The History of Photography and the Camera


Humans have sought ways to capture and preserve images since we were able to scratch lines into rocks. Ancient rock drawings and cave paintings attest to a burning need to tell a story, speak to gods, or record important events. From the start, records needed to be appealing, accurate, and able to withstand the rigors of weather. Over time, fine sculpture and painting evolved, not only as artistic expression, but as methods to present realistic representations of people and events. The craftsmanship of artists improved over the eons, but technology was restricted to oil on canvas or chisel on stone.


The first major technological development in visual imaging was the Camera Obscura, a form of which was known to the ancient Greeks and Chinese. It was first built by an Arab scientist almost 1000 years ago. The Camera Obscura was simply an enclosed box with a pinhole in one end. When light entered the hole, an image of the source was projected on the opposite end of the box. There was no way to preserve the image, though, other than trace it on paper or canvas. This problem was not solved until 1827, when Joseph Nicephone Niepce exposed a plate coated with asphalt to sunlight for eight hours. This created the first photograph, and thus, photography was born.


The next major innovation followed closely. Invented by in 1837 by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, the Daguerreotype exposed silver iodide plates for 30 minutes in order to create a detailed reproduction. Also of importance was his discovery that the image could be permanently fixed in a salt solution. There were still some drawbacks, though. With the lengthy exposure time, moving objects were not recorded. Also, no copies could be made of the image. Around the same time, William Henry Fox Talbot invented a process using a negative from which copies could be made, but it was an inferior image. From then on, inventors looked for ways to decrease exposure time, improve image quality, and develop a smaller, more portable camera.


In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer invented the wet collodian process, which used gun-cotton (nitrocellulose) in ether, and only needed a few seconds for exposure. Unfortunately, it was very flammable and cumbersome, requiring portable darkrooms. Twenty years later, Richard L. Maddox proposed the dry gelatin plate. This was a major step forward, because the plate could be stored for later development, and a smaller, hand-held camera could be used. In 1878, Charles Bennett began producing dry plates in England. A year later, George Eastman received a patent in the United States for a machine that economically produced plates for the public. Eastman later designed a process to mass-produce flexible celluloid film, as well as the Kodak camera. The camera as we now know it had come into being.


At the end of the nineteenth century, motion pictures and color film were developed, although widespread availability would not be seen until well into the twentieth. The Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) camera was also developed, which gave the photographer a more accurate view of the shot. Manufacturers continued to push the envelope on speed and quality, but the next real leap ahead would not come about until the use of modern electronics became commonplace. Through-the-lens light metering, auto-exposure, and auto-focus became standard offerings in the 1980s, along with accelerated frame rates and synchronized flash capability. At this time, film was produced in ranges suitable for all situations from extreme darkness to very bright light. Film still had to be developed in a darkroom, but this was about to change.


Digital photography had been in use by the military and NASA since the 1960s, but was very expensive and required massive computers to process the images. With the advent of powerful, miniaturized data processors, portable digital cameras were at last possible. In the mid-1990s, affordable digital cameras hit the market, around the same time the home computer really started to catch on. As picture resolution began to be measured in millions of pixels (Megapixels), digital photos were able to compete with analog for quality. There was no more need for film or development. Amateur and professional photographers alike discovered the power, speed and convenience of digital photography.


Today, digital video cameras, webcams, and digital SLRs are commonplace. Web-based services are available to produce professional-quality prints from uploaded images. Consumers and artists use specialized software to manipulate photos in ways limited only by the imagination. An entire photo album fits easily on a thumb drive. The cameraphone has become a standard feature on many cell phones. We live in a world where crisp, high-resolution images can be captured and sent anywhere with in minutes, by anyone with a digital camera and internet access. What more is there to look forward to?


Lower prices, for one thing. Even though eight the Megapixel resolution now common on consumer-market cameras is more than adequate for most applications, that 39 Megapixel dSLR will eventually cost a lot less than the $34,000 it does now. We are also beginning to see some astonishing features enter the market. At 60 Frames-per-second (fps), a new camera enables the photographer to browse for the best frame. Slow-motion video is also available on consumer cameras, further blurring the distinction between still and motion photography. The development HDR, High Dynamic Range imaging, offers more details in bright light and shadows, and may one day do away with the need for flash photography. One might think the time is coming where professional-quality photos could be taken by anyone.



Or not. Looking back at the beginnings of imagery, many of the fundamentals of composition still apply. We may not be drawing in the sand with sticks any more, but then, as now, the artist began with an idea. Modern photography will never take the place of imagination and experimentation. The tools will continue to improve, but the quality of the end result will always be determined by the person on the other side of the lens. Come to think of it, those cave drawings still look pretty good.