The History Of The Camera

Photography has come a long way in the last 3,000 years or so. Mankind’s obsession with capturing the present is enduring and exciting.

500 BCE – The Camera Obscura

A Camera Obscura

You probably know it as the “pinhole camera”. The camera osbcura’s first documented use was in China back in 500 BCE! However, it’s entirely possible that it was around for much longer than that.

965 AD – The Essays Of Ibn al-Haytham

Ibn-Al-Haytham was an Arabic physicist who spent many years documenting the camera obscura and its applications. Some even credit him with the invention of the camera but this is, perhaps, too generous an assessment. 

1400 AD – Optical Design

You can’t have cameras without lenses and though there was certainly work done on lenses before the 1400s, particularly in Islamic cultures, the bulk of the work that would lead to the modern camera began here. 

1500 AD – Leonardo Da Vinci

Da Vinci is famous for having fully documented the camera obscura but he also provided instruction for developing the first lenses in Western culture. 

1604 AD – Kepler Coins “Photograph”

Joseph Kepler

It was the astronomer Joseph Kepler who invented the word “photograph” to mean “a drawing of light”. He used the term in conjunction with his own efforts to project telescope images onto paper so that he could draw them. 

1717 AD – Johann Heinrich Schulze Does Chemistry

Schulze did something clever in 1717 when he showed that you could use light to darken a solution of silver nitrate. However, this didn’t mean that cameras were invented the next day, there remained a certain challenge in “fixing” the medium to ensure it just didn’t keep getting darker over time.

1827 – View From A Window At Le Gras

View From a Window in Le Gras

In fact, it was 110 years later when the earliest, surviving, photograph would be captured. Nicephore Niepce spread chemicals over a sheet of metal and took a photograph. It took just umm… 8 hours to expose it properly. 

1835 – 1839 – Celluloid Film Development

In 1835, Henry Fox Talbot made it possible to affix silver nitrate to paper. This was a big deal as much of the cost of photography, until then, was in the metal plates required to take each photo with. Then in 1839, another astronomer, John Herschel, invented a way to “fix” the image. 

1839 – Along Comes The Daguerreotype 

The first item that could be used by “the masses” to take photos was invented in 1839 and it was called the daguerreotype. Of course, when we say “masses”, we mean the filthy rich in both money and time. As it was expensive and incredibly time consuming. 

1840 – The Petzval Lens

The lens that would make cameras a real possibility, however, arrived a year after the daguerreotype; it was a Petzval F3.5 and it was invented by Joseph Petzval. It would fall out of favor in later years, but you can still buy Petzval lenses for modern cameras from Lomography. 

1841 – The Camera Arrives At Last

Voigtlander First Camera

The daguerreotype, for many reasons, wasn’t a proper “camera”. The first camera was built by Voigtlander (the lens company that is still around today) which could use lenses that were specifically built for photography. 

1848 – The Birth Of Photojournalism

Photojournalism didn’t take long to emerge after the invention of the camera. The first known incidence of photojournalism took place in France in 1848 and it was used to capture the June Days revolution among French workers. 

1861 – Photojournalism Heads West

It didn’t take long for the American press to catch up with Europe and the first major photojournalism projects in the country were during the US Civil War. The public loved it and the photograph has endured in the press ever since. 

1878 – The Horse

Eadweard Muybridge Horse

Eadweard Muybridge’s name doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but in 1878, he did something amazing. He captured the motion of a horse using a camera! And from there… well, cinematography was born. 

1888 – Kodak Enters The Market

George Eastman took a look at photography and instinctively knew what celluloid roll film meant, it was time for a mass market product that everyone could use. Kodak’s original slogan was “you push the button, we do the rest.” 

1889 – The Anastigmat Lens

The first lens that was fully corrected for optical aberrations was invented by Carl Zeiss in 1889 and the anastigmat lens would swiftly replace the Petzval as the number one choice of portrait photographers everywhere. 

1913 – Leica Lands

Leica 1

Leica’s position as a luxury camera maker is pretty much unassailable today. But in 1913, Oskar Barnack decided that the size of film formats wasn’t particularly practical and he invented a camera which would use the 24x36mm format and the Leica 1. Today we call this format “full frame” in digital cameras. 

1928 – The Rolleiflex TLR

The twin lens reflex (TLR) camera was invented in 1928 and though it used medium format film, the Rolleiflex TLR was very portable and much easier to move around than previous cameras had been. 

1933 – The Exata SLR

The SLR (single lens reflex) camera was invented by Ihagee Exakta in 1933 and it used 127 roll film before being adapted to use 135 film a few years later. 

1934 – Kodak Joins The 35mm Revolution

It may have been Leica that started it but it was Kodak’s Retina 1 that launched in 1934 that guaranteed the success of the 35mm format. Though it was still quite expensive for most ordinary people it would swiftly be replaced by the more affordable Argus A and Argus C3 lines.

1948  – Contax Brings The Pentaprism

While the pentaprism focusing system had been invented in Hungary in 1947, it was the Contax S that first utilized it and made it popular among photographers. It was the first time that photographers had been able to shoot while looking through the viewfinder at eye-height. 

1948 – The Polaroid Model 95 Brings Instant Imagest

Polaroid Model 95

Yes, the world’s first instant picture camera was invented by Edwin Land and we know it as the Polaroid Model 95. However, to most photographers of its day? It was called the “Land Camera” after its inventor. 

1957 – The Modern 35mm SLR Is Invented by Pentax

The SLR would become the dominant camera type of the 20th century and the first modern single-lens reflex camera appeared in 1957 and was called “the Pentax”. Asahi Optical, the company that invented it, would eventually be known by the camera’s brand as it proved incredibly popular.

1959 – The Nikon F System Appears

Pentax may have invented the SLR but it was Nikon that would refine it to near perfection in the form of the Nikon F. This pro-grade system included multiple lenses, drive motors and many other integrated accessories. 

1965 – The Polaroid Goes Mass Market

The Model 20 Swinger was introduced in 1965 and while not exactly cheap, it made instant photography affordable to many people and it is still considered one of the best selling cameras of all time, today. 

1975 – Kodak Invents The Digital Camera

Kodak First Digital Camera

From here on in, it was clear that the future was digital. Well, except to Kodak’s board who killed their digital research because they wanted to sell film. However, before that happened Steven Sassoon of Kodak’s engineering section designed the first ever digital camera. It weighed 4 kilos!

1981 – Sony Launches The Mavica

The Mavica was an odd, almost digital, device. It took images using a TV camera’s sensor and then saved them onto a 2-inch floppy disk. The images were 570 x 490 and you could hold 50 on each disk. The shutter speed was fixed at 1/60 and the ISO was 200. Sadly, it may have had an official launch but it never actually went on sale.

1986 – The First Digital Camera For Sale

Canon launched the RC-701 in 1986 for professional photographers (it cost $1,500 once you’d bought all the necessary accessories, which made it very expensive). The image quality was dire and the only real market was newspapers looking for rapid image transmission. 

1990 – The First Consumer Digital Camera Goes On Sale

Logitech Fotoman

Fuji was meant to get to market with the DS-1P in 1988, but it didn’t. And it was the Logitech Fotoman or Dycam Model 1 that would be the first commercially available consumer digital camera and yes, you could download images from it to a PC.

1994 – Apple Makes A Camera?

No. Apple did launch the QuickTake100 in 1994. It cost under $1,000 and was the first full color digital camera. But, they didn’t make it. Kodak did and then Apple slapped their badge on it. They also launched a QuickTake200 a few years later, this time it was made by Fuji not Kodak.

1995 – Today

In 1995, it was clear, digital had won the camera wars. Casio released the QV-10 and things were never the same again. SLRs would go digital thanks to Sony, Canon, Nikon, etc. and they’re still slugging it out today to see which brand will eventually reign supreme. 

1999 – The Camera Phone

Visual Phone VP-210

The camera phone began in 1999 with Kyocera launching the Visual Phone VP-210 in 1999 and by 2003, the camera phone had overtaken regular camera sales for the first time.

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