Remember that day in Chemistry class when the teacher held a 1-inch length of magnesium ribbon in tongs and lit it on a Bunsen burner? Remember the intense outpouring of light that outlined your classmates shadows on the wall and half-blinded you? And the stinky smoke?
Well, it was used in Times Gone Bye to light up interior shots for the rather insensitive films and plates of the time. People would be posed in banquet shots, the camera would be set on ta tripod, the shutter opened on T or B and a length of ribbon ignited. Depending on how much was used the whole of a large ballroom could be illuminated and there was a clarity and pervasiveness about the light that really captured the subjects. Look at 1880’s-1920’s shots to see what I mean. If you find one of these long-burn shots you can tell it in a …I hesitate to use the word…flash.
The ribbon burned from one end of a metal tray to the other, the light went out to the subjects from multiple angles and reflected off all the other surfaces in the place, and the faces got even light.
Nowadays, if we are not using the natural unnatural light of the room’s light fixtures…and hoping that the White Balance circuit of the camera will not break down weeping…we are firing off a speed light or strobes. If it is just one speed light the lighting will be sharp and shadowy and anyone in the wrong position will be cut to shreds. If it is strobes we’ll get more even coverage but at the expense of having to set up stands, reflectors, softboxes, and tiger traps. Either way we lose the broad illumination of that bit of magnesium.
I long to try it. To set up a mag tray on a stand and a camera on a tripod and do it like my grandfather might have done. The only things that stop me are the fact that most public places have smoke detectors and some have automatic sprinkler systems. I have been in a group of uniformed delinquents who managed to set off a shopping centre alarm and sprinkler with a volley of black-powder musket fire and having escaped the legal consequences of that once I don’t care to do it again.