Generation Z will never understand the buzz and anticipation of waiting for a roll of film to be developed.
Now, photography is instant. We can capture fascinating subjects and moments on our smartphones wherever we go. We can download photographs straight to our computers from a camera via USB.
All of this is taken for granted today, but when you look back over time, it’s quite remarkable to see just how far photography has come.
But where did it all begin? When did the idea of capturing a moment in one still image arise? Who thought of it? Let’s find out.
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It's up for debate when the art of photography was invented. The physical camera took centuries to be developed as many inventors and researchers played a hand in what we know and use today.
The earliest mention of anything that slightly resembled a camera dates back to the 4th century BCE. This century marked the invention of the camera obscura, a dark room with a small hole in one wall that played a key role in photography's development.
When it was bright outside, light would enter through the hole into the room and project an upside-down image of the outside world onto the wall.
Camera obscura means ‘dark chamber’ in Latin, and up until the 16th century, it was used primarily to study optics and astronomy. Scientists would use camera obscura to study solar eclipses without damaging their eyes.
The camera obscura, otherwise known as a pinhole image, could project a reversed image through a small opening onto an opposing surface using light.
In the later part of the 16th century, various technical improvements were made to this invention, such as adjusting brightness and exposure for definition.
In the 17th century, a portable camera obscura was invented – firstly in the form of a tent and secondly as handheld boxes.
German author Johann Zahn, a light expert who created extensive descriptions and sketches of the camera obscura, proposed a design for the first handheld reflex camera in 1685. He envisaged this camera as the world's first camera that was small and portable enough to be practical for photography.
However, his vision wouldn’t become a reality for another century and a half.
Throughout the 18th century, scientists played with materials that caused the light to stick, creating a still image.
However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that a breakthrough occurred. The world’s earliest successful photograph was taken by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. As such, Niépce is considered the world’s first photographer and the true inventor of photography as we know it today.
He had actually produced the world’s first-ever photographic image in 1816 by positioning silver chloride coated paper at the back of his camera. The image was of a view from a window, but it was a negative and vanished as in broad daylight the coated paper turned black.
In December 1827, Niépce met Louis Daguerre – an artist and later a photographer – in Paris on his way to England. Daguerre was also looking for ways to create permanent photographic images with a camera, and the pair entered into a partnership in 1829. Together, they developed the physautotype – this process involved producing images by:
1) Dissolving lavender oil residue in alcohol
2) Pouring it onto a polished silver plate
3) Exposing the plate to sunlight for around eight hours
4) Developing the plate using fumes of white petroleum, producing a direct positive image
After Niépce died in 1833, he left his notes to Daguerre to develop the concept further.
In January 1839, this first complete photographic process was announced at a French Academy of Sciences meeting. At first, all details of the process were kept private, and only distinguished members of the academy were invited to see the process at work.
A complete guide was published, and patents were made public in August of the same year. This process was named the daguerreotype process, and you can read more about it here.
In 1851, English sculptor Frederick Scott Archer invented the collodion process. This process required the photographic material to be coated, sensitised, exposed, and developed within fifteen minutes in a dark room. Archer had created this process after coating a glass plate with a collodion solution and exposing the plate while it was still wet.
This method was the dominant process for producing photographs throughout Europe and North America up until around 1880. However, it had its disadvantages, as a portable darkroom had to be used; otherwise, the picture would be spoiled.
In the late 1800s, portraits became popular among wealthy families, and photography made its way into newspapers. Photographs and photography became a huge part of modern society after this.
Meanwhile, in 1888, over in Rochester, New York, entrepreneur George Eastman founded his own photography company and manufacturer. On September 4, he received a patent for the world’s first camera to come in film rolls and registered it under the name Kodak. This would also be the name of his company, which we know today as one of the major pioneers in photography.
Kodak (or the Eastern Kodak Company to give it its full name) was the driving force in the worldwide boom of photography in the early 20th century. The company introduced many different films in rolls and sheets and cameras for beginner, enthusiast, and professional photographers. The original Kodak camera made photography accessible to the upper-middle class consumer from the late 18th century onwards, while the less expensive Kodak Brownie – introduced in 1900 – was a favourite of the middle classes.
Another key breakthrough made by Kodak later in the 20th century was the introduction of the Retina Series 35mm camera in 1934. This series of German-built cameras were produced until 1969, and during this time, the 35mm camera became one of the most popular photographic formats. This format continues to resurface, with many professionals arguing that this is because of the specific viewpoint the 35mm camera shows.
A blog post written by The Phoblographer states: "It is one of the most versatile focal lengths that you will come across as an option for your lens. 35mm is the focal length most closely resembling the field of view that we see with the human eye, depending on who you ask. This means that when you shoot at this focal length, you are giving your viewers a vantage point similar to if they were on the scene."
1948 was an important year in the history of photography. This year marked the invention of the Polaroid camera by American scientist and inventor Edwin H. Land. Land's genius invention meant that it was possible to take and develop a photograph in under a minute for the first time in history.
In 1957, the first eye-level viewing single-lens reflex camera with an instant return mirror was introduced by Asahi Optical of Japan, called the Pentax. This camera was seen as a huge competitor to those produced by Kodak, though the design and company didn't quite live up to the standard of Nikon or Kodak.
1959 saw the release of the Nikon F, a professional-calibre 35mm single-lens reflex camera (SLR) with an entire system of lenses, motor drives, and other accessories surrounding it.
The first known digitally recorded images were created in a Kodak lab in 1975 when engineer Steve Sasson created the first-ever self-contained digital camera.
The camera took photos in black and white, weighed 8 pounds (3.6 kg), and only had a 100 × 100 resolution (0.01 megapixels). Sasson built it using leftovers from the Kodak factory – and so began a new era in photography.
It would be 16 years before Kodak released its first-ever digital DSLR, which cost a cool $20,000. But over time, digital cameras became more accessible to the masses.
Digital cameras began entering the marketplace throughout the 1980s and 1990s. They typically took the form of point-and-shoot cameras from computer makers and the bigger camera manufacturers. Fuji and Kodak joined forces with Canon and Nikon in 1989 to produce digital cameras geared towards professionals. The four companies worked together until the start of the 21st century.
In 1999, Nikon introduced the revolutionary D1, another early blueprint for today’s portable digital cameras. Its creation marked the first time a major camera manufacturer designed and built a digital system camera, which was sold internationally at a reasonable price.
Moving further along the digital camera timeline, one of the most interesting photographic developments in recent decades has been the advent of the smartphone.
To readers of a certain age, it doesn’t seem like all that long ago that downloading photographs to a computer from a digital camera was considered cutting-edge – but the smartphone has taken this adjective to a whole new level.
The smartphone has revolutionised how we perceive photography and changed the industry forever. Camera sales have sharply declined in recent years and dropped 54% last year (in no small part due to the coronavirus pandemic). People can take and upload photographs in an instant and transfer their photographs to anywhere in the world. More of us consider ourselves competent photographers nowadays.
This seismic change has inevitably been met with some cynicism among professional photographers. You may have seen the viral post from wedding photographer Hannah Mbalenhle Stanley about the smartphone user who ruined what would have been a perfect shot.
More generally speaking, many professional photographers argue that a smartphone is no match for a camera. Still, full exhibitions of photographs taken on smartphones have appeared worldwide due to the high calibre of technology within such devices.
Wherever you stand on the impact the smartphone is having on photography, one thing’s for sure – it’s here to stay.
If we compare photography today to as recently as the mid-19th century, it’s come such a long way.
We now have portable gadgets in our pockets that can snap and share stills in an instant and contain the most incredible technology.
So, where do we go from here?
It’s hard to predict what the future of photography will look like in the next ten years, but the conversation around connectivity in cameras continues. With most professional cameras, you need to use a cable or SD card to upload photos or videos, but this isn't an issue if you have access to WiFi or Bluetooth. Some models have already advanced with this setting, and although it exists in smartphones, it could be of more use within a professional camera.
There are also reports of AI and AR technology shaping the editing process and new art styles coming to the fore, but the widespread enthusiasm for polaroid and vintage cameras remains.
What’s guaranteed is that cameras will continue to get better or change in every aspect. Quality, editing, speed – you name it. As history has shown us, we're guaranteed to have better gear than the generation before us in the coming years.
Now you understand the origins of photography and its remarkable development over the years, you might come to appreciate your camera that little bit more.
Since it likely holds a high monetary and sentimental value, you also need to protect it against theft, damage, and much more.
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