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A Brief History of Photography

Major Leaps in Photography



Photography started with a camera and the basic idea has been around since about the 5th Century B.C. For centuries these were just ideas until an Iraqi scientist developed something called the camera obscura sometime in the 11th Century. Even then, the camera did not actually record images, they simply projected them onto another surface. The images were also upside down. The first camera obscuras used a pinhole in a tent to project an image from outside the tent into the darkened area. It took until the 17th Century for camera obscuras to be made small enough to be portable and basic lenses to be added.

Permanent Images

Photography as we know it today began in the late 1830s in France when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce used a portable camera obscura to expose a pewter plate coated with bitumen to light. This is the first recorded image that did not fade quickly.
  • Daguerreotype
    This experiment led to collaboration between Niépce and Louis Daguerre that resulted in the creation of the Daguerreotype. Daguerreotypes were the forerunners to our modern film. A copper plate was coated with silver and exposed to iodine vapor before it was exposed to light. To create the image on the plate, the earlier Daguerreotypes had to be exposed to light for up to 15 minutes. The Daguerreotype was very popular until it was replaced in the late 1850s by emulsion plates.

  • Emulsion Plates
    Emulsion plates, or wet plates, were less expensive than Daguerreotypes and took only two or three seconds of exposure time. This made them much more suited to portrait photography, which was the most common photography at the time. These wet plates used an emulsion process called the Collodion process, rather than a simple coating on the image plate. Two of these emulsion plates were ambrotype and tintype. Ambrotypes used a glass plate instead of the copper plate of the Daguerreotypes. Tintypes used a tin plate. While these plates were much more sensitive to light, they had to be developed quickly. It was during this time that bellows were added to cameras to help with focusing.

  • Dry Plates
    In the 1870s, photography took another huge leap forward. Richard Maddox improved on a previous invention to make dry gelatine plates that were nearly equal with wet plates for speed and quality. These dry plates could be stored rather than made as needed. This allowed photographers much more freedom in taking photographs. Cameras were also able to be smaller so that they could be hand-held. As exposure times decreased, the first camera with a mechanical shutter was developed.

Cameras for Everyone

Photography was only for professionals or the very rich until George Eastman started a company called Kodak in the 1880s. Eastman created a flexible roll film that did not require the constant changing of solid plates. This allowed him to develop a self-contained box camera that held 100 exposures of film. This camera had a small single lens with no focusing adjustment. The consumer would take pictures and then send the camera back to the factory to for the film to be developed, much like our disposable cameras today. This was the first camera inexpensive enough for the average person to afford. The film was still large in comparison to today's 35mm film. It took until the late 1940s for 35mm film to become cheap enough for most people to afford.

The Horrors of War

Around 1930, Henri-Cartier Bresson and other photographers began to use small 35mm cameras to capture images of life as it occurred rather than staged portrait shots. When World War II started in 1939, many photojournalists adopted this style. The posed portraits of World War I soldiers gave way to graphic images of war and its aftermath. These images, such as Joel Rosenthal's photograph, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima brought the reality of war across the ocean and helped galvanize the American people like never before. This style of capturing decisive moments shaped the face of photography forever.

Instant Images

At the same time 35mm cameras were becoming popular, Polaroid introduced the Model 95. Model 95 used a secret chemical process to develop film inside the camera in less than a minute. This new camera was fairly expensive but the novelty of instant images caught the public's attention. By the mid 1960s, Polaroid had many models on the market and the price had dropped so that even more people could afford it.

Image Control

While the French introduced the permanent image, the Japanese brought easy control of their images to the photographer. In the 1950s Asahi, which later became Pentax, introduced the Asahiflex and Nikon introduced its Nikon F camera. These were both SLR-type cameras and the Nikon F allowed for interchangeable lenses and other accessories. For the next 30 years SLR-type cameras remained the camera of choice and many improvements were introduced to both the cameras and the film itself.

Smart Cameras

In the late 1970s and early 1980s compact cameras that were capable of making image control decisions on their own were introduced. These "point and shoot" cameras calculated shutter speed, aperture, and focus; leaving photographers free to concentrate on composition. While these cameras became immensely popular with casual photographers, professionals and serious amateurs continued to prefer to make their own adjustments to image control.

The Digital Age

In the 1980s and 1990s, numerous manufacturers worked on cameras that stored images electronically. The first of these were point and shoot cameras that used digital media instead of film. By 1991, Kodak had produced the first digital camera advanced enough to be used successfully by professionals. Other manufacturers quickly followed and today Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and other manufacturers all offer advanced digital SLR cameras. Even the most basic point and shoot camera now takes higher quality images than Niépce’s pewter plate.
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