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Then and Now: The Evolution of the Camera

May 08, 2012 10:10AM ● By Erin Frisch

The Evolution of the Camera

Today, most of us have good-quality digital cameras on our cell phones. This makes it easy to capture memories anytime and anywhere. Younger generations may not realize it, but photography was not always such a quick and easy feat. Not so long ago, capturing a photo required painstaking techniques on the part of the photographer and exacting stillness on the part of the subject.

Camera Obscura

The development of the camera began with the ancient Chinese and Greek philosophers, who noted that when a light passes through a pinhole and into a dark area, an inverted image is produced. This led to the forerunner of the photographic camera, the camera obscura. It was more of a projector than a camera, and the image had to be traced by the observer in order to be captured. The first portable model was made in the late 1600s and was used as a drawing aid.

Plate Cameras

The first permanent photograph was made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the early 1800s. Cameras at that time consisted of a pair of nested boxes with a lens at one end and a removable ground glass focusing screen at the other. Images were focused by sliding the boxes closer together or farther apart and were recorded on light-sensitive plates. Exposure times could be anywhere from hours to days. In 1839, silver-coated copper Daguerreotype plates were the first commercially successful photographic medium. These were followed by wet plates that had to be prepared immediately before taking the photograph, and then by dry plates, which allowed for smaller cameras (with bellows for focusing rather than nested boxes) and shortened exposure times (still seconds to minutes).

Film Cameras

Continuing the trend toward more compact cameras was the development of film. In the late 1880s, George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, developed roll film. He also developed inexpensive cameras, such as the Brownie, that appealed to the average consumer and that introduced the concept of the snapshot. In 1925, the Leica I became the first mass-produced, 35mm-film camera, and this became the format of choice for high-end compact film cameras. Twin-lens reflex (TLR) cameras and single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras that originated back in the days of the plate camera gained popularity when redesigned as more compact models to use film. The 1940s saw the invention of the eye-level viewfinder. This was followed by automation of light metering to determine exposure time, then by automation of shutter speed and aperture setting.

Instant Camera

In 1948, Edwin Land (cofounder of the Polaroid Corporation) unveiled the first commercially available instant camera. The instant camera creates a developed image on self-developing film within minutes. This was the first type of camera to allow users to see photographs immediately, allowing them to recompose the shot and take another if their first attempts did not turn out as anticipated. These cameras also found uses for taking identity card photos, passport photos, and ultrasound photos.

Digital Cameras

The predecessor to the true digital camera was the analog electronic camera developed in the early 1980s. This functioned as a still video camera, taking a still image and storing it as a single frame of video. The first true digital camera was introduced by Fuji in 1988. Digital cameras work by recording images with an electronic image sensor and saving them to a memory-card storage device. The images can then be downloaded from the storage device to a computer. Most digital cameras today accomplish what originally made the instant camera unique—the ability to view photographs immediately after taking them—as well as the added feature of being able to save or delete the photo. Today, digital technology has been incorporated into compact (point-and-shoot) cameras, video cameras, SLR, and other high-end professional cameras, as well as most cellular phones.

The Future . . .

As we can see, the camera has changed significantly since its inception. As you read this, a start-up company is working on a compact light-field camera that works by taking in light traveling in many different directions allowing multiple photographs to be taken simultaneously. This technology lets you combine multiple images to improve contrast or to adjust the focus of a shot to different objects in the visual field after the photograph has been taken. As digital technology continues to be explored and developed, we can only imagine what the future of the camera we know and love today will be.

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