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History of Photography: When Were Cameras Invented?

Today, having a high-quality camera on your phone and being able to “capture the moment” at all times is considered to be completely normal, but things weren’t like this even 10 years ago. To find out how we got there and how the camera evolved throughout the years, keep reading.

History of Photography: When Were Cameras Invented?

When was the first camera invented?

The first camera ever made was camera obscura, which means “dark room” or "dark chamber" in Latin. 

It wasn't necessarily what we today call a camera, but rather small darkened rooms with light admitted only through a tiny hole. The result was an inverted image of the outside scene cast on the opposite wall. 

This technique was used for viewing eclipses of the Sun without endangering the eyes and, later on, also as a drawing aid.

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Who invented the first camera?

It is not exactly clear who exactly invented camera obscura, but the oldest known written records of this principle are by Han Chinese philosopher Mozi (c. 470 to c. 391 BC). 

During the 4th century, the Greek philosopher Aristotle noted that sunlight passing through gaps between leaves projects an image of an eclipsed sun on the ground. This phenomenon was also noted in the 6th century by the Greek architect Anthemius of Tralles who used a type of camera obscura in his experiments.

In the 9th century, the great Arab philosopher, mathematician, physician, and musician by the name of  Al-Kindi also experimented with light and a pinhole.

In the 11th century, an Arab physicist by the name of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) wrote books about optics which included experiments with light through a small opening in a darkened room (aka camera obscura), so many do consider him to be the official inventor.

Even Leonardo da Vinci wrote about this invention, publishing the first-ever clear description of the camera obscura in his Codex Atlanticus. Over the years, he also drew around 270 diagrams of camera obscura devices in his sketchbooks and has even compared them to the human eye.

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Oldest photograph: When was the first photo ever taken?

The “View from the Window at Le Gras” is the first photograph ever, or, more precisely, the oldest surviving camera photograph.

It was made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827 and was captured using a technique called heliography. 

The shot was taken from an upstairs window at Niépce's estate in Burgundy and there are no duplicates of the photograph.



Heliography (invented by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce) was the first-ever method for producing permanent photographs by using a photosensitive medium for fixing and preserving images. 

Joseph Niépce dissolved light-sensitive bitumen in lavender oil and applied a thin coat over a polished pewter plate. He then inserted that plate into a camera obscura and positioned it near a window of his second-story workroom. After multiple days of sunlight exposure, the plate started to show an impression of the courtyard, buildings, as well as trees outside, and thus the first photograph was created.



The daguerreotype was the first widespread photographic process. 

It was a direct-positive process that created a highly detailed image on a sheet of silver-plated copper which was coated in light-sensitive chemicals. Those chemicals created the photographic image when exposed to light in the camera. 

That piece of metal held the original image, which was very delicate and had to be placed under glass for protection when viewing. It was also usually put into a decorative case. 

The daguerreotype process was invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a man that worked with Joseph Niépce before Niépce died. 

Daguerre’s method was announced to the French public on August 19, 1839 and quickly became highly popular and widespread.

Daguerreotypists in major cities would invite celebrities and political figures to their studios in the hopes of obtaining a photograph for display, which would encourage the public to visit their galleries, in the hope that they would then desire to be photographed as well. 

The popularity of this method declined in the late 1850s when the ambrotype (a significantly faster and less expensive process) became available. 


The first selfie ever

The first photographic self-portrait was taken in 1839 by Robert Cornelius, an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast from Philadelphia. 

Robert set up his camera at the back of his family’s store in Philadelphia, removed the lens cap, and ran into the frame where he sat for a minute before running to cover the lens again. 

On the back of this image, Robert wrote: "The first light Picture ever taken. 1839".



The next photographic process that gained popularity was the ambrotype process. An ambrotype photo consisted of an underexposed glass negative placed against a dark background which would then create a positive image. 

The difference between the daguerreotype and ambrotype process is that the first produced a positive image seen under glass, while the second produced a negative image that became visible when the glass was backed by black material.

Both processes took quite a long time and people had to sit very still while the photograph was being taken, which is why people often look uncomfortable or even sad in very old photos. 



Tintype (also called melainotype or ferrotype) is a photographic process where the photo is made on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer. It superseded the ambrotype and, like it, the tintype used a negative image on a darker background to create the appearance of a positive image. But, what set this new process apart was that it was cheaper, faster, and produced a more durable image.


Dry plates 

The dry plates came into use and made the photographic process much more simple. The collodion dry plates had been available since 1857, thanks to Désiré van Monckhoven, but in 1871 when Richard Leach Maddox the gelatin dry plate, the wet plate process finally got a rival in quality and speed. 

In 1878 after a heat-ripening gelatin emulsion was discovered, the world of photography finally got to experience the so-called "instantaneous" snapshot exposures. For the first time ever, a tripod was no longer an absolute necessity and the camera could be hand-held while taking the picture. 

As expected, this caused a swell of amateur photographers and informal "candid" portraits. 


The invention of film and the first commercial camera 

The use of photographic film was pioneered by George Eastman (the founder of Kodak), who started manufacturing paper film in 1885 before switching to celluloid in 1888–1889. This allowed the movie camera to develop from a very expensive toy to a practical commercial tool.

The first commercial camera was also created by him in 1888. This Kodak camera had 100 exposures and after all 100 have been used, the user would send the camera back to the Kodak company for processing.

The company would then return the printed photos, along with the camera which would again have 100 more exposures. This Kodak camera was the size of a microwave oven, had a small single lens and no focusing adjustment, but was the first camera inexpensive enough for the average person to afford.

This camera was superseded by Kodak’s Brownie, a simple and very inexpensive box camera that introduced the concept of the snapshot. It was extremely popular and various models remained on sale until the 1960s.


35mm film 

Between 1905 and 1913, a large number of manufacturers started to use 35 mm film for still photography. 

Some of the first publicly available popular 35 mm cameras were the Tourist Multiple, in 1913, and the Simplex, in 1914.

After WWI, Oskar Barnack and Leitz commercialized their first 35 mm cameras. They test-marketed the design between 1923 and 1924, and after much positive feedback, the camera was put into production as the Leica I (for Leitz camera) in 1925. 

This camera was so popular that it instantly spawned a number of competitors, but also cemented the position of 35 mm as the format of choice for high-end compact cameras.

Kodak joined the 35 mm market with the Retina I in 1934, which introduced the 135 cartridge used in all modern 35 mm cameras. Although the Retina and the Japanese camera industry began to take off in 1936 with the Canon 35 mm rangefinder, an improved version of the 1933 Kwanon prototype. 

Japanese cameras would begin to become increasingly popular in the West after Korean War veterans and soldiers stationed in Japan brought them back to the United States.


TLR and SLR cameras

Though both single (SLR) and twin-lens reflex cameras (TLR) had been available for decades, they were too bulky to achieve popularity. But this all changed thanks to the Rolleiflex - the first practical reflex camera by Franke & Heidecke Rolleiflex made in 1928. 

It was sufficiently compact to achieve widespread popularity and thus the medium-format TLR design became popular for both high and low-end cameras.

When it comes to SLR design, the revolution began in 1933 with the introduction of the Ihagee Exakta, a compact SLR which used 127 roll film. 

The 35mm SLR design fastly gained popularity and caused an explosion of new models and innovative features after World War II. 

The first major post-war SLR innovation was the eye-level viewfinder. It first appeared on the Hungarian Duflex in 1947 but was further refined in 1948 with the Contax S. Prior to this invention, all SLRs were equipped with waist-level focusing screens. 

In 1952 the Asahi Optical Company (the manufacturer of Pentax cameras) introduced the first Japanese SLR using 135 film, the Asahiflex. Several other Japanese camera makers followed and also entered the SLR market in the 1950s. The most notable were Canon, Yashica, and Nikon. 

Nikon's entry to the game, the Nikon F, had a full line of interchangeable components and accessories, which is why it is generally regarded as the first Japanese system camera. The F and earlier S series of rangefinder cameras helped establish Nikon as a maker of professional-quality equipment and one of the world's best-known brands, which is still true even today.


First polaroid camera

While the conventional camera market was booming and becoming more refined and sophisticated, an entirely new type of camera appeared saw the light of the day in 1948. 

It was Polaroid Model 95, the world's first instant-picture camera. It used a patented chemical process to produce finished positive prints from the exposed negatives in under one minute. Despite its relatively high price, this innovative camera became popular and the Polaroid lineup had expanded to dozens of models by the 1960s. 

The first Polaroid camera aimed at the wide market was the Model 20 Swinger made in 1965. It was a huge success and it still remains one of the best-selling cameras of all time.



The evolution of early digital cameras 

The first actual digital still camera was developed by an Eastman Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson in 1975. He created a prototype using a movie camera lens, a bunch of Motorola parts, some newly-invented Fairchild CCD electronic sensors, and 16 batteries.

The result of his efforts was a camera the size of a printer which weighed nearly 4 kilograms. It captured black-and-white images on a digital cassette tape.

Sasson and his colleagues also had to invent a special screen just to be able to look at the images taken by this camera.

This prototype had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels and took a whopping 23 seconds to snap the first photo.

Kodak did not pursue the development of this technology and chose to continue to focus on photographic film. 


But by the 1980s, handheld cameras began to slowly ditch film.

This change began in 1981 when Sony demonstrated a prototype Mavica (Magnetic Video Camera) model. This new camera wasn't necessarily what one would call a digital camera, but it was definitely its precursor in the sense that, even though the images were still recording analog data, they were doing so on to electronic media.


First true digital cameras

The first true digital camera was built in 1981 and it was named the Fairchild All-Sky camera. It was built by the University of Calgary Canada ASI Science Team and was used to photograph auroras in the sky.

What made the All-Sky Camera so special (and finally truly digital) was the fact that it recorded digital data rather than analog.

Then, in the late 1980s, truly commercial digital cameras started to become available. The first true portable digital camera that recorded digital images was (most likely) the Fuji DS-1P of 1988. This camera recorded onto a 2 MB SRAM (static RAM) memory card & used a battery to keep the data in memory. It was never marketed to the public, but is still a worthy mention.


First professional digital camera ever sold 

The first digital camera that was ever sold commercially was possibly the MegaVision Tessera (in 1987), but there is not much info about it. 

The first portable digital camera that was actually marketed and sold commercially was the Fuji DS-X. 

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First digital camera ever sold commercially

The first commercially available portable digital camera in the United States was the Dycam Model 1, which was initially a commercial failure because it was black-and-white, had a low resolution, and cost around $1,000 (equivalent to $2,000 today). After it was re-branded and sold as the Logitech Fotoman in 1992, the camera found success. 

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First Digital SLR Cameras (DSLRs)

In 1986 at the Photokina trade, Nikon revealed a prototype for the first-ever DSLR camera - the Nikon SVC. Two years later, in 1988, they released their first commercial DSLR camera, the QV-1000C. 

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First consumer-level DSLR

The first consumer-level DSLR was released in early 2000 when Fujifilm announced the FinePix S1 Pro. It was an interchangeable lens digital single-lens reflex camera introduced based on a Nikon F60/N60 body that was modified by Fujifilm to include its own sensor and electronics.


First DSLR with video recording capabilities

In 2008, Nikon released the D90, the first DSLR with the capability of recording videos. Since then all the major companies started offering cameras with this functionality.


The triumph of digital cameras

In 2003, digital cameras outsold film cameras, and the trend has continued ever since.

In 2004, Kodak, the once leader and main innovation of the camera industry, announced that they would no longer sell Kodak-branded film cameras in the developed world. In 2012, the company filed for bankruptcy after years of struggling to adapt to the evolving industry.

Camera phones

The crown for the first camera phone is somewhat contested. Although some claim that it was the Sharp J-SH04, it was in fact another Japanese phone that launched in 1999 — the Kyocera VP-210 VisualPhone. 

The VisualPhone was called a "mobile videophone" and featured a 110,000-pixel front-facing camera and only had enough memory to store 20 JPEG photos. These could be sent over e-mail, or the phone could send up to two images per second over Japan's Personal Handy-phone System cellular network.

The above-mentioned J-SH04 was the first mass-market camera phone and it had the capability of instantly transmitting pictures via cell phone telecommunication.


Consumers loved having cameras built in to their phones, so manufacturers started racing to produce the best, smallest cameras they could, which brings us to today. 

Every phone has a camera and some with ridiculously powerful capabilities, with the Sony Xperia Pro-I even having a 1-inch sensor. 


We started this camera/photography journey way back in the 1600s, and, more than 420 years later, look how far we've come! Amazing, isn't it?! 

We hope that we've answered some important questions, such as when were cameras invented, who invented the camera, as well as what was the first camera (in multiple camera categories).

We're also interested to hear which part of this camera timeline you found interesting and why.

Make sure to let us know on Facebook, Twitter, or even Instagram

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