Saturday, August 11, 2018


The first Leica with built-in flash synch was the Leica IIIf.  That, however, does not mean that flash photography was impossible before that.  Leitz, as well as some other manufacturers used to make add-on flash synch devices for Leicas prior to the IIIf.  However, these would only function with flash bulbs or electronic flash.  What about flash photography prior to flash bulbs?

Enter flash powder.  This was one of the earliest means to add a bright, instant light source to photography.  In 1887, Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke mixed fine magnesium powder with potassium chlorate to produce Blitzlicht. This was the first ever widely used flash powder. Blitzlicht  gave the photographers the ability to produce instant photographs at night at a very high shutter speed. This caused quite an excitement in the photography world.

Early commercially produced, prepackaged flash powder

Being the explosive that it is, flash powder accidents were obviously inevitable. Simply grinding the components was dangerous enough, and a number of photographers died while either preparing the flash powder or setting it off.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the flash powder formula was refined and improvements were made to make the process simpler and safer. The flashes now lasted for 10 ms only, so subjects no longer closed their eyes during the exposure which helped portrait photography.

Most “flash attachments” for flash powder were nothing more than hand held devices that required to be “loaded” with a small amount of the flash powder which then would be triggered with a flint, not unlike the flints used to light old-style fuel powered cigarette lighters.

There were still enough disadvantages to the method, for example, the smoke was still causing trouble, making studio work quite difficult, so another invention was awaited.

Flash powder "flash gun" with flash powder dispenser
Pushing the spring loaded button on top of the dispenser
would release a premeasured amount of flash powder.

Turning the igniter wheel would create a spark to set off the flash

Agfa flash powder with Haka Flashlight
A lit candle would be moved toward the igniter strip via a clockwork mechanism and set off the flash after a predetermined amount of time.

A much more convenient way was offered by the Existence Blitz Kapsel (Existence Flash Capsule).  They consisted of cartridges filled with a fixed amount of flash powder which in turn were triggered by a small primer as used for gun bullets.  The cartridges were inserted into a hand-held device with a trigger pin.  When released, the trigger pin would strike the primer which then ignited the flash powder cartridge.

The Existence Blitz Kapel was offered in two different sizes, a große (large) and a kleine (small) one.  The Große Existence Blitz Kapsel was good for distances of 18 to 30 meters (60 to 100 feet) at f/4.5 for films with a sensitivity of 23 degree Scheiner (ASA/ISO 16).  The Kleine Existence Blitz Kapsel had a range of 9 to 15 meters (30 to 50 feet) at the same aperture and film speed.  Those figure indicate a considerable brightness.

That allowed the company to use the slogan “Ob es Nacht ist, stürmt oder schneit, Existence gibt Sonne jederzeit.” (Whether night, storm or snow, Existence offers sun anytime)  Not a bad start for flash photography, yet a long ways from the convenience of built-in flash.

Existence flash capsules

Trigger device


Firing pin


For "A Brief History of Photographic Lighting" go here

For other articles on this blog please click on Blog Archive in the column to the right

To comment or to read comments please scroll past the ads below.

All ads present items of interest to Leica owners.



Buy vintage Leica cameras from 
America's premier Leica specialist 


Click on image to enlarge

Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography

Click on image to enlarge
Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography

Click on image to enlarge
Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography


  1. Very interesting. What I don't understand, how were those flashes synchronized with the camera?

    1. That was actually quite simple. The shutter of the camera was set to "B" or "T". Once the shutter was open, the flash was triggered, exposing the film. After that the shutter was closed.

    2. Didn't the relatively long shutter opening add to the exposure and possible motion blur?

    3. Not at all. The ambient light was not anywhere near strong enough to render any visible exposure compared to the rather bright flash. Subsequently the actual exposure was only from the duration of the flash.

  2. Is there a connection to Leica somewhere?

  3. Yes, indeed. Prior to flash synch devices like the Leitz VACU, very early Leicas were quite often used in conjunction with flash powder. As a matter of fact, the flash powder gun with the flash powder dispenser shown in the article used to be my dad's. I vaguely remember him using it with some of his cameras, including a Leica.