In the era of smart devices where fairly high quality cameras are slapped on tablets and smartphones, it’s easy to take for granted the little lenses that have captured family memories and created memes. So, it may be worth taking a look at the timeline of photographic innovations that have lead to the cameras carried in the pockets of the masses today.

The Camera Obscura

Optical technology is at the root of the history of photographic technology. In the 4th and 5th centuries B.C.E. Chinese and Greek philosophers provided a description of the optics that could make a rudimentary camera. It’s said the 11th century Iraqi scientistic named Alhazen brought the optical descriptions to life by creating the camera obscura, which couldn’t capture images, but projected an upside-down image onto a surface. Later, by the mid-17th century, lenses were added which allowed for light to be focused.

Still life with plaster casts, made by Daguerre in 1837, the earliest reliably dated daguerreotype

Early Photographic Innovation

A turning point for photography was when French scientist Joseph Nicephore Niepce used a camera obscura to develop the first photographic image in 1827. He did this with an engraving placed onto metal plate that had a coat of bitumen and exposed it to light. He then placed the plate into solvent that would develop an image. The major glitches with this process is that exposure took upwards of 8 hours and the image on the plate would fade.

Another Frenchman named Louis Daguerre was also conducting experiments on capturing images. His aim was the images shouldn’t fade and need a lot of exposure time. Eventually, this led to just that innovation. He, along with the help of Niepce, created the daguerreotype. This process used a silver-coated copper plate that was exposed to iodine vapor. The plate was placed into a camera and exposed to light for less than 30 minutes. Following this the plate was bathed in silver chloride. The result was an image that would not fade over time.

Emulsion Plates

Soon after, cheaper and quicker alternatives to the daguerreotype came along in the form of emulsion or wet plates which utilized a collodion process. Two different forms of wet plates were used during this time: ambrotype and the tintype. The ambrotype used a glass plate while the tintype used a tin plate. What they both had in common however, is they had to be exposed and developed before the emulsion dried, which often meant photographers would have to carry all of the necessary chemicals and have a darkroom in wagons everywhere they went.

Gelatin Dry Plates

In the mid-1870s Richard Maddox created a photographic process that fixed where the wet plates fell short. These were glass plates coated with a dried gelatin emulsion. This meant once an image was exposed, it could easily be stored and developed at a later date.

Flexible Roll Film and the Consumer Photographer

Ad for the first Kodak camera. Image courtesy of Bettmann/Corbis.Flexible Roll Film and the Consumer Photographer

In 1889, George Eastman invented a cellulose nitrate coated film base that was flexible and could be rolled up. This lead to creation of the the relatively cheap and simple box camera that he dubbed the “Kodak”. This camera came preloaded with film that could create 100 exposures. After the film was used, the consumer simply had to send the camera in for prints to be developed and the camera to be reloaded with film. Suddenly, photography was accessible to the average Joe.

Photography: A New Art Form?

Up to around 1890, photography seemed more of a science than an artform. However, that was about to change with contributions from the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz believed photography should’ve been held at the same esteem as the other fine arts like painting and drawing. He became the editor of Camera Notes, the journal of the Camera Club of New York. However, in 1902 turmoil in the club led him to break away from the club and create his own organization and publication for amateur photographers called the Photo-Secession. This group was bent on creating the legitimacy of photography as an art form. Rather than use photography as a documentary-style format they adopted degrees of Pictorialism, which could allow for the emphasis of  beauty on subjects, tonality, and composition much like the other fine arts. This all was in the effort to prove that a camera, in the hands of an artist, had just as much power to create an aesthetically beautiful piece as the brush or charcoal.

Land Model 95. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ilchenko.

Click, Shoot, Enjoy

In 1948, American inventor and physicist Edwin Herbert Land unveiled his first instant-film camera, the Land Camera 95 under Land’s Polaroid Company. This camera utilized a patented chemical process that was able to create prints from negatives right in front of the photographer. The company kept refining and innovating its technologies and produced different models of cameras over the years. The perks of this type of camera and film combo was that it was fast, affordable, and cut out the middleman developer.

More Camera Control

In the 1950s, major camera companies introduced SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras which allowed for photographers to take greater control of their images. These cameras featured the ability for interchangeable lenses and other components. SLRs quickly became the staple for photographers for decades to come.

“No Fuss” Cameras

In the mid-1970s and early 1980s innovations were made to make cameras less hands on. The casual photographer didn’t want to worry about shutter speed, aperture, and focus. So, new technology was created that allowed cameras to calculate all of the variables on their own to where the photographer just had to frame a subject and press a button. This marked the dawn of the “point and shoot” camera.

The One Where Cameras Went Digital

The 1980s and 1990s was a playground for camera manufacturers in their conquest to cut film from the picture and usher in the age of digitally stored images. By the early 90s most major manufacturers had not only point-and-shoot digital cameras available on the market, but digital SLR cameras as well. Now both the casual and professional photographer had the ability to use the ease of digital photographs.

Cameras… On Phones?

By the late 1990s and early 2000s tech companies were innovating ways to include cameras into cell phones. This use of these cameras was for consumers to easily capture, save, and send photos to each other. However, what really popularized the phone-integrated camera was the release of the first iPhone by Apple in 2008. With it’s easy-to-use proprietary app and ability to be used by many of other apps, it has set the tone for the last decade where every phone has a camera as well.

The First iPhone. Image courtesy of Arnold Reinhold.

From a simple projection to the cameras in our pockets, photography has seen quite an evolution. So next time there’s a cute dog pic that shows up as a message, remember how far the medium has come.

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