Tilt, Swivel, Ring & Hammerheads

The simplest flashguns have a fixed head pointing forward, giving "direct flash". There are several disadvantages to this. One is that the lighting is stark and utilitarian, and because it reaches the subject horizontally the angle is abnormal even for artificial lighting. For human subjects this results in an unflattering look which has been described among other things as "Prison mug shot" and "Rabbit in headlights"; on the other hand, the surreal effect can be used artistically. Another disadvantage of direct flash is that the illumination level falls away rapidly with distance, according to a square law and the Flash Formula in fact, so that a background will be significantly darker than the main subject, and if there is any foreground such as a table it will be over-bright. For some compositions this fall-off of light might be advantageous, but for others it makes an unnatural effect, particularly if the background includes other people.

For some types of phototography there are no issues with direct flash : reportage, sport and stage photography for example, where maximising the range and getting the shot are the main priorities, or close-up and medical photography where a ring flash might be used to obtain shadowless images.

Over the years there have been many gadgets sold to fit between the camera and the flashgun to allow the latter to be tilted and/or swivelled for indirect flash, but if you want more than a fixed forward aim today you might as well buy a flashgun with tilt and swivel capability already built in.

Tilt Heads

This article uses the terminology that the ability of a flashgun to be hinged to change its vertical beam angle is "tilt", and the ability to change the horizontal angle is "swivel". These are while attached to a camera held in landscape mode. This terminolgy is not always followed in the used market - some sellers refer to vertical movement capability as "swivel", and to horizontal movement as "traverse", or "panning", and so on.

The main use for a tilt head is to illumimate the subject by reflection off a ceiling, preferably one with a matt light colour. This is "bounce flash" and gives a softer and more natural light than direct flash, and is more flattering to the subject. It also makes the illumination fall-off with distance less rapid. Another use is to direct a much reduced and softer light towards the subject by aiming the head up at a matt silver or white card in a holder above the camera, a technique often used to provide fill-in light out of doors.

A downside of using bounce flash is that the illumination of a subject is less than with direct flash, all other things being equal. This is why less powerful flashguns (ones with Guide Numbers below about 24 metres) usually have fixed heads. But it is unlikely to be an issue with a Guide Number above 30 metres even with film, and even less so with a digital camera that is capable of higher ISO sensitivities.

Another downside of bounce flash is that the Flash Formula cannot practicably be used to calculate exposure. Strictly speaking it could be, except that it would require some modifying factors such as the reflectivity and dispersiveness of the ceiling and other bounce surfaces involved.

Unfortunately many flashguns have heads that can tilt but not swivel, which means that a ceiling cannot be used for bounce flash if the camera is used in portrait mode, a fairly common requirement when photographing individual people indoors. This does save manufacturing costs as it is easier to make a tilting head than a swivelling one, because tilting is needed only over a smaller angle. Presumably the makers hope that buyers will not have or perceive any need for swivel.

Swivel Heads

A smaller but still substantial number of flashguns have heads that can swivel as well as tilt. These are the most versatile flashguns and tend to cost no more in the used market than similar units that can only tilt, and are usually better featured anyway.

As mentioned, the swivel capability allows bounce off a ceiling when using the camera in portrait mode, but it also bounce off a side wall when in landscape mode. Some swivels allow effectively 360 degrees of rotation (not continuously) which allows the flash to fired backwards up at an angle to allow illumination from a wall and ceiling behind and above the photographer to obtain very soft lighting.

Ring Flash

This was originally introduced for medical and dental photography, but is useful for close-up subjects generally. Because the light is emitted from around the lens the photo is shadowless, with no hidden detail, so it is the ultimate form of direct flash. It is ideal for small natural history subjects but less useful for technical and other metallic subjects such as coins because of specular reflection back into the lens.

Typically, they have a circular flash tube in a housing screwed into the lens filter thread, and a box for the battery, circuit, and controls, that fits in the camera hot shoe, the two parts being connected by a lead. Being for close-up work the Guide Numbers of ring flash units tend to be low, typically below 12 metres at maximum power, and sometimes as low as 5 metres, with fractional manual settings also available.

Ring flash units are best suited to TTL exposure control. The Flash Formula is of little use in extreme close-up because it assumes a point light source, which is a workable assumption for normal photography only because the subject distance is then orders of magnitude greater than the dimensions of the flashgun's reflector. However, the TTL mode of a vintage ring flashgun will be incompatible with digital technology.

Some ring flashguns have one or more Auto exposure control modes, using a sensor either on the battery box close to the foot, or set into the circular flash tube housing. In the former location, the sensor is off the lens axis by a significant amount compared with the close-up dimensions, making the measurement unreliable.

There are macro flashguns which function like ring flashguns but consist of two (or possibly more) small flash tubes mounted on diametrically opposite sides of the lens. These will not give such an even light as a true ring flash, although that effect will diminish with increasing subject distance. Some more recent macro "flashguns" are in fact rings of LED lights, which can give adequate illumination at close distances and can illuminate continuously.

While exposure control can be unpredictable with ring flash (or any other flash) for close-up work, at least with a digital camera for a static subject the exposure can be checked after a shot and it be re-taken if necessary. For film, the use of a flash meter is advisable.

Hammerhead Flash

Also called "Handle Mount Flashes" (an Ebay category) and "Potato Mashers", although they bear no resemblance to real potato mashers.

Hammerheads are not very common today, and as of 2023 there is only one available new, but the type was once the favourite of press and event photographers. Before electronic flash, serious bulb flashguns tended to be powered by two or three of the large batteries now called Size D, and the handle of a hammerhead made a convenient battery box. Naturally photographers making the transition to electronic flash were already accustomed to that style. The other reason for their former popularity was psychological, but useful, in that the sheer size of the outfit marked the user as the official and professional photographer, at a wedding for example. This may not be such an issue today when all the guests are probably using phone cameras.

It is not clear why hammerhead flash fell out of favour. One complaint is that they are heavy, but that goes with a greater illuminating power and staying power, and despite being heavier they are easier to hold and better balanced than a camera with a large flashgun mounted on the hotshoe - the "hammer handle" makes a good carry handle. However a hammerhead with its bracket and sync lead is slower to set up than just clipping in a hotshoe unit.

Another complaint is that, because the flash head is a little to the side (usually the left) of the lens axis, the subject's shadow can appear as a thin dark line along their right hand side, as viewed. This might concern photographers at press conferences where the subjects on the platform are often in front of a light coloured screen. I searched the internet for an example to show here, but could not find one even from the 1970s and 1980s when hammerhead flashguns were most used, so perhaps it was not such an issue. Press photographers invariably use direct flash, but there would be no dark line with bounce flash anyway.

A real problem with vintage hammerheads is that the rubber facing of the bracket can become hard and shiny with age, so the camera cannot be prevented from twisting around on it without extreme tightening of the thumbscrew that attaches it to the bracket. It might be possible to replace the rubber. It is a pity that the standard for the tripod socket on the camera did not also define an optional anti-rotation peg and socket a short distance to one side of it.

Possibly the most important advantage of hammerhead flashguns is that they take the weight of a heavy powerful flashgun off the camera. Some hotshoe units weigh around half a kilogram which is more than structurally suitable for the top of most cameras. Modern cameras in particular are not very robust around the hotshoe, usually because they are allowing space for other features such as a pop-up flash and a GPS receiver (the latter requiring a non-metal surround), or simply in the pursuit of weight saving. A saving grace is that the feet of many hotshoe flashguns are plastic and break sooner than the camera itself. The heavy and popular Vivitar 283 for example was so prone to foot breakage that there was a minor industry of manufacturing and fitting replacement feet for it. I would not want to put a flashgun weighing more than about 400gm on a camera hotshoe.

Some independent makers of hammerheads provided camera dedication modules that fitted in the camera hotshoe and had a multi-core cable to the unit. These units were usually offered with an alternative simple sync lead that used the camera's PC socket, obviously without dedication features, but as film era TTL is incompatible with digital cameras the dedication features may not be important. These modules with their special leads, and even the simpler PC sync lead, would be unique to the brand so when buying a vintage hammerhead be sure that these items are sold with it.

Bare Bulb

This is an uncommon type as a camera mounted flashgun, having only a removable reflector behind the xenon flash tube and no lens or diffuser in front. The tube is bare except for a clear glass outer bulb for safety. The reflector directs light in the usual way, but when removed it allows the light to spread over a very wide angle - possibly more than 180 degrees. Bare bulbs are more often found on studio units.

Paradoxically, without the reflector the bare bulb can give a relatively soft light, because in addition to the portion of light going directly, another portion will reach the subject after having bounced off every surface around, from all directions. Bare bulb flash is also the best to use in a softbox or flash brolly, because it's light will reach the corners and edges more effectively.

The unit most found in the used market is the Sunpak 120J. Prices tend to be high because of its rarity and the curiosity value.