that time a studio strobe almost fried my camera

ready . . . for electrocution

ready . . . for electrocution


Last Friday I worked with fellow artist Raffaela Bielesch on her new (secret) project in her studio at the Creative Cluster Traktorfabrik in Vienna. The task at hand was to create a series of photographs on slide film using a two-flash setup and a neutral background. Raffaela and I had my Olympus OM4 + winder, a Zuiko 90mm f/2 and a sturdy vintage Gitzo tripod complemented with two fairly low-end cheapish studio strobes at our disposal.

So far so good…

Stranger Things

After the first two rolls of Fuji Provia 100F, the camera started to behave in a very strange way. Approximately every third frame, the shutter (mis)fired during the rewind without pressing the shutter button. At first we thought that it was either the winder going haywire or that the batteries of the OM4 ran out of juice, somehow causing a malfunction. After turning the winder off and putting new batteries in the body, nothing changed. Switching to mechanical shutter speed of 1/60 did not help either. Also, the mirror locked up from time to time. Only after removing the camera and disconnecting the synchro cord, winding the camera one additional time, the mirror returned to its initial position. Third roll in, Raffaela and I called it a day and gave up on my Olympus. Seemed like it was the first OM4 to ever break during my career.

Raffaela Bielesch working with the OM4 setup

Raffaela Bielesch working with the OM4 setup

Putting 1+1 together

Strangely, after dismounting the OM4, it behaved normally. Even the winder would work like it used to. No mirror lock-ups or shutter misfires. After I noticed that the hairs on my hands stood up, it dawned on me: Somehow the strobes charged up the Olympus OM4 via the synchro cable over time. This caused the camera to misfire every three shots or so, always when too much electrostatic had accumulated.

That also explains the strange tingling I felt when I put my nose close to the metal housing of the camera - spider senses I guess.

Olympus OM4 - the camera that survived

Back home, I immediately checked whether the OM4 did take any damage. After thorough testing with the Phocron XA shutter tester and shooting a roll of Ilford FP4 at all shutter speeds, I found that my beloved camera was functioning properly.

Relieved, I sent details about the incident to two well-known, renowned Olympus OM experts: Gordon from the OM-Labor in Frankfurt and Frank, the “OM-Doktor” from Hamburg. Both independently concluded that an electric charge originating from faulty studio strobes were the most likely cause for the malfunctions. However, both repair technicians were pretty surprised that the OM4 survived the ordeal of being electrocuted unscathed.

Lesson learned…

Raffaela and I were lucky this time, but it is fair to say that a photographer should be aware that where high voltage and cheap equipment is involved, care has to be taken.

Have you ever experienced something similar? What is your take on cheap studio strobes for professional use?