Fascinating History Of Cameras Since The First Camera

While it’s not absolutely necessary to know the history of cameras to take great photos, serious photographers might still want to learn about it.

Photography in itself is partly science, the evolution of cameras is certainly so. Plus, it just so happens to be really interesting!

A photo of the first ever 35mm camera developed by Oskar Barnack
The first ever 35mm camera developed by Oskar Barnack

For example, did you know the history of cameras goes much further back in time than photography as a form of art and documentation?

That being said, it’s important to know the difference between cameras and photography.

Photography as we know it didn’t emerge until the 1800s, while certain optical effects have been known since Ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese times.

The First Camera (Obscura) – 4th Century BC.

The camera obscura was really the very first camera.

However, there weren’t any techniques to permanently capture the projected image, with the exception of drawing or painting.

So, what is Obscura?

Latin for “dark room”, camera obscura is the principle of projecting an image of a scene onto a wall through a tiny hole in a screen. The resulting image on the wall will be inverted—upside down and from left to right. Mozi correctly described this phenomenon, stating that it happens because light travels in straight lines.

An image of a pinhole diagram illustrating the first ever camera obscura in the history of cameras
Camera obscura is the principle of projecting an image of a scene onto a wall through a pinhole in a screen

Who invented the first camera Obscura?

The first known record describing a camera dates from the 4th century BC. It was the Han Chinese philosopher, Mozi, who documented the natural optical phenomenon known as “camera obscura”.

First Applications of Camera Obscura – (1502 AD)

Although the camera obscura concept was known since ancient times, it didn’t really have a practical purpose until the Renaissance came along.

In the field of art history, some historians even claim, controversially, that some of the most famous Renaissance painters used camera obscura to trace scenes before painting them.

an illustration of an artist tracing an object using the Camera obscura.
Camera obscura tracing

It wouldn’t be possible to properly “save” projected images until the invention of the photographic process.

The Invention of Photography Cameras – 1816

When was photography invented?

It wasn’t until approximately 1816 that an actual (partly successful) photograph was made.

The person who took the first photograph was Nicéphore Niepcé, a French inventor who developed heliography. The credits for inventing photography goes to Nicéphore Niepcé as well.

A photo of the Nicéphore Niepcé's first photography camera. A milestone in the history of cameras
Nicéphore Niepcé’s first photography camera – made using a
silver chloride-coated piece of paper as the ‘Film’

Using a small camera he made himself and a silver chloride-coated piece of paper, Niepcé was able to capture an image. As silver chloride darkens when exposed to light, it could effectively capture the scene.

First photograph taken by Niepcé - a true milestone in the history of cameras
First photograph by Niepcé

The only problem, though, was that it was impossible to remove the remaining unexposed silver chloride. This eventually caused the entire image to go black.

First photo of a human
First photo of a human

First Publicly Available Photography Process (Daguerreotype) – 1833

Of course, history of cameras didn’t stop there and people continued experimenting with other solutions and materials. Eventually, after Niepcé’s death, his partner Louise Daguerre managed to figure out the world’s first photographic process in 1833.

Daguerreotype
Daguerreotype

Using a sheet of copper plated with silver and treated with iodine vapor, he was able to permanently capture an image. He called his invention a daguerreotype. It became publicly available in 1839.

a photo of the first ever photography camera system called daguerreotype

Henry Fox Talbot invented the calotype in 1840, another similar type of photo camera. Those cameras featured a simple design but required high-quality lenses and plates.

First Film Camera – 1859

Now that people had figured out how to successfully capture images, cameras began evolving rapidly. In 1859, Thomas Sutton received a patent for the first ever panoramic camera. Built using a wide-angle lens consisting of a water-filled glass sphere.

Related Article: Best film cameras

The first ever film camera developed by Thomas Sutton in 1859

Two years later, Oliver Wendell Holmes invented the stereoscope viewer.

The “Kodak” by George Eastman – 1888

An illustration of George Eastman who has contributed immensely to the development and history of cameras
Eastman Kodak

Photography took another gigantic leap in 1888, when George Eastman presented his first camera, the “Kodak”.

This groundbreaking camera was the first one that used celluloid film. Its design, however, was as simple as could be.

a photo of the George Eastman's first "Kodak" camera
Ground breaking camera by George Eastman– the “Kodak”

The first film camera was nothing more than a wooden box with one shutter speed and a fixed-focus lens. Customers could buy a Kodak camera, which came pre-loaded with film for 100 exposures. When the roll of film was full, they had to send it back to the factory for development.

First Mass-Market Camera (The Brownie) – 1900

Eastman was also responsible for the next big step in photography. In 1900, he introduced the Brownie camera, the first mass-marketed camera in the world.

The Brownie
The Brownie

This small and very affordable camera allowed people to take “snapshots” of scenes. A huge hit, the Brownie remained for sale until the 1960s.

A high resolution photo of the Kodak's brownie camera. The first ever to become a  mass-market camera.
Kodak’s brownie is the first mass-market camera.

First 35mm Film Camera – 1910

The first ever 35mm camera developed by  Oskar Barnack
The first ever 35mm camera developed by Oskar Barnack

In the 1910s, the German engineer, Oskar Barnack, experimented with what would become the next generation of cameras.

Using 35mm cine film for still cameras, he eventually came up with the first 35mm film camera.

Commercialized as the Leica I in 1925, it was an immediate success.

Here’s a great video about Oskar Barnack and his 35mm camera invention.

This camera effectively made 35mm film the format for quality cameras.

  • Kodak followed suit in the mid-1930s with their Retina I which used the used the 135 cartridge feature
  • In 1936, Argus presented their inexpensive Argus I, which was soon followed by the massively popular Argus C3 in 1939.
  • Canon joined the market in 1936 as well, introducing their Canon 35mm rangefinder.

First Single-Lens Reflex Camera (SLR) – Late 1920s.

The first reflex camera for everyday use dates from the late-1920s.

It was the elaborately named Franke & Heidecke Rolleiflex medium format TLR (Twin Lens Reflex).

Rolleiflex medium format TLR camera
Rolleiflex medium format TLR camera

Single-lens reflex cameras (SLR) – 1948


First Single-Lens Reflex camera (SLR) with an instant return mirror is the Gamma Duflex (made in Hungary in 1948)

A high resolution photo of the Gamma Duflex. the first ever SLR in the history of cameras
Gamma Duflex is the first SLR camera with an instant return mirror – 1948

From Film to Digital Cameras – Post World War II

It would be until after the Second World War, however, that SLRs became the most popular camera types.

What set them apart was their mirror-and-prism system. This new feature allowed photographers to see (and therefore, frame) the image before they captured it.

The 1948 Contax S was a landmark camera, the first one to use a pentaprism.

The first Japanese SLRs hit the market in 1952—the Asahiflex from the Asahi Optical Company, later Pentax. Many other Japanese camera brands began producing SLR cameras in the 1950s, including Canon and Nikon.

First polaroid Camera – 1948

In 1948, Edwin Land introduced his Polaroid camera, which allowed photographers to take a photo and print it in mere minutes.

A photo of the first ever polaroid made in 1948
First ever polaroid – 1948

First Digital Camera System – 1975

The first camera which used an image sensor, instead of a film, was invented by a Kodak engineer by the name Steven Sasson. It is the first ever self contained digital camera of the world.

Although many scientists and developers had experimented with filmless cameras since the 1960s, digital photography as we know it didn’t emerge until 1991. This was when Kodak presented their Kodak DCS, which stands for Digital Camera System.

By the mid-1990s, there were several different digital cameras on the market, including cameras from Kodak, Apple, Casio, and Sony.

DSLRs in the 1990s
DSLRs in the 1990s

DSLRs and Smartphones Take Over –
21st Century

The Japanese company Sharp presented the very first camera phone to the world in 2000.

With the introduction of the iPhone by Apple in 2007, the world of photography shifted again.

Now, millions of people take pictures with their smartphones.

An illustration of DSLR next to a camera phone
Camera phones & DSLRs has taken over

Most photographers, however, still continue to use DSLR cameras, which began outselling film cameras in 2003. Canon launched their EOS 5D in 2005, the first full-frame, consumer-priced DSLR. This camera set the bar for quality digital cameras.

A photo of the Canon EOS 5D released in 2005
Canon EOS 5D – First consumer priced full-frame DSLR

DSLRs now come with dozens of features and settings, are lightweight, and user-friendly.

Read Next: What is a DSLR camera

Mirrorless Cameras – 2004

top view of the Epson's R-D1 mirrorless camera
Epson’s R-D1 is the first ever commercial mirrorless camera

Epson release the first ever commercially available mirrorless camera R-D1 in 2004. Soon after, Leica released their M8 mirrorless camera.

History of Cameras Video

Here’s a great video about the fascinating history of cameras starting from the first camera!

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About the author

Bram Reusen

Bram Reusen is a Belgian travel writer and photographer who’s based in Virginia, USA. From day hikes in national parks to long-distance cycling adventures, from short city breaks to multi-month trips, he has tried several travel styles over the years. So far, Bram has been to 26 countries on 4 continents, 28 national parks and 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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