ask the marshall true west western photographers What did photographers use before flash powder was invented?

Allen Fossenkemper – Fountain Hills, Arizona.

Around 1836, photographers burned lime to create a light source, just as theatres and music halls did to light their stages. It gave an intense illumination when an oxyhydrogen flame was directed at a cylinder of quicklime. Its use inspired the term “in the limelight.”

Limelight never caught on as a photography light source. It required a full-time operator to regulate the oxygen and hydrogen gases, and rotate the block of lime. More important, limelight didn’t give off much blue light, a requirement for early photographic plates. The result left portrait subjects in a light so bright that they wanted to close their eyes, an urge they had to fight, as the camera required a long exposure time.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at

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