The History of the Camera: How Each Camera Has Evolved
If you thought the camera was invented in 1860, think again. The history of the camera stretches way further back than you'd think.
Ah, the camera. Right now, we take more photos in a single day than humanity has taken, in total, in the past 100 years—or so we're told, anyway. Cameras have become as commonplace as cars, televisions, and books.
But, there was once a time when cameras did not exist. It's hard to believe, but we all know it to be true. However, what most people might be shocked to hear is that cameras are far older than we give them credit for.
If you're curious to find out how the history of the camera started, how cameras evolved, and where we got to the point we're at now, this article will help you learn everything you've ever wanted to know about photography.
A common belief that the net has helped grow is the idea that cameras, as a concept, started off in the 19th century. This is only partly true. Most cameras that were created were based off the camera obscura effect.
As far back as the 5th century BC, people noticed a strange effect that would happen when light would be shown through a pinhole. More specifically, they noticed that images would be projected upside down onto the opposing surface.
In the 4th century BC, Chinese philosopher Mozi pointed out that the image was inverted due to light's tendency to travel in a straight line from its source. In certain cases, artists would actually use a camera obscura to get better, more accurate depictions in their paintings and drawings.
This effect later led to the creation of the first pinhole-type camera obscura, which was created by the 11th century Arab scientist Alhazen. That being said, none of the first cameras involved film of any sort.
To get a real image involving film, you'd have to wait until the 19th century. (We'll get into that fairly soon.)
You can still toy around with old world camera obscuras if you want to. This physics demonstration kit, for example, shows how the camera obscura worked.
1816: The first photograph was taken.
It literally took over 2000 years from the time that we learned about the camera obscura to the time that we were able to add film to a camera. Crazy, isn't it? French inventor Nicéphore Niépce was the first one to ever make a photograph happen.
The photograph was taken with a pinhole camera, with the film being paper that was painted with silver chloride. As light hit the silver, the paper would darken. Unfortunately, Niépce did not have a way to stop the silver from darkening—which meant that his photos were only temporary.
By 1830, he started working with an optics box made by Charles and Vincent Chevalier, and used paper that was covered with Bitumen of Judea. The Bitumen would harden where light was brightest, while the darker portions would dissolve away.
This was considered to be the first permanent film photographs ever taken. It's worth pointing out, though, that Niépce's work actually laid out the foundations for much of the technology we use today.
It's not just the concept of film that he helped create, nor was he just a founder in the history of the camera as we know it. His chemistry was what really made a difference. In fact, silver chloride is still used to develop photography film today. That's some serious staying power.
If you've heard of daguerrotypes, then congrats, you have probably read up a little bit on the history of the camera. Daguerrotype cameras were the first real "practical cameras" to be invented and distributed throughout France.
A daguerrotype camera had copper plates that were treated with silver iodide. After the image was exposed to light via the camera obscura, it was developed with mercury vapor. Needless to say, these cameras are a bit too toxic to keep in existence.
However, they did break a lot of history and helped improve the sharpness of film photography. The vast majority of the first presidential and royal portraits were done with daguerrotypes—and that's a huge deal.
Presidents who have gotten their daguerrotypes taken include John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln. You can still find reproductions of these prints online and buy them. (Crazy, right?)
1840: Alexander Wolcott gets the first US patent for his camera.
Ouch, much? You'd think with all the things that French inventors did for the history of the camera, you'd end up seeing them snag the first patents, but no.
1857: The dry plate process is invented by Désiré van Monckhoven.
Dry plate photography used similar processes to a daguerrotype, but switched iron plates for copper plates and used colloidal emulsions to get better photos. The plates were covered with the emulsions, then allowed to dry before use.
By 1871, a man by the name of Dr. Richard L. Maddox upgraded photographic plates and began using silver gelatin emulsions to get better sensitivity to light and sharper images. You actually can develop dry plate photos using regular film developer now.
This photography method removed the need to sit for long periods of time and also got rid of the need to have a tripod (though now we use the best tripods for traveling since we know how stable they make a shot). This was a huge advance in the history of the camera. Most people who study it trace current roll films back to the dry plate process.
Now, we're starting to get into the meat and potatoes of the history of the camera. The first camera brand that still really exists is Kodak, and it was invented by George Eastman.
The original Kodak box came with 100 sheets of film, offered flexible film rolls, and basically kicked off the idea of a snapshot. By 1900, the Kodak "Brownie" box became the first mass-marketed camera in existence.
The Kodak Brownie camera also became a contemporary of the Reisecamera—the first real "portable travel" camera to ever be made. This helped set the stage for just about every travel camera that was ever made.
Fun Fact: The first Kodak film rolls weren't 35mm. Most formats that were used were Medium Sized film, more specifically 120mm. You can still shoot in 120mm film today, and even buy specialized medium format films online, like the best medium format film for ambient lighting.
Leica cameras became known for their quality and excellent photographs. Within a matter of years, everyone had a Leica camera and 35mm quickly became the standard film size. If you take a look above, you'll also notice that Leica cameras didn't really change too much when it comes to their design.
Below is a Leica camera from 1913.
Looks like you just can't change perfection, right?
It's true. The evolution of the Polaroid kicked off shortly after World War II. Polaroid became a huge hit since it was the first camera to develop film within a minute's time, right out of the camera.
You can take a look at the modern version of a Polaroid camera above. It's still mostly mechanical, but has a more streamlined, smooth body. It's relatively lightweight and comes in a variety of colors. After taking a picture with this camera, you can try out creative Polaroid manipulation techniques. They also have newer cameras that have a more Leica-like build.
Below is a photo of the original Polaroid camera.
It flipped open, was encased in leather, had a flashbulb, and also had a weird "accordion" portion to it. It's barely recognizable from what you see in Urban Outfitters, isn't it?
This is a major step in the history of the camera, simply because seeing the range of Nikon F cameras and their evolution is a great way to see how technology changes over the decades. Nikon's F line is known for being the highest degree of professional-quality camera offered by the brand.
So far, only six iterations of the F line have been made. The F6 is the most recent, and has been in production since 2004.
Take a look at the original Nikon F camera.
Its boxy build, metal parts, and very Leica-like appearance makes it almost unrecognizable from what you'd expect. Oh, how far we've come!
Autofocus had been developed by Leica since 1960, but it took 17 years to make it fully functional. Oddly enough, Leica basically abandoned the concept after they created it, leaving their decision to be one of the most enigmatic in the history of the camera company itself.
The first mass-produced camera to have autofocus was the Konica C35AF—a model almost identical to the one that you see above. It soon became known as a camera feature that was heavily linked with both Nikon and Canon SLRs.
1981: Sony creates the first digital camera.
It was a digital still camera called the Sony Mavica. It basically used video camera technology to create digital stills. It wasn't very practical, and couldn't really be used in many situations. The Mavica was not really that much of a hit and didn't really get mass produced.
The first mass-produced digital camera was the Canon RC-701, which was marketed in 1986. So, digital cameras were around for a while, however, it really wasn't too popular.
By 1991, Polaroid took another swing at digital cameras. They ended up making the first Digital Camera System for photojournalists. It was a Nikon F3 that worked at about 1.3 megapixels. (Needless to say, we'd probably laugh at that by now.)
Adoption of digital cameras was sluggish at best. It would take until 1994 for digital cameras to be marketed to consumers, and that all started with the Apple QuickTake 100.
Believe it or not, disposable cameras are YOUNGER than digital cameras. Surprising? Absolutely. You'd think that the history of the camera would have disposables come first, but nope. They are a 32-year-old concept.
Fuji was the first company to create disposable cameras for mass-market use, and they were made for tourists that forgot their cameras at home.
They were a hit and still continue to be used today.
2000: The first cameraphone was released to mass market.
The first real cameraphone was not released in the US; it was released in Japan. The phone was called the J-SH04 by Sharp, and it was actually not that popular.
For a while, the history of the camera seemed like it would be untouched by phones. However, the concept's popularity grew... and the rest is history.
By the 2010s, iPhones had become the new handheld camera, and using apps to get photos edited and uploaded to social media became commonplace. These days, having an iPhone is the easiest way to get world-class images that would have easily been professional quality in the past.
Cameras continued to get smaller, thinner, and more high-resolution. The Light.co camera, for example, blends over a dozen different focal points to get HD perfection.
VR, too, started to get attention via the invention of the Lytro VR camera around 2017. However, a deal with Google shut the camera down—but not the technology. In the future, photography very well may be a virtual reality experience.