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History of the Camera

The history of the camera sometimes veers away from the history of photography, at times the two are not mutually dependant. The camera as we know it is a more modern invention, prior to the industrial revolution "photographers" used a variety of chemical techniques and image capturing processes but by no means did they use something you could consider a camera. In fact the camera traces its roots back earlier than photography back to the camera obscura, a device first recorded in 1021 in the Book of Optics by Ibn al-Haytham. The Camera Obscura uses a pinhole to project an image of a scene onto a viewing surface (albeit the image is upside down).


The camera obscura was used by everyone from artists to astronomers to advance their work, however it was very rarely used for pleasure as there was no way to preserve the image produced other than by painting it. The first real small and practical camera that could be used as we might recognise today was developed in 1685 by Johann Zahn. Sadly it never caught the public imagination and remained as a prototype for over a century. Niepce produced something akin to a modern camera when he produced his first image in 1814, and the Daguerreotype (discussed elsewhere in our article on the history of photography) can be considered one of the first practical applications of a camera. Sliding boxes allowed the device to be focused, however it was still very unwieldy and required hazardous chemicals as part of the development process.


The gelatine dry plate was invented by Richard Leach Maddox in 1871 and this allowed cameras to be produced far smaller than was every thought possible in the past. Something akin to a revolution occurred with inventors producing cameras in all shapes and sizes. A craze in miniturisation took place with designers developing cameras that could be concealed in hats, pocket watches, stationary and a variety of other items. It was not until photographic film was developed in 1885 by George Eastman that modern photography was truly born, and the "Kodak" camera was introduced shortly after in 1888. The Kodak was incredibly easy to use and came loaded with enough film for 100 shots. When the film had been used the entire camera was to be sent back to the factory where it would be developed and reset with another 100 shots worth of film.


Like all good businessmen Eastman seized upon the opportunity and expanded his line of cameras. The famous Brownie that was introduced in 1900 revolutionised the industry, in fact it was so popular that it was updated in various new forms until the '60's. Despite the obvious advantages offered by film cameras many professionals chose to stick with plate cameras as the quality of the finished article was much higher initially. In fact in some specialist industries such as astronomical cameras it was not until the advent of digital photography that plates eventually fell into obscurity.


The final phase in the creation of the modern camera came with the standardisation of the 35mm format. This came about when Oskar Barnack decided to experiment with 35mm cinema film when constructing a compact camera. He felt that this would allow for higher quality enlargements of any images that were taken, and his prototype was finished in 1913. Dubbed the "Ur-Leica" it was put on hold due to the events of World War I, however after the war it entered full production as the Leica I and proved to be so popular that competitors emerged overnight to copy the format and try to emulate Barnack's success. Eventually all major manufacturers adopted the 35mm format and until the advent of digital photography the industry changed very little.


Despite the basic technology behind the camera remaining somewhat static there were a number of innovations in the industry throughout the 1900's. The first reflex camera was developed in 1928 and proved to be something of a milestone, with the first SLR following in 1933. Viewfinder and lens technology also improved in the inter-war years resulting in much finer quality cameras and photographs. One cannot also underestimate the cultural impact of the Polaroid Model 95, the first instant camera, when it appeared on the market in 1948. It was not until digital photography became mainstream that Polaroid instants became obsolete, and many enjoyed the instant images that the camera could offer.