I recently look to change one of my frequently-used softboxes, which was starting to show its age and looked rather tatty and misshapen. It was a Bowens softbox – I use Bowens for most of my studio lighting gear – so naturally hit their website looking for a like for like replacement.
I was shocked that, unbeknown too be, Bowens, that 94-year-old photographic lighting brand had gone into liquidation. Bowens is an iconic British brand and at one point was something of an industry standard, it’s attachment design adopted by many other, usually much cheaper lighting.
In its heyday, and even up to this day, Bowens gear is used by photographers all over the world, although in recent years in the professional market there was a drift towards ‘sexier’ brands like Elinchrom and ProFoto, which could offer far more advanced remote control options, faster recycle times and other features. Bowens sometimes appeared tardy in keeping up with industry advances.
Bowens started in 1923 as a London camera repair business. The company expanded into lighting gear and came to truly define what studio lighting is today. At one point it was a prestige brand and the professionals choice for big flashes and light-shaping tools like beauty dishes and soft boxes.
While Bowens could be said to have failed to keep pace with the higher-end of the professional market it also fell victim to asset-stripping, the killer of so many important brands over the years. Bowens was purchased by European investment firm AURELIUS along with photographic retailer Calumet.
Sadly, before the news of the liquidation broke, Bowens had not long launched its brand-new Generation X line. Indeed, I’d been eagerly awaiting these products as they brought industry-leading levels of control back to the Bowens brand, restoring parity with the ProFotos and Elinchroms of this world. It looks like AURELIUS wasn’t prepared to allow Bowens time to win back customers with what looked like amazing new lighting products.
Another reason for Bowens’s demise is the changing nature of the professional photography market. The 2000s saw a bonanza for manufacturers as pros fully transition from film to digital cameras. As prices of DSLRs fell amateurs too wanted in on the action and there was a real photography craze for a few years, with ‘prosumers’ sometimes spending more than the guys and girls that takes pictures for a living, all propelled by a global debt bubble.
Since then, the disruptive influence of the internet, the fall out of the banking crisis of a decade ago eating into PR and marketing spends in business, and the decline of print in favour of website has meant photographers have had to be competitive and cut overheads to maintain a good level of work. Therefore, investment upgrades only happen when necessary and only if the new equipment will likely lead to increased or higher-paying work, rather than just because new gear would be ‘nice to have’. The trouble with my Bowens lighting is just how reliable and robust it is. A few of my Gemini lights date back to 2005 and have been bashed and battered yet still they function flawlessly – that meant only sporadic, minor investment in more Bowens gear.
I’m sad to see such a great brand go.