The History of Camera Technology

What did cameras look like years ago compared to the ones in your hand today?

This history of camera technology overview will give you over 500 years of photography evolution to show you where it all began, the successes and failures and the people behind the invention.

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The Timeline of Camera Evolution (1500-2000)

Our look back at the evolution of cameras begins over 500 years ago and will take us right through to the 21st century.

  • Camera Obscura (1500’s)
  • Daguerreotype (1839)
  • Calotype (1840)
  • Wet Plate Prints / Dry Plates (1870)
  • Kodak Roll Film (1888)
  • 35mm Camera (1913)
  • Polaroid (1948)
  • Digital SLR (1988)
History of Camera Technology

What is a Camera Obscura?

The forerunner to the photographic camera was the camera obscura. Camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”) is the natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen or a wall is projected through a small hole in that screen and forms an inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening.

The oldest known record of this principle is a description by Han Chinese philosopher Mozi (c. 400 BC).

Image: Illustration of how a Camera Obscura works


Louis Daguerre was a French artist and photographer, known for his invention of the daguerreotype process of photography. He became known as one of the fathers of photography.

During 1829, Daguerre partnered with Nicéphore Niépce, another inventor. But Niépce died suddenly in 1833, which meant Daguerre continued experimenting alone an evolved the process which would subsequently be known as the daguerreotype. Though his efforts to interest private investors proved fruitless, Daguerre decided to public with his camera in 1839 instead.

The French Government made arrangements for the rights to the Daguerreotype in exchange for lifetime pensions for himself and Niépce’s son Isidore. The French Government presented the camera as a gift from France “free to the world”.

But the first photographic camera developed for commercial manufacture was a daguerreotype camera, built by Alphonse Giroux in 1839. Giroux signed a contract with Daguerre and Isidore Niépce to produce the cameras in France, with each device and accessories costing 400 francs.

Image: Daguerrotype Camera
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The Calotype Camera

English inventor, Henry Fox Talbot perfected a different process, the calotype, in 1840. Emulsion plates, or wet plates, were less expensive than daguerreotypes and required only two or three seconds of exposure time.

This made them much more suited to portrait photographs, which was the most common use of photography at the time. Many photographs from the Civil War were produced on wet plates.

These wet plates used an emulsion process called the Collodion process, rather than a simple coating on the image plate. It was during this time that bellows were added to cameras to help with focusing.

Image: The Calotype Camera

Ambrotype & Tintype Plates

There were two common types of emulsion plates were the ambrotype and the tintype. Ambrotypes used a glass plate instead of the copper plate of the daguerreotypes. Tintypes used a tin plate. While these plates were much more sensitive to light, they had to be developed quickly.

As commercialized, both processes used very simple cameras consisting of two nested boxes. The rear box had a removable ground glass screen and could slide in and out to adjust the focus.

After focusing, the ground glass was replaced with a light-tight holder containing the sensitized plate or paper and the lens was capped.

Then the photographer opened the front cover of the holder, uncapped the lens, and counted off as many minutes as the lighting conditions needed before replacing the cap and closing the holder.

Image: Tin Type Photography

Wet Plate Prints and Dry Plates

Dry plates had been available since 1857, thanks to the work of Désiré van Monckhoven, but it was not until the invention of the gelatin dry plate in 1871 by Richard Leach Maddox that the wet plate process could be rivalled in quality and speed.

The 1878 discovery that heat-ripening a gelatin emulsion greatly increased its sensitivity finally made so-called “instantaneous” snapshot exposures practical.
For the first time, a tripod or other support was no longer an absolute necessity.

Image: Wet Plate Collodion

The Invention of Kodak Roll Film

The use of photographic film was pioneered by George Eastman, who started manufacturing paper film in 1885 before switching to celluloid in 1888. His first camera, which he called the “Kodak”, was first offered for sale in 1888.

It was a very simple box camera with a fixed-focus lens and single shutter speed, which along with its relatively low price appealed to the average consumer.
The Kodak came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 shots.

Image: Early Kodak Roll Film

When was the First 35mm Camera Invented?

A number of manufacturers started to use 35 mm film for still photography between 1905 and 1913. The first 35 mm cameras available to the public in 1913.

The Japanese camera industry began to take off in 1936 with the Canon 35 mm rangefinder. Japanese cameras would begin to become popular in the West after Korean War veterans and soldiers stationed in Japan brought them back to the United States and elsewhere.

Around 1930, Henri-Cartier Bresson and other photographers began to use small 35mm cameras to capture images of life as it occurred rather than staged portraits. When World War II started in 1939, many photojournalists adopted this style.

Other Notable ‘Firsts’ in the History of Cameras

● First Polaroid Model 95 (1948)
● First Disposable Camera (1986)
● First DSLR (1988)
● First Digital Point and Shoot (1991)
● First Mirrorless (2004)

The first major post-war SLR (single lens reflex) innovation was the eye-level viewfinder. It first appeared on the Hungarian Duflex in 1947 and was refined in 1948 with the Contax S, the first camera to use a pentaprism.

Prior to this, all SLRs were equipped with waist-level focusing screens. The Duflex was also the first SLR with an instant-return mirror, which prevented the viewfinder from being blacked out after each exposure.

When were Polaroid & Digital Cameras Invented?

The world’s first viable instant-picture camera. Known as a Land Camera after its inventor, Edwin Land, the Model 95 used a patented chemical process to produce finished positive prints from the exposed negatives in under a minute.

The Land Camera caught on despite its relatively high price and the Polaroid lineup had expanded to dozens of models by the 1960s.

In the 1950s, Asahi (which later became Pentax) introduced the Asahiflex and Nikon introduced its Nikon F camera. These were both SLR-type cameras and the Nikon F allowed for interchangeable lenses and other accessories.

Did you know the first known digitally recorded images were created in a Kodak lab in 1975 and it took 23 seconds to capture the 0.01 MP image!

Image: Polaroid Model 95

The History of Cameras: Final Words

Bookmark and save this article about the history of cameras so you can find it again in the future. If you’ve got any other questions about photography chances are you’ll find the answers in our other articles and tutorials below.


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