013 2:41 AM  
Blogger dean said...

Be very careful mixing old gear and new. I fried a panasonic 4/3 camera with a vivitar 283 and with a Wein SafeSync in between. Some of these old flashes have trigger voltages that will really shock you.

March 05, 2013 11:18 PM  

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