Evolution of the Camera, from pinhole to global sensation

If there was one invention that has truly sculpted the modern world, it must be the invention of the camera. No other invention has caused so much controversy, such nostalgia, and so many memories. And in the midst of all this storytelling, we may have forgotten the camera itself has its own story to tell. Just how does a phenomenon of this scale come into existence? The power to stop time entirely, copy that moment, and then broadcast it around the planet is surely the stuff of fantasy, no? In this fascinating article, we are to expose just how this powerful tool came into being, from its experimental beginnings to what is now an essential part of our everyday lives. So without further ado, let’s unravel the history of the photo camera.

The camera obscura

Before the invention of cameras, the only way an image would exist would be through a method using a camera obscura, which in Latin means ‘dark chamber’. Using a totally dark square room with a tiny hole in one wall, the light from the outside entered the tiny hole, projecting an inverted image of the outside world onto the opposite wall. The image would be perceived upside down due to the behavior of the light particles or photons.

It is uncertain to know how old this projection technique was around for, but artists would sometimes use this method to trace landscape scenes or simply to attract an audience who wanted to see something unusual. An audience would be able to watch, in real-time, the outside world from a totally different perspective for the first time.

Unfortunately, this technology did not progress for centuries, and since the projections never matured into still permanent photographs, the camera obscura will only ever be a camera obscura. However, this ancient method clearly defines the very basics of photography, a perfect way to start off our journey through camera evolution.

Sliding wooden box camera

It’s 1826, and Nicéphore Niépce of Paris has spent the last ten years trying to capture a permanent image from a camera obscura, using materials that would darken with exposure to light. There must have been a fair few tried and failed attempts until Niépce and his friends in the optician industry came together to create a very special wooden box. This box had it all, the pinhole at one end, a dark chamber, but one major factor to this prototype was the slide which held a plate of pewter, a metal alloy coated with bitumen, an oily substance. Once inserted into the camera, Niépce took an 8-hour exposure, famously from his own window, creating the very first image the world had ever seen.

The Daguerreotype – 1839

After the success of Niépce’s prototype sliding wooden box camera, he joined forces with the inventor Louis Daguerre to see if any fortune could be made of this historic breakthrough. However, with Niépce’s death in 1833, Daguerre went on alone in creating a user-friendly, fully functional portable camera named the Daguerreotype. Unveiled in 1839, it was the first photographic process available to the public. The relatively complex process of producing a tactile image consisted of using silver-coated copper plates treated with iodine to create a layer of light-sensitive silver iodide. Once the plate was prepared, the operator would focus the camera on the subject and remove the viewing glass to place the copper plate into the light-tight camera box. Once ready, the lens cover was removed, exposing the light-sensitive copper plate for around 20 seconds or more before developing the plate using mercury vapor. Once fixed in a strong salt solution, the image was ready for viewing, often behind protective glass, to keep the images from spoiling.

The main issue with earlier cameras of this type was the inconvenience of long exposure times. Subjects would need to sit still in rather awkward circumstances, some even having to use braces to keep their posture in place. So the race was on to find a solution to quicken exposure times.

The Kodak Brownie – 1900

The beginning of the 20th century opened the way for the production of smaller and much more user-friendly cameras

At the turn of the 20th century, it was George Eastman’s turn to take up the spotlight. His hand in developing the first photographic film in 1885 paved the way for producing smaller, much more user-friendly cameras that the average consumer could afford. The Kodak Brownie was an extremely popular camera that far surpassed its marketing goals and heralded a new concept of photography called the snapshot, whereby photographs were taken spontaneously and without cause. The brownie was such a success that they were still in production as late as the 60s. Although it was a major success, the Brownie did lack quality due to its more robust photographic film, so professionals took to sticking to the older, higher-resolution plate method for a little while longer.

The progress of cameras were gathering pace fast in a world that was also changing rapidly, a perfect storm, as some might say. It didn’t take long for photography to take on a slightly more serious tone, and with the approach of two world wars on the horizon, the camera would most certainly do that. Soldiers would carry their small compact Brownies to war with them, capturing some of the most horrific scenes of the most deadly wars ever fought. Each image would tell it how it was. With no tampering with the narrative. Welcome to photojournalism.

Nikon F – 1959

These cameras were allowing photojournalism to expose some of the most controversial stories of our time

The Nikon F was released in 1959 and quickly revolutionized the world of photography. This revolutionary camera made professional photography achievable for the average person, allowing photos to be taken with a gorgeous depth of field and an impressive range of shutter speeds. It offered photographers unprecedented levels of control over their craft, a major leap forward from earlier model cameras, and an opportunity to capture moments with exceptional clarity. Even 60 years later, it remains one of the most iconic cameras ever produced, inspiring generations of photographers with its classic good looks and reliable performance.

Cameras like the Nikon F were an absolute hit with the professional photographic community. Photographers like Don McCullin, a famous war photographer who often found himself on the front line of the Vietnam war, relied on a robust design that would capture as much detail as possible while being in the most nerve-racking situations. In essence, these cameras were allowing photojournalism to expose some of the most controversial stories of our time, so much so that they would start appearing on the front covers of international papers such as the Sunday Times. The power of photography was becoming ever so clear, and public opinion, the swinging pendulum of democracy, was now not so easy to control.

Kodak Professional DCS SLR – 1991

The digital age has arrived. This meant roles of film and long waits for developing images were a thing of the past. This, the first professional digital SLR, revolutionized the way photographers shoot, with the ability to take up to 28 low-noise images per second and instant adjustments like exposure, ISO sensitivity, and white balance. Not only was this camera reliable, but it also offered flexibility, allowing you to accessorize it with an array of lenses so that you can get creative with your shots. For any serious photographer, this piece of equipment was essential for capturing moments as they saw them.

The Kodak DCS introduced a whole new world of photography when it hit the market. This early digital SLR gave photographers access to all kinds of features and capabilities that changed how they could capture and store images, no longer requiring bulky film or darkroom equipment. Not only this, but an expanded range of accessories also allowed users to customize their camera setups for different scenarios, from telephoto lenses perfect for wildlife shots to extra battery packs ideal for those long days out shooting landscapes. With DSLRs still dominating the amateur and professional photography market, the development techniques set by these early DSLR cameras still stand today. Want to find out more about current photography techniques?

The Sharp J-SH04 – 2000

Digital cameras on cell phones have revolutionized the media and social networking landscape.

If you want to discuss the turning point for mobile photography, then you need to look no further than The Sharp J-SH04 – 2000. This astonishing device changed the way we take pictures forever, as it was the first camera phone released. This means that instead of just making calls, users had the ability to capture images almost instantly and share them with family, friends, or colleagues. The number of applications this handy invention has opened up are absolutely mind-blowing and helped spark a new age in photography by delivering convenience and accessibility like never before.

Digital mobile phone cameras have revolutionized the media and social media landscape. Through these handheld devices, practically anyone can now become a citizen journalist and document or report newsworthy events in real-time. Smartphone cameras have made it easier to capture newsworthy images from even the most remote of locations, as well as provide video footage or photos of everyday life, leading to a form of “intimate media” that can’t be found anywhere else. Additionally, digital mobile phone cameras have made it easier to upload footage directly to social platforms, meaning that news known around the world happens more quickly than ever before! Far from being something separate from journalism, user-generated content has become integral to our understanding of the world today.

So from pinhole to a global sensation, this invention has helped change the world we are all a part of, becoming an integral part of our daily lives. However, this story hasn’t ended just yet. In fact, it could just be the beginning. Only recently, we have seen the deployment of the James Webb telescope taking the most incredible images of the universe, and now we are watching the development of AI creating images that were never taken. Will we be questioning just what an image is in the near future, what is reality and what isn’t? It’s all very exciting where this narrative will end up. But in the meantime, all you need to do to be a part of this story is to get out your camera and open up the shutter.