Page 1 of 4 123 ... LastLast
Results 1 to 10 of 31

Thread: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

  1. #1
    alec4444's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2006
    New York City

    Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    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!


  2. #2

    Join Date
    Oct 1998

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    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].

  3. #3

    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    Melbourne, Australia

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    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.

  4. #4
    multi format
    Join Date
    Feb 2001

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    magic shops probably sell flash powder,
    or something like it ...

  5. #5

    Join Date
    May 2006
    Westminster, MD

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    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.
    When I grow up, I want to be a photographer.

  6. #6

    Join Date
    Dec 2001

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    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.

  7. #7

    Join Date
    Feb 2008

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    Makes flash bulbs look like a quantum leap forward.

  8. #8
    W K Longcor
    Join Date
    May 2008
    New Jersey

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    Quote Originally Posted by dsphotog View Post
    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!!!

  9. #9
    All metric sizes to 24x30 Ole Tjugen's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2002

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    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.

  10. #10

    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Harbor City, California

    Re: Old Press Cameras with Flash Powder

    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.

Similar Threads

  1. Strobe-type press camera flash
    By EuGene Smith in forum Gear
    Replies: 6
    Last Post: 28-Apr-2008, 08:25
  2. Feisol Tripods at Really Big Cameras
    By Really Big Cameras in forum Announcements
    Replies: 25
    Last Post: 13-Mar-2008, 11:10
  3. Older Press Cameras vs New Field Cameras
    By Roger Rouch in forum Cameras & Camera Accessories
    Replies: 5
    Last Post: 21-Dec-1999, 20:48
  4. Loupes for press cameras
    By Martin F. Melhus in forum Gear
    Replies: 2
    Last Post: 30-Jun-1998, 23:27


Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts