The History of the Modern Camera

Have you ever wondered where the modern camera came from?

For centuries artists have been projecting images onto surfaces. The first cameras, the Camera Obscura and the Camera Lucida, were used by artists to trace scenes as early as the 16th century. These early cameras did not fix an image in time like a photograph does; they only projected the image that passed through an opening onto the wall of a darkened room, turning the entire room into a large pinhole camera. In fact, the term Camera Obscura literally means "darkened room,". It is in these darkened rooms that we developed the concept that led to today’s camera.

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The first recorded photograph was an image produced by the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 on a polished plate covered with a petroleum derivative called Bitumen of Judea. It was produced with a camera like device, and required eight hours of exposure to bright sunshine. When this process proved to be ultimately unsuccessful, Niépce began to experiment with silver compounds based on a discovery made in 1724 by the German Professor, Johann Heinrich Schultz. Schultz had discovered that when exposed to light, mixtures of silver and chalk would darken.

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French Stamp Depicting Nicéphore Niépce

Together in France Niépce, along with artist Louis Daguerre, refined the prevailing silver process in a team effort until 1833 when Niépce died of a stroke, leaving his notes to Daguerre. Although Daguerre had no scientific background, he ultimately made two crucial contributions to the process.

The Process Refined

Daguerre discovered that by first exposing silver on a copper plate to iodine vapor, then exposure to light, and finally to mercury fumes after the photograph was taken, a latent image was formed and made visible. The image could then be fixed by bathing the plate in a salt bath. Calling it a Daguerreotype, this became the first commercially successful development process in the history of photography. In fact, a similar process is still used today in Polaroid cameras.

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Daguerreotype Components

Daguerreotypes were beautiful, but fragile and difficult to copy. A single photograph taken in a portrait studio could cost the equivalent of over $1000 USD today. Still, the Daguerreotype grew in popularity as the demand for portrait photography emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Oil painting was costly and could not be met in volume like early photography; this pushed forward the development of the photographic process.

Photographers pressured chemists to further refine the process and lessen costs, leading to a discovery by Englishman William Fox Talbot. He discovered another means to fix a silver process image by coating paper sheets with silver chloride to create a transitional negative image. Unlike a daguerreotype, this created a negative which could then be used to reproduce positive prints (like we do today with chemical film). In 1840 Talbot patented this method and it became known as the Calotype Process. He spent the rest of his life in lawsuits defending the patent, ultimately giving up on photography altogether.

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Calotype Negative

Kodak is Born

In 1884 George Eastman of Rochester, New York developed dry gel on paper to replace the photographic plate. A photographer no longer needed to carry boxes of heavy plates and toxic chemicals with him. In July of 1888 Eastman's Kodak camera went on the market with the slogan "You press the button, we do the rest". Now anyone could take a photograph and leave the complex parts of the process to others. Photography became available for the mass-market in 1901 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie Camera.

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Kodak Brownie Camera

Although digital cameras have replaced film cameras entirely, enthusiastic photographers can still process film in both color and black and white. They hold on to our photography heritage, producing gorgeous and sometimes haunting images that are difficult to reproduce with even the best digital camera.

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