Interested in the history of cameras and what they were like when they were first invented? Here's a comprehensive history of the camera, from the Camera obscura to the smartphone in your pocket.

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History of camera

The first camera: Camera obscura (11th-17th)

The Camera Obscura was the ancient predecessor to our modern cameras. This was a device written about by Aristotle (more than 2,300 years ago!)

However, a camera as we know it needs to produce an image on film, paper, digitally, etc. Aristotle’s camera obscura only created light and was unable to preserve an image.

Now let’s flash forward to the 1820s when Nicéphore Niépcé adapted this model.

The first photograph ever taken with Niépcé (18th-19th)

In around 1826 or 1827, Niépcé created a camera that could produce indistinct yet permanent images. The first photograph he took was a view from a window, but you wouldn’t know this by looking at it since the image is so blurry.

How did he do this?

Well, Niépcé experimented with a lot of different plates, like paper, metal, and others. He coated these plates in some kind of asphalt and watched how they were affected by sunlight. Eventually, he settled on a pewter plate, slid it into the back of his camera obscura, and produced the first-ever photograph!

old camera

The invention of daguerreotypes and calotypes

Niépcé’s camera was not commercially successful since he kept his process a secret. In 1829 however, he went into partnership with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre to refine the process into something that would be commercially successful. Unfortunately, Niépcé died in 1833, so he didn’t experience any of the success that Daguerre later gained.

The camera that Daguerre produced was a huge hit. It captured images quickly and in incredible detail, and many ‘daguerreotypes’ still exist today in museums and galleries.

Henry Fox Talbot invented the first calotype in 1840, another type of photo camera. This one required high-quality lenses and plates to use.

First consumer camera: Eastman’s “Kodak”

Over the years after the invention of the camera, many developments in plates were made. Eventually, photographers started to print on paper. (At this point, though, photography was still very much for professionals.)

In 1888, George Eastman invented the first Kodak camera. This one was much more accessible and meant more people could begin capturing their experiences through photography. It made casual photography possible and was the first to use celluloid film!

kodak eastman

The 35mm for still cameras

In the 1910s, German engineer Oskar Barnack experimented and used 35mm cine film for still cameras. This eventually developed into the first 35mm film camera.

It was an immediate success, and 35mm became the format for quality cameras.

The first digital camera: Polaroid is invented

The first-ever Polaroid camera was made by Edwin Land in 1948 and was revolutionary as a photo could be taken and then be printed in just a few minutes.

The first digital camera (using an image sensor instead of film) was made by Steven Sasson in 1975. However, digital photography as we know it did not emerge until 1991 with the Kodak Digital Camera System. By the mid-1990s, digital cameras had taken off and were being manufactured globally.

TLRs and SLRs

The first reflex camera made for everyday use was made in the 1920s, called the Franke & Heidecke Rolleiflex medium format TLR (meaning Twin Lens Reflex).

But the first-ever single-lens reflex camera with an instant return mirror was made in 1948 in Hungary; the Gamma Duflex.

SLRs would have to wait until post-World War Two to become the most popular for everyday use.

DLSRs and smartphones take over

In 2000, the Japanese company "Sharp" introduced the first-ever camera phone to the world. But with the introduction of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, digital camera phones have shifted into new realms. Now, most people will take photographs on their phones every day.

Many photographers will still use DSLR cameras nowadays because of their compact nature and ease of use.

Photography today

Photographers today have all of the engineers and inventors to thank for all the images they can take nowadays. As the film developed, video cameras became more accessible to people. Many more formats and developments have occurred since.

Today, anyone can take a photograph anywhere if they are a professional photographer or not. We no longer have to wait for the film to develop or spend hours experimenting with different film plates. We can take high-quality images with a small smartphone in our pockets.

So next time you take a quick snap with your phone, remember the hours of work our predecessors put into developing and adapting cameras to what we have today.

Rent or subscribe to your next camera

So now you’re clued up on the history of cameras. Want to get some equipment and get shooting?

Check out our website to rent or subscribe to your next camera.

First Camera FAQ

Did cameras exist in the 1800s?

Cameras didn’t exist in the way we may understand them before the 1820s. Aristotle had his camera obscura, but this didn’t produce a permanent image. The first camera to produce an obscured permanent image was invented in the 1820s.

Who invented the first camera?

The first camera was invented by Nicéphore Niépcé.

When was the first camera invented?

Niépcé attempted his partially successful photograph of a camera image around the 1816 mark.