history of cameras

Explore The History of Cameras With This Fascinating 5 Minute Video

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!

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 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. Nonetheless, this is where all other cameras evolved from. As generations passed, camera technology improved and designs evolved.

From the camera obscura to daguerreotypes and from film cameras to smartphones, let’s take a look at the history of cameras.

The History of Cameras – A Timeline

Antiquity – First Mention of 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”.

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.

Camera obscura
Camera obscura

Other notable philosophers and writers from Antiquity who touched upon the principle of camera obscura include Aristotle (or perhaps one of his followers) and Theon of Alexandria. Mozi, however, was the only one who described it correctly and in detail.

Middle Ages – Experiments With Light

Camera obscura all but disappears from historic annals and scientific texts in the following centuries. The principle doesn’t fully resurface until more than a millennium after Mozi’s death. In the 11th century AD, it was the Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham, known in the Western world as Alhazen, who begins experimenting with light.

Mentions of camera obscura
Mentions of camera obscura

Ibn al-Haytham went on to write a number of exceptionally influential books on optics. In his Book of Optics, he talked about his experiments with light shining through a small hole in a dark room. Although it is quite difficult to say who made the first camera obscura, we do know that al-Haytham used one for his experiments.

Renaissance – First Applications of Camera Obscura

Although the camera obscura concept was known since ancient times, it didn’t really have a practical purpose until the Renaissance came along. Al-Haytham had observed it, experimented with it, and documented it, but didn’t actually put it to practical use (Islamic society at the time frowned upon depicting personal images).

Western philosophers, scientists, and artists did use these findings from the Arab world. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, wrote down the oldest known mirror-written description of camera obscura in 1502. Additionally, in his notebooks, he drew no fewer than 270 camera obscura diagrams. Other notable people who used al-Haytham’s discoveries included Johannes Kepler and René Descartes.

Camera obscura tracing
Camera obscura tracing

Other scientists also theorized about and experimented with camera obscura. The problem with them, however, remained the same. It was impossible to preserve the images projected by those cameras, besides manually drawing and painting (tracing) them.

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.

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

Early 1800s – The Invention of Photography

It wasn’t until approximately 1816 that an actual (partly successful) photograph was made. The person to do this was Nicéphore Niepcé, a French inventor who developed heliography. He now gets credit for inventing photography as well.

First photograph by Niepcé
First photograph by Niepcé

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. 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

Of course, it 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.

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.


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.

Late 1800s – Launch of the First Film Camera

Now that people had figured out how to successfully capture images, cameras began evolving rapidly. In 1859, Thomas Sutton received a patent for his panoramic camera. Two years later, Oliver Wendell Holmes invented the stereoscope viewer.

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.

Eastman Kodak
Eastman 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.

Early 1900s – Major Developments

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

The Brownie
The Brownie

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

Kodak followed suit a number of years later. In the mid-1930s, they introduced their Retina I. This new camera 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.

The first reflex camera for everyday use dates from the late-1920s. It was the elaborately named Franke & Heidecke Rolleiflex medium format TLR. Single-lens reflex cameras (SLR) gained popularity throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

First popular SLR
First popular SLR

After World War II – From Film to Digital

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

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.

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

21st Century – DSLRs and Smartphones Take Over

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.

Camera phones
Camera phones

Serious photographers, however, 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.

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


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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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