Introduction: Upgrade Courtenay Solaflash 1000

About: Untidy, disorganised and a bit silly. I am a photographer, artist, body artist, sculptor, prosthetic maker, model engineer, and general idiot who likes making stuff and messing about. I give hands on workshops…

Whilst looking around for a couple of studio strobes to use as a mobile set, I came across a pair of Courtenay Solaflash 1000 heads going for a song. I paid £20.00 GBP (about $30 bucks) for two heads, two stands and a box of assorted 'bits' from a photographer who posted on one of the photo sites in the for sale and wanted section.

There were a glut of these lamps for sale a few years back and they regularly appear on on-line auction sites, at photo days, and sale and swap meets. They sell for between £10.00 GBP and £50.00 GBP each depending on condition and how much of a chancer the vendor is.

First released way back in 1985, two years after I qualified, I remember drooling over them at EuroPhoto Centre in West London (long since departed), but could never have afforded them. They were around £300.00 GBP each at that time and were sold as a professional item - Courtenay being a good name brand. There were a full set of accessories that went along with them, but these are now as rare as hens teeth.

On getting them home and inspecting these 30 year old strobes I discovered that one modelling bulb was blown, one of the angle settings had a dome nut missing and they were pretty dirty. The modelling lamp is a standard E27 screw fitting so I replaced both with standard modelling lamps. On power up both fired correctly - and I have used them for the last three years on the road. My thinking was that if they got damaged or stolen then for £20.00 I wouldn't be too far out of pocket. However there have been a lot of frustrations.

On the plus side:

Cheap to source, a good brand name, very robust and long lasting, replacement bulbs and even the Xenon tubes are still available. With a little care should still give long service.

Now the frustrations, and there are quite a few:

Fixed power output, no optical slave, non-standard stand fitting, but by far and away the worst part is the TERRIBLE light modifier system and lack of available accessories. Bloody awful intergrated reflector system (more of this below).

The reflector is an integral part of the body, never designed to be removed or changed. The light modifiers (if you can find any) clip on to the front of the reflector in one of the worst pieces of design I have ever seen. As far as I can research there were never any soft boxes available for these units. Snoots and barn doors were available, but each unit clips on to the back of the next. If you wanted to fit a gel grid to a snoot the resulting clip arrangement meant that you ended up with a Christmas tree of bits clipped to the front of the lamp making it very unstable. Over the years the clips lost their spring or broke off rendering them useless. What was worse was the fact that the brollie tube protrudes through the reflector making it very difficult to do some kind of simple remedy, so I have been using them with only brollies which is not very satisfactory.

I had been toying with the idea of making some alterations to them, but have only now decided to finally get around to doing so.

Step 1: What I'm Not Covering in This 'ible

This 'ible will not cover the lack of a variable power output. I decided that designing, building and fitting the electronics simply wasn't worth the effort. Power output is fixed at a shade over 150W which is perfect for small studio work. Simply moving the lamps closer or further away and adjusting the camera settings will do the job.

As an aside, the 1000's' model did have a switch-able output, quarter, half and full power so worth watching out for.

Since mine were supplied with stands I have no reason to try and correct the non-standard fittings on the 'U' bracket. It appears to have been drilled to half inch rather than the standard 5/8" of modern lighting stands. Spigot bracket adapters are available (you need a 5/8" female to screw and bolt) to correct the U bracket for modern stands.

Step 2: An Adapter Ring

The main thrust of this 'ible will cover altering and replacing the reflector fitting for a Bowens Speed Ring 'S' type which means literally thousands of accessories will fit and are readily available. Cheap far eastern imports, as well as proprietary fittings in all shapes and sizes covering every type of light modifiers will then fit these heads.

Having measured the apertures of the Solaflash previously I searched around for a suitable adapter. There are a number of these on the market, the most notable is probably the one from Godox but it seemed that a hell of a lot of work would be needed to remove the spring clip arrangements and get it to fit.

In the end I did a search for 'MINI FLASH 98MM TO BOWENS MOUNT RING ADAPTER' you will get quite a few results. Check the images, you really want the one with the 'solid' mount ring held by three retaining bolts as in the images. The ones with the spring clip arrangement will require too much work.

I got mine from Rocwing in the UK, but they are available on the internet in most countries.

Step 3: Stripping Down the Solaflash - Stage One

Before doing any work on the lamps beware! Mains voltages can kill - so make sure the unit is not plugged in to the mains! Remove the modelling bulb from the unit and store it away safely. Put the lamp on your bench.

You are going to need a good set of screwdrivers and either some nut spinners or long nosed pliers for this section.

Start by removing the four small retaining screws located around the rear of the unit. These are standard cross head screws. Store them in some kind of container so you don't lose them!

Next locate and remove the two retaining bolts from the underside near the front of the body. These are posidrive screws and support the main circuit board. Again put these in a container for use later.

CAREFULLY draw the electronics out by sliding out the rear panel and the circuit board as one unit. Be very careful not to damage the Xenon tube as you do this or it will all be in vain and get very expensive. Be aware that there is an earth strap connecting the circuit board to the body. You should be able to fully remove the circuit board even with the strap still connected.

Carefully turn the board over and locate the earth strap nut. Remove the outer nut and the strap. You should now be able to completely separate the main body from the circuit board and tube assembly. Very gingerly put the board aside somewhere safe and where it can't get damaged.

Step 4: Stripping the Solaflash - Stage Two.

Once you have the body and the electronics separated a quick look down the inside of the body will reveal that there are 4 main retaining bolts/screws and a smaller one holding the earth strap to the reflector.

The four bolts have four corresponding dome nuts in two recesses in the main body on either side near the front. These are very awkward to get at, but luckily the dome nuts are exactly the size of common screwdriver bit holders - result!

Using either a stubby posidrive screwdriver or a screwdriver bit held in Mole grips, steady the screws inside the reflector ring and use the screwdriver magnetic holder or a nut spinner to remove the four dome nuts. Extract the screws and retain the nuts and screws in your little container so you don't lose them.

Gently pull the reflector forwards until the earth strap nut and bolt are revealed. Undo the nut and bolt, retaining them in your container for later. You should now be able to fully extract the reflector and separate it from the main body.

Step 5: Preparing the Adapter Ring

For this stage you will need a cordless drill with a range of SHARP drill bits and a Dremel or similar rotary tool with some sanding drums / grinding stones.

Start by removing the three external retaining bolts. These can be discarded or saved for another project. Rip out the inner rubber seal and discard.

Using a 6mm or 1/4" drill bit, drill out the three integral nuts. This is easiest done with the ring in a soft vice using the bolt holes to guide the drill. Mine came out pretty easily. Once done make sure there are no burrs and that the holes are clean.

Turn the ring over and inspect the inside. Mine had some rubber residue and a small 'lip' round the base. This all has to come off. I test fitted the ring to check the fit against the inner body. The lip is much easier to see in this image.

Using the Dremel and the sanding / grinding tools remove all traces of the rubber residue and the lip (this took me quite a while).

Step 6: The Brollie Tube

This is the only bit of 'butchery' I was prepared to do on the original Solaflash parts.

Because the brollie tube protrudes through the original reflector, and because it was half moulded into the body, the new adapter ring would have fouled against it and the Bowens reflector cut outs would have been mis-aligned. So I decided it needed relocating.

Start by completely unscrewing the brollie retaining bolt. The tube will now simply drop / slide out. There is an earth strap attached. Remove the strap. Now either trim and cover the strap joiner with shrink tube insulator or unsolder and rejoin the wires. I re-soldered mine and then covered in shrink tube insulator.

Decide on the length you want the new tube to be, I made mine about 2 1/2" or 6 cms. Screw the retaining bolt ALL the way in, then using a reinforced cutting disk in the Dremel cut the tube to length and cut off the excess bolt length so that it's flush with the tube.

Glue it into place against the upper vent of the body so that the end of the tube is flush with the end of the body and you can get at the retaining bolt easily. I used two part epoxy glue for this task, then let it set for a few hours.

Step 7: Jigging and Drilling the Adapter Ring

You could take very careful measurements, mark out, centre punch and drill your adapter ring, but it's much easier to simply make up a jig using a bit of dowel. There needs to be a space between the body and the ring for venting.

This is VERY IMPORTANT: If you fail to add the correct spacer to your ring, then Bowens speed fittings will foul against the tube support plate. The spacer gap needs to be AT LEAST 1/8" or 4mm - 1/4" or 6mm would be better. I cut a spacer from box card 4mm thick and pushed it over the adapter ring.

Next fit a Bowens style reflector to your adapter ring and drop the ring into position in the body. Turn the ring until the brollie cut out in the reflector lines up with the tube you glued to the body. Drop a suitable dowel through the cut out and into the brollie tube and finger tighten the brollie retaining bolt. This ensures that the adapter ring will be in the correct position once you have finished.

Find a drill bit that fits the dome bolt holes I can't remember the exact size I used, but obviously the bolts need to be able to pass through the holes. Hold the reflector in place and drill through the dome holes and through the adapter ring to create the four locating bolt holes.

Remove the ring, the reflector and the card spacer. Then using the original reflector as a guide drill one more hole for the earth strap. Use the original reflector as a guide to the size of hole required for this. Next use a countersunk bit and countersink the 5 holes. I did this just using my hand rather than trying to use a drill, the aluminium ring is pretty soft and it didn't take much effort.

Step 8: Re-assembly

Re-assembly is a reversal of the strip down sequence, with just one thing to note.

Start by attaching the reflector earth strap remembering to trail the wire back inside the body.

Next push the four dome nut bolts through the ring and the body and spin up the dome nuts. NOTE: you need to fully tighten these nuts and bolts. The body housing is designed to deform the aluminium as they are tightened up forming a small lip around the hole helping to retain the ring in the body. When you have finished all five of the countersunk screws must be flush with the surface of the inner ring or you won't b able to re-fit the Xenon tube and could possibly damage it.

Next re-attach the earth strap to the bottom of the circuit board, then carefully slide the circuit board into place. Replace and tighten the four retaining screws at the rear of the body - this is out of sequence but it will help to correctly locate the pillars on the circuit board with the holes on the underside of the body.

Install and tighten up the two retaining bolts on the underside front of the body near the adapter ring.

Re-install the modelling bulb.

Step 9: Optical Slave

I originally toyed with the idea of permanently fitting a slave unit, but I didn't want to damage the housings any more than was absolutely necessary.

Since the Solaflash has two 1/4" jack sync sockets a simple solution was to buy a 'peanut' optical flash trigger (£9.00) and use a 1/4" jack adapter to take the small lead supplied. Here you can see the general fitting arrangement. Another advantage of doing it this way is the ability to move the peanut around if it fails to get enough light to trigger because it is in shadow in it's primary position.

Step 10: Testing

I first attached a Bowens reflector to the Solaflash, easy, simple and quick to fit using the speed ring. I tested a brollie fitting and that all went swimmingly.

A quick change for a snoot, took less than ten seconds to change, then finally I test fired the strobe using the flash off the camera. The peanut optical trigger fired the unit without problems.

All working perfectly!

Once I have the second unit upgraded I will get some more images of the units in action and some shots to show what they can do.

Step 11: Further Testing

Shown in sequence of the images:

Brollie tube arrangement

Brollie with modelling lamp on

Shoot through Brollie fired using the peanut slve

Barn doors and a blue gel fitted

Barn doors fired using a radio trigger

Softbox fitted

Softbox fired using a radio trigger

Step 12: Supplemental

In the first image you can see the second strobe head stripped down and ready for re-assembly.

The second image shows the two heads completed.

The third image was taken in the studio using my standard SD300 units at about half power.

The fourth image shows the SD300's taken using the Courtenays in the same positions and using the same modifiers.

The last image was taken using the Courtenays with a beauty dish and a softbox