Photography. It is something we come into contact with every day without even thinking about it. Whether that be seeing photos on a billboard or taking a selfie on your smartphone.
But what is the history of photography and how did we get to this point….
Let’s go back in time to where the fundamentals of photography were established in the BC era. Join me on my journey through the long and interesting history of photography and its impact on the world.
History of Photography: 500 B.C.-2022 (All You Need To Know!)
Camera Obscura, 500 B.C.E. to 1700s C.E.
As a term, camera obscura entered the world in manuscripts in about 1604 C.E. But the idea and implementation of the idea had been around in various forms since before the Common Era.
Chinese philosopher/scientist Mozi described the logic behind the phenomena of an image being seen on a dark wall projected through a pinhole facing a well lit scene.
Aristotle also seems to have discussed it, though it is unclear if anyone took it beyond casual observation until a few hundred years had passed.
In the 10th to 14th centuries, descriptions and illustrations of optical properties of glass, pinholes, and apertures can be found in multiple writings and illustrated manuscripts.
Leonardo da Vinci ,1502
Leonardo is credited with the first recorded description and diagrams of a device in use, including observations of how it worked. He also describes optics and a wide variety of possible uses of simple lenses.
“Drawing with Light” Mid 1500s to 1800s
In 1604, Johannes Kepler put the term in print, in a book of astronomical observations. But even before that, scientists and artists had been using the camera obscura as an aid in drawing.
A sheet of paper or canvas would be placed in position to capture the projection and the scene or object could be traced out.
This is quite literally drawing with the light of what is projected.
Early “developments” 1717
Experimenters were looking for a way to eliminate the need to draw on the paper as a tracing, trying to find how to let the light itself somehow create the image.
Johann Heinrich Schulze demonstrated in 1717 that a silver nitrate solution darkens in response to light and can hold an image projected from either a pinhole or optics.
There was no way to keep the solution from continuing to react to light, however, so images could not be made permanent, also known as being fixed.
First Photograph, 1827
The process he used could be fixed, or made permanent, a process that was proving difficult to accomplish in previous silver halide experiments.
Things moved rapidly from then on, with metal plate photography becoming a common recording medium for astronomers, other scientists, and a new breed of naturist artists.
These naturist artists were taking advantage of the newly developed technologies to record the beauty of the natural world around them by exposing a film of chemicals spread on a metal plate.
“Photography” industry born with daguerreotype process, 1839
The term “photography” was coined virtually simultaneously by several different people between 1835 and 1839.
The introduction of the daguerreotype process brought photography out from the world of scientists and specialty artists, making it available to just about anyone with the time and means to tackle it.
While not an easy or quick process, it was much easier and quicker than previous methods.
The results were also somewhat fragile, but with proper handling the metal and glass images could be viewed, transported, and stored.
What made the daguerreotype more accessible was the repeatability that it afforded users.
A huge part of the success of daguerreotype was the simple method used to fix the image after exposing.
Well, relatively simple, compared to other contemporaneous methods.
This was a process and method with well documented instructions and a small industry formed around it.
Manufacturers of optics such as Zeiss and Voigtländer got into the photographic end of things by adapting their lenses for mounting on cameras, developing new designs specifically for photography, and even making their own cameras.
U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) & Matthew Brady
Besides being a terrible chapter in American and world history, the U.S. Civil War also holds the distinction of being among the earliest major world conflict to be covered by photographers.
The Crimean War and the June Days workers revolt in France were photographed just a few years before.
Matthew Brady and his associates were commissioned to document aspects of the battles and the principals involved.
In addition to portraits, group portraits, and views of the places involved, Matthew Brady also documented the real horrors of war.
Images of the aftermath of bloody battles were viewed by people from all across the U.S.A. and from around the world.
You could call these images from military conflicts of the Mid 19th Century the beginnings of photojournalism and some of the earliest documentary uses of photography.
Blighted landscapes, twisted machinery, and mangled corpses were now the experience of people far from battlefields, not solely in the line of sight of participants.
In living color! 1848- 1907
Early photographic processes were monochromatic. Note that I’m not using the phrase black and white to describe these early photographs.
That’s because the monochrome values tended to take on the base color of whatever the recording medium was.
Copper plates, tintypes, collodion wet plates, all had a color tinge behind what image the light interaction with the chemicals made due to the base material.
Even the experiments with paper based emulsions still received a bit of a tint due to the chemical fixing used to keep the image permanent. If you think sepia toned, you are pretty close to the typical results.
Despite the limitations of the workable processes, photographers were experimenting with how to record an image of what their eye actually saw, a color scene.
Additive color and dye sensitization were the answers early on, allowing multiple images taken with color filters to be viewed as a color glass plate image.
Because of the difficulties involved in both exposing and viewing the color materials, full color photography didn’t become mainstream among photographers until after the subtractive color processes came into use.
Autochrome of 1907 was one of the better additive color processes before the advent of subtractive color celluloid based films.
Motion Pictures, 1878-1895
Two gentlemen had a bet. One proposed his theory that a horse at full gallop had all four hooves in the air at one point of its stride.
The other protested that at least one hoof was in contact with the ground all times. How could the bet possibly be settled?
Enter Eadweard Muybridge. He came up with a solution to capture multiple images of a horse at full gallop.
A dozen cameras, lined up close to each other beside a track, with strings stretched across the track that would trigger the shutters as the horse went through each one.
Not only was the bet settled, but it was noted that if you flipped through the images rapidly, it looked like the actual motion of the galloping horse was recreated.
A machine was designed by Muybridge to take advantage of that phenomenon, the zoopraxiscope. So, not only did he pioneer high speed photography, he introduced a method for motion pictures that actually worked.
Others picked up on this fantastic idea and made their own “motion picture” machines.
Adapting the new innovation of roll film to the engineering of a device, a worker at Edison’s labs, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, invented what was marketed as the Kinetoscope.
It wasn’t a perfect solution, as the viewer had to peer into the machine in order to view the movie.
Finally, a group of people could all view at once a moving picture show. Bouly coined the term cinematography, or writing in motion, to describe the new art form.
A complete history of cinema could take up a whole separate article on its own, but we’ll come back to motion pictures a couple of times as we get to some more modern developments in photography.
Spoiler alert: a horse’s hooves all leave the ground during a full gallop.
Silver Halides, Celluloid, Roll Film, 1835-1887
Metal and glass plates were cumbersome, but they were easy to fix the image, or make it permanent.
Silver halide mixtures would make fantastic images with all sorts of exposure detail, but it was proving difficult to find a chemical process that would fix the images so they didn’t self destruct.
John Herschel, astronomer, scientist, all around cool guy, discovered in 1839 that a solution made from hyposulfite of soda worked very well as a fixer for any silver based photographic emulsion.
Even though many different chemical solutions now exist for fixing film, we still talk about putting it “in the hypo” after developing. Thanks, John! By the way, he also invented the blueprint.
Gelatin and paper as emulsion bases were introduced as early as 1835 with Henry Fox Talbot leading the way.
Another amazing thing introduced by Talbot was the method of using negatives to make positives, which became one of the cornerstones of analog photography even down to this day.
A match made in photography heaven came about in 1887 when a celluloid film base manufacturing method was introduced.
Now, you could combine these technologies to make photography even more accessible to artists, engineers, scientists, astronomers, and even the general public desiring a fun hobby.
So far, we’ve primarily been discussing and describing methods and processes of photography. Now, we come to a world changing product.
The KODAK – 1888
Yes, it really was a big deal, as we can see looking back in hindsight. The camera, the film, the processes, all had been around for a while.
What really set this product apart was the concept. “You press the button, we do the rest.”
The original KODAK was put on the market by George Eastman in 1888. It wasn’t that special of a camera, but it became so popular that it set up Eastman Kodak as one of the biggest photographic companies in the world.
For quite a long time Kodak was a dominate force in the world of photography making film, developing chemicals, cameras, lenses, processing machines, scientific instruments, motion picture technologies, darkroom equipment, projectors, and digital cameras.
What really set this product apart from others was that marketing concept of freeing up the consumer from technical thoughts to just using the camera to make images.
It worked. It worked so well that the name Kodak became a synonym of sorts for cameras, films, and photography in general.
The idea of the marketing of an artistic and scientific tool as a way for the public to record the joyful moments of their lives has been used over and over again by a wide variety of manufacturers and brands in the 130 years since the KODAK.
George Eastman did not invent photography or marketing, the KODAK wasn’t even the best camera of its time period.
What did happen is that photography came to the masses, to the general public, to the everyday man. A simple box, a simple lens, a simple shutter, and a preloaded roll of film. Wow!
Film, Film, and More Film, 1871-1923
Using a gelatin emulsion to suspend the silver halide crystals was invented in 1871 by Richard Maddox. He applied it to glass plates, but it was the perfect idea for what was coming next.
Celluloid, a type of plastic, was invented in 1856 and applied to photography in 1887 with the introduction of a celluloid film base.
Combining celluloid base and gelatin emulsion made possible the manufacturing of long rolls and large sheets of film.
In so doing, this opened up the designing of cameras and lenses that could take full advantage of the form factors of photographic film.
Eastman Kodak Company was an early pioneer of designing and making film and cameras, but there weren’t yet industry standards for manufacturing the films and cameras to use them.
During this time period, a number of film formats were introduced, often times with a camera specially made to take that particular film. Almost just as often, a film format was abandoned in favor of some new idea.
Sheet film was made in formats that were similar to the metal and glass plates previously used. Common sizes were 4×5 inch, 5×7”, 8×10”, 11×14”, 16×20”, and 20×24”, which also correspond to current popularly used print sizes.
4×5” and 8×10” became the most common large format sheet film sizes.
Engineering cameras to use sheet film was relatively simple, roll film was more of a challenge. The technical reasons are a subject for other articles.
Kodak was an early leader in roll films, creating some formats for their own cameras and formats to fit other brands of cameras.
35mm film was introduced in about 1894 by several different companies, primarily for motion picture use. 70mm was another common roll film size for motion pictures.
Respooled into light tight small cassettes, 35mm was also adapted to still photography.
A film specifically made for still cameras was introduced in 1901 by Eastman Kodak, 120 roll film. A number of different size formats were made that utilized the film.
6cm x 4.5cm, 6x6cm, 6x7cm, and 6x9cm became the most common image sizes for this film size.
Other films for still cameras were introduced by Kodak during this time period. Two sizes that also lasted into the modern era of film cameras were the 127 in 1912 for still cameras like the Vest Pocket Kodak and 16mm in 1923 that was used for movies and in still cameras including miniature cameras.
Kodak Brownie: First Point and Shoot Camera, 1900
While the original KODAK of 1888 was essentially a point and shoot camera, I look at the 1900 introduction of the Brownie in 1900 as the first point and shoot (P&S) camera meant for snapshots.
A little explanation may be in order. For the last 75 years or so prior to the Brownie, cameras were not necessarily easy to operate.
With wet plate processes, a whole bunch of mucking about with sometimes dangerous chemicals had to be done before you could even take the picture.
Dry plate processes, made possible by the invention and adaptation of gelatin suspension to glass plates and later paper and celluloid, made the job a little easier (and much safer), but it was still a cumbersome procedure to create photographic images.
An exposure had to be calculated, often times by the seat of their pants. Early shutter speeds were nothing more than the photographer removing and reattaching a lens cap.
Mechanical watch work type devices, some very simple others more complex, were made that could be placed somewhere in the optical path.
Between lens elements and behind the lens elements were common places to put a shutter, directly in front of the focal plane was another place.
A lens aperture had to chosen or at least taken into account. Early lenses used simple discs to change apertures. Later on, iris blades were designed that could go inside a lens.
Shutter speeds, lens apertures, and the sensitivity of the recording medium (aka film speed) make up the Exposure Triangle used to make viewable images.
Basically, even with sophisticated cameras, there was a whole lot of figuring and calculating going on. Add in the methods used for changing focus and you have a process that is generally anything but point it and click it.
These early Kodak cameras, and hundreds of later cameras from dozens of manufacturers, were extremely simple to operate by comparison. Here’s how:
Focus was fixed, non adjustable, or only very minimally adjustable. Hyperfocal distance was calculated to provide the best results for that lens.
The f-stop or aperture was also a fixed value, with perhaps a simple disc aperture for bright scenes available. Shutter speed was often one speed, controlled by a very simple rotary shutter.
Perhaps there were tow markings on the shutter, I for instantaneous and T for time, which simply held open the shutter until you closed it again.
What made the difference between the 1888 KODAK and the 1900 Brownie was that the user could reload the film in the Brownie.
While it made it necessary for the user to learn how to do that, it allowed for a more casual approach towards picture taking, since your camera could be reloaded with film anytime you needed it.
Combine the simple camera operation and user reloadable film with a very attractive low price and you had an item that could be used to capture everyday moments of life, or snapshots.
The original Brownie, and 60 years of Brownies after that, were very affordable cameras.
35mm: the Film and the Cameras, 1894-1954
Film formats and sizes were all over the place for a while. Roll films were beginning to supplant sheet films and the era of both dry and wet plates was giving way to the standardization offered by films with gelatin emulsions on celluloid or acetate base materials.
The standardization of the photographic manufacturing industry played a huge roll in this. Organizations such as ASA, ISO, and DIN recorded and set standards for science and industry of all types.
Adapting and adopting standards for film sizes, formats, and sensitivities, along with other important factors such as aperture and shutter speed scales were important parts of designing, making, marketing, and using photographic equipment and processes.
35mm film was designed and implemented by several different inventors and manufacturers for the growing art and business of cinematography.
Soon, a standard of sorts was settled upon, with the width of the film base itself and the size and frequency of sprocket holes for film transport through a camera or projector set at certain common values by about 1905 or so.
Several companies were interested in the 35mm film size for still photography cameras, too. One of the issues was how to get the film inside the camera in a way that would be useful.
Movie film was sold in bulk rolls that were loaded into light tight housings that fed through the motion picture cameras and spooled up on the other side of the exposure mechanisms.
Since many people were already used to the smaller cameras that other roll film formats used, it seemed impractical to use large spools of 50 to 100 feet of 35mm film inside of a compact camera.
Between 1905 and 1913, a few companies had designed film cassettes that could hold a small roll of 35mm film and expose an area of the film between the sprocket holes.
One of the better cameras designed at that time was the brainchild of Oskar Barnack, in charge of research and development at Leitz, a maker of fine optics for science, military, and photography.
He built the UR-Leica, which held a spool of film and used mechanical precision and optical excellence as the cornerstone of the compact design.
The Great War (World War 1) delayed any further development of the concept until after its end.
Leica stood for Leitz Camera, in 1923 a slightly better design was tested out before the introduction of the Leica I in 1925.
The time was right for a camera of this type and it took off in a big way. 35mm photography was born, a format which still dominates the industry even into the digital age.
Leica improved the camera design, even adding the capability to interchange lenses on the base camera, much like what was already very commonplace for motion picture cameras.
Soon, other camera and lens makers started making their own 35mm cameras.
Contax came out with their own 35mm camera in 1932, Kodak did the same in 1934. The Kodak Retina 35mm camera was notable in that Kodak also created a film cassette standard for the format, known as 135.
In a short time, the 135 cassette was adopted by just about all the companies making 35mm cameras and film.
That’s one of the benefits Kodak enjoyed by making both film and cameras, and it benefitted photographers for decades to come by having a standard film format to be used by a wide variety of manufacturers.
Cameras and lenses for use by professionals and amateur hobbyists were sold in the millions. Brands such as Leica, Contax, Kodak were joined by Japanese companies, notably Canon/Kwanon (1937), Nikon (1948), Minolta (1947), and Pentax (1952).
Inexpensive cameras such as the Argus cameras also helped the 35mm format become firmly entrenched in the world of photography.
So Much Innovation! 1930-1959
One of the early innovations was creating a standard for the actual image area used on the 35mm film frame.
While a few slightly different sizes were used for a few years by a couple of brands, the 24mm x 36mm frame size was the format that prevailed.
Other innovations that found their way into the cameras were rangefinders, exposure meters, flash synchronization, and rapid film transport.
Lens mounts for the interchangeable lenses were also decided on. A common mount shared by many makers was the screw thread introduced with Leica cameras.
It was easy to make, and an added benefit to photographers was being able to have a choice of lenses to use on their cameras.
Some cameras were introduced with different styles of mounting mechanisms.
Bayonet blades and a breech lock were two designs that become somewhat commonplace, but there wasn’t an adoption of any sort of standard for these.
Speeding up film transport was on the minds of designers and users. Levers replaced knobs, wind up devices were either designed into or adapted to several cameras, and finally electric motors were adapted to drive the film through the camera.
Meters that were made specifically to fit on a certain camera were another innovation. Some cameras had the meter built in.
The first automatic exposure camera was offered for sale by Kodak in 1938, the Super Six-20, though it wasn’t a 35mm camera, and it was horribly expensive. Seriously, it cost more than some cars of the day.
Medium Format Was Big Business, 1928-1957
Having a small form factor was a huge reason for the success of the 35mm format. Some photographers, though, needed the higher overall quality that came with larger film formats.
View cameras and press cameras using sheet film were great, but they were also large, cumbersome, and slow to use.
Being big and slow is a feature of large format photography, not a bug, but even so, many people desired smaller cameras that still delivered very high quality. 120 roll film and medium format cameras fit that need.
Smaller roll film cameras are readily handheld and can take several exposures in a row in rapid sequence. Unlike a view camera, though, you don’t see exactly what the lens is seeing.
One great idea that multiple designers came up with around the same time was placing another lens above the picture taking lens.
A mirror would deflect the light up to a ground glass for viewing, framing, and focusing. The viewing lens is the same focal length as the taking lens and is very close to the line of sight of that lens.
This is called a TLR, Twin Lens Reflex. TLRs are made for a lot of different film formats, but the 120 roll film was the most popular film size for them.
The square format of 6x6cm (2 ¼ x 2 ¼ in) was most common, primarily because of the orientation of the camera making it difficult to hold sidewise. Just go with a square and crop to either landscape or portrait format.
From Japanese camera companies, Minolta made several fine TLRs using 120 film, notably the Autocord.
Plaubel made a neat folding roll film camera, the Makina. Various models were made from the 1910s up to about 1960. Interchangeable film backs could hold either roll films or sheet films in a variety of sizes.
What happened in 1954, ’57, and ’59?
Why did I stop the timelines at ’54, ‘57’, and ’59? Because of several groundbreaking cameras introduced in those years. The cameras are the Leica M3, Hasselblad 500C, Asahi Pentax, and the Nikon F.
These weren’t necessarily outstanding revolutionary designs with never before seen features. What made them special and significant was how they put together features and technology in a very usable way. Let’s look at each of them.
Features included a bayonet lens mount with rangefinder coupling, lens mount cams that set the frame lines for various lenses in the viewfinder, automatic parallax compensation for close focusing, non rotating single shutter speed dial, and a staggering amount of useful accessories for metering, film winding, flash, and close up use.
Victor Hasselblad Co. introduced the 500C in 1957 and it soon became a preferred tool for professional photographers in all the various fields.
Wedding and portrait photographers, industrial photographers, commercial product photographers, and catalog and magazine photographers all loved the features of this 120 film camera.
Interchangeable lenses, interchangeable film backs, interchangeable finders, 6x6cm format, and interlens leaf shutters all contributed to this being the central part of a complete professional camera system.
It wasn’t the first Hasselblad, not even the first professional 2 ¼ camera, but it definitely was sought after by serious photographers.
Everyone remembers the Pentax Spotmatic, but it was the earlier Asahi Pentax of 1957 which was groundbreaking. It put together several innovations and refinements in such a way that influenced camera design even up to the current digital age.
Besides putting together an instant return mirror with an eyelevel pentaprism viewfinder making the first modern 35mm SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera.
Other notable features that influenced later camera design were rapid wind film advance lever, film rewind crank, and a microprism as a focusing aid on the groundglass focusing screen.
What camera comes to mind for the average person when 35mm professional photography is brought up? Chances are, it will be a Nikon F series camera. The original Nikon F was introduced in 1959.
What made the Nikon F so special? Features and quality. The quality was the best that could be made in a mass produced mechanical 35mm SLR camera.
The features included instant-return mirror, instant-reopen diaphragm, depth-of-field preview, self-timer, interchangeable finders, interchangeable viewing/focusing screens, 100% viewfinder, mirror lockup, optional 250-exposure back, optional motor drive, and lenses from 21mm to 1000mm.
Eventually, Nikon made Nikkor lenses for the F mount cameras from 6mm 220 degree fisheye to 2000mm super telephoto.
These four milestone cameras have influenced modern camera and camera system design ever since.
Other innovations have come about in the years since, many of which have enhanced and improved photographic capabilities to a greater or lesser extant.
Texas Instruments and the Canon AE-1, 1976
Texas Instruments pioneered silicon transistors, integrated circuitry, and integrated micro-controllers in the 1960s and early ‘70s, making possible the next generation of camera design. Howdy howdy, pardner!
The Canon AE-1 of 1976 was one of the early examples of a camera brand taking advantage of this new technology to improve cameras.
The camera integrated a small form factor, inexpensive “dedicated” accessories like an electronic flash and an auto winder for film advance.
A marketing campaign with a variety of celebrities and sports stars hit magazines, radio, and TV with the tag line, “So advanced, it’s simple.” Does that remind you of 1888’s You press the button?
Two other innovations were designed by Minolta engineers, but were first seen in other camera brands.
Off the film plane (OTF) exposure and TTL flash metering were developed by Minolta engineers and first used in a camera by Olympus with their OM-2.
Autofocus SLRs, 1985 and beyond
Minolta was also an early pioneer in Autofocus for 35mm SLR cameras, introducing the Maxxum line of cameras with the Maxxum 7000 in 1985.
Autofocus SLRs for professional use came a short time later. Minolta’s first professional caliber since the XK-Motor was the A-mount Maxxum 9000.
Introduced in late 1985, not too long after the Maxxum 7000, the 9000 was fully automatic and all electronic when you attached the separate motor drive.
For some photographers, this seemed to be an odd development, but it had roots in a couple of decades of increasing electronics and automation in professional cameras. More on that in just a little bit.
The Maxxum 9000, Nikon F4 and N8008, and Canon EOS-1 also set the scene for the next wave of camera technology, digital sensor cameras.
Electronic Super Cameras for Pros, 1976 – 1982
Three cameras stand out for bringing electronics to professional photography, all of them medium format full system cameras.
Rolleiflex SLX (1976) is a 6x6cm SLR that uses 120 and 220 film. It has almost full electronic control with a built-in motorized film advance, electronic in lens leaf shutters, and automatic exposure capability with shutter speed priority.
It was significant in its use of more electronic contacts and controls than mechanical levers, cams, or actuators.
Hasselblad 2000FC (1977) was significant in that it also had a large number of electronic contacts for passing information and controlling the different lenses, finders, and camera backs while remaining in the form factor of the earlier 500 series.
Later versions of this camera were easily adapted to digital sensor backs. This camera also gave photographers the option of using leaf shutters in current lenses or a focal plane shutter.
This also allowed new faster aperture lenses, not an extremely common feature among medium format camera systems.
Mamiya RZ67 (1982) was an update or rework of the previous RB67 design making 6x7cm images. Primary differences were electronic shutter control and electronic contacts for information and control.
Are you seeing a pattern here? Later versions of this camera could use digital sensor backs.
A couple of other things these cameras had in common were astronomical prices and full systems built around the electronics of the cameras.
Among other things, these cameras pointed the way to the adoption of the next big thing in the history of photography.
Mama Don’t Take My Kodachrome! December 1975 – 2010
After several years of IC, microchip, and CCD invention and improvement, camera makers and photographers alike were looking into the future of photography, electronic imaging.
The first known attempt to record a digital photographic image was in December 1975.
Steven Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak (remember them?), built a camera that weighed 8 pounds and recorded black-and-white images to a compact cassette tape.
It had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels and took 23 seconds to capture the image.
Analog still video cameras came to market first, though. The Sony Mavica (1981), and the Canon RC-701 (1986). These cameras were prohibitively expensive for most photographers, but they were a huge hit with news media companies.
Among the first commercially available truly digital cameras were collaborations between Fuji and Kodak with Nikon and Canon between 1989 and 2005.
1999 saw the Nikon D1, the first digital camera designed and built completely by a major camera manufacturer. Things were moving very fast in this new chapter of the history of photography.
But, there were definitely some hold outs. Due the high price and perceived limitations of Digital SLRs (DSLR), some film photographers didn’t want to embrace digital until it was as good as the legendary film, Kodachrome.
Well, that happened. In 2004, Canon brought out the update to their EOS D1 pro model DSLR, named the EOS D1 mk II.
This full frame 35m format DSLR had a sensor with 8.2MP resolution and in numerous tests equaled or beat the resolving power of 35mm Kodachrome film.
Continuing Dominance of Digital, 2010 – Present
The current crop of digital SLRs (DSLR) and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) are some of the most amazing picture taking machines you could imagine.
Point and shoot (P&S) digital cameras have been largely supplanted by smartphones with built-in cameras. Digital has also made possible very affordable and easy to use action cameras and remote drones.
More on all that in just a bit, let’s look at the DSLRs and the mirrorless ILCs. DSLRs have been largely the domain of the top camera brands.
Just like with the market for 35mm film camera DLSRs, there are three levels of cameras. Generally speaking, of course. They are most often referred to as Entry Level, Prosumer, and Professional.
High megapixel (MP) make up the heart of these cameras, so image quality is usually not a huge issue. APS-C format is probably the most common for this level of camera.
What keeps the costs down for entry level digital cameras is lighter duty construction and limited special features. For instance, a large part of the camera and lens bodies made be made of polycarbonate.
Also, lens apertures for the kit lenses will be quite modest, you could even call them slow. Maximum f/stops of f/3.5 or f/4.5 are common, with the maximum aperture falling to f/5.6 or f/6.3 at the longer end of the zoom range.
Lens speed doesn’t seem to be as big an issue for the average amateur or beginner hobbyist photographer due to the new technology of image stabilization in many lenses and some cameras.
This technology is one of the reasons why even entry cameras and lenses produce such good results for average users.
Prosumer cameras have heavier duty construction, better features, and are sometimes almost as capable as a full fledged professional model. Some great examples of this genre of cameras include the Canon EOS 80D, Pentax KP, Sony a77II, and Nikon D7500.
This level of camera is still far below the general price range of Pro cameras, but they include advanced features and are rugged enough for serious users including many professional photographers.
Most of them are in the APS-C format, but there are also full-frame prosumer models.
Users of these cameras will also often match up the better lenses, including 3rd party lenses, to their camera.
It’s important to note that better isn’t always referring to purely optical quality concerns, as it’s hard to find a modern lens that isn’t very sharp. Faster f-stops, more rugger build, and AF speed are what is usually increased over kit lenses.
Professional full frame 35mm format digital are nothing short of absolutely amazing. They are also quite expensive, sometimes the body only is ten times the cost of a complete entry level camera kit with lens!
The capability you get with these cameras is awesome as well. Hey, if these cameras are good enough for space agencies and militaries, they will probably be completely capable for what most pros could possibly put them through.
As far as capabilities, consider one of the most capable outfits even remotely possible in 1980. A Nikon F2AS, DP-12 finder, Auto-EE DS- 12 servo, MD2 motor drive, 750 exposure back, remote control, and an external flash unit.
Add in a lens of your choice. Compare that to what is built into the Nikon D850. No comparison, really.
Professional digital cameras are also available in formats larger than full-frame 35mm. Hasselblad H6D, Pentax 645Z, and Fuji GFX 50R are examples of just how astronomically capable current digital photography tools can be, whether DSLR design or mirrorless.
Mirrorless, Action Cams, Drones, Smartphones – Now and Beyond
An SLR camera requires a mirror box and pentaprism in order to allow the photographer to see exactly what the lens sees.
Camera designers saw that digital technology would allow them to eliminate the need for that mechanism. Mirrorless also allows for some very compact cameras in the smaller formats, and extremely fast lenses for any of the formats.
Examples of the amazing cameras available with digital mirrorless technology are the Panasonic Lumix G9 and Olympus OM-D M1X in MFT format, Sony a6500 and Fujifilm X-H1 in APS-C format, Sony a7-iii, Canon EOS R, and Nikon Z6 in full-frame format, as well as the medium format cameras Hasselblad X1D-50C and Fuji GFX 100.
The small size and big capabilities of digital cameras have made possible a fairly new genre of cameras, the action cam and the drone.
GoPro cameras can be mounted to race cars, bicycle helmets, surfboards, drones, and even live animals. Drones with cameras can give perspectives previously only available by means of a whole bunch of effort and sometimes considerable risk.
We barely mentioned digital P&S cameras earlier. Basically, because that style of camera has been made almost completely redundant and unnecessary by the smartphone.
Now, almost everyone has a great still AND video camera with them at all times. Images and videos can be shared worldwide virtually instantaneously by social media.
Maybe now that everyone has a high quality still and video camera on them at all times, we’ll finally get proof of Big Foot, Nessie, and Grey Aliens. I’m waiting…
Well, we pretty much brought the history of photography up to the present.
Mirrorless cameras are now one of the hottest topics and sensor resolving power is pushing 50MP in 35mm format, while medium format cameras are using 100MP and 200MP digital backs.
The History of Photography Is Not Over, Present to the Near (and Far) Future
Hopefully you enjoyed our journey through the history of photography. It’s not over yet, not by a longshot. Also, any one of the side subjects touched on in this article could become a small book all on its own.
Motion pictures and video, digital imaging, miniature and spy cameras, instant cameras, all are part of the huge volume of the history of photography and we barely even got a mention of them in.
Join us for future examination of more interesting photographic subjects.