Flash, or flashgun, is a word for a device used in still photography for giving a strong bright light onto a photographed scene for just the moment of exposure.

Since the mid-19th century methods to burn magnesium were used as a means to shorten exposure times by giving very bright light onto a photographed scene. When the relative fast dry film plates became common in the 1880s these methods became common too, and firms like Kodak sold flashlamps which ignited a mixture of magnesium powder and potassium chlorate with a gas flame, a spirit flame or an electric wire. A flash exposure must have been an exciting event, almost like a little firework. Agfa offered a combination of a tray for the flash powder with a gas lighter pistol. Constructions like these may be the reason for the still actual term "flashgun".

The handling of the flash powder was dangerous. In 1927 General Electric had introduced electric flash bulbs. Since 1930 other companies joined the flash bulb industry, for example Philips with its Photoflux lamps. The bulbs gave light by burning a mesh of thinnest crumpled aluminium wires and foils in an instant, ignited by the power of a simple battery. The bulbs could be used only once, and at first they were too expensive for most amateurs. But professional press cameras with big reflector around the top of the attached flash bulb holder became a common sight. "Bulb" mode of shutters became a synonym for flash bulb mode until the shutter makers could present shutters with flash-synchronized instant mode.

During WWII electronic flashes giving light from electronic gas-discharge tubes were developed. In amateur photography electronic flashguns became common in the 1960s, when electronic switches, the small light transistors and thyristors, made these devices small and affordable. But in spite of that development a whole generation of popular cameras, the cassette film cameras for type No. 126 Kodapak film and type No. 110 pocket film, got new multi-bulb flash systems, disposable plastic cubes with four bulbs, or disposable flip-flashes with more bulbs in one piece. Magicubes and flip-flashes had little reflectors around each bulb, making further reflectors superfluous. In the 1970s sales of cubes and flip-flashes were a main part in sales of expendable photographic goods.

Modern cameras have inbuilt flash units, either near the viewfinder, or as flip-up or pop-up units.


White, Robert. Photographic accessories 1890-1970, Princes Risborough 2002


Glossary Terms