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Photographing Time

The speed of photography through the ages.

To see larger versions of these photographs, see the above slideshow.

The word “photography” might bring to mind the stark granite of an Ansel Adams photograph, or perhaps the memory of a childhood vacation. But the camera is also a scientific tool, whose progress can, in one sense, be measured by its ability to freeze ever-smaller fragments of time for our observation. In 1826, Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce needed at least eight hours to create an imprint of the view from the upstairs window of his Burgundy chateau onto a pewter plate coated with bitumen. Today, we can capture photos with an exposure time of a trillionth of a second, and are at the brink of attosecond photography—that is, snapshots taken 10 billion trillion times faster than those first grainy images in the east of France.

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We’ve selected an assortment of photographic images that, at the time they were taken, were breakthroughs in speed.

1826: “View from the Window at Le Gras, Burgundy” : Camera obscura. Using a bitumen-coated pewter plate nestled against the back of a wooden camera obscura box, Niépce recorded the view of his estate courtyard. This single frame required at least 30,000 seconds to capture.Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce
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1839: Self Portrait: Daguerreotype. Cornelius, a young American chemist turned daguerreotypist, took this image of himself in approximately 1200 seconds using a silver-plated copper sheet treated with the vapors of both iodine and bromine to accelerate the imaging process. Robert Cornelius
C. 1850s: Un vétéran et sa femme: Ambrotype. This photograph was taken using the wet collodion process, which involved imprinting the negative of the image onto a thin piece of glass. By the mid-19th century, ambrotype and daguerreotype studios, using both glass and copper plates, had become popular, affordable, and quick, at only 10 seconds.Anonymous
1851: London Times, reprint: Leidan jar spark and a wet plate camera. Talbot, a physicist, made the first imprint of a fast moving object, a spinning newspaper. Of high speed photography, he said: “It is in our power to obtain the pictures of all moving objects, no matter in how rapid motion they may be, provided we have the means of sufficiently illuminating them with a sudden electric flash.” 500 millionths of a second. William Henry Fox Talbot
1878: “Horse in Motion” : Tripwire and a series of cameras. Leland Stanford developed a passion for horse racing in the winter of his life, and wondered if racehorses ever had all four hooves up in the air. Muybridge answered the question by using a line of stereoscopic cameras timed to capture a sequence of 25 images within one second on a wet glass plate.1 That works out to 40 thousandths of a second per image. Eadweard Muybridge
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1883: “Analysis of the Flight of a Pigeon” : Chronophotographic gun. For studying the aerial patterns made by birds, the French scientist Marey created a camera from a rotating glass plate affixed to a modified gun. This allowed him to capture 12 consecutive frames in one exposure, or 10 thousandths of a second each. Étienne-Jules Marey
1886: “A bullet in flight” : Schlieren photography; Physics professor Ernst Mach and associate Peter Salcher recorded a bullet in flight, allowing them to observe a supersonic shockwave. In one of the first examples of stroboscopy, Mach used a flash of light from an electric spark to record the image onto a glass plate in a dark shed. Light exposure took one millionth of a second. Ernst Mach
1935: “Wes Fesler Kicking a Football”: Tripwire, electric flash. To capture the crisp details of Fesler’s cleats and a distorted football, MIT professor Harold Edgerton wired the football to the electronic flash of a strobe lamp. An electronic flash not only allowed Edgerton to record sharp details, but it also became a common tool for news photographers, paving the way for a new era of sports photography after 1940. Each exposure took 10 millionths of a second. Harold Edgerton
1945: Trinity event: Rapatronic/Rapid Action Electronic Shutter. Using a lens 10 feet long and positioned seven miles away, an Edgerton invention—the rapatronic shutter camera—was used to document the first atomic test. The shutter used magnetic fields instead of mechanical parts, allowing for an exposure of just one hundred millionths of a second.Harold Edgerton
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The Future: Electron Motion within Atoms: The frontier of image speed is being pushed back by attosecond dynamics groups, like that of Ferenc Krausz. His group created the technology to make laser pulses lasting only a few hundred attoseconds, short enough to observe the brief hesitation of an electron before it is kicked out of an atom’s orbit. However, the group has not yet managed to record images of moving electrons. To do so, Krausz’s team needs to develop a technology capable of finer optical resolution.Ferenc Krausz Group
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