History of Camera Development


All cameras share a basic design which has the same three components

  1. a light-tight box
  2. a means of forming the image
  3. a means of recording the image.

The ways in which those three are manifested range from crude to very sophisticated.

The earliest cameras were the crudest. In fact, they were simple wooden boxes with a slot at one end to take the glass plate and a hole at the other to take a lens. These developed into quite sophisticated cameras. Bellows were added to both enable focusing and to allow close-up photographs. As emulsion speed increased, mechanical shutters were added to time short exposures.

A variety of lenses could be fitted to give wide-angle and telephoto capability (note: I am using the word ‘telephoto’ incorrectly to mean a lens with a long focal length. See the Glossary for the correct meaning of ‘telephoto’). Both the front and back of the camera could be tilted in a number of directions and the lens raised up to help with photographing tall buildings and such.

These wooden box cameras came in a variety of sizes from cumbersome 10 x 8 inch (250 x 200 mm) plate size to cameras with plates 25 mm or so across.

The invention of roll film in 1850s had a massive effect on camera design. This was brought to commercial success by George Eastman and his Kodak camera. The early Kodaks were a simple box with a very simple shutter and a meniscus lens. These first Kodaks took 100 shots on one roll of film giving circular negatives that were 2.5 inches (65 mm) diameter. The entire camera had to be returned to Kodak for the film to be developed and the pictures printed. The camera was then loaded with new film and returned to the customer along with the photographs.

The next step in film development was the production of rolls of film that could be bought locally and fitted to the camera by the user. While the box camera design lasted into the 1950s, a plethora of camera designs appeared, many being small enough to be easily carried in a pocket. At this stage in the history of camera design, it was usual to have prints made directly from the negatives (contact prints) with no enlargement. This gave rise to some very large film formats.

The standard film camera design, which remained until 1950ish, was a steel or aluminium body with a lens which came forward on a bellows as the camera front was opened. Mostly, there was a hinged lens door with the lens/shutter on rails or with the lens/shutter fixed to the lens door – the self-erecting type.

Originally, the lens was focused by sliding the lens/shutter on the rails. With self-erecting cameras, the lens was fitted to a helical thread and focused by turning the lens. As enlarged photographs were rare, focus was not critical.

Early film cameras – into the 1930s – had very crude viewfinders. There were three basic types – a Brilliant finder on the shutter housing, a folding frame on the camera body or an Iconometer which was a large wire frame attached to the shutter housing with an eyepiece attached to the camera body. The cheaper cameras would only have the Brilliant finder. These were small and hard to use and so were not used on more expensive models. Mid-range cameras would have the folding viewfinderr on the camera body.  These ranged from a simple arrangement of two wire frames to two more solid frames with simple lenses inserted. These were much easier to use than brilliant finders but could be awkward for spectacle wearers.

The Iconometer type was the easiest to use. The viewfinder image was much larger than with the other two types, worked much better with moving objects (hence its other name of Sportsfinder) and naturally accommodated rising lenses on more expensive cameras.

In the 1930s, the folding type of viewfinder gave way to Gallilean finders which were effectively little telescopes attached to the camera body.  These are often referred to as ‘reverse Gallilean’ finders as they are a telescope mounted backwards – they make the image smaller than life. These had the advantage in that thy gave a clear image of the potential photograph – the folding frame finders relied on the user centring their eye properly and were accordingly rather vague as regards composition. But the Gallilean finders had two disadvantages in that the finder tended to be very small and they did not work well with spectacles. In time, they did become larger and in the 1960s were easy to use for all of us. In the latest development of viewfinders, bright lines were added to enable composition and giving allowances for parallax when the camera was used for close-up portraits.

With the mid-Victorian cameras, the glass plates used were so slow a shutter was not required. The user merely removed the lens cap, counted to an appropriate number and replaced the lens cap. As the sensitive emulsion got faster, the timing got shorter and verbally counting was no longer accurate enough. This gave rise to various types of mechanical shutter. The first of these were the leaf shutters. Cheaper cameras used a shutter with a single speed, controlled by a spring. Other controlling systems used a cylinder of compressed air, the shutter remaining open until the cylinder was empty. The last development of mechanical shutters used an escarpment very similar to the workings of an analogue watch. From the mid 1960s, electronic shutters were developed which allowed for more consistent and accurate shutter speeds.

Initially, the shutter release was a lever on the shutter housing. This made holding the camera firmly and tripping the shutter awkward to do and from the 1930s it became common to have a second shutter release on the camera body connected to the shutter release on the shutter housing. The more sophisticated shutters also needed to be cocked by hand for each shot. This meant that there would be two levers on the shutter housing – a cocking lever and a firing lever. By the mid 1950s, both of these functions were incorporated into the camera body, advancing the film automatically cocking the shutter and the release button being incorporated into the camera body. Both these developments relied on improvements to the design of the shutter. This was coupled to the advent of cameras that were rigidly connected to the lens – no need to open the camera for use and no bellows behind the lens/shutter.

In parallel to the development of escarpment shutters that sit within the lens, focal plane shutters were developed. The name ‘focal plane’ means that the shutter is very close to the film/plate. These shutters usually consist of two blinds that travel across the film/plate, the gap between the blinds allowing the light to reach the film in a controlled manner.

These focal plane shutters allow much faster exposures than the leaf shutters do. 1/1000 seconds was usual at the time that 1/200 seconds was the limit of a leaf shutter. Modern focal plane shutters can achieve 1/8000 seconds and faster. The reason for the higher speeds is that the shutter blinds do not have to move all that fast. On my Zenit E, the shutter blinds move 36 mm in 1/30 second which is a lot slower than the shutter blades in a leaf shutter move. The high speed of the exposure is achieved by using a very narrow gap between the blinds. With cloth blinds, the limit seems to be about 1/1000 seconds but with metal blinds 1/2000 was commonplace and 1/8000 is now usual.

In the early 1920s, a significant advance in camera design was the Leica made by the microscope company Ernst Leitz. This Leica used ciné film which is a lot cheaper to buy than film taped to backing paper and rolled onto spools. This design also meant that the negatives had to be enlarged. The Leica was not the first camera to use ciné film but it was the first sophisticated camera by a reputable maker. This Leica was followed by two very significant developments. The first was Zeiss Ikon’s competitor – the Contax. The Contax was significant for two reasons – the metal bladed, vertical travel focal plane shutter and the fact that it eventually gave rise to the standard SLR concept. The second significant development was the Retina camera made in Germany for Kodak – this used the new 135 type cassette holding 35 mm ciné film. The film was exactly the same as the film Leica had been using for ten years but was now available retail in a daylight loading cassette – the same as it still used today. Prior to the Retina, Leica and Contax users had to buy bulk film and manually load it into proprietary cassettes.

After World War II, Germany was divided into two countries. The eastern part – the German Democratic Republic or DDR colloquially known as East Germany – contained the Contax factory. The East German part of Zeiss Ikon developed the Contax rangefinder camera into the Contax S which was the first commercial 35 mm SLR camera. This Contax S design was used with little change by Praktica, Pentax, Nikon, Canon, Olympus and a host of other companies.

As well as the development of advanced cameras such as rangefinders and SLRs, there was also the development of even better simple point-and-shoot cameras. These are really a development of the early Kodak box cameras. In the days of folding cameras, they would be simple, with a non-focusing lens and a single speed shutter. After WWII, these developed into rigid versions that were much the same. In the early 1960s, Kodak took the film cassette concept further and produce 126 and 110 film cartridges which could be dropped into the camera with no need to thread the film or rewind it when finished. These became immensely popular. 126 cartridges used a version of 35 mm film – the perforations were different – and were capable of much the same quality as other 35 mm cameras.

110 cartridges used 16 mm film. The use of much smaller film meant that much more enlargement was required so image quality took a big hit. For holiday snaps, this did not matter too much and was compensated for by the much smaller camera but 110 film always had a limited appeal. Other film developments were worse. Disc cameras used film glued onto a circular disc. The cameras were necessarily larger than 110 cameras but with equally poor image quality.

APS (Advanced Photography System) cameras could have been a major advance but came along just before digital photography did. APS offered two advantages. The film stayed permanently in the cassette even after development, so was protected from damage. The other advantage comes from the APS cameras rather than the film and that was the possibility to choose from three image formats on a shot by shot basis. Unfortunately, this format choice depended on masking the film so two of the formats effectively reduced the film size and thus image quality.

At the same time as Kodak were working on new and better film formats, camera makers were working on better camera technology. Once automatic loading of film, automatic film advance and automatic rewind became cheap and usual, there was no advantage in the more expensive cartridges and discs. When coupled with good automatic exposure and automatic focus, point-and-shoot cameras rivalled expensive cameras for image quality coupled with great ease of use.

Then digital technology came along and interesting cameras were no longer made (of course they were and I have owned five. I just cannot see the joy in collecting them).

Author: John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 45 years photography experience.

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