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Photoflash Bombs Were Once Used to Light Nighttime Aerial Photos


Digital cameras can see in color in near darkness these days, but decades ago, there were very different solutions for capturing usable photos at night. One example is the photoflash bomb, a special type of bomb that was designed specifically to explode in midair and illuminate the world below for aerial photos.

The photoflash bomb was commonly used by military spy planes to capture images of the ground at night from higher (and safer) altitudes.

From the outside, they looked like ordinary explosive bombs, but instead of being filled with traditional explosives, photoflash bombs were essentially pyrotechnic devices filled with flash powder.

An English aircraftman loads 19-pound photoflash bombs onto an aircraft at a base in Belgium prior to a night mission in 1944.

The M120 and M122 World War II-era bombs featured one design had a round-nosed cylinder and at least 75 pounds of photoflash powder within.

A diagram of the M120 photoflash bomb. Image via Bulletpicker.
A diagram of the M122 photoflash bomb. Image via MIT/zoz.

The M23A1 was a different design that featured a cardboard tube body filled with flash powder and metal plugs on the ends.

A diagram of the M23A1 photoflash bomb. Image via michaelhiske.de.

After being detonated in mid-air, the bombs would produce incredibly intense light of up to hundreds of millions of candlepower — it was essentially the brightness of a spotlight but spread over a very large area.

Here are some examples of aerial photos shot in the 1940s with the aid of these flash bombs:

A photoflash bomb explodes and illuminates a battleship in a harbor during a night raid over La Spezia, Italy, in 1943.
An aerial photo shot during a raid on Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1943. The photoflash bomb can be seen exploding on the right.
An aerial photo captured during a raid on Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. The photo flashbomb can be seen detonating in the lower left.
A nighttime aerial photo captured over Turin, Italy, in the early 1940s. The shot was illuminated using a 4.5-inch flash bomb.
An aerial photo captured over Tobruk, Libya, in 1942 by an RAF plane. The photoflash bomb can be seen at bottom. Photo via World War II Today.
A photo captured during a night raid on Berlin, Germany, in 1941. The ground is illuminated by a flash bomb while the light streaks in the frame were created by searchlights pointed up at the plane. Photo via Pathfinder Craig.

Back in July 2015, a photoflash bomb washed up onto St. Pete Beach in Florida, prompting authorities to evacuate the surrounding area and call in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal to detonate it.

Thanks to advancements in camera technologies used in both surveillance airplanes and spy satellites, we no longer need to explode special bombs in midair just to shoot nighttime aerial photos.