Capturing Images: How It All Works

Written by Bob Walden

Following up The Evolution of the Camera comes the use of the camera, because just as important as the camera was, the way the image was captured and the image produced is equally important.

The camera obscura was considered to be the first camera. However it was primarily used in the art field as a means of tracing a scene. No way to copy the original scene, other than retracing it. Joseph Niépce’s attempt at a negative in 1816, using a paper coated with silver chloride was a partial success. This process produced a negative image but was not stable and rapidly disappeared.

Daguerreotypes were the first commercially successful photo image. Making a daguerreotype was a long, tedious process. As a base material, copper was the usual material used. The copper was covered with silver, which needed to be highly polished and free of flaws. The plate corner would be bent or cut before polishing so the corner wouldn’t catch on the polishing wheel.


Daguerreotypes were put in cases. This protected the fragile image and also would cover the cut or bent corner.

Daguerreotypes were reversed images, with rare exceptions. They were one off images. Copies could be made, however it required copying the daguerreotype which did not produce a very good image.  The tell-tale sign of a daguerreotype is the image has a negative/positive look depending on how it is viewed.

Ambrotypes were the next advancement, appearing in the early 1850’s. Instead of a copper base, glass was used. The glass was coated with a collodion solution, sensitized in a silver nitrate solution and then exposed in the camera. All this had to be done in a short 10-15 minute time period. This is why it was called a wet plate process. While it was less expensive to make there was a quality loss. It also needed a black backing to be able to view it as a positive image. The emulsion was on glass and transparent.  Without the backing the image would show as a negative.  Ambrotypes were cased like daguerreotypes for protection from scratching and the elements.

Photo Storage Box – for 4 x 6″ Photos

PHOTO STORAGE BOX – for 4 x 6″ Photos 4-1/2 x 6-1/2 x 12″ Made from 40 pt. Black Barrier Board. Acid-Free, Lignin-free. ​

In 1871 the dry plate process was introduced. The collodion process was replaced with the gelatin process or dry plate. Once prepared and dried, the plate could be stored for long periods of time. No more in the field preparations or mobile darkrooms needed. The dry plate emulsions were also more light sensitive lowering the exposure times.

This processes also allowed the glass plate negative to be used to make prints. Unlike the daguerreotype and the ambrotype, both having a lifespan of around 10 years, the dry plate glass negative was still being used into the 1920’s and later.


The third photo image type of the era was the tintype. The process was similar to the dry plate glass negative; however it had a base made of iron. A tintype was never made of tin.

The least expensive of all the processes, it lacked quality and depth. In addition to being inexpensive the whole process was extremely fast. A photographer could take the picture and have a finished photo to hand to the customer in a matter of minutes.


The daguerreotype, ambrotype and tintype were the originals of the photographic image. They shared many of the basic processes. They also shared many of the basic camera designs.

Louis Daguerre’s first experiments were with a camera obscura, meaning “dark chamber” in Latin. It was basically a box with a hole in the front.

The first daguerreotype camera was introduced in 1839. Instead of a hole in the front, the improved camera had a basic shutter over the opening. More control on the light entering was now possible.

The back of the camera allowed for the insertion of a film holder. The holder contained the copper film plate. The holder would have two dark slides, thin pieces of wood that could be inserted into the holder. The back dark slide would be removed to insert the film plate then reinstalled. The front plate would be removed to allow the exposure to be made onto the film plate, and then reinstalled after the exposure.

The daguerreotype used dangerous chemicals and need for precise techniques. The wet plate collodion ambrotype was messy and of less quality then the daguerreotype. In 1871 Dr. Richard Maddox invented the dry plate gelatin process. With a few improvements Dr. Maddox invention rapidly replaced the wet collodion process. In 1879 George Eastman invented a machine that could coat the plates, eliminating much of the tedium and inferior coating of plates done by photographers.

The use of the film holder started with the daguerreotypes and is still being used today in large format film cameras.

George Eastman was an early amateur photography and a man with an entrepreneurial mind. He immediately saw the possibilities of photography for the masses. And he recognized that photography needed to be simplified. In 1888 Eastman’s company, the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company introduced the first Kodak roll film camera. The camera cost $25. Not inexpensive!

Unlike earlier cameras that used a single glass plate as a negative, Kodak’s camera used a roll of flexible gelatin based film on a paper backing capable of taking 100 pictures.

You would take 100 photo’s, return the camera to Kodak for processing, an additional $10, and Kodak would return your developed photos and a reloaded camera all set for you to take another 100 photos.  You also had the option of developing your own film which was a big attraction for advanced amateur photographers.

The first camera images were circular and mounted on cardboard.

The paper backed negatives had several problems. They were quickly replaced with Kodak’s new cellulose nitrate transparent base film. Cellulose nitrate based films were used until the 1950’s (with many various format sizes) when they were replaced with cellulose acetate which was nonflammable.  Glass negatives, which were the first real negatives, were still being used commercially in the 1930 and beyond.  But it was Kodak’s introduction of the flexible cellulose negative that made photography what it is today.

Kodak’s first commercially successful box camera, the Kodak No 1, was introduced in 1888. Kodak developed this film and retuned 3 ½ inch circular prints on a card board mounting. It also had a removable back so it could use a dry film plate negative.

George Eastman’s idea was to bring photography to the masses with simple to use cameras and film. In 1900 Kodak introduced the Kodak Brownie camera.

The first Brownie used 101 numbered film. It was a rectangular format and was soon replaced by Kodak’s 120 film. The camera sold for $1.00.

Photography was now available and affordable to the masses. The innovation of roll film made the box cameras easy to operate. Children and women were Kodak’s major market for their cameras. The 116 format was introduced in 1899. Dimensions were 2 ½ x 4 ¼ and only available in black and white.

In the early 1930’s, Kodak replaced the 116 format with the 616 format. The film is the same except for a smaller spool for the 616. Kodak was big on cost saving! Over the years Kodak came out with many different film formats. Many were designed to fit specific cameras. For instance the 122 Kodak format was introduced in 1903 to work in the Kodak 3A folding pocket camera. It took 6 or 10 photos at a size of 3 ¼ x 5 ½ inches. Also called the post card format because it was the same size as a post card and could be printed as a full size post card.


Of all Kodak’s cameras the Kodak Brownie deserves a history of its own. From the first Kodak Brownie introduction in 1901 until the final Brownie in 1986, many camera styles and film formats were introduced.

The early roll film formats can be a little confusing. The 120 format was introduced in 1901. It was designed for Kodak Brownie No. 2 box camera. The 120 format is still being used today and is referred to as medium format. Kodak’s 620 format was introduced in 1932. Only difference between the 120 format and the 620 format is the size of the spools. The same is true for the 116/616 Kodak roll film formats. The 116 roll film was introduced in 1899 and Kodak brought out the 616 film in 1931. Basically the same film but different spools sizes to fit different cameras.

Kodak’s 122 film is another format still found in family attics. Introduced and designed for the Kodak 3A folding camera in 1903, the negatives were a massive 3 ¼ x 5 ½ inches. It was often referred to as the Postcard format because it could be contact printed directly to Kodak’s postcard photographic paper.

One of my personal 122 negatives I digitized. I think this would have made a wonderful postcard.

Most of Kodak’s early roll films had a rectangular format. Prints were made by contact printing so the larger the negative the better the printed image.


Kodak’s 120 and 620 film formats were also originally a rectangular format. However a square format soon became available.

In 1912 Kodak introduced the 127 film format. It was designed to be used in their Kodak Vest Pocket folding camera. Initially, it was a rectangular format, but later with the introduction of the Bakelite cameras, a square format was introduced. A half frame format (basically the square split in half) came along. The rectangular format allowed for 8 exposures. The square format 12 exposures and the half frame format, 16 exposures.

The 135 film format had a long history. Inventor Thomas Edison in 1889 contacted George Eastman about making film for his new motion picture invention. He needed the film to be 35 millimeters wide and have sprockets on both edges to drive the film through his film projector. It wasn’t until 1934 that the 135 millimeter film was put into a cartridge and became the largest selling film ever. The film was offered in a 12 exposure roll, a 24 exposure roll, a 36 exposure roll and a 72 exposure roll, their half frame roll.

Kodak made another 135 film, the 828. Introduced in 1935, it was made for the Kodak Bantam camera. Unlike the 135 film, it only had one sprocket hole per frame. This gave it a larger image area. Only an 8 exposure roll, it had limited success.

Polypropylene 35-mm Negative Strip Protectors

Negative Strip Protectors for 6-Frame 35 mm Negative Strips. 1-9/16 x 9-1/4″ (38 x 235 mm). Use these chemically stable 2.4-mil polypropylene sleeves for storing 35 mm Negative Strips.

For Kodak, the evolution of film formats was a way to sell different cameras and different size rolls of film. Film grain, film speeds and film sizes were always being improved by Kodak. However, early on George Eastman and Kodak realized one size fits all was not the way to go to make a profit!

I still have scars from breaking open thousands of the 126 cassettes!

The introduction of the 126 format in 1963 was a major change, going back to Kodak’s original concept of making photography easy for the masses. No more having to load and wind film. The 126 film came in a simple cassette easily dropped into the camera. Its square format meant the image wasn’t cropped when printed. The 126 film came in 12 and 24 exposure rolls. I still have scars from breaking open thousands of the 126 cassettes! It was a very popular film format through the 60’s.

In the early 1970’s Kodak introduced the 110 format. The 110 cassette held 24 exposures. Terrible format IMO! The 110 was a very small negative. Very difficult to handle and work with. Any dust on the small negative ended up looking like snowballs on the print.

In 1982 Kodak brought out the disc format and camera. The disc held 15 exposures. Like the 110 the disc suffered from poor image quality.

Kodak, through the years has introduced many different film formats and cameras. Sadly with the almost total switch to digital, very few people are aware of these old cameras and films. Many of the old cameras still work! Usually the cameras are very inexpensive to purchase. The old negatives need to be saved and be digitized.  Also keep in mind until 1950; many of the negatives were a cellulose nitrate base which is highly flammable. Negatives need to be separated and stored properly.

Stay tuned for more photo facts and history!

Acid-free Paper Envelope for 35-mm & 120 Negative Strips.

Archival Paper Envelope for 35 mm & 120 Negative Strips. Made of 10 Pt. Folder Stock. Acid-free and lignin-free paper – Unbuffered. 10-1/4 x 3-9/16″