It might seem like there’s a new camera launch every month, but photography got off to a slow start. Believe it or not, the very first camera can be traced back to 1685, although it took until 1814 before someone figured out a way to preserve the image.
The earliest surviving photograph dates from 1827 and required an exposure time of over eight hours. It was then another 70 years before George Eastman learned to make photographic film, and it took until the turn of the century before the Brownie arrived. The Brownie changed everything, finally bringing photography to the masses. Photography enthusiast Peter Altman owns some of the oldest models in existence – here, he takes a look at a few of his favourites...
The Early Years
Midg falling plate camera
Made by Butcher & Son from 1902 until 1920, it held 12 glass photographic plates, which were moved forward after each exposure by a spring mechanism. The exposed plate was left to fall down into the box, hence the name. It was a noisy and heavy (about 2kg) camera, made famous because it was used to shoot the famous Cottingley Fairies photos in 1917.
Kodak No. 2 Brownie Model E
This was one of many box Brownies made by Eastman Kodak from 1901 onwards. It consisted of a cardboard box with a basic lens, with no control over the exposure settings. The camera used roll film, which was easier and lighter than glass plates; the film produced small 2¼in square negatives. It cost $2 in cardboard and a little more in metal, finally making photography accessible to everyone. Millions were sold.
This one, launched in 1935, was made in brown Bakelite, and here you can see it in both its open and closed positions. It took eight photos on 120 roll film, and you could change the exposure settings. Its viewfinder was small and difficult to use properly, but these folding cameras were popular because you could carry them around with you. However, a lot of care had to be taken with the bellows, which were easily damaged.
Rolleiflex and Rolleicord
There were two versions: the Rolleiflex, and the cheaper and less advanced Rolleicord. The photo shows a Rolleicord Ia Model 2, manufactured in 1937.
The top lens was a viewing lens for composition and focusing, and the lower lens was for taking the actual photograph. In use, the top plate opened up to access a ground glass viewing screen, and sometimes a pop-up magnifying glass for fine focusing.
These cameras took 120 roll film and were mainly used for landscape and portrait work. They were not really suited for photographing moving objects or people. Other manufacturers also produced TLR (twin-lens reflex) cameras, such as Yashica and Mamiya, but Rollei cameras were considered the best.
After 1959, two variations followed – the Second Model (shown here) manufactured 1959-1963 and, yep, you guessed it, the Third Model, 1965-1967. The kit included a case and leaflet and the camera had a carrying strap.
This is the camera that really changed photography after its 1925 launch, kick-starting the genre of candid street photography. It spawned great photographers of the era such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Alfred Eisenstaedt, who captured street life in Paris and that iconic kiss on VJ Day in Times Square.
The Leica was the first camera to popularise 35mm film and could hold up to 36 pictures on one roll. As the negatives were smaller, they needed to be enlarged to make them viewable. This required better lenses, which led to much-improved image quality, and in 1935 Leica introduced the first interchangeable lenses – the 35mm wide-angle and a 135mm telephoto. The Leica became so popular, in fact, that the Russians ripped it off with the model shown here, which sold for just £25 instead of the $114 price of the original.
Prices fell quickly though, and by the time the Leica II Model D was released in 1932, you could pick one up for $56.
Affectionately known as the brick because it weighed nearly a kilo, two million Argus C3s were sold during the 27 years it was produced. In fact, a few are still in use today. Thanks to a rangefinder, focusing became easier. A separate flashgun could also be attached to the side. Launched in 1939, it was only discontinued in 1966 when cheap SLR cameras began appearing from Japan.
From the early 1960s, the Polomat 2 could work out the correct exposure setting, came with a built-in selenium light meter and even included a hot shoe for an external flashgun.
One of the biggest advances came with the introduction of the single lens reflex (SLR). Suddenly it became possible to see exactly what the camera saw, as the viewfinder was directly linked to the camera lens. Zeiss had tried it in 1949, but Pentax had more success in 1957, influencing camera design for years to come.
Praktica MTL 50
Made in East Germany and launched in 1985, this became one of the most popular SLR cameras of the era. Different types of lenses could easily be switched in. The development of zoom lenses in the 1960s meant that, in theory, one lens could do all jobs. In practice, it wasn’t quite so simple. With the Tamron 90-205mm zoom lens attached, the Praktica weighed over 1kg and was over 30cm in length. The zoom wasn’t even that good; it had a small range and the tiny aperture led to dark images. But it was a start.
The mirror was a crucial part of the mechanism, enabling the single lens to be used both for viewing and taking. Light entering the lens was deflected up into the housing, where the viewfinder was located. When the shutter button was pressed, a spring mechanism moved the mirror upwards, enabling light to pass through the lens and onto the film. The viewfinder would momentarily go black as the mirror reverted to its original position. Although quite fast, this was a noisy procedure, not really suited to candid photography.
In 1963, Kodak came up with an innovation that gave a big boost to amateur photography. It invented a new type of film that was easy to load. Previously, loading 35mm film was a fiddly process, easy to get wrong. The new 126 film was housed in a cartridge that could easily be dropped into the new cameras, known as ‘instamatics’.
Kodak Instamatic 104
The photo shows an Instamatic 104, which had a space for a separate flash attachment on top. A later development in 1972 was the 110 camera, which used a smaller 110 cartridge. However, both the 126 and 110 films produced very small negatives that needed considerable enlargement. The camera lenses weren’t up to the job, but since most owners of these cameras only wanted snapshots, the convenience outweighed quality issues.
In 1976, Minolta produced an SLR camera in 110 format. It had an unusual flat shape. Unsurprisingly, sales were poor. The concept was an odd one since the small format film was unable to produce good quality prints, even with a high-end SLR camera. Production ended in 1979 and Minolta opted for a more conventional design with the Mark II model. Even so, the physical limitations of the small format film were always going to limit the quality of the final pictures.
A couple of decades later came the next major photographic advance – digital cameras. Using a solid state memory card instead of film, one modern memory card can hold thousands of photos. The first digital camera was invented by Kodak in 1975, but it wasn’t until 1990 that a digital camera came to market. When Kodak released its DCS 100, it cost $13,000 – little surprise then that less than 1,000 were sold.
Although some professional photographers still prefer to use film, the vast majority have now converted to digital.
Bringing us bang up to date, mirrorless cameras are the latest innovation, but did you know that the first mirrorless camera was released by Epson in 2004? Leica followed suit with the M8, before Panasonic jumped in with its Micro Four Thirds sensor in October 2008. These guys were the innovators, but it was 2010 before the big boys joined in.
Technology never stops advancing, and curved sensors are likely to be the next major innovation on the horizon. As well as making for smaller cameras, they will also lead to much sharper shots, even in low light conditions. Lenses would need to be specially designed to work with such a sensor, but the upside is that they should be smaller and cheaper to produce. Early testing has shown curved sensors could lead to images five times sharper than a standard DSLR.
All photographs in this article were shot by the cameras’ owner, Dr Peter Altman, 2019.
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