When I looked up the date when photography was invented I was surprised that it was first tried in 1800, if you allow the word to mean the capturing by some means or other an image created by some means or other!
While optics were known and understood well before this time, no one apparently thought of using glass to create images of views, people or anything else. If they did, there appears to be no record. Also the technology didn’t exist to record any image so created, so it would have been pointless to do so anyway, though artists may have been able to benefit from an image projected onto a canvas as a guide.
So before “the camera” we had “the camera obscura”. A camera obscura is basically a darkened room with an image created by a pinhole camera projected onto a white screen. They are fascinating to visit and I highly recommend visiting one.
When the means for creating an image (a lens) came together with a means of capturing the image photography was born. At first the techniques were hit and miss with wet plates coated in chemicals to capture the image and simple lens to create the image, and a long exposure time.
But techniques and technologies quickly improved and exposure times came down. In the early days, when sitting for a photograph, the long exposure times meant that braces had to be used to prevent the sitter from inadvertently moving and spoiling the photograph.
The image of a photographer in those days was of a man hiding under a dark cloth doing mysterious things with his camera, maybe firing off a tray of flash powder to record the image on a glass plate, then dashing off to his “dark room” to process and fix his image onto the glass plate with dangerous chemicals. The end result was an image with light and dark reversed, a so-called “negative”.
Some of these early cameras were works of art, with shining brass trimming, great leather bellows and polished wood bodies and plate holders, all mounted on a substantial tripod. Great brass screws could move the lens closer to or further from the body which held the plate and often could move the lens up and down or from side to side to compensate for perspective distortions.
Several things eventually brought photography in reach of the man in the street. Firstly, it became possible to record the images onto a strip of plastic, which meant that the camera only had to be loaded once in a while. At the same time, it became possible for you to hand your film to the local chemist or apothecary and have the films developed and positive images printed on cards.
The rise of mass production allowed cameras to be produced very cheaply, and the Box Brownie arrived, costing two British pounds. Anyone could be a photographer. To be sure corners had to be cut, so the Brownie was a simple box with small and very simple lens, and the shutter was simply a plate that usually blocked light from entering.
On pressing the shutter lever a spring was tightened until the plate flicked over, giving the lens a brief look at the outside world. The film strip was held on one spool and transferred to another. A window in the back of the camera showed the backing strip of the film and you would the film on until the next number showed in the window.
The user aimed the camera by using a crude “viewfinder”. This was simply a window in the top of the camera which allowed the photographer to look down on a tiny mirror which reflected the view in front of the camera. It was around a centimetre wide and pointed only more or less in the same direction. To switch from landscape mode to portrait mode you turned the camera over and looked into a similarly minute viewfinder!
Of course things rapidly moved on from there. People loved the Box Brownie and soon handheld cameras of all sorts appeared. Some had two linked lens arranged piggy back style as in the Rollieflex, and some had a single lens, like the Hasselblad. Those two were high end machines, and featured switchable components and high quality lenses and other accessories. They tended to be favoured by professional photographers.
Most other cameras were built on a different design, though. Most featured a eye level viewfinder, and cheaper ones usually didn’t have interchangeable accessories. Most moved away from the spool to spool system to the 35mm cassette. Really cheap cameras eventually had a drop in cassette system.
Two other big changes were the introduction of colour film and the single lens reflex system. Many photographers used to monochrome film were appalled by the advent of colour film and swore never to change to it. Most amateurs adopted it with enthusiasm of course. Eventually everyone (almost) used colour.
The single lens reflex system allowed the photographer to see exactly what he was shooting as the viewfinder looked through the same lens through which the image was captured. Generally the viewfinder was eye level but the Hassleblad was an exception retaining the waist level view point.
The more expensive cameras had knobs, dials and buttons all over them, but the cheaper varieties had only a few, and some did not have any controls. All used film cassettes and most had flash devices for low light level conditions.
Then along came digital. Film disappeared, to be replaced by flash storage. Most cameras lost their viewfinders, which were replaced by small screens covering the whole of the back of the camera. Many settings could be set using the screen and a few buttons, and the cameras sizes shrunk. Some these days are credit card size.
But now, it seems that the so called “compact digital cameras” have briefly had their day. Every smartphone has an embedded camera, and people are not buying the compacts. Some smartphones now come with Leica lens technology.
The result? Billions (if I’m not mistaken) of absolutely atrocious photographs spamming the Internet. From cute cats to drunken revellers, everything is now floating around out these. But I’m optimistic. Real photographs and real photographers are still out there. Somewhere.