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Specifically for my Nikon SB-700, but also for flashes in general — how does the power setting relate to the duration of the pulse? Basically, is the power normally controlled by cutting down on the duration of the flash, or by using a more/less intense pulse?

I've not been able to find the duration of the flash pulse at each power setting anywhere. Also, I realize that the pulse isn't a perfect square, so is "duration" normally measured as the time from the beginning of any output to the end of any output, or (for example) just the shortest time window that contains 90% of the output?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

This is one of the key differences between "speed light" hotshoe flashes and traditional studio lighting. With studio lighting, flash power is determined by the amount of capacitor charge, and the duration increases (slightly) for lower-powered flashes. For hotshoe flashes, the capacitor is charged to full but the burst of light stopped when the proper amount is delivered (traditionally, by an electronic component called a thyristor).

One thing that makes the Nikon flash system awesome is that Nikon makes by far the best manuals for their flashes. Only Metz comes close. You can find a chart of duration at each power setting on page H17 of the SB-700 manual:

Flash duration (approx.)

   1/1042 sec. at M1/1 (full) output
   1/1136 sec. at M1/2 output
   1/2857 sec. at M1/4 output
   1/5714 sec. at M1/8 output
  1/10000 sec. at M1/16 output
  1/18182 sec. at M1/32 output
  1/25000 sec. at M1/64 output
  1/40000 sec. at M1/128 output

As you note, this a curve, and you're exactly right that the normal means of specifying the duration do not measure the entire "long tail" of the curve. There's two values usually used: T.5 and T.1. The first, T.5, is the time that the flash pulse brightness is above 50% of the peak, and T.1 is the time that the pulse is above 10%. That's a little different from saying 90% of the output — which would maybe be more meaningful for photographers, but would be more calculation to determine. With these numbers, you just look at the peak and then figure out where the cut-off is on either side of the curve, and measure between those two points.

Generally, flash makers give T.5 rather than T.1, since that's a) slightly easier to measure and b) gives results which sound more impressive. For studio lights, the T.1 value is more useful and better reflects the real effect on exposure, but for speed lights, the abrupt cut-off means that at anything but full power, T.1 and T.5 are roughly the same.

Because these numbers are so low even at full power, I suspect that they are T.5 values (and I don't see Nikon saying either way, which is generally means T.5), but since Nikon flashes are so nice, it's possible that they are T.1.

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Excellent answer, I didn't know about the difference in duration between speedlights and studio strobes with respect to power, thank you. –  SoftMemes Dec 4 '11 at 17:03
    
I realize that this answer makes me sound a little bit like a Nikon fanboy. I'm not; I just recognize that they put a lot of focus into their flash system, and the results show. –  mattdm Dec 4 '11 at 17:09
    
Agree, Nikon flashes are truly nice. I am a Canon user, but have some old, old Nikons for use as optical slaves. I've had Canon 420, 550 and 580mk II flashes in my time, and the 580 II is the only one that reaches Nikon-levels of build quality, the others felt like cheap plastic toys compared to the Nikon SB-25 I have for example (introduced in 1992!). –  Staale S Dec 4 '11 at 18:00

There are three mechanisms to regulate the power of a flash, with different influence on flash duration.

  • Capacitor switching. By having several capacitors and only charging some of them a lower intensity burst of light is produced. Usually only a few settings are available, and this method is mainly used on pack and head lights. This method has the effect of shortening flash duration as flash power is reduced.

  • Voltage lowering. Most common on monolights (studio flashes), reducing the voltage reduces light output. This method can alter the colour of the light produced. With this method the flash duration actually increases as power is reduced.

  • Tail trimming. Most common in hotshoe flashes (speedlights), an insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) cuts the bulb output after a preset time, reducing the total light output. This method produces much shorter flash durations as power is reduced.

The Nikon SB-700 almost certainly uses the tail trimming method.

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