Would you be surprised to learn that the first camera accessory shoe was designed by the inventor of the Leica, prior to 1913? It wasn't used for attaching a flash. When Oskar Barnack put an accessory shoe atop the 1913 prototype Leica, it was apparently for a Leitz Fodis removable, vertically mounted rangefinder.
With the advent of the 1930 interchangeable-lens Leica C, the shoe was needed for accessory viewfinders. The earliest record I have of a hot-shoe for flash was the American-made Univex Mercury CC of 1938. Its accessory flash unit accepted screw-based flashbulbs.
After World War II, the hot-shoe was almost universally employed for attaching and firing flash units on virtually all 35mm and many medium-format cameras. Unfortunately, there were no standard dimensions for flash unit feet. To help prevent flash units or auxiliary finders from sliding out of shoes, camera makers put tiny springs along shoe edges (right) to let friction hold the flash or finder as tight as possible. The 1938 Leica 111b was probably the first camera to adopt this system.
Modern camera manufacturers pack the soles of these shoes with various contacts that exchange information between flash and camera, such as flash ready, flash OK, autoexposure and lens focal length.
Despite the added sophistication, however, the basic configuration of the camera hot-shoe has remained the same. You could probably take the latest modern hot-shoe flash, slide it right into Barnack's earliest prototype shoe, and it would just about fit.
You might conclude the design was excellent, to have been used essentially unchanged for this many years. Wrong. What was passable in 1921 is insufferably primitive today. Ever had trouble wiggling a stubborn flash foot into or out of an overtight camera shoe? Or had a loose flash unit slide out of the shoe and crash to the floor?
You can never trust friction to secure anything, as flash makers now realize. And so it has come to pass that most large hot-shoe flash units have lockdown mechanisms either in the form of a knurled horizontal tightening ring (above left) or a locking lever (right) which causes a mechanism in the flash foot (sometimes a pin) to clamp down on the shoe. Knurled tightening rings can be near-impossible to loosen. (Some photographers carry a small pair of pliers in their bags to unlock stubborn ones.) Locking levers are best when matched to specific flash feet and camera shoes.
Why shouldn't a flash unit lock on quickly and securely, yet be removed as swiftly as an interchangeable lens on an SLR? Why not, indeed, reasoned Minolta engineers, as they planned a new Maxxum 7000i 35mm SLR in 1988. The upshot? An entirely new camera hot-shoe and flash unit foot (left). When the flash was slid into the new Maxxum shoe, it securely locked in place. To remove the flash, you pressed a button on the flash unit, and it would instantly slip off. From then on, Minolta SLRs and flash units had such a mechanism. And so does the Sony Alpha 100 DSLR today.
For owners of older Minolta standard-foot flash units, the company devised the $30 FS-1100 adapter for newer Maxxum SLRs (right). Most flash manufacturers were quick to make most of their units available with the Maxxum connection, too. These, of course, now fit the Sony Alpha 100, as well. The FS-1100 was discontinued a few years ago, when Konica Minolta reasoned that there was no longer any need for it.
A bad decision. The ever-growing number of companies making wireless remote flash triggers for studio lights use standard hot-shoe-mount transmitters to fire the camera in sync with the lighting. Not one transmitter has a Minolta flash foot. The only (and admittedly inelegant) option is to fire studio lights by using an optical slave along with the Maxxum or Sony pop-up or auxiliary flash units. But if you want wireless lighting to be fired over a specific radio or infrared channel because you don't want other photographers (or a garage door opener!) firing your strobes, you must use a radio or infrared transmitter.
What are the options for a KM or Sony Alpha shooter? The discontinued FS-1100 adapter. And these are nearly as scarce as hen's teeth. One was auctioned off on eBay some months ago for a high bid of $60.
To the rescue comes Hong Kong toy and game manufacturer Gadget Infinity. Hearing of Maxxum and Sony photographers' desperate need for the FS-1100, the firm started producing an alternate version, the Hot Shoe Adapter III ($16, direct, www.gadgetinfinity.com). It's slightly bulkier than the Minolta FS-1100, since it's hand-wired.
Why am I spending so much time and space on one DSLR company's flash connection? Because back in 1987, I lent a hand and some thoughts on developing the Minolta one. Use it and I'm sure you'll find it beats any other system. It's easier, quicker and more secure.
Yet whenever the Maxxums or Sony DSLRs are written up, the flash connection gets a prominent thumbs-down label for the "nonstandard" flash coupling. I guess they would have labeled Barnack's first production Leica in 1925 the same way.
Captions (click image for larger version):
Disappearing act: A Konica Minolta flash adapter allowed you to attach a standard flash unit to all of Minolta's SLR hot-shoes since 1989. Discontinued, it's needed for studio-type wireless flash release. Sony, please reinstate it!