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Photography is almost two hundred years old. The history of the camera however, dates back long before the first photographs were ever developed. The evolution of the modern camera began with the camera obsucra principle and continued a long path of change that included landmarks such as the daguerreotype, calotypes, dry plates, film and finally, digital imaging. Here is a quick look at how things evolved before our cameras got so advanced.
The camera obscura
The earliest stages of the development of the camera obscura took place in ancient China and Greece. The camera principle basically consists of a device that uses a pinhole, or a lens to project a scene upside down onto a viewing surface. Before the discovery of the actual photographic process, the only way to record what the camera saw was to manually trace everything. Early cameras where the size of rooms and could fit people inside. In 1685, Johann Zahn envisioned a more portable device for the process; however, it would take another 150 years before it would be applied in real life.
Fixing the images
In 1816, a breakthrough came from the French inventor Niecephore Niepce. He coated a piece of paper with silver chloride which darkened when it was exposed to light. The first permanent photograph was made by Niepce in 1826. He then coated a pewter plate with bitumen and exposed it. Bitumen hardens when struck by light. The photograph survives to this day.
This was the world’s first practical method for photographing. It was invented by Louis Daguerre who partnered up with Niepce. The later unfortunately died before he could see the project completed. The process would probably be considered highly toxic by today’s standards. Daguerre used a copper plate which he coated with silver and made sensitive to light with iodine vapor. The developing was done with mercury vapor and the fixing via sodium chloride, also known as regular salt.
Daguerreotype camera. Photo source: Camerapedia
The dry plate
In 1871, Richard Leach Maddox invented the gelatin dry plate. For the first time, the wet plate would be rivaled in terms of quality and speed of operation. It was also the first time in history that camera sizes were reduced enough to enable hand held use.
There was also significant progress in the use of shorter exposure times. The innovation that gave birth to these new possibilities was the mechanical shutter. Early models were individual pieces detached from the cameras. The built-in shutter first emerged at the beginning the 20th century.
Enter the photographic film
In 1885, pioneer George Eastman began making paper film and he did so until 1889 when progress taught him celluloid was better. The world’s first Kodak camera started selling in 1888. It was a rudimentary box with a fixed focal lens and a single shutter speed, but it had a good price tag and thus became attractive for ordinary users. The film was preloaded into the camera and enabled no less than 100 exposures. Of course, after you exposed the film you had to return it to the factory for developing. The famous Brownie model came out in 1900. It was the camera that gave the concept of snapshot. In fact, it became so popular that it was available for buying until sometime in the early 60s.
Although George Eastman was making history with his portable and affordable cameras, the choice of professionals was still the plate cameras, largely due to superior image quality. Film cameras offered the advantage of multiple exposures and to compete with that, plate camera manufacturers started supplying magazines that would hold several.
The 35 mm film, otherwise known as the Leica format
Oskar Barnack, the man responsible for development at the Leitz Company, wanted to know how useful 35 mm cine film would be for still photography. He also wanted to build a compact camera capable of offering high quality prints. He built this camera, called prototype Ur- Leica, in 1913. Further development was stalled however by the outbreak of WWI. Testing resumed after the war and between 1923-1924, enough positive feedback was received that the company decided to mass produce the Leica I ( for Leitz camera). Because it became an immensely popular camera, competition started to emerge from the likes of Contax and other German manufacturers. The immediate result was an increase in quality of the cameras and the consolidation of the format.
Kodak entered the 35 mm game in 1934, with the introduction of the Retina I. It was the camera that introduced the 135 cartridge used in all modern film cameras. The Retina was inexpensive, but it took a while before the choice of the people would change from roll film to 35 mm. All that would change in 1939 when the Argus C3 hit the market.
Argus C3. Photo: camera-wiki
It was still not the cheapest camera one could buy, but it put the 35 mm format in top position. The C3 had a long, thriving career until it was finally discontinued in 1966.
The first single lens reflex camera that was actually practical was the Ihagee Exacta, which was introduced in 1933 and used 127 roll film
The transition to the 35mm format happened six years later when the Kine Exakta came out. The design of these cameras quickly became popular because they were compact and relatively easy to use. After the Second World War, camera manufacturers massively focused their production on 35 mm SLRs. The first Japanese model was the Asahi (later changed to Pentax) Asahiflex. The rest soon followed and the world massively started enjoying quality cameras from Nikon, Canon and Yashica.
Autofocus and auto-exposure
In 1960, the German Mec 16SB became the first camera to use a light meter for accurate measuring. The more advanced, through the lens system ( TTL) was first used on a SLR by the Japanese company Topcon in 1962, on their model RE Super.
The word’s first mass produced camera to use autofocus was the simple, compact Konica C35AF introduced in 1977. The Polaroid SX-70 OneStep was the first SLR to incorporate autofocus.
The digital revolution
The idea of digital photography goes back to the late 60s. However, the first recorded attempt to build a digital camera was in 1975 and belonged to Kodak engineer Steven Sasson. The camera he designed had a CCD sensor, weighed 8 pounds, and recorded 0,01 megapixel images on compact cassette tapes. This was the first sign that film would eventually be replaced, but of course at that time everybody ignored it, especially since this was only an experiment that wasn’t designed for mass production.
Fast forward to 1988, when Fuji produced the first, true, digital camera, the DS-1P which recorded on an internal 16MB memory card. It was never sold in the US and there is also insufficient proof that it was available in Japan. The first commercially available camera came out two years later and was called the Logitech Fotoman. It had a CCD sensor, digital storage and could connect directly to a computer.
The development of the JPG format helped the transition from traditional, physical photography to digital capture and storage.
In the professional market, Kodak broke the ice with the DCS-100. It was a gigantic storage unit that had a 1, 3 megapixel sensor and at that time was priced at $13,000.
The first, real, fully developed by one company DSLR in the world was the Nikon D1, introduced in 1999.
It has the standard F-mount, a 2,7mpx sensor and it changed the world of professional photography forever. Of course, now you get 4 times that resolution with your smartphone.