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What's the generic term for portable flashes (Speedlites, Speedlights etc) to distinguish them from studio strobes and alike? Is it simply speedlight/speedlite or has that just become a generic trademark (just like polaroid) due to Canon/Nikon being quite dominant in the field?

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"Speedlight" is Nikon's brandname, and "Speedlite" is Canon's — but apparently Ricoh also used the name "Speedlite". That made me curious, and in a quick trademark search, it appears that no company has ever registered these terms, although an "American Speedlight Corporation" registered a letter-A-with-sunburst logo for their product ("Flash apparatus in which a capacitor is charged and thereafter discharged through a gas-filled tube to produce a flash of light").

That makes me suspect that the generic term actually predates any brand names, and indeed a Google Books search shows that it probably was generic before the current big brands' usage of it (even though these are old companies, their use of the word isn't ancient). The first reference I find is in National Geographic, from 1936 — but that turns out to be talking about Edgerton's work with actual high-speed strobe lighting, not the kind of portable flash you mean. After that, though, the term shows up quite consistantly in photo magazines starting around 1950, and clearly not in reference to any specific brand.

So, the history seems to make "speedlight" a pretty good generic choice, although (I think particularly because of pedantry about the Nikon/Canon loyalty divide) you might find yourself having to explain that you don't mean just Nikon. That suggests "speedlight-style" as a not completely unwieldy alternative less likely to provoke further need to explain — see for example "New Trigger Cable for Use with any Speedlight Style Flash". Or, you could use "speed light" with a space to distinguish from the brand.

Other options might include "hotshoe flash", which is fairly common, although when used with remote triggers (or via a cable) isn't necessarily completely accurate, as it might be a cold shoe. You could go with "shoe mount flash" and most people would know what you mean, but it sounds a little... awkward. B&H's "Speedlight Buyer’s Guide" also suggests "flashgun", and indeed that's also common (example: Digital Camera World; they use "flashgun" and "flash gun" inconsistently).

You'll also occasionally see the common style of flash called a "cobra flash", for the way it looks when bent to face forward. But, this is also sometimes used to refer to some pop-up flashes. And, not all hotshoe flashes follow this design, including budget non-tilt models, or — and here we are again pushing into the problem with "hotshoe flash", because another style is the "hammerhead flash", like the Metz mecablitz 45 CL, which is the same basic technology but meant to be attached to the camera via a bracket.

For completeness, Pentax just calls 'em "flash units" (even after the Ricoh acquisition), as does Metz; Sony and Olympus use "external flash units"; and Sigma seems to say "flashgun". But I still vote for "speedlight", "speed light", or "speedlight-style".

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    I don't think this nails it down, but it's a very good answer as far as background information goes. +1. (I don't think there is a commonly understood generic term for portable flashes. Terms like Speedlight make people think "trademark" specific despite the trademark facts.) – Jim Mar 4 '15 at 18:14
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    Most of my experience has seen merely Flash refer to handheld/portable devices. Where Strobe or Light would mean a less portable, often mains-powered, unit. But not an alternative answer as it's anecdotal and may be subject to regional variations. – James Snell Mar 4 '15 at 21:06
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    @Jim Yes, it seems to be an interesting case which is actually the opposite of the Kleenex or Escalator situations, where a generic term has taken on strong brand connotation. There's probably a research paper in this for someone. :) – mattdm Mar 4 '15 at 21:18
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    @JamesSnell Yeah, I've also seen common use of "strobe" to mean studio lighting as opposed to... speed lights or whatever we are going to call them. This is kind of funny because in a pedantic technical sense, either both types are strobes or neither is. Ah, language. – mattdm Mar 4 '15 at 21:20
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    @ths Just "flash" is too generic, as it includes studio flash, the kind of portable hotshoe flashes we're talking about, and built-in pop-up flashes. (See for example Paul C. Buff's Studio Flash Explained or B&H's Making the Jump to Studio Flash.) – mattdm Mar 4 '15 at 21:50
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In the UK, "flash", without qualification, is often used to mean a portable unit. "Flash" is also used to refer to larger studio units. But, if the context doesn't make it clear which of the two are being referenced, or if there is a chance of confusion, then the prefixes "portable" and "studio" are used. This is the convention I'm tending to use.

You also hear "strobe" and "light" being used to refer to studio-flashes. Rarely is "strobe" used to mean portable-flash. The term "speed-light" (and variant spellings) isn't commonly used as a generic term.

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"Speedlight" and "Speedlite" are trademark names that have indeed become generic (like "Vaseline"). I think the general term you are looking for is "hotshoe flash/flashgun" ... referring to the portable flashguns that can be mounted to the camera's hotshoe.

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    Agreed. I think at this point, "hotshoe flash" is pretty much equivalent to "facial tissue" -- absolutely correct, and quite uncommon in normal speech. – D. Lambert Mar 4 '15 at 14:46
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    Searching the USPTO and Madrid International Trademark System shows neither Speedlight nor Speedlite are trademarked terms used in photography. – Jim Mar 4 '15 at 18:12
  • I've been photographing since the 1970s. There were "electronic flashes" or just "flashes" (that it was assumed would mount in a hot or cold shoe - you couldn't assume a shoe was hot, i.e. had its own electrical connection, at the time) and "handle-mount flashes" (that would mount to the camera via the tripod socket, usually, and be off to the side of the camera). Handle-mount flashes were relatively uncommon and principally used by professionals, so they were the exception and not the rule, hence the assumption that a "flash" would mount in a shoe. – Jim MacKenzie Apr 28 '18 at 14:01
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The generic term is "electronic flash"... which, at the time it was initially used, served to differentiate it from bulb flashes, which could only be used one time per bulb. (Some bulb flashes had as many as ten bulbs in a single casing and would fire sequentially, but once you were done the ten, you threw away the entire flash unit.)

Of course, this is a bit of a long term so after the first mention, or if context is clear, you just call it a "flash" or "flash unit". "Speedlight"/"speedlite" are proprietary names for the same thing.

  • Hmmm. Does "electronic flash" distinguish helpfully from pop-up/built in flashes, or from (as the question asks) studio strobes? – mattdm Apr 28 '18 at 15:01
  • @mattdm Studio strobes were exactly that - studio strobes. "Electronic flash" does not distinguish entirely from a built-in flash, but generally, people would refer to one of these as a "built-in [electronic] flash". – Jim MacKenzie Apr 28 '18 at 22:57

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