don’t move – the 19th century transition to reduced exposure photographs

SF Instantaneous Photographic CoOn the hunt for some more shopfront photographs, I came across the so-called San Francisco Instantaneous Photographic Company. This newspaper advertisement on 4 October 1883 appeared in the Warragul Guardian and Buln Buln and Narracan Shire Advocate.  They could have saved on printing ink by shortening the paper’s name, but I digress.

So what was this thing called instantaneous photography, and why were customers and photographers alike excited by it?

The UK’s National Media Museum posted this to their blog in June.

The earliest photographic processes normally required exposures of many seconds, or even minutes, rendering the photography of movement impossible.

However, with the right combination of lighting, subject, lens and plate size, exposures of a fraction of a second, whilst still very difficult to achieve, were possible.

The taking of such photographs became known as ‘instantaneous photography’. Whilst the term was in common usage during the 19th century, there was surprisingly little discussion or agreement as to precisely what it meant.

In practice, it was applied to any photograph which contained an element of movement or which was taken with an exposure of less than one second.

In November 1880, an article in the South Australian Register explained.

Instantaneous Photography

INSTANTANEOUS PHOTOGRAPHY— The system of instantaneous photography has been recently adopted by Messrs. J. R. Dobson & Co., of the Temple of Light, Bundle-street, and the result of the improvement is the production of photographs infinitely superior in clearness, accuracy, and general effect to the likenesses taken under the old style. We were shown some sixty portraits of adults and children, and all of them were remarkable for the minuteness of detail as well as naturalness of expression, rendering them very faithful portraits. For photographing children this instantaneous process must be an invaluable aid, as the fleeting expression of a restless child’s face can be taken in a second ; and for adults it is very much more comfortable to sit for only a moment to have a portrait taken, without the inconvenience of having the head pilloried in an iron rest. In the photographs produced by the instantaneous process the natural expression of the eyes, the texture of the garments, and the softness of the lights and shades were particularly noticeable. The only fault some people could find with the process would be that it might too accurately portray the features, but they could remedy that by calling up their sweetest expression, and assume a virtue if they have it not.

This (out of copyright) photograph from the State Library of Victoria‘s collection was taken in Toongabbie, Victoria c 1890-1891 by the aforesaid photographic company. I’m not sure that the woman was calling up her sweetest expression as she looks quite sad, even without the inconvenience of her head being pilloried in an iron rest.

Toongabbie, Victoria - portrait

Woman, three-quarter length, to right, lace panel down front of dress, inscribed in black ink on verso: Toongabbie

reverse photo - stamp


I just had to add this comment to the body of this post.  Thanks to pellethepoet for an amusing story on the discomfort of posing for long exposure photographs.


Sir William Macarthur tells a humourous story of the ordeal for sitters of the long exposure –

“One day,” he says, “an old lady from the country was sitting before [William] Hetzer’s camera. Mrs. Hetzer, whose name was Teckla [sic – Thekla], helped in the studio and sensitised the plate in the darkroom while her husband posed the sitter. When the old lady was ready for the plate, Hetzer called out to his wife, ‘Teckla! Teckla!’ whereupon the nervous sitter jumped up in terror and exclaimed ‘For heaven’s sake don’t tickle me, sir, I can’t Stand any more!’”

from The Story of the Camera in Australia by Jack Cato (Melbourne : Georgian House, 1955), p. 17.