Photography History: The Evolution of Flash…

Good Monday, everyone. History Geek remembered the plutonium today so we’re off again. Since flash and illumination were two of the major road blocks in decreasing camera size, we’re going to spend some time looking at what flash is and how it enhances photography.

Providing illumination for photography has always been one of the design issues with cameras. Early cameras relied on a simple apparatus that allowed sunlight to come through the lens in order to create the negative for their images. However, such cameras were all but useless at night.

Early flash lamps used flash powder to create a brief illumination for photos. If you saw Back to the Future III and remember the scene where Doc and Marty get their photo taken beside the clock, then you’ve seen the kind of flash lamp I’m talking about. Later, the explosion would be contained within a bulb. After the invention of the light bulb, flash bulbs replaced flash lamps almost entirely.

Part of the reason for the earlier Kodak models’ bulk was due to the inclusion of light bulbs inside the case to provide illumination. Once these bulbs were removed from the inside and instead attached on the outside of the camera as a flash bulb surrounded by the metal disc, the size of the camera mechanism could be compacted greatly. One of the pioneers of the external flash bulb was Harold Edgerton, an American inventor and engineer. He began experimenting with stroboscopes while studying at MIT. In 1937, he began a lifelong friendship with Gjon Mili, a photographer who was using multi-flash stroboscopes in his photography. Applying his knowledge of stroboscopes, Edgerton was able to help photographers capture images that had been impossible to capture before this point in time.

Advances in flash technology have also helped to advance photography as an art. Professional photographers make use of flash to capture portraits, landscapes, skyscapes, action shots, and many other effects that would be nearly impossible without the assistance of flash bulbs. Shutter speed and aperture can only get you so far in low-light settings. Flash allows you to take photos even when the natural lighting is less-than-optimal.

Without flash photography, images like the ones below would be impossible to capture.

All right, History Geek, top ‘er off and let’s move back to the 1900s!

— da Bird

Images courtesy Digital Camera History