Companies manufacturing camera accessories e.g. speed-lights, are finally waking up to the idea of using non-proprietary Lithium battery packs. The newly announced Godox speedlight available sometime near December 2018 will accept 18650 lithium batteries, and the Yongnuo YN560Li has already gone this path. It is a welcome addition to electronics in my opinion, but I can see potential shortcomings if the situation is handled poorly.
I think my background in making radio controlled cars, helicopters and planes has given me a unique perspective with Lithium cells. I’ve seen them fail, dodged their wrath and watched them burn; I love them nonetheless. In the case of helicopters, you have various options: a fuel based engine with AA batteries for the servos, lithium batteries for the servos (plus a regulator to change the voltage) or lithium batteries for everything. How you charge your batteries has a few options too: in a pack or independently. We’ve reached a point where this is almost EXACTLY the same problem we’re having with flashes, sans glow fuel engine.
Historical context with Canon, Nikon and Sony flashes
Speed lights originated with AA batteries creating an annoyance for the average photographer. You’d get home, charge a bunch of batteries–perhaps 32 AA batteries if you had 4 flashes and a second set. Along came lithium battery packs and they made everyone happier, for the most part. 4 flashes required 4 battery packs (one for each flash) and the pack typically held twice the capacity of an AA pack.
With convenience came greed; manufactures picked a high price point for their proprietary battery pack and this mentality stuck; this is why when we look at a Profoto B1x battery pack for example, it’s about £255. Most likely it is a few panasonic cells held in a plastic case. Anker does something similar but they don’t have the audacity to stick a zero on the end of the price tag–their packs are cheaper than if you buy the cells separately! Of course, it’s a nice little business earner. Even the most loyal defendants of Profoto, Elinchrom, Broncolor, etc. will struggle to justify this.
Independent Lithium 18650 cells are still viable
Along came cheaper Chinese flashes, and with it came approximately 9,002 different sizes of battery case. You’d have one type of battery for your camera, another for your flash, perhaps a different one for your larger strobe. A new type of problem was also created: Less battery packs but 101 different chargers.
If 18650 cells can be used inside flashes and potentially cameras later down the road, this might decrease the cost of manufacture (chargers don’t need to be made for every item), decrease the cost of the product, decrease the amount of chargers we need, and make for a more synergistic system. You’d have a high voltage, high capacity cell not too much bigger than an AA battery, but what if you’ve got a bunch of them? You might think you’re facing a similar problem to AA’s, only instead of having 32 batteries, you’ve got 16.
A partial solution might be to have plastic battery trays/cases. Consider a slide in plastic tray housing 2 or 4 batteries. To charge up those 4 batteries, you simply plug in a charger to that plastic tray. It’s no different than charging up the proprietary batteries issued with the aforementioned companies. Except, this time, you can buy new trays at a much discounted rate and use your own batteries (I recommend panasonic by the way).
If electronics are poorly designed and you put in a bunch of batteries at different charge capacities, one battery can drain and charge the other at such a rate there’s heat/a fire. Obviously this is a problem, but there are ways around this. Cell balance chargers exist too.
Lithium 18650 Conclusion
When I take into account what companies are charging for proprietary battery packs, knowing they are probably the same Lithium 18650 panasonic cells sold for much less on Amazon, I think the market needs to take a new direction. In a few years, perhaps all of my flashes work but the proprietary batteries are no longer manufactured.
Having battery pack trays you fill up (a bit like a gun magazine) or having to charge a few 18650 batteries at the end of the day, isn’t a problem for me. I can see how some people are worried we will go the route of the AA battery and have about 102 batteries we need to charge at the end of the day but I believe those issues can be circumvented somewhat.