The evolution of the camera

A brief history of photography

From the camera obscura to smart phone digital cameras, very few discoveries and inventions have had such a major impact on our lives. Recorded history, scientific discoveries and the new term “selfies” are all a result of the invention of the camera.

Camera obscura, Latin for “dark room” is an apparatus such as a dark room with a small hole in one wall to project an image outside the room onto the opposite wall. This creates a natural optical phenomenon that projects an inverted and reversed copy of the image. Early artists in the 17th century used the camera obscura in their work. Camera obscura was the early example of the modern day camera and the starting point of photography.

This is also the theory of pin hole cameras. Reinerus Frisius Gemma was a Dutch physician, mathematician, astronomer and cartographer. In January of 1544 he used a camera obscura to study an eclipse of the sun. This was still not a camera as we know it today because they had no way to capture the image. The plate below is considered to be the first illustration of a camera obscura and this is how Gemme would have viewed the eclipse.

Camera obscuras were lens-less, using a small hole instead of a lens. This produced a soft image. It is easy to see how this was considered the first camera. In the 18th century, a lens was added, and instead of just projecting onto a wall, more control was achieved by making the camera obscura smaller and using materials like tracing paper to project an image onto. The lens produced a sharper image and also had better light gathering properties. This was closer to our vision of a camera, but still not quite there.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was a French inventor, now usually credited as the inventor of photography and a pioneer in that field.

In 1816, Joseph Niépce used a piece of paper coated with silver chloride which darkened when exposed to light. Unfortunately he had no way to stop the darkening and the image shortly disappeared. Niépce would partner with Louis Daguerre until Niépce’s death in 1833. Daguerre continued to experiment and improve on Niépce’s early methods. By 1833, Daguerre had perfected a photographic process, using a copper plate coating it with a light-sensitive compound of silver iodide. This was exposed in the camera and then removed and developed using mercury vapors and then fixing it (stopping further development) in a strong salt solution. Louis Daguerre was an entrepreneur and businessman. A firm believer in self-promotion, he named his process Daguerreotypes.

Daguerre’s camera used a high quality lens and a removable back, allowing for the insertion of his copper plate film holder. Now we are seeing a camera!

Daguerreotypes were short lived. It was a difficult process to master. The copper plate had to be perfectly polished and the chemicals evenly distributed over the plate. The chemicals were highly toxic. Timing of the whole process had to be precise, and exposure times were long.

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Wet plate technology replaced Daguerreotypes. Wet plates were similar to Daguerreotypes but instead of using a copper plate, wet plates used a glass plate instead of a copper plate. Still a difficult process to master, it rapidly replaced daguerreotypes. Dry plates were next. These replace the wet plates, offering pre-coated plates ready to use in the cameras.

In 1878, gelatin coated plates replaced the dry collodion plates. These emulsions were more highly light sensitive and greatly shortened exposure times.

It wasn’t long before George Eastman, an entrepreneur, came along and simplified the photographic process, opening it up to the amateur market.

Kodak’s first camera was simple by today’s standards, but it offered many features that made it ideal for almost anyone to take pictures. The shutter (part that controlled the amount of light entering the camera) needed to be cocked or set. This was done by a string on the top of the camera, then triggered by a button on the side of the camera. After taking the picture the key on top of the camera was turned to advance to the next frame. The first Kodak did not have a view finder. The camera was aimed using a couple of “V” shaped marks on the top of the camera.

Most cameras of the time were still using dry glass plates as the negative base. In 1888, Kodak introduced flexible gelatin roll film. This allowed easy loading of camera film. While glass negative plates continued to be made into the early 1900’s, the ease of Kodak’s flexible films quickly advanced the amateur and hobby markets. The first Kodak produced 100 circular photos that were mounted on a cardboard backing.

The first camera was sold for $25, including loaded film and case. The camera would then be returned to Kodak, and processed for $10, then returned with a new roll of film. Amateurs and hobbyists could also develop the film themselves. At $25 plus processing, this was not an inexpensive toy!

Eastman made some changes and some advancements, and along came the Kodak Brownie.

The first Brownie was shipped in February, 1900. It introduced a new hinged back, making loading of film easier. It also introduced the square format roll film negative. But the most important advancement was a price of $1.00! A roll of film was an additional dollar. For $2.00 it was no longer just a camera for professionals or the wealthy, but also for the masses! The Brownie was extremely easy to use. And George Eastman was a marketing genius. He aimed his marketing at children and young mothers.

Who could resist the Brownie logo?

The Brownie camera was tremendous success. From 1900 until the 1960’s Brownies were available indifferent shapes sizes and colors.

The Brownies, with their many film formats, 116, 620, 120 and 127 remained for many years the standard for mothers and children. Serious amateurs and hobbyists wanted something a bit more sophisticated.

In 1934 Kodak introduced the 135 daylight loading cassette. Kodak did not make 35mm cameras at that time but they were the major market for films. In 1938 they did start selling their own brand of Kodak 35mm cameras but these were most likely manufactured in Germany by a camera company Kodak owned. Kodak never tried to compete with higher quality cameras. George Eastman knew from his early Brownie years that the market for films and processing equipment and materials was a continuing salable product, unlike a one-time camera sale.

The camera of choice for amateurs, hobbyists and professionals was the 35mm. Some professionals did use the large 2 ¼ formats, but usually had a 35mm backup camera.

The first digital camera

Kodak once again led the way in photography making the first digital camera in 1975. George Eastman was long gone by this time and his imagination and marketing talents seemed to have passed with him. Instead of Kodak seeing the future, several major mistakes were made. Kodak management felt digital was a thing in the far future. They also felt their control of the photo processing and film markets couldn’t be challenged. Fuji proved them wrong on both counts.

Film is pretty much gone, as are photo chemicals, photo papers and Kodak. But photography is still here in full force. Digitization has revolutionized photography. People are taking more pictures then ever! Many still cameras now include the ability to take video. Thank you Joseph Niépce, Louis Daguerre and George Eastman!

-Bob Walden

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