Los Alamos National Laboratory

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From Glimmer to Fireball: Photographing Nuclear Detonations

How do you photograph a nuclear explosion? From a distance (!) photographers used remote-controlled high-speed cameras to capture the first milliseconds of detonation, which provided key data on the weapon’s yield.
July 1, 2015
From Glimmer to Fireball: Photographing Nuclear Detonations

While EG&G was responsible for scientific photography, a secret Hollywood studio, Lookout Mountain Laboratory, made documentaries for military and government briefings and then for public consumption. This Lookout Mountain photographer (1956) is outfitted to protect himself from radiation. (Photo: Open Source)

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Hollywood and the commercial and scientific photographic industries later adopted these advancements in photography.

Photographers in radiation suits handled the superfast cameras developed in the early years of the Cold War to photograph each stage of a nuclear weapons test. One of these “rapatronic” cameras had an exposure time, or shutter speed, of just one billionth of a second, enabling it to capture the first glimmer of detonation.

Crews set up the cameras in a line. Each exposed a single photo on a glass plate. By triggering one after another, photographers could create sequential images of each stage of the explosion after detonation, including the fireball, the double flash, and the shock wave—all key data for determining a weapon’s yield.

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