Points in Focus Photography

Cameras and Flashes; Why not use the same batteries?


Cameras and their batteries have long been a point of annoyance for me. I’ve complained about the lack of compatibility options for Canon’s pro batteries and battery grips. However, that’s a complaint to rehash another time, I want to talk today about the other battery we have to deal with, AAs for flashes.

It didn’t take long to discover that NiMH batteries are the way to go for flashes. Their chemistry proves more current which lowers recycle times, and they generally seem to get more pops than alkaline batteries do. Moreover, since they can be recharged 100s times, they’re considerably cheaper than alkalines, not to mention the environmental benefits of reduced waste.

With some of my ’loops coming up on 5 years old, it’s starting be time to think about replacing them as their capacities start to diminish due to age and use. While doing some research on the current state of the art in low self-dischage NiMHs, I cam across the discussion thread that was the catalyst for this idea. It seems, that Sanyo, the makers of Eneloops, was bought by Panasonic and the current ’loops are ’loops in name but not necessarily performance[1].

That got me thinking about the fundamental premise of powering flashes.

Why do we still use AAs in our flashes?

Why instead, haven’t the flashes switched over to Li-Ion packs? Perhaps even the same ones that are used to power our high end DSLRs.

From a technical perspective, the idea at least passes the sniff test. Four NiMH AAs typically will provide between 9.6 and 13Wh of energy. Comparatively Canon’s LP-E6s or Nikon’s En-EL15s also provide 13Wh of energy plus or minus a bit. At least at first glance, you should get as many pops from the camera batteries as you do from the NiMHs and probably more.

Recycle time is harder to speculate about without a lot more information I don’t have; both on the batteries and the flashes. There are Li-Ion and Li-Polymer packs that can sustain current draws far in excess of anything NiMH batteries can do, but it’s doubtful that Canon or Nikon’s camera batteries are designed for that. On the other hand, if the flash is already limiting the current to what’s reasonable for NiMHs, then there very well could be no different or an improvement in recycle ties with a Li-Ion based solution.

As far as size goes, a LP-E6 pack is longer than an AA cell, but not so much that it’s wider than a Canon 600Ex-RT already is. Likewise, the overall volume and height of a LP-E6 pack is smaller than the quartet of AAs used currently.

Technical points aside, the point that I like the most is the simple elegance of having fewer batteries and type of batteries to worry about. Well at least for users with high end DSLRs.

Okay, I admit this part is entirely personally motivated by my own aesthetic sense of how systems like this should be design. I have a very strong attraction to interoperability for the sake of redundancy and eliminating the necessary extras that come with having to support more parts.

I picked the LP-E6 and EN-EL15 largely because they’re what’s used by the cameras I suspect would be owned by the majority of people interested in a higher end flash. For Canon that includes the 60D, 70D, 7D (mark I and II), and 5D (mark II and III); for Nikon it’s the V1, D7000, D7100, D600, D610, D750, D800, and D810. The really high end users, those with 1Des and D4es, wouldn’t see the reduction in battery types, but they also wouldn’t be any worse off than they are now in that respect either.

All that said, I can see some sticking points. The big one is cost, AA are dirt cheap, even the good rechargeable ones. A single LP-E6 costs more than a 16 pack of good NiMHs. There’s also the fact that you can’t really scrounge the Li-Ion batts like you can AAs. People aren’t going to be keen on lending you a $60–70 battery they might not get back, where they might not care about $5 in AAs. Plus you can’t walk into any number of convenience stores anywhere in the civilized world, and buy a LP-E6; you can do that with AAs.

On the other hand, I’m not sure the disadvantages outweigh the ability to shed AAs and their chargers, or the potential for increased redundancy in spare battery capacity and compatibility that comes from having everything run from one type of battery.

I think this is a good idea, but I’d love to here what you think. If you see some flaw that I missed or think it’s a neat idea too, leave a comment below.

  1. As I understand it, when Panasonic bought Sanyo, due to anti-trust concerns, they got the brand name, but not the manufacturing facilities where the eneloops were made. Instead Panasonic appears to be transitioning the Eneloop brand to their production facilities in China. According to at least one user test these batteries don’t preform like the eneloops of just last year.  ↩


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