View Full Version : Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

20-Dec-2008, 19:25
Remember those silver screen movies with the old press cameras that had the flash powder for the flash? The big flash and puff of smoke signaled a picture had been taken?

Curious to know what type of cameras those were, what sort of flash they had, and if one can find either today on the open market (powder included).

Thanks for the help!


Alec Jones
20-Dec-2008, 20:44
Some of them were old Graflex cameras. I believe Mendelson or Graflex (Kodak) made the flash units. The powder was magnesium. No way you can get that stuff today.

You should find and read Ansel Adams' account of the first time he used one of these in a school picture. For awhile, he thought he had burned down the place. But, it wasn't that bad - he just drove them all outside with the smoke [used far too much powder].

Paul Ewins
20-Dec-2008, 21:50
Flash powder is basically a variation on the ingredients used in fireworks, but optimised for light, not sound. I looked into making it once upon a time, but most of the recipes used words like "unstable" and "dangerous" so I decided to err on the side of having all of my body parts. It's basically just magnesium or aluminium powder and stuff to make it burn rapidly.

The flashes were just open trays with a flat reflector behind them. They do show up from time to time on eBay.

21-Dec-2008, 05:25
magic shops probably sell flash powder,
or something like it ...

Walter Calahan
21-Dec-2008, 06:17
I do not recommend attempting to make your own magnesium flash powder. The stuff is highly explosive. You and your subjects might get severely burned. Don't do it.

Dan Fromm
21-Dec-2008, 06:28
In the early '60s Central Camera in Chicago stocked flash powder and some of the people in my dorm at UC used it for, um, non-photographic purposes. IIRC, the bottle wasn't labeled unstable or explosive and it fact it took a little effort to ignite it. We triggered it with the wire used in fuses.

21-Dec-2008, 06:47
Makes flash bulbs look like a quantum leap forward.

W K Longcor
21-Dec-2008, 09:11
Makes flash bulbs look like a quantum leap forward.

Bulbs were not alway the safe item either. Back at my high school Senior Prom ( I'm a grandfather now - so we are talking a few years back), I was the "official" school photographer. My date was so happy that I carried a speed graphic and large case of equipment with us. As I was about to photograph the crowning of the king and queen of the prom, the flash bulb ( press 25 size) popped out of the reflector and bounced across the floor. I ran after it and replaced it in the flash gun. When I pressed the shutter release, the now cracked bulb exploded - sounding like a 12 gauge shotgun. Though class members cheered my show, the school principal almost had a stroke!
Also, did you know that flash bulbs can be fired by static electricity? One cold winter day, I shoved a bulb into my back pants pocket. I looked like a firefly for a short second - not at all comfortable either!
But, then again, later, as a professional photographer, I've had large capacitors in studio strobes explode on me. Ex-Lax can't begin to compare to that!!!:D

Ole Tjugen
21-Dec-2008, 09:34
In one of my books there is a recipe for "proper" flash powder with the warning that it extremely dangerous and should only be attempted by professionals.

Since I have a degree in chemistry, I took a closer look at the recipe. And I agree - I would not attempt to make that stuff! And no, it's not "basically magnesium or aluminium powder and something to make it burn". Magnesium powder is relatively harmless, compared to that mix.


Another early source of light was magnesium ribbon, which was burned in special holders. The total exposure was determined by the length of ribbon. That I could well use, and even recommend others to try.

Ernest Purdum
21-Dec-2008, 09:42
The cameras were mostly 5" X 7" Speed Graphics (smaller ones were considered unprofessional). or one of many made by Seneca, Century, Gundlach and others.

Flash powder and flash compounds were not all that dangerous when used carefully, but people get too accustomed to potentially dangerous things. The most common source of accidents was being too quick to reload the pan. This is much like squirting lighter fluid on a smoldering barbeque.

For many years after flashbulbs were in common use, flashpowder was still used for pictures of large areas, caverns, stadiums and the like.

During WWII, aerial pictures of whole cities were taken with the aid of massive amounts of flashpowder.

In the 1960's, flashpowder and flashpowder "guns" were still on sale in Japan.

Many movie scenes showing somebody using flashpowder are unrealistic. No, flashpowder was not required outside on a bright day in the 1920's.

Nathan Potter
21-Dec-2008, 10:07
As Ole says using pure magnesium is relatively safe because no oxidizing agent is present. The trick is getting enough heat to ignite it and to ignite it quickly. It'll burn white at I believe somewhere around 5000 degrees Kelvin.

Other versions of flash powder can use aluminum or magnesium as the fuel and an oxidizing agent as a hefty source of oxygen. These can be extremely dangerous because they are an explosive! This is especially true if they are percussive - that is they can explode on sharp contact without heat (the sharp contact can generate enough heat). Using potassium permanganate, ammonium nitrate or potassium chlorate as an oxidizer with the aluminum or magnesium is in this catagory of percussive mixtures. Due to the oxidizer additive and some other constituents the burn color of the oxidizer flash powder is somewhat lower in color temperature than pure metal versions. I believe the version using ammonium nitrate with aluminum dust was used as the high explosive called "Amitol" during the first world war.

Nate Potter, Austin TX.

Ernest Purdum
21-Dec-2008, 10:28
Regarding the hazards of magnesium, I am reminded of an incident which tied up a Southern California freeway for hours. A magnesium bar fell of a truck. It lay there for hours until an explosives contractor was hired to take it away. A solid bar of magnesium is no hazard at all. A high school friend of mine ground away on a piece of magnesium for a long time with no ill effects at all. When, however, another kid attempted to sharpen a screwdriver, the slightest touch to the wheel lit up the whole shop. Fortunately, neither he nor anyone else was injured, but he sure was startled. Magnesium dust is redily flammable, solid magnesium is not (early Volkswagens had several large magnesium castings).

In my youth I occasionally used Kodak flash sheets which were made, I think, of sintered magnesium.

Eric Woodbury
21-Dec-2008, 12:12
Burning magnesium is a problem because it cannot be extinguished with water. It will burn under water. Sometimes it is machined (in machine shops). I believe it actually an alloy that cuts better than pure and burns less. Still, there is always a CO2 fire extinguisher present. In the 60s and 70s, printing plates were sometimes made of magnesium instead of zinc. My father would bring them home and I would try to burn them in the fireplace. They had something mixed with them and they didn't burn that well. Pure ribbon, however, can be ignited with a match and can be used to set off a thermite reaction (aluminum and iron oxide).

A friend of mine used flash powder in the 30s. He told me that if he used it inside, he only got one pic because of all the lingering smoke.

Colin Corneau
22-Dec-2008, 13:25
I just bought a Crown Graphic with the flash attachment, complete with all wires, etc. (trivia note: the original 'light sabres' used in the Star Wars movies were the handles for these flashes) recently. It even came with the flash bulbs, too.

I got two, in fact. I highly doubt I'll ever use it -- if you're eager to pursue this, and don't want to blow yourself up with magnesium powder, I'd look for one of these things used.

22-Dec-2008, 22:25
Thanks for the responses, guys. Agreed it would only be useful indoors as it seems that the intended effect would be to bounce that light off of a ceiling. (Did they ever direct light forward??)

Still intrigued. There must be less-hazardous forms of flash powder to burn.... The power of the flash might be different, as with the color temp, but I imagine the same concept could be applied with better safety. Finding a powder that can be measured with a flash meter and consistently applied (I liked the story of Ansel using too much) should be easier these days...

A (rather quick, I admit) search of eBay with the term "Graphic" in cameras & photography yielded no results as I could see that included this old style of flash. Lots of flashes with bulbs, but none of the powder based flashes. Of course, having not seen one I'm not entirely sure what I'm looking for. If someone has one I'd be thrilled if you posted a picture!

The concept of shooting one of these things is nestled in-between some other somewhat absurd fantasies I have, including shooting a cirkut camera or buying and resurrecting one of those old tintype cameras with the instant development tray built into the camera. So many things to explore, so little time & money!


Ole Tjugen
23-Dec-2008, 05:44
The flashbulb was invented in 1928, so only the first "top handle" and some "pre-anniversary" Speed Graphics would have been used with flash powder. A flashbulb is so much safer and repeatable than flash powder that the switch was almost instantaneous once the flashbulb was introduced in the US in 1930.

"Less hazardous flash powder" is not very likely: It needs to burn very rapidly with a high light output, meaning high temperature. Fast and hot don't mix well with safety. MAgnesium ribbon, as I've mentioned previously, is probably the closest thing you can find to "safe".

John Schneider
23-Dec-2008, 08:49
Burning magnesium is a problem because it cannot be extinguished with water. It will burn under water. Sometimes it is machined (in machine shops).

Magnesium not only cannot be extinguished with water, water will make the problem worse (as in exploding):
Mg (s) + 2 H2O (g) → Mg(OH)2 (s) + H2 (g)

The gaseous H2 will of course explosively combine with atmospheric oxygen. Dry sand is the preferred way to put out a mag fire.

Apache helicopter tailrotor gearboxes are made from a magnesium casting, and I've seen the aftermath of a mag fire on a milling machine, after a coolant pump broke. The damage was spectacular.

Joseph O'Neil
23-Dec-2008, 08:57
Theatre supply companies used to sell flash power, used in "flash pots" for live theatre, but it has been years since I checked if it was still for sale. It was basically the same stuff.

However, I too have seen magnesium burn. Unless you are sure of yourself, you do NOT want to fool around with magnesium. Also, for what it is worth, if you do use the stuff, do so only outdoors, not inside. I know several guys who do historical re-enactments (War of 1812, Civil War, etc), and they always, always, always fire off their muskets outside due to the smoke, allergies, flying hot bits of powder, and so forth.

Also, it might be more fun or interesting to shoot a photo using a lfash tray at some sort of historical re-enactment. In fact, I vaguely remember somebody doing that sort of thing many moons ago, but I forget their name now. Something to look into


23-Dec-2008, 10:11
I don't think Jacob Riis is available to provide input, but maybe tracking down this kid from San Diego would be interesting:


23-Dec-2008, 10:44
There is a nice guy named Race Gentry on the CW Reenactors collodion forum that has used the period flash trays a lot. He was even interviewed on NPR. I recall seeing some MPEG movies he posted showing the flashes in operation. Do a little searching and you should find him. It's totally do-able.

Update: just found a link with the movie:


23-Dec-2008, 11:34

Ernest Purdum
23-Dec-2008, 17:14
Somewhere I've got a copy of a National Geographic showing underwater Autochrome
pictures. Amazing.

23-Dec-2008, 19:55
Update: just found a link with the movie:

Garett, this is awesome! Note the three stages. The fireball that emerges from the handle is insane...clearly the guy knows this because the expression on his face before he fires the flash has that "oh sh*t" look. The flash itself is quite powerful (frame 2) as is the mushroom cloud of smoke (frame 3). I so need to have one of these!!! :D


PS: The flash itself is much larger than I expected!!! Thanks again for posting.

24-Dec-2008, 13:03
You should find and read Ansel Adams' account of the first time he used one of these in a school picture. For awhile, he thought he had burned down the place. But, it wasn't that bad - he just drove them all outside with the smoke [used far too much powder].

Someone else mentioned the use in theater. I was Applegate in a production of Damn Yankees about 30 years ago. Applegate was to appear the first time in a cloud of smoke. Worked OK, except that the first time it was done in rehearsal, of course, the rehearsal was over until we aired out the theater. :D

Race Gentry
6-Feb-2009, 13:20
Hi Alec, I just saw your website and I'm very impressed by your photo work!! I plan on going to New York to take photographs using every photographic medium possible. I use the wet-plate process- (ie. ferrotypes, ambrotypes, glass negatives), daguerreotpes (mercury & becquerrel. I prefer mercury.), flash powder, salt printing, and regular darkroom black & white printing. I don't know much about digital.

Race Gentry
6-Feb-2009, 13:24


20-Feb-2009, 12:22
Nice light - due to the BIG 'fireball'. It's really hard to obtain such light by any other means! That's why magnesium is in my "planned to do list," too.

I've not taken pictures with flashpowder light yet, but I had lots of fun with magnesium - both the pure metal and many home made metal+oxidizer mixes - as a kid. Those days back in the USSR you could just go to the local metal recycling plant, pic up an airplain wheel in a huge pile of gabbage and take it home for free. The most difficult part of the trip was finding a small one carriable by just two guys, yourself and a friend of yours... and no, there was nothing one person could handle.

Well above 90% of the wheel metal was magnesium. We just filed it by hand. No heat = no danger at all.

Ernest Purdum
20-Feb-2009, 19:04
Race, that's a nice group of flashguns you're showing us.

I do hope you are being careful not only with flash but also with the mercury that you mention and that daguerrotypists poisoned themselves with in the early years.

Ron Marshall
20-Feb-2009, 19:23
Lots of bulbs still available:


Also, don't use a CO2 extinguisher on magnesium because they are reactive:


21-Feb-2009, 17:52
Yes bulbs are available but as for the dimentions of the actual light-emitting body, flashbulbs are only a little bit better than a conventional electronic flash, and by no means even come close to magnesium powder - especially the pure magnesium (no oxdizer) one.

The oldest and, IMHO, by far the best method of burning magnesium for photographic lighting was to blow pure metal powder through a spirit lamp fire by pressing a rubber bulb connected to a tube full of mugnesium powder and with an opening just below the spirit flame. The 'fireball' could easilly get 3 to 10 feet in diameter... and be really 3-dimentional, not just soft-box-like!

Oxidizer-containing magnesium mixtures, though, should never ever be put anywhere close to such an open-flame lamp - with them, an explosion is just unavoidable!

Be carefull... and enjoy.

Race Gentry
22-Feb-2009, 10:09
I use a fume-hood, mercury detectors (badges), and an emergency spill kit when I make daguerreotypes.