A Concise History of the Camera

Jun 21, 2006

Today, we’ll take you through the entire process, from the earliest experiments with refracted imagery to today’s digital cameras—some of which are small enough to fit in the palm of your hands, and others that are powerful enough to examine the furthest reaches of the universe.

The Beginning

The first thing we could call a ‘camera’ would be the heliograph, which was invented in 1826 by a scientist in France. It was nothing more than a wooden box with a hole cut in it. Light projected through the hole and hit a pane of glass coated in bitumen, a chemical that hardens when exposed to light. When washed with oil of lavender, only the hardened areas would remain on the pane, creating a negative. The age of the photographic negative lasted nearly 60 years, with periodic improvements along the way. The daguerreotype was a simplified version of the heliograph that used silver plates and iodine. Both these early methods required bulky materials, very large cameras, expertise with chemicals, and long exposure times (20-40 minutes)—limiting cameras’ usefulness.

Early Advances

The calotype, created in the U.K. in 1839, produced an inferior image to the daguerreotype, but had reduced exposure times. The greatest advantage of the calotype was that its photographs could be easily copied. The next advance, dry plate photography replaced metal plates with a gelatin that did not require immediate development in a darkroom tent. This allowed photographers to travel further and take more pictures before developing them.

20th Century Photography

Celluloid film was invented in 1884, and by 1888 a small and intuitive camera, the Kodak, was created to use it. This was a huge turning point, because anybody could use a Kodak camera. When the camera’s 100 shots were taken, users would send the camera back to Kodak for development. By 1924, the first cameras that resembled our modern-day cameras were being developed at the Leitz factory in Germany. They included shutter speed and aperture dials, shutter releases, view finders, a film counter, and even a self-timer. With the Leica, photographers could do the entire photographic process themselves. In 1936, the last great development in photography before the digital age came with the 35mm Ihagee Kine Exakta. It featured a left-handed shutter release, a thumb lever for rapid film winding, and a 12 to 1/1000th second shutter.

The First Digital Camera

The first digital camera (pictured above) was developed by Eastman Kodak Company in 1975. Kodak took little interest in developing the technology further, however, and instead focused their attention on film. Eventually, Eastman Kodak Company was practically put out of business by competitors’ digital cameras—the very technology they had invented. What irony!


Today’s digital cameras have turned photography on its head—once again. With practically unlimited storage space and now unimaginable potential in terms of quality, digital cameras even have experts in photography stumped. Where will it head from here? Most recently, the Department of Energy has given the go-ahead to build a 3.2-gigapixel digital camera that will pick up more light than any telescope currently in existence.

Mastering the Basics with Steinberg Photography

If you’re interested in learning the basics of landscape photography from expert Jim Steinberg, please visit our homepage for more information.

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