History of the Photography Studio

The origins of the photographic studio began in harmony with the pre-existing artist’s studio that the recent invention of the camera had come to replace and begin art in its new direction of abstraction, rather than photo realistic recreation.

The studio used by the artist was predominately a north facing window or skylight lit, which was used in combination with the cameras proto form camera obscura. The two devices work on exactly the same principle, it’s just the printing method that varied. The artist’s used the camera obscura to project the models form and lighting to the wall for tracing. Whereas, the camera replaced the artist’s hand with a chemical reaction that accurately manifested the projection of light. This therefore, made the artist’s hand drawn attempts to copy the light inferior, and redundant. Therefore, providing art in general a new direction, rather than photo realistic replication.

A famous example of the use of the art studio north sky lighting is Rembrandt, and this is how he captured specific feelings in his portraits. This method is echoed even today in photography with use of the Rembrandt lighting technique, which would involve the use of either natural or artificial soft light from above, and to one side of the head replicating the feeling of a Rembrandt painting.

Early adopters of the artist’s studio’s techniques, applied them to photography from around the 19th century. Prominent was Julia Margaret Cameron 1815-1879, was a pioneering portrait photographer who applied fine art principles, such as using available light to photography in a manner reminiscent of the way a painter would.

Due to the long exposure time of the Daguerreotype and other early camera’s traditionally with the immaturity of artificial lighting techniques, the natural sky lighting of the artist studio was a desired effect. The only real disadvantage that photography had at this time was it could only capture black and white images, so although competing with the artist it had not at this time made them totally redundant. Hand colouring was the only real option until the 1950s when the cost of colour film and development dropped to a level of mass adoption.

The first artificial photography lighting was the L. Ibbetson oxy-hydrogen light also known as a lime light produced by heating Calcium Carbonate in a oxygenated flame. This method had several disadvantages such as white pale faces, and a harsh lighting effect. Other early experimental artificial lighting was used by Nadar for his famous Catacombes of Paris photographs, these were performed with battery operated electric lighting. Art Clamps were also used but in 1877 the first studio using electric light was open in Regent Street, London, which had sufficient light to allow exposures of 2-3 seconds, typical of camera’s at the time. The first attempt at producing a fast acting, predictable flash was in 1864 by Edward Sonstadt by enhancing magnesium powder into a more stable magnesium wire for illumination by ignition. The first commercial flash powder (Magnesium mixed with Potassium Chlorate) was in 1887. Flash powder was very popular due to its low cost compared to magnesium wire, but also dangerous. It was responsible for infamous ‘Poof’, and smoke cloud of early black and white photography.

The early 20th century saw improvements that allowed for 10ms flashes so no longer caused people to close their eyes because of the intensity, and duration of the light. The first practice flash bulbs of electronically ignited magnesium in a glass vessel were introduced in the 1920’s by Hauser of Germany, and General Electric of the USA.  The most popular of these were General Electrics Sashalite Magnesium Foil, and oxygen filled glass bulbs. These were soon incorporated into flash guns that synchronised the cameras shutter with the firing of the bulb, although, all flash photography was non synchronised until this time. This methods had practical replaced flash powder by the 1950s. Another notable example is Kodak’s Flash Cube, a square glass container with reflectors on each face with an internal flash bulb. The first rechargeable electronic flash tube was invented by Harold Edgerton in 1931, this is the same technology used today with the introduction of xenon gas. This has meant that flash duration has massively decreased, and can even introduce multiple synchronised flashes triggered by the camera or wirelessly, by infrared and radio signals. The advances in flash technology have been matched throughout the 20th century with advances in lenses, and the development of faster film speeds (ISO/ASA), the first of these was celluloid film in the 1930’s. This continued to the introduction of digital sensors in the 1990’s.


ENVATOTUTS+ a brief history of photographic flash

The History of Studio Photography.pdf

GERNSHEIM, H and A. (1969) The History of Photography, from the camera obscura to the beginning of the modern era. Thames and Hudson, London.

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