In the early days of photography the only source of light was, of course, the sun, so most photography depended upon long days and good weather. It is said that Rejlander used a cat as a primitive exposure meter: placing the cat where the sitter should be, he judged by looking at its eyes whether it was worth taking any photographs or whether his sitter should go home and wait for better times! The nearer to the birth of photography, the greater the amount of lighting needed, as the first chemical emulsions were very insensitive.

The first artificial light photography dates back as far as 1839, when L. Ibbetson used oxy-hydrogen light (also known as limelight) when photographing microscopic objects; he made a daguerreotype in five minutes which, he claimed, would have taken twenty-five minutes in normal daylight.

Other possibilities were explored. Nadar, for example, photographed the sewers in Paris, using battery-operated lighting. Later arc-lamps were introduced, but it was not until 1877 that the first studio lit by electric light was opened by Van der Weyde, who had a studio in Regent Street. Powered by a gas-driven dynamo, the light was sufficient to permit exposures of some 2 to 3 seconds for a carte-de-visite.

Soon a number of studios started using arc lighting. One advert (by Arthur Langton, working in Belgravia, London), boldly proclaims:

"My electric light installation is perhaps the more powerful in London. Photographs superior to daylight, Pictures can now be taken in any weather and at any time."

More from Arthur Langton's advertisement:

"CAUTION Many photographers advertise 'portrits taken by electric light' but 9 out of 10 do not possess an electric light, owing to its costlinss they use an inferior and nasty substitute... a pyrotechnic powder which gives off poisonos fumes."

(His spelling, by the way!)

In June 1850 an experiment conducted by Fox Talbot, probably using static electricity stored in Leyden jars, was conducted at the Royal Society: a page of The Times was fastened on to a wheel, which then revolved rapidly. Writing about this the following year Fox Talbot stated:

"From this experiment the that it is within our power to obtain pictures of all moving objects....providing we have the means of sufficiently illuminating them with a sudden electric flash."

The object then had been to arrest fast action. A few years later William Crookes, editor of the Photographic News (October 1859) was responding to a query put to him on how to light some caves:

"A...brilliant light...can be obtained by burning....magnesium in oxygen. A piece of magnesium wire held by one end in the hand, may be lighted at the other extremity by holding it to a candle... It then burns away of its own accord evolving a light insupportably brilliant to the unprotected eye...."

That same year Professor Robert Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) was also advocating the use of magnesium. The first portrait using magnesium was taken by Alfred Brothers of Manchester (22 February 1864); some of the results of his experiments may be found in the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology. It was however very expensive at that time and did not come into general use until there was a dramatic fall in the cost of magnesium a decade later. This, coupled with the introduction of dry plates in the 80s soon led to the introduction of magnesium flashlamps. They all used the same principle: a small amount of this powder would be blown, using a small rubber pump, through a spirit flame, producing a bright flash lasting about 1/15s. It also produced much smoke and ash!

Then in the late 1880s it was discovered that magnesium powder, if mixed with an oxidising agent such as potassium chlorate, would ignite with very little persuasion. This led to the introduction of flash powder. It would be spread on a metal dish the flash powder would be set of by percussion - sparks from a flint wheel, electrical fuse or just by applying a taper. However the explosive flashpowder could be quite dangerous if misused. This was not really superseded until the invention of the flashbulb in the late 1920s.

Early flash photography was not synchronised. This meant that one had to put a camera on a tripod, open the shutter, trigger the flash, and close the shutter again - a technique known as open flash.

Certainly early flash photography could be a hazardous business. It is said, for example, that Riis, working during this period, twice managed to set the places he was photographing on fire!

In fact, the "open flash" technique, with flash powder, was still being used by some photographers until the 1950s. This was particularly so when, for example, a large building was being photographed; with someone operating the shutter for multiple exposures, it was possible to use the flash at different places, to provide more even illumination.

By varying the amount of grammes of flash-powder, the distance covered could also be varied. To give some idea, using a panchromatic film of about 25ASA and open flash technique, at f8, a measure of 0.1 grammes of flash would permit the flash-subject idstance to be about 8 feet, whilst 2.0 grammes would permit an exposure 30 feet away. The earliest known flash bulb was described in 1883. It consisted of a two pint stoppered bottle which had white paper stuck on it to act as a reflector. To set the flash off, a spiral of ten or so inches of magnesium on a wire skewer was pre-lighted and plunged into the oxygen.

It was not to be until 1927 that the simple flash-bulb was to appear, and 1931 when Harold Egerton produced the first electronic flash tube.

I am indebted to the late Arthur Gill, FRPS, a leading member of the Royal Photographic Society's Historical Group, for much of this information.

© Robert Leggat, 2006.