Photography Techniques

The Birth and Rebirth of Flash Photography

The Birth and Rebirth of Flash Photography

Flash photography is making a comeback. Take a stroll through its history and many incarnations.

There’s no place like the past, and these days, visual culture is embracing the ’90s. The resurgence of direct, on-camera flash is an ode to the unpolished, documentary-style imagery that was the signature aesthetic of the time. But, why was the direct flash aesthetic so pervasive then—and why are we now nostalgic for the same look?

To answer these questions, let’s take a look back at the history of flash in photography.

Goofy Hats
Image via Sean Marc Lee.

The Early Days of Flash

Photographers have been combating darkness, often with dare devilish pursuits, since the late 1800s. In fact, one of the earliest forms of flash required the use of flash powder, a mixture of magnesium and potassium chlorate.

Magnesium Lamp and Camera
Image via Gianni Dagli Orti/Shutterstock.

Photographers would hold a pan of flash powder next to their cameras and ignite the mixture, creating a bright explosion, as they simultaneously attempted to capture their photograph (without dying). It was an impressive achievement in both artistry and survival. 

Magnesium Flash Powder
Image via CCI/Shutterstock.

Luckily, a safer option emerged in the 1930s: the flash bulb. These cute little oxygen-filled bulbs allowed photographers to illuminate their subjects with less mess and danger, but with the caveat that each bulb was single-use and, thus, had to be changed between frames.

Soap Bubbles
Image via Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.

Nonetheless, it was an important advancement. The flashbulb was small enough to be integrated into camera bodies and became widely available to the public when Kodak used them to produce its first on-camera flash called the Brownie Starflash, made in 1957. The Starflash originally sold for $8.50 and was small and easily portable.

As the scholar of visual culture Dr. Kim Beil writes in her book, Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography, the advent of such an accessible flash camera resulted in a new style of amateur photography.

Press Photographer
Image via Underwood Archives/​UIG/​Shutterstock.

So, what were the visual qualities of this new style of photography? Because the Kodak Brownie Starflash, and other on-camera flashes at the time, directly jolted the subjects with a heavy and intense dose of light, photographs would often be over-exposed. Portraits of people would appear ghostly, flat, or bleached out. Shadows were much too dark and edges were hard.

Not the most flattering depiction of reality, some would argue. So, in an effort to correct this unideal lighting scenario, the great and holy “bounce flash” method was created.

The Bounce Flash

Child Portrait
The bounce flash in action. Image via Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.

Rather than aim a light source directly towards a subject, like traditional on-camera flashes did, bounce flash indirectly lit up a subject by aiming the light to an alternative surface (such as the wall or ceiling) and then reflecting, or bouncing, it onto the subject. 

The results of bounce flash were evenly lit photographs with softer highlights and shadows. Images started to more closely resemble reality and match the human eye. The photographic community rejoiced. The bounce flash method was hugely successful and became the standard in professional photography for decades to come.

But, since bounce flash required more sophisticated equipment and production techniques, it was a method that only professional picture-makers could execute. The amateurs were left with their built-in flashes, which couldn’t be detached from the camera body.

And, while flash technology itself continued to advance to electronic and then LED flash, the general aesthetic of direct, on-camera flash became associated with low-brow photography. That is, until we get to ’90s fashion photography. 

The ’90s Resurgence

In response to the highly-stylized, perfectly-lit productions of the ’80s, photographers in the 1990s began to use direct, on-camera flash as an aesthetic choice. Photographers like Juergen Teller and Corinne Day redefined the visual zeitgeist of the time with their flash-filled, un-staged snapshots of the celebrity world.

Vogue Model Kate Moss

Models Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell
Images via Arthur Elgort/Condé Nast/Shutterstock and Arthur Elgort/Condé Nast/Shutterstock.

What made those photographers unique was not only that they provided a behind-the-scenes look at fame, but also that they chose to use direct, on-camera flash as a stylistic way of illuminating their captures and suggesting an insider’s look at the life of a celebrity. 

The images evoked a feeling of closeness to the subjects and unveiled something more raw and human. These images were authentic.

Fall from Grace

While on-camera flash was a signature aesthetic of the ’90s, it became a contentious subject in the years that followed. People began to desire “good” photography. So, over the course of the following decades, photography shifted away from direct, harsh lighting and back to evenly lit scenarios and highly-produced imagery.

In tandem with that aesthetic shift came a digital revolution—the camera phone—that introduced rapid breakthroughs in photographic technology and brought cameras to the hands of more users than ever before.

Those advances in cameras, editing software, computers, digital filters, and social media have brought us to a moment in which the fidelity of photography is so high that culture finds itself ready for another swing ride on the pendulum.

And, this time, the pendulum is destined for those sweet, sweet bygone days of raw ’90s photography, including the aesthetic of our old friend: the on-camera flash.

The Comeback

Bar Flies

Shot Glass Toast

Friends Dancing
Images via Maskot Images, John Trice / Cavan Images – Offset, and HEX Images.

Today, flash is on cameras and on trend. Photographs across social media, magazines, and ad campaigns of anything from models to micro-greens are shiny and bright with hard edges.

This aesthetic still serves as a representative of authenticity, intimacy, and also stardom (let’s not forget the significance of paparazzi flash). Yet, it’s also a nod to low-tech days in the midst of high-tech times. 

The evolution of flash photography is fascinating and it illustrates the cyclical nature of aesthetics and trends. The meaning and emotional significance of an aesthetic relies heavily on its historical baggage and on the context in which it’s being introduced, or re-introduced. 

Karaoke Bar

Party Hat Cat

Roof Party
Images via Cavan Images – Offset, Cavan Images – Offset, and Eugenio Marongiu / Image Source on Offset

It’s safe to say that the bright, dramatic look of direct flash will stick around a bit longer. But, eventually, a new lighting trend will prevail. When it does, on-camera flash will go into a sort of hibernation period—only to be awoken some day in the future and re-purposed once again in a brand new way. 

A few more photography articles for you:

The Return of Maximalist InteriorsA Beginner’s Guide to Macro PhotographyIn Celebration of Día De Los MuertosThe Nostalgic Appeal of Vintage Air Travel Photos7 Tips for Capturing Striking Night Photos

Cover image via John Trice / Cavan Images – Offset.

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