Friday, February 08, 2013

Will Your Flash Last Forever?


Probably not. But seriously, how long should you expect it to last?

That totally depends on how you are using it.
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First off, your flash probably doesn't have an odometer. I get my SB-800s made special—they put the odometer on the inside hinge part where I don't have to see it unless I want to.

And it might surprise you to know that 5,000 pops is an expected life span for some flash tubes. Disappointed? I was, too. And it gets worse: some tubes are rated at 1,000 pops.

I was brought into a conversation in which a flash manufacturer was trying to choose between a 5k tube and a 1k tube. My answer: spend the money on the better tube because, duh. Five thousand is better than one thousand.

But still, 5k pops sounded awfully … short-lived, amirite?

Turns out it comes down to how they test the tubes. For instance, you can expect a car to last several hundred thousand miles. But not if you drive it like a bat out of hell all the time. In that case you'll send it to a very early grave.

Same with flashes. And while there is a lot of variability in the way we use flashes, they have to test them in a consistent manner. So they test tubes in the only consistent way they can: by subjecting them to continuous, full-power pops at a rate of one every 20 seconds. It's a torture test, for lack of a better word.

So the good news is, most of us can expect our tubes to last longer. A lot longer. And even in the torture tests, they technically do. A failure is defined as "mini-cracks" starting to appear in the tubes, which lowers their output—and your resulting guide number.

Long story short, some of your speedlight flash tubes may well have already failed (technically speaking) and you might not even know it. I am not an engineer (but I am staying at a Holiday Inn Express at GPP next month, badump ping!) But most of the time in electronics the stress comes from something called thermal cycles. This is the wear and tear that comes from things repeatedly heating and cooling.

A continuous, full-power pop test would give you thermal cycles in spades, obviously. So it stands to reason that you can expect much longer lives from your flashes if you are not baking them to the max all the time.


If You Need a Truck, Buy a Truck

So this is actually really good info to know when choosing the size of light you need to do your work. If you shoot a lot of full-power outdoor speedlight portraits, you really should consider a flash that is more powerful than a speedlight.

And if you are using your light on full blast all the time, you may want to reconsider for several reasons. One, you have no headroom if you need a little more light on occasion. And two, you are probably paying for your frugality in recycle time every day. Finally, you are driving your speedlight to an early grave.

If you have to tow a big boat once a season, you can get away with using the family sedan. But if you are towing the boat every weekend, you should probably get a truck or SUV made for the job. Same with flashes.


What I've Learned

If this stuff is all new to you, fret not. It was news to me, too. Fortunately, I tend to live in the eighth- to quarter-power range. That's just where most of my speedlight portraits seem to settle out.

But when I do need to shoot at 1/1 full power, I'll be more likely to swap up to my bigger flashes going forward rather than drive the crap out of my SB-800s. Because I like my SB-800s and they don't make them any more. So I want them to be around for a long time.



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42 Comments:

Blogger Adrian said...

ISO 400 and 1/8th power is my wheelhouse! Glad to hear I am not the only one.

February 08, 2013 1:56 AM  
Blogger ohnostudio said...

Two Nikon SB25 units still live, and I'm gentle on the SB800 units. It would just kill me if one of those crapped out on me.

February 08, 2013 2:11 AM  
Blogger Mateusz Michalak said...

Hey David, I love your blog :D

In country where I live (Poland), we can buy tubes for the SB-600, SB-800 or SB-900 for as much as $15 + shipping costs. There are great tutorials on how to replace such tube on the forementioned speedlights, so technically, as long as the electronics are fine, we can enjoy our SB's for a very long time :)

February 08, 2013 3:24 AM  
Blogger Eugene Simonalle said...

Hmm...this reminds me of the secret unlock sequence that boosts the power of your flash; how does that effect the longevity of the flashtube?

I will see if I can find the flash count on my LumoPro LP-160. Although it lacks any digital display, maybe if I hack a USB cable to the flash trigger port I can download the information?

February 08, 2013 6:41 AM  
Blogger Michel Luczak said...

Wait, what? A Flash, with an odometer?

February 08, 2013 7:41 AM  
Blogger Prelo said...

As a sort of sidebar, I'll add that I have an assortment of speedlites - SB-28's 80's 80dx's and 800's - with the 28's being around since my F4 and N-90. I've had feet replaced, but never seen anything close to an outright failure.
I use them most heavily during basketball season; 4 or 5 games weekly from December through March, and then they pretty much have spring, summer and fall off.
Every once in a while I wonder what I'll load up when they do start going....

February 08, 2013 8:53 AM  
Blogger Puggle said...

Thanks David, interesting post! I always wondered what the life span of speedlights was!

I'm curious, do you think using high speed sync frequently, is deleterious to your flash tubes also? I'm guessing it is.

I never had one fail yet, but can you replace a flash tube, or is it not worth the cost and better to buy whole new unit?

February 08, 2013 8:57 AM  
Blogger Dylan said...

I was just wondering how long these things would last.
I'm constantly pushing my580EX & 4 -540 EZs ( most of which were bought used) to 500 flashes a day shooting architectural work. This has been going on for about four years. I don't use all the strobes everytime but the 580EX is the always the first onto a stand which makes me think it most have over 250,000 pops with about 80% full power. Although I'm sure they "failed" ages ago they still seem to be working along.

February 08, 2013 9:03 AM  
Blogger Allen McInnis said...

Like you Dylan, my 580s have given loyally for many years and many pops. But one has started to fade. 1/4 is now about 1/16th only.

My 4 540s are used only with pocket wizards, most often at 1/4 or 1/8 and have been going for what seems to be an eternity.

February 08, 2013 10:05 AM  
Blogger Paul LeFevre said...

Nice post, David. I recently had a Sigma 500 flash die (catastrophically, the tube actually "popped") after about 9 years of almost constant use, mostly in the 1/4 to 1/16 power range -- I'd guess around 150K total pops. Not bad at all. Like any other gear, treat 'em with kindness and take care of them, and they'll outlive their "rated" lifespans!

February 08, 2013 11:04 AM  
Blogger Tonia Mc Caskill-Johnson said...

Great Post. A friend and I were just talking about our Nikon flashes yesterday. My 4 year old used sb600 started smoking after 3 test pops when i put in a fresh set of Duracels. I wanted to be certain that the flash unit was failing and it wasn't the batteries. Do you have any idea what's the general life expectancy of rechargeable batteries? I suspect accidentally overcharging them has exposed my sb600 to some issues.

February 08, 2013 11:43 AM  
Blogger Silver Image said...

My sb-25s are still going strong. I have several Sunpak 611s that are maybe 30 yrs old and still going

February 08, 2013 12:03 PM  
Blogger Silver Image said...

My sb-25s are still going strong. I have several Sunpak 611s that are maybe 30 yrs old and still going

February 08, 2013 12:05 PM  
Blogger Bert McLendon said...

They need to start making the pocket flashes with replaceable flash tubes like studio strobes. Paul Buff customer service representative said that one flash tube should last for up to 250,000 flashes. Canon and Nikon could bring in extra cash by selling the replacement bulbs.

February 08, 2013 1:12 PM  
Blogger Billy Neumann said...

Does it shorten the expected life of a unit if I throw them against a wall while on a camera as opposed to detaching a unit and then throwing it against a wall sans camera? Please hurry with an answer as I am trying to decide and looking at an appropriate wall.

February 08, 2013 1:23 PM  
Blogger CaptainAl said...

So would using the modeling flash on an SB 800 to make coworkers think they're going to get TASERed shorten its lifespan? Because the one person who bought it made that totally worth it...

February 08, 2013 1:25 PM  
Blogger Christy V's Photography said...

I have replaced the bulbs in two of my Speedlight SB 600's. I found step x step instructions on line, bought the bulbs for $8 each. You also will need a soldering iron, flux, and sider, and a steady hand. But it's better than buying a new one. The one makes a little noise when I first turn it on but it works great.

February 08, 2013 1:38 PM  
Blogger Christy V's Photography said...

One other thing. I was carrying extra batteries for my flash in my coat pocket. I was sitting in the car and all of a sudden my pocket started getting hotter and hotter, when I reached in to see what was going on I burnt my hand. My batteries were hot because I had change in my pocket also, including pennies and somehow made a current. Just thought everyone should be aware....just glad my coat was on my and not hanging in my closet.

February 08, 2013 1:41 PM  
Blogger Joy Yagid said...

I just sent my sb800 in for service because it was acting up. Need to pull the paperwork to remind me what they replaced.
So, what would you recommend besides the sb800 for shooting events on the go. Is there another on camera strobe that is more robust than the sb800? Thx.

February 08, 2013 2:34 PM  
Blogger Adophgraphy the art and science of imagery said...

@ Joy Yagid

In answer to your question re more durable on-camera flashguns, two spring to mind.

Firstly, the Quantum Trio (http://qtm.com/index.php/products/qflash/trio-shoe-mounted-flash) and secondly, if your prefer a smaller bodied flashgun, the new Nissin Extreme ( http://www.nissindigital.com/mg8000.html)

I hope that helps.

Regards,

February 08, 2013 5:57 PM  
Blogger Adophgraphy the art and science of imagery said...

@ Joy Yagid

In answer to your question re more durable on-camera flashguns, two spring to mind.

Firstly, the Quantum Trio (http://qtm.com/index.php/products/qflash/trio-shoe-mounted-flash) and secondly, if your prefer a smaller bodied flashgun, the new Nissin Extreme ( http://www.nissindigital.com/mg8000.html)

I hope that helps.

Regards,

February 08, 2013 5:58 PM  
Blogger Fotox.tv said...

Dear David,
thank you so much for all your inspiring and educational posts. You helped me a lot in making my pictures better over the last years.
Just one remark: cars are NOT built to last "several hundred thousand miles". A very common engineering goal is a B10 lifetime of 125.000 miles. That means that 10 % of each component will fail at about 125.000 miles. Of course different companies use different values (and interpretations of that). Heavy Duty trucks (class 8) vary between 600.000 and 1 million miles.

February 08, 2013 6:33 PM  
Blogger "Mister Nasty Clamps" said...

David: I'm a huge fan of the Vivitar 285's, precisely because they just keep on going and going and going and going...

All of my 285's (I own six) were picked up used at yard sales, pawn shops, or online –– and show definite signs of wear and tear on the plastic housings.

But ya' know what? The tubes keep on firing.

My Vivitars have cracks, chips, dents, and burn marks. One has even fallen into water.

Keeps on firing.

They're like cockroaches... Or Keith Richards.

They'd survive an all out nuclear assault.

Best strobes ever made.

February 08, 2013 7:50 PM  
Blogger C said...

Great article, I think everything you said makes sense, what with the manufacturer testing being only the worst-case scenario.

Now the question is, does a cheap flash like the Yongnuo give you fewer firings than a Canon or Nikon speedlight? I wonder how the price-per-cycle works out?

I'm going to reblog on my own photography site.

http://etchedinpixels.com

February 08, 2013 8:07 PM  
Blogger Neil Tsubota said...

Have you ever tried to tow a boat or trailer with an under powered truck ?

I have NOT !

I do not need to find out what will happen. A ruined, engine, or transmission. I paid over $ 3,500 for a new transmission in my Honda car, I do NOT want to know what a transmission on a truck will cost because I was towing something too heavy.

February 08, 2013 8:53 PM  
Blogger Ahmed Shubbar said...

How would you know your flash tube is starting to fail? Will it have a color shift or a power drop or will it just burn out like a light bulb?

February 09, 2013 2:40 AM  
Blogger Brian Carey said...

Two years ago my 580EX II ended up in a river and sank out of sight before I could retrieve it. It's worked well ever sense, you get what you pay for. Also flash heads will discolor over time. Thanks for the info!

February 09, 2013 7:10 AM  
Blogger Rob Ashcroft said...

David

Very interesting. I'm not sure what surprises me more - the figures for flash longevity, or your claim that a car might last several hundred thousand miles! I always trade mine in well before 80K miles. Maybe I don't need to. How many strobes have replaceable flash bulbs, and how much would they cost (typically) to replace?

February 09, 2013 7:45 AM  
Blogger Vadim Aleksensky said...

For example, prices for 580ex replacement tube start from $10. You can also get whole tube/reflector assembly fot $40.
So, in pratice, lifespan of other components (electronics, casing , cables, etc) is more important.

February 09, 2013 4:17 PM  
Blogger stan chung said...

My SB800's are falling apart due to abuse from me. >.<

February 09, 2013 11:51 PM  
Blogger Clement said...

I'm usually really happy to read new posts on your website, but this one was like a punch in the face. So instead of telling myself "I gave my flashes a good work out" I have to tell myself "I gave my flash a good torture"...I really love to go fight the sun with my small flashguns, they'll just have to live up with it!

February 10, 2013 1:17 AM  
Blogger Shawn Lynch said...

Hmmm, it seems my flash tube may be at the end of it's lifespan. Do they tend to emit smoke at the end of their life or do you think this is due to water damage or perhaps something else?

February 11, 2013 3:49 PM  
Blogger timdesuyo said...

I guess I'm the oposite of all y'all. My SB-600 burned out after 6 years of pretty heavy use. I've also eaten up a couple of Vivitars. I had an SB-24 and an SB-25 die on me too, but I picked those up used, so who knows what they were going through before I got them for cheap. But they lasted me a good 3 years, anyway. You don't own anything, you just rent it.

February 12, 2013 10:30 AM  
Blogger Nikon Coach said...

I say this to fellow strobists (, not to Strobist): Use, do not abuse, your flashes. If your shot demands full power from your flash, give it full power. Do not worry about shortening your flash's life span, get your shot.

What constitutes abuse of a flash? IMO, among other things, using full power on flash at ISO 100 and f/11 and 1/200 sec for a portrait indoors when that can be just as easily done with bumping up the ISO and/or opening the lens a bit more. More so with modern day cameras with very good performance even at higher ISOs. Not learning about your camera's capabilities for your shooting needs is also a form of abuse.

February 15, 2013 2:20 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Heres an ebay link for SB800

http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_trksid=p5197.m570.l1313&_nkw=tube+for+sb800&_sacat=0&_from=R40

and video showing how to replace...
http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=4jEyNvMHN0s&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D4jEyNvMHN0s

February 15, 2013 7:47 PM  
Blogger DArt said...

Hi David, a question for you and all the readers.
I've noticed that tubes are sold separately, you can find them i.e. on Ebay. Would opening the flash and replacing the tube be an option?

February 16, 2013 11:24 AM  
Blogger Blake said...

A few engineering inspired musings:

- A few people seem worried about full power flashes killing the speedlight too quickly - Strictly yes, the more power you blast through at any one time will stress the components more.
But is it going to be a noticeable amount? For most people I doubt it, as David said - use the right tool for the job.

Even if your pulling out your flash 5 days a week for a few solid hours of shooting you should still see many more flashes than the 5k quoted number.
That the torture test is something like one pop per 20s continuous, there is no time for the components to cool down - this will put more stress on the gear than your weekday paparazzi sessions.

-There was some discussion above about what your cheap Chinese knock off's would be rated at. I would be extremely surprised if those companies would bother with tests like these - and even if they did - they wouldn't mean much because there is likely little quality control in these factories, which means you might type test one - but the next might be much better or worse because of the variation in component or manufacture quality.

February 19, 2013 6:10 AM  
Blogger pellegrini said...

hi
my old 550 EX get over 06 years of intense using

I do believe it was more than 5k pops

February 20, 2013 8:52 AM  
Blogger Dean Casavechia said...

I have always wondered about this, I have a small lighting kit that is made up of 5 SB units 4 of them are SB-800s. I number all my great when I get it so I have my main flash I use most of the time and the my additional flashes. They are great for doing business portraits if you know you are going to have no room and only need to do one or two portraits. They are also great for doing interiors because they are small and don't need any cords. Thanks for the info

March 04, 2013 7:53 AM  
Blogger Dean Casavechia said...

I have always wondered about this, I have a small lighting kit that is made up of 5 SB units 4 of them are SB-800s. I number all my great when I get it so I have my main flash I use most of the time and the my additional flashes. They are great for doing business portraits if you know you are going to have no room and only need to do one or two portraits. They are also great for doing interiors because they are small and don't need any cords. Thanks for the info

March 04, 2013 7:53 AM  
Blogger brad wedgewood said...

The lifespan of flashes seems to last alot longer than what the manufacturer suggests. I have a Yongnuo yn460 11 with about 10k - 15k pops and a Yn565ex with about 7k pops. 9 out of 10 of my shots are at full power and they're still going strong.

March 05, 2013 8:20 AM  
Blogger Osiris Siriso said...

Wow after reading this post, I think I am going to shoot more in Manual than E-TTL since there I can keep my flash at 1/4 the power and technically I should be able to get some ROI :-D

March 16, 2013 1:11 AM  

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