It's amazing to think that photography - something so familiar and integral to our lives - has only been around for 200 years! Read on for a whistle stop tour of its history; from its labour intensive beginnings in home laboratories to the super swanky Lumix Super Zoom cameras of today. Photography is one medium which really has come a very long way...
That view can then be traced to produce realistic drawings or paintings. To better understand how it all works, check out this great article from the BBC on the likelihood of Dutch artist Vermeer having made extensive use of a camera obscura.
But what if you didn't want to spend hours making the camera obscura image permanent? What if you could make that image 'fix' itself? In the late 1700s, these are the questions people began to ask themselves.
Nicéphore Niépce and the First Photograph
Niépce was the first to succeed in this quest, temporarily fixing negative images to paper coated with silver chloride way back in 1816. In 1822 he succeeded in creating a permanent image using heliography, a process using plates of glass or metal coated in Bitumen of Judea. The oldest surviving camera photograph is the view from Niépce's window in 1826, a picture which required several days exposure.
In 1829 Niépce began to work with Louis Daguerre. After Niépce's death in 1833, Daguerre carried on alone, going on to create the daguerreotype.
The above infographic by Susanna Castelli describes the somewhat arduous process of fixing an image to a thin sheet of silver plated copper, by producing a coating of silver iodide which made the plate light sensitive. The image was then fixed by exposure to mercury vapour, and a wash in heated salt water or sodium thiosulfate to remove any remaining silver iodide.
Daguerre was ready to go public with his invention in 1839, when it was purchased by the French government and given free to the world as a gift. Except the British Empire, where you needed to buy a license. (To be fair to the French, this was Daguerre's doing by taking out a UK patent.) The novelty of owning a perfect likeness ensured the system's success, and throughout the 1840s and 50s lords and paupers alike sat for a daguerreotype.
But the daguerreotype still had plenty of problems. The image was fragile, needing to be protected by a case or glass fronted frame, and copies could not be made, other than by photographing the original plate. This, along with the amount of light needed and the long exposure times, meant that experimentation for a better process was constantly ongoing. (Ambrotypes, for instance, were created using less expensive glass plates.) These efforts ensured that daguerreotypes had largely fallen out of use by 1860.
Calotypes and the Collodion Process
In 1841 William Henry Fox Talbot introduced the calotype, a process using paper coated with silver iodide to create a negative. Multiple images could be produced from this single image, which should have given it the edge over the daguerreotype in spite of the fact the image was not as sharp. But Talbot's patenting of the process limited its development, and it wasn't until it was adapted to a glass negative in the early 1850s that it really proved its worth.
This new 'collodion process' combined the clear definition of the daguerreotype with the reproductive abilities of the calotype, improving on both with its cheapness and the durability of its negative. It was chiefly used to create tintypes (images on thin sheets of metal coated in lacquer or enamel) and albumen paper prints.
The collodion process could be done dry (with long exposure times) or wet (requiring a portable darkroom to complete everything in around ten minutes before the plate dried). Both methods had obvious pitfalls. Still, another breakthrough was just around the corner...
Kodak and the Roll Film
George Eastman patented the first practical roll film in 1884, perfected the first camera designed to use it in 1888, and began producing the kind of film we're familiar with today in 1889. The Eastman Kodak Company was established in 1892, and set about revolutionising what photography was all about.
For the first time you didn't need any experience to take a photograph. You didn't need vials of chemicals, or piles of expensive equipment. All you had to do was point the camera, press the button, and let somebody else transform your film into photographs. The Box Brownie, introduced in 1900, shifted 150,000 units in its first year of production alone.
Photography had come to the masses.
Size Really Does Matter
A number of cameras were produced with the 35 mm format specifically in mind, like the Tourist Multiple in 1913 and the Furet in 1923, but it was Leica which really became associated with it. Although a prototype had been completed in 1913, the Leica I only went into full production in 1925. Good things come to those who wait - the camera proved so successful that Ernst Leitz GmbH, then known for microscopes, binoculars and optical equipment, today bears the Leica name. 35 mm film became ever more popular too, becoming the best selling format by the 1960s.
The first SLR (single lens reflex) camera was actually invented by Thomas Sutton in 1861. The concept was tinkered with, improved upon, and finally emerged as a viable and attractive prospect. It really took off with the introduction of Nikon F in August 1959 - widely used by professional photographers, it offered plenty of optional add-ons and remained in production until 1973 when it was replaced by the Nikon F2.
Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture
*Don't shake a modern Polaroid picture, you'll only ruin your shot.
Instant cameras first hit the scene in 1923, but didn't become commercially available until the invention of the Polaroid Model 95 in 1948. The idea didn't really take off until the swinging sixties when the Model 20 'Swinger' swung onto the scene. (Too much swinging?) Easy to use, and relatively inexpensive, the Swinger became one of the best selling cameras of all time. Since the 60s the instant camera has enjoyed periodic bursts of popularity, appealing particularly to the youth and novelty markets.
Things Can Only Get Better
Flash photography was improving too. The concept had been around since the 1850s, using magnesium ribbon or flash powder used in special lamps. Reducing the risk of singed hair and burns, the single use flashbulb first went into commercial production in the late 1920s - in the 1930s they became triggered by the shutter. By 1970 you could get multiple bulbs in the same unit, making the process less labour intensive. It was the 1970s, too, which saw the electronic flash unit start to become affordable; it wasn't too long before it became the norm.
The Digital World
Experiments with digital photography began in the 1960s: the first successful prototype digital camera took an image with a resolution of a whopping 0.01 megapixels in 1975. Analog electronic cameras trickled onto the market in the 1980s, and the first portable true digital camera to go into commercial production was the DS-X by Fuji - the year was 1989.
Hampered at first by low resolution, tiny storage space (relatively speaking!) and high costs, as technology improved during the 1990s so did sales of digital cameras. They outsold film cameras for the first time in 2003 - the same year that the sale of mobile phones equipped with digital cameras first outsold their standalone counterparts.
The Next Generation
Here we are in the present day, with the camera range which inspired this post - the Lumix Super Zoom Cameras. The pictured Lumix Communication Camera CM1 combines an android mobile phone with a 20 megapixel sensor and a Leica lens. It boasts LED flash, 16GB internal memory, 2.3GHz Quad-core processor, along with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. You can get it on Amazon for £379.
Just imagine what Niépce would have made of it, when he succeeded with those first temporary negatives 200 years ago!