I used the term "flash-gun" today in front of some non-photographers, and they looked at me blankly.

"Why," they wanted to know "is it called a flash-gun, and not just a flash? How is it anything like a gun?"

"Ummm, I don't know," I replied, lamely.

What should I have said?

  • 1
    I don't have an answer, but I get the feeling that "flashgun" is a UK expression, more than a US one? That said, I really don't know the generic US expression for a camera-mounted flash, if there is such an expression.
    – gerikson
    Jan 21 '11 at 14:09
  • 2
    Not necessarily off-topic here, but maybe the question would fit english.stackexchange.com (which specifically covers etymology).
    – mattdm
    Jan 21 '11 at 16:27

If your talking about a speedlite, it has a lot of characteristics of a gun;

  1. you have to aim it
  2. there's a trigger
  3. has a similar shape to gun (rotated 'L')
  4. 'fires' something
  5. the thing that's fired is really quick
  6. they both are loaded with small cylindrical objects which are disposed of later (maybe stretching the analogy a bit here)

With so much in common it is only natural that we re-use the word gun for a flash making device.

  • 1
    In the early days of flash-guns, 6 and probably 3 would not have applied. However the flash-gun would have been hand held and possibly triggered by a trigger lever somewhat like a firearm's trigger. Like a firearm of that era, the device relied on ignition of an explosive mixture of chemicals. Maybe the earliest flashguns even used something like a flintlock mechanism from a firearm - old guns were fired by igniting gunpowder "priming" in an external pan. It's easy to see how the term gun might have been applied to the early photographic tool. Jan 21 '11 at 16:30
  • Wikipedia says: "Speedlite" is a Canon trade name. "Speedlight" is a Ricoh brand name. "The brand names are intended to indicate that strobe flashes produce much shorter and more intense bursts of light than earlier photographic lighting systems, such as flashbulbs, or continuous lamps used in some studio situations." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speedlite Jan 21 '11 at 22:46

I don't have a definitive source referencing this term, but I believe that this terminology probably goes back to the early "flashes" where the light came from ignited flash powder.

Then in the late 1880s it was discovered that magnesium powder, if mixed with an oxidising agent such as potassium chlorate, would ignite with very little persuasion. This led to the introduction of flash powder. It would be spread on a metal dish the flash powder would be set off by percussion - sparks from a flint wheel, electrical fuse or just by applying a taper. However the explosive flashpowder could be quite dangerous if misused. This was not really superseded until the invention of the flashbulb in the late 1920s.

Source: http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/lighting.htm


chilis42 is part-way there, but I'm fairly sure it wasn't gunpowder (magnesium, perhaps?).

I can't recall the answer at present (and no rep to comment, unfortunately), however the answer (and history of flashes!) is detailed in Mastering Canon EOS Flash Photography - if I get a chance I'll update this when I get home and have it to hand. :)


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