Camera Obscura – Eleventh Century
The start of physical photography began over 1000 years ago in Arabia and continued through the renaissance with the likes of Leonardo DaVinci. A small or large box or even room, was darkened and a small hole was cut on one side to allow the exterior scene to be projected against the opposing side. It could then be traced or painted with exacting proportions (albeit upside down and reversed).
Daguerrean Camera - 1839
The first “recording” camera used in the Daguerrean process was invented by Louis J. M. Daguerre and Joseph Niepce, but manufactured by a close relative Alphonse Giroux and others in France. It was basically a miniature camera obscura using a sliding box (within a box) for focusing. (The bellows had not been invented yet). It had a simple lens at one end, projecting the image against a ground glass at the other. This principal is still used today in studio view cameras. Once focused, the ground glass would be replaced by the sensitized metal “plate” and the exposure could be made. Due to the low sensitivity of the media and the slowness of the lens, the only shutter required was the lens cap, as exposure time could last up to several minutes. These early cameras were made in low volumes for affluent clients from finely crafted rare woods and polished brass fittings. They were works of art in their own right. Because of their rarity, most surviving Daguerrean cameras are in museums or high-end private collections.
Calotype Process Camera – 1841
The second photographic process to gain acclaim was the Calotype (or wet process) camera popularized by Englishman William H. S. Talbot. These cameras were very similar to Daguerre’s with the exception of the plate holding apparatus. Minor improvements were made to interior surfaces to reduce reflections and ease handling. Although the plates were more sensitive than Daguerre’s, still no instantaneous shutter.
View Camera or Box Camera – 1850 Forward
As the various sensitizing processes developed, Ambrotypes, Tintypes, Glass plates and finally sheet and roll film all used some version of what is now called a View Camera or Box Camera – three things were needed to make further progress. These were: an easy and safe way to handle light sensitive medium, an instantaneous shutter, and a faster and more precise lens.
Mediums – The first mediums Daguerre/Niepce, Ambrotypes, Ferrotype etc. were glass and metal plates made or processed with hazardous materials like mercury and silver nitrate. It wasn’t until George Eastman perfected his emulsified film in 1880s was this question answered, which spawned incredible growth of the industry.
Lens – It took a German math professor, Josef Petzval and Voigtlander, a German
optical company, to invent a multi-element glass lens that was 17 times faster than
Daguerre’s original, to provide a quality image bright enough to reduce exposure
times to seconds or fractions thereof. This lens was perfected and mass-produced
in the 1870s by Carl Zeiss of Jena, Germany. His “Tessar” four element lens design
is still in use today.
Shutter – Instead of the lens cap doing double duty as a shutter, it became a necessity of picture making to have a fast and reliable exposure timer – more commonly referred to as a shutter. This mechanical device timed the period that the medium was exposed to light. This allowed it in its later stages to freeze action or in its early stages to allow a family portrait with everyone’s eyes opened. Early types of shutters were “Leaf” shutters – thin metal blades tied to a clockwork mechanism either within the lens or behind it, of Focal Plane shutters which “sprayed” the image across the film through a variable slit in two moving curtains.
Other Variations of Box Cameras
Single Lens Reflexes (SLR):
These cameras use a mirror to temporarily direct the image up to a ground glass to allow the photographer to focus and compose the picture before lifting the mirror out of the light path to expose the medium. These can be small like a 35mm Nikon or large like a 4x5 Graflex. The SLR was devised in the 1920’s and continually improved upon to this day.
Note: the current “DSLR” digital camera does not use a moving mirror, as the sensor does double duty to focus, frame and record the image.
Twin Lens Reflexes (TLR):
Popular in the 1950s and 1960s. These cameras used 120 roll film and could be very simple all the way up to a professional Rolleiflex costing thousands of dollars. They used two lenses, one to focus by and the other to take the pictures. The reflex mirror was stationary and did not move like in the SLR.
These cameras became popular as 35mm and 120 roll film formats were gaining popularity with consumers. The most popular of these cameras was the Leica which added a split-image rangefinder to is already popular 35mm camera in 1932. To focus, you turned the lens to superimpose two images. Almost all camera manufacturers copied its design in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. This layout continues to this day but is now far overshadowed by the SLR. A popular rangefinder in the 120 film format is the excellent Zeiss Super Ikonta line of cameras from the 193’s to the 1960s. Some autofocus devices today rely on rangefinder principals.
These have been around since the 1880s in different formats. The principal is like having two cameras spaced about 3 inches apart - which is the approximate distance between a human’s eyes. Two pictures are taken simultaneously. The difference in perspective is observed when these seemingly identical shots are viewed in a dedicated viewer which make the two images seem as one picture, but in “3-D”. The Stereo Realist was probably the most popular stereo camera made in America in the 1950s. The stereo craze seems to hit every generation for a few years and then the novelty dies down.
Another niche camera the purpose of which is to make a overly wide picture either for documentary or artistic purposes. These can be large in format like the Circuit cameras of the 1900s or small format 35 and 60mm camera like the the Hassleblad XPan or Widelux 1500. For a while in the 2000s, common 35mm point and shoot cameras had a panoramic feature that would mask a panoramic shot from a normal negative.
These cameras were also known as “spy cameras” which were glamorized by the likes of James Bond 007. These ultra small format cameras became popular in the 1950s and 1960s. By far the most popular was the Minox, which basically invented the format in the 1930s. Later in Europe and Japan they became popular as the film was cheap, and the designs were stylish. Later the big names checked in with pocket cameras using the Kodak 110 instamatic cartridge film.
Polaroid Land Cameras:
The ultra-high tech camera that gave instant pictures in black and white or color. These folding cameras were straightforward but took film that developed a suitable picture in 10 to 60 seconds through a patented chemical process. Land also developed the first electronic auto exposure camera. They had no real competition and were one of America’s most profitable companies – an early Apple if you will with Dr. Land playing Steve Jobs at its annual galas. Nothing last forever…