The Bulb setting (abbreviated B) on camera shutters is a momentary-action mode that holds shutters open for as long as a photographer depresses the shutter-release button. The Bulb setting is distinct from shutter's Time (T) setting, which is an alternate-action mode where the shutter opens when the shutter-release button is pressed and released once, and closes when the button is actuated again.
Decades before the first flashbulbs, some box cameras and many view cameras and folding cameras came with a detachable pneumatic shutter release with a rubber bulb on the end; "Bulb" refers to the rubber shutter release bulb. Though mechanically timed exposures too could be triggered by squeezing the shutter release bulb, "Bulb" exposures then had the same momentary action as camera shutters have today, as per this description from Sears Roebuck's 1909 Cameras [&] Photographic Supplies:
With the indicator set to B, the shutter opens when the bulb is pressed and remains open as long as the pressure is maintained (“bulb” exposure), a very convenient means of making time exposures of only a few seconds’ duration.
Around 1894 in Germany, the momentary-action setting on camera shutters made by C. A. Steinheil & Söhne in Munich were denoted with "B" but the literature referred to it as Beliebig (meaning beliebige Zeit, English: "Any time").
The Eastman Kodak Company sold entry level consumer cameras that did not have the option of a pneumatic shutter release. Though Kodak retained the convention of using "B” on shutters to denote the setting that provides momentary actuation, they referred to it as "Brief Time" in brochures for cameras like their Folding Autographic Brownies, as well as in instruction manuals for products like their 1 & 1A Pocket "Kodaks" Juniors. "Brief time" was also used in reference works like Newnes Photographers' Pocket Reference Book (1955).
The bulb setting is used on some cameras, including some point-and-shoot cameras, to obtain shutter speeds slower than the minimum offered by the camera otherwise.
Because of the risk of camera movement, the camera is most often mounted on a tripod for the duration of the exposure. While it's generally possible to use the shutter release button on the camera itself, a cable release or electronic remote is often used to further eliminate the risk of shaking the camera during the long exposure. The cable releases generally include a locking feature to eliminate the need to keep the button or plunger depressed during extremely long exposures.
The bulb setting is useful for the following types of photographic subjects:
- fireworks at night
- the night sky and celestial objects (see astrophotography)
- streets at night (creating streaks from moving cars)
- light painting
On modern cameras
On some modern cameras, bulb is a mode available as an option on the LCD menu only, if possible at all. On others, including many Digital SLR cameras, bulb is typically available from the manual exposure mode and—rarely—also from shutter priority mode.
When set to bulb, generally on the "M" or manual setting of the camera, the shutter will stay open as long as the shutter release button (or shutter release cable or remote) remains depressed.
In 2012, Olympus introduced a new form of bulb mode with their "Live Bulb" (without toggle) and "Live Time" (with toggle) settings in their Olympus OM-D E-M5 digital camera, where the viewfinder and display gets updated during the exposure in order to allow the photographer to inspect the exposure while it "develops". The display refresh rate for this mode can be configured between 0.5 s and 60 s.
Some specialized cameras use other image triggers.
A bulb shutter release on a Pentax K1000 SE
- Stroebel, Leslie; Zakia, Richard D. (1995). The Focal encyclopedia of photography. Focal Press. p. 790. ISBN 978-0-240-51417-8.
- Bernhard J. Suess (2003). Mastering Black-and-White Photography (2nd ed.). Allworth Communications. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-58115-306-4.
- Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, Frederick Purves (editor), London: Focal Press Ltd., 1956, which stated as follows: "BULB EXPOSURE (B). Another term for a brief exposure—in which the shutter remains open only so long as the shutter release is held down. The word originated with the early pneumatic shutter release."
- Paul, Matthias (2004-09-21). "BULB mit Blendenautomatik (S-Modus)? Welche Modelle erlauben das?" [Odd discovery: "BULB" supported in shutter priority mode on Minolta 9000 / 7000 / 8000i / 7000i]. Minolta-Forum (in German). Archived from the original on 2016-08-24. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
- "Olympus SP-560 UZ Review". December 27, 2007.