Brief history of flash in photography.

Flash photography

 Today most cameras have a flash facility built in, whether a mobile phone, a digital or analogue camera, although this is not the case with all cameras.

So how did flash come about?

Photography at it’s inception relied on day light to create an image, however fixing the image to the chosen medium was a long and laborious process, because of the nature of the fixing medium and the method of getting that image onto that medium. Gradually better mediums were invented such as the wet collodion or emulsion plates. These rapidly increased the speed at which the image could be fixed, so rather than hours it was seconds. The downside was that a separate plate was required for each shot. It wasn’t until George Eastman, an American, came up with a piece of film that was of a fixed length and meant multiple shots could be taken.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. With the fixed plate photographs, it was usually ok, if the shot was being created outdoors as there was probably adequate light to fix the image, but on overcast days, or for indoor shots the lens would need to be open for a lengthy period creating blurred photographs as the subject invariably moved. In the case of portraits of people this led to many innovations to keep the subject still, one of which was the neck brace.


Here is a picture of Lilian Gish, a famous actress of her day, posing for a photograph, using a neck brace to keep her head still while the photograph is taken.

There were many attempts at creating artificial light, such as limelight. This used calcium carbonate heated in an oxygen flame until it was incandescent. The downside was a pale portrait and harsh picture. It also meant the subject had to be heavily made up, as seen in old black and white movie stills where the subjects have very dark make-up applied to their features. It’s main use was therefore in theatre, giving the expression ‘In the limelight’, being the centre of attention. Other attempts used battery lights and arc lights but they were not truly effective.
There were also attempts to use other chemicals with varying, often poor, results. In 1862 Edward Sonstadt began experimenting with  Magnesium wire. This chemical burnt readily and with an intense light. The previous use had been erratic, and dangerous, requiring magnesium powder, potassium chlorate and sulphide of antimony to be poured onto a flash pan. This was a grooved piece of metal mounted on a handle held aloft by the photographer, and connected to the camera so that when the camera’s shutter was released it ignited the powder. Unfortunately it relied on an accurate amount of powder being placed into the pan. Too much and a mighty explosion occurred, causing serious injury to the photographer, and sometimes the subject, and if too little then the photograph would be underexposed, and the plate wasted.



Edward used magnesium wire which was safer but still not perfect.
It wasn’t until 1930 that Johannes Ostermeier combined a magnesium filament into what was could be classed as a light bulb. The downside was they could explode or detonate too early. And they could only be used once.


Eventually the flash bulbs miniaturised and were encased in plastic which was much safer. However they were still only single use. It was Kodak Eastman, the creators of modern film, who came up with the iconic Flash Cube. This enabled photographers in the ‘60’s to carry a flash device that allowed flash to be used four times, as long as the photographer remembered to rotate the cube! This idea was copied in varying guises. I remember one that was like a long cartridge which housed 8-10 flash bulbs.


Another means of producing flash was required that was non-destructive and could mean the photographer could take multiple photographs using the same flash. The result was the electronic flash. Initially the sole preserve of professional photographers or the wealthy amateur. The objective was to make the product cheaper , more readily available to all and with the flexibility to adjust the quantity and quality of light. The  cameras soon had the flash built into the camera enabling the photographer to have flash readily available, but there were limitations, as it meant that the flash would automatically reduce the shutter speed to 1/200thsecond. However the flash gun which could be attached to the top of a camera meant that there was more flexibility in the flash use. Modern flashes now use TTL (through the lens) connectivity, and have a movable lamp, so being controllable, as well as being able to adjust how wide the flash would be spread. The connection is via a ‘Hot shoe’, which differentiates from the older ‘Cold shoe’. The latter was simply a means of connecting the flash to the camera, but used a cord connected to the camera to trigger it. The ‘Hot shoe’ connected electronically to the camera. Different brands of cameras use a different configuration of contacts on the flash, enabling all features of the flash to be utilised. The centre pin is standard and will allow the flash to function, but it is limited in it’s function. Below is a representation of the different ‘Hot shoes’ by brand.




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