These days, everyone has a camera. A digital camera, a mechanical camera, an electronic camera, a film-camera, even a camera-phone. Today, taking a photograph is easy. It’s literally done in a flash. You can take hundreds and thousands of photos and store them away, you can edit them, caption them, delete them, enlarge them, reduce them, photoshop them, you can have them black and white, colour, sepia-toned, panoramic and almost any other effect or result that we desire. And most of the time, we just don’t think about how far photography has come.
There was a time not too long ago, when photography of any kind was impossible. When the only way to take a picture of something was with paints, canvas, a pen, a pencil, or a stick of charcoal. When everything had to be sketched, drawn or painted by hand, a process that took hours, and even days or weeks to complete. Today, a photograph takes no more than a second. But what was it like when photography was new?
This posting will look at a history of photography, from its invention and earliest beginnings, to the introduction of the first portable, compact film-camera, in the late 1800s.
The Birth of Photography and the First Cameras
The word “photography” comes from the Greek language, from ‘Photos’ meaning ‘Light’, as in “photosynthesis”, and “Graphos”, meaning “writing”, or “drawing”, as in “Graphics”. So literally: “Drawing with Light”.
However, here we are, jumping the gun. To take a photograph, you first need a device for taking pictures. A camera! Where do we go to find the history of cameras?
The first camera was called the “Camera Obscura”. Taken from Latin, it literally means “Chamber of Darkness”, or “Chamber of Obscurity”, or…a darkroom! One of the most important pieces of equipment in all photography!
The Camera Obscura was a chamber which was completely dark inside, except for a single opening or window, which let in light. Think of it as a lens. The light from outside entered the lens, and whatever was outside the chamber was projected onto a wall, or screen, inside the chamber. Without any other sources of light apart from what came through the lens, anything outside the chamber would be clearly seen on the wall, or screen inside the chamber. Clear enough for someone, if they wanted to, to trace the outline of whatever was projected onto the screen, such as a tree, or a building, or even a person! This…was the first camera. And the tracings that it enabled, were the first-ever photographs.
Hardly faster than having your portrait painted, but hey, you have to start somewhere.
And there we have the camera in its essence. A dark chamber with an opening for light and images to enter, and a medium upon which to record the images.
Obviously, having a camera the size of a closet, being moved around on a horsedrawn cart with your own, live-in artist to trace everything that you wanted to capture was hardly practical. Could you imagine trying to take something that bulky on your next holiday to the South Pacific? You’d never fit it in your pocket…
What was needed was something that took all those principles, and made them…SMALLER! Enter a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandre Daguerre (1787-1851)!
Daguerre and the Daguerrotype!
The Camera Obscura proved that it was possible to sketch life-accurate pictures of something. Not some fluffy artist’s impression of what something could look like. But the problem with the Camera Obscura is that it’s literally the size of a house. You’d never be able to take it anywhere with you! At least, not with any degree of practicality.
The man who changed this was a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandre Daguerre….Man that’s a mouthful.
Daguerre did not invent the photograph. That credit goes to another Frenchman, Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833). Niepce had been experimenting with how to use light to imprint an image onto a medium that could record it, if the medium was coated with a material that was affected by light. He’d had some success, and had been experimenting in the 1820s. He made small steps in 1822, but the world’s first real photograph was taken by Niepce in 1826!
Entitled “View from the Window, at Le Gras”, in this grainy snapshot, you can see trees in the distance, and the walls, rooves and windows of surrounding buildings.
Niepce achieved groundbreaking shots like this by a simple replacing of materials.
While a larger Camera-Obscura used paper as a tracing-medium for a projected image, his smaller camera used a sheet of metal impregnated with light-sensitive chemicals. The metal sheeting was made of pewter (alloy of tin & copper, mixed in a ratio of 9-1), which was then coated with a variety of light-sensitive chemicals.
Niepce originally used silver nitrate, which darkens when exposed to sunlight, but also experimented with lavender-oil mixed with bitumen.
In 1829, Niepce started experimenting with Louis Daguerre, and the two scientists attempted to create something that would reliably produce permanent photographs. sadly, Niepce never lived to see the finished product, and died in 1833. Daguerre continued their work, eventually developing a process using lavender oil, which he named the “Daguerrotype”, after himself. Lavender-oil…must’ve had some lovely-scented photographs.
Daguerrotype photography was the first, commercially successful photography in the world, making its debut in the 1830s. Although capable of producing permanent photos that wouldn’t be damaged by extra exposure to light, the process had one serious drawback: It took forever to develop it!
To take just ONE photograph, the camera would have to be set up, and the shutter in front of the camera-lens would have to be opened (to let the light in, to affect the chemicals on the copper-silver photographic-plate inside) for at least TEN MINUTES before a half-decent photograph was taken! Obviously, this was fine for things that don’t move…buildings, trees, woodland scenes…but it was impossible to capture moving objects, such as horse-drawn transport, or people, unless they were standing or sitting somewhere for a very long time!…like in this photograph, one of the first ever taken using this method…
Taken by Daguerre himself in 1838, this photograph is the first EVER to depict humans.
Found them yet? Try the bottom left corner of the photograph, at the street-intersection. There, you can see a man having his shoes shined. The shoeshine customer and the bootblack were the only two people in the entire street who were standing still (or at least, holding a general pose) long enough for their outlines to be captured on this early photographic process with the ridiculously long exposure-time!
Taking A Faster Photo
Early photography was rather hit-and-miss. Frenchman Louis Daguerre creates the first “practical” photography in the 1830s. But there’s a big problem. The process takes ages to work. Hardly practical for holiday snapshots, or even family portraits! Photography would never become a thriving industry if a married couple on their wedding-day had to stand around lifeless for 10 minutes just to have their wedding photograph taken! The process had to be sped up!
To do this, they had to change two things about the photography process.
1. MORE LIGHT!
Photography worked because light affected the chemicals placed on metal plates stored inside cameras. The light entered the camera-box through the lens at the front, imprinting whatever image was in front of the camera onto the chemical metal plate inside.
To speed up this process, it was easy…make a bigger lens! Bigger lens, more light, faster development! Brilliant!
2. BETTER CHEMICALS!
Along with better and larger lenses for capturing more light, photographic plates were treated with chemicals which were more light-sensitive, and more reactive. Faster reactions would make the exposure-time shorter and the whole process that much faster. To produce better photos, plates were treated with a variety of silver and chlorine compounds.
Ever wondered why in Victorian-era photographs, people being photographed tend to look rather bored, sleepy and tired with it all? Like this?
It’s not because of that famous Victorian prudishness or morality…it’s because it took so damn long to have their photographs taken! Exposure-times which lasted up to five or ten minutes were not uncommon, and it just wasn’t possible to take photos any other way!
Could you imagine sitting in a chair, looking at a box on a stand with a window in it, and smiling all happily and holding that pose…for ten minutes?
Go ahead. Try it. I’ll wait…
…Your neck gets pretty sore after a while, doesn’t it? And you don’t feel much like smiling and holding it for ten whole minutes while someone takes a shot, do you?
It’s because it took so long, that you got photographs and poses like the one you see above. In fact, it took SO long to take photographs that early photography-studios actually employed metal bracing-stands to hold people’s heads up, so that they wouldn’t lop over and fall asleep during the photoshoot! Don’t believe me? Have a look…
Called ‘posing stands’, such as in this illustration, these apparatus would allow a photographed subject a certain degree of comfort during the taking of his photograph. The subject wouldn’t be able to LEAN against the stand, but he could rest his back, shoulders and head on it if he wanted to, to take some of the strain of the long wait, off of his feet. It was hardly comfortable, but it was the best that they could do at the time.
Alternative Means of Photography
Louis Daguerre had shown that permanent, practical photography was possible. But the big drawback to his method was that the long exposure-times made photography a rather unattractive artform. If photography was going to survive, you needed a way to take faster, better photographs.
The first of these methods was the Ambrotype.
Developed in the 1850s, the Ambrotype used wet-plate technology. Called the “collodion process”, the photographic medium, which by now had advanced from tracing-paper, to copper-silver sheeting, to a sheet of glass coated with a solution of silver-bromide and chloride, was inserted into the camera. To prevent light getting into the shot and damaging the results, a black cloth hood was held over the camera (like what you might see in those old movies).
The lens-cap on the camera is removed and light is allowed to filter through the camera onto the wet, glass plate. As usual, the image in front of the camera is marked onto the chemicals on the glass. Now, you can take that image and go and develop it!
There was just ONE problem.
Whereas the Daguerrotype was too slow, the Ambrotype was too fast! Why? Because of the very method that the photos were taken! Remember, it’s called ‘wet plate’ technology.
The photograph would only last as long as the glass-plate negative was moist and covered with the silver-compound chemicals. The very moment that the chemicals dried up, the photograph would be lost! To transfer the image to a medium that would record it for posterity (such as paper), the photographer had to work really fast! From soaking the plate in the solution, to loading it into the camera, to taking the shot, to unloading the glass plate and developing the image, the whole process had to be done in under 15 minutes!
Not easy when you’re rushing around with sheets of delicate glass, dangerous chemicals, and heavy, bulky, tripod cameras!
Unsurprisingly, people kept experimenting.
The next method was the Tintype.
‘Tintype’ is a misnomer. There is no actual TIN used anywhere in the photographic process.
The difference here is that tintype used sheets of metal (in this case, iron, instead of copper as with the Daguerrotype) instead of glass.
The process was similar, you still had to soak the iron in silver-solutions to prepare them for photography, but it had the advantage that it was a much faster method of photography. Unlike with the Daguerrotype or the Ambrotype, a Tintype photograph could be taken in just a few seconds or a couple of minutes, since the reaction-time between the silver-compounds and the exposed light is much faster. For the first time in history, it was possible to take several photos in a matter of minutes!
With this improvement in technology, photography really took off for the first time. By the 1860s, tintypes were becoming more and more popular. Remember all those black and white photographs that you see in your history books, from the American Civil War?
A lot of those were tintypes. The quick exposure-time meant that for the first time in history, it was possible for newspaper-photographers to actually go out onto a battlefield and take several photographs, without having to wait all day for the image to impress itself onto the recording-medium! More photographs could be taken in a shorter period of time, with a greater degree of sharpness and quality!
How to take a Tintype Photograph:
Flip the Shot!
Tintype photography was popular because it was fast, easy and relatively practical. For the first time in history, you could have something resembling modern snapshot photography. For portrait photography and family snapshots, wedding-photos and other projects likely to be handled by professional photography studios, the tintype remained the standard for nearly 100 years, from the 1850s up until just before the Second World War.
The ONE…small issue…with tintypes is that you never got EXACTLY what you wanted.
From the earliest days of camera photography, be it a camera-obscura, a daguerrotype, ambrotype or even a tintype, there was always one little compromise that you had to put up with:
What you saw through the camera-lens, was never exactly what you would see printed on paper when the shot was finished and developed. For example, in really early cameras, shots were often projected upside-down. So when the photo was done, you’d have to flip it over to get it right side up.
But there was one other thing. Remember that all these early photographic processes used silver-compounds as the chemical for capturing the light and imprinting the image onto glass or metal. And what is silver used for?
That’s right, making mirrors!
Every tintype photograph EVER taken, was always a MIRROR IMAGE. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this:
This rather grainy photograph was taken in 1879. Two years later, the person in this photograph was killed by the local sheriff.
Who is he? William Bonny AKA William McCarty AKA…Billy the Kid.
This is the ONLY known photograph of Billy the Kid, one of the most famous outlaws of the Wild West. But that’s not why it’s in this posting.
Have a look at the gun with its shoulder-stock resting on the ground by Billy’s feet.
This is a Winchester Rifle, a popular long-arm of the latter half of the 1800s. But notice that, in this photograph, the left side of the gun is exposed to the viewer, and that the loading-slot is clearly visible, above the trigger.
There’s just one problem. Winchester rifles, without exception, had the loading-gate on the RIGHT side of the gun.
Flip the image over, and we have…
…the rifle with its loading-gate on the right side of the gun, which is where it always was.
This photograph was a tintype. And all tintypes, just like this one, came out as mirror-images when they were developed.
Photography had come a long way from simply tracing an outline of a projected image onto a piece of paper. It was now clearer, faster, and cheaper! But there was still one problem.
For cameras of the period to work, they had to be very still, so that the light wouldn’t be interrupted during its interaction with the photographic medium inside the camera. And the medium-materials used, such as copper, glass and iron plates, were heavy and cumbersome to carry around, to say nothing of the cameras themselves, with their bulky wooden tripods. Along with all his kit, a photographer would need a horse and cart to move around town! Hardly practical. What people needed was a smaller, lighter, more portable camera.
The big obstacle to portability, quite apart from the size of the cameras, was the whole photography process. Up until the 1870s, all cameras used “wet plate” technology, where the chemicals were added to glass or metallic photographic-plates before they were inserted into the camera. And after the photo had been taken, the plate’s image had to be transferred to paper-stock before the liquids dried up, destroying the photograph. Daguerrotype and Ambrotype photographs made this process messy, tricky, cumbersome and frustrating. To take a picture, you had to have EVERYTHING you needed, right there, right now, on the table. The photographic-solutions, the plates, the paper-stock, the developing-fluids. And as the name suggests, the whole process relied on liquids. The moment everything dried up, it was useless.
This meant that a photographer had to work fast, to capture an image before the photographic solutions dried up, and the image was lost before it could be imprinted onto paper. But it also meant that you couldn’t keep a whole heap of photographic-plates in a case and carry them around with you at will, to photograph whatever you wanted…the plates would dry out…and you’d be left with nothing but lots of sheets of dirty window-glass in your suitcase.
The tintype process was better, if only in the fact that you could take faster photographs, but there were still serious limitations.
It was to speed up the whole photography process that the much more convenient “dry plate” process was developed.
Dry photographic plate technology, the immediate predecessor to film technology, was developed in 1871, by Dr. Richard Leach Maddox, an English physician and photographer.
Dr. Maddox was engaged in the science of photomicrography; or translated from Greek, the visual recording of microscopic entities. In other words, he photographed microbes, and other things which he was able to observe through the lenses of his microscope.
The good doctor loved his work, but he was constantly frustrated by the limitations of wet-plate photographic processes. Quite apart from everything else, he was allergic to the chemicals, and they irritated him when he had to take photographs.
In trying to find a solution, Maddox wondered why it wasn’t possible to condense the liquids used in photography, into a sort of gel or paste? Such a product could be spread onto a glass or metallic photographic-plate just like butter onto a slice of bread. It would be faster, cleaner, and there wouldn’t be any vapors, or chances of spillages. Surely, such a process was possible?
It was. But it took Maddox nearly ten years to figure out how to do it.
Eventually, Maddox figured out how to do it. He layered a standard glass photographic-plate with the usual cocktail of silver-based solutions which were necessary for photography to take place. Then, to protect the solution from evaporation, he coated the whole thing in…gelatin.
The same stuff used to make children’s candies and fruit jellies!
Once the gelatin (which is transparent in its purest form) was set on the glass, it sealed in the photographic solution, which now would never dry out. But it could still be exposed to strong light, so that a photograph could be taken. Brilliance!
It took a while, but by 1879, Maddox’s ingenuity had led to the mass-production of the world’s first dry photographic camera-plates!
In the 1870s, English physician Richard Maddox pioneered a way for photographic plates to be more easily handled and made more portable. When the process for manufacturing these plates was perfected in 1878-79, a young man stepped in to start producing these plates on a grand scale.
His name was George Eastman. In his twenties at the time, Eastman set up a factory which could mass-produce these dry photographic plates, making photography faster and cheaper. In 1889, Eastman established his own photography company: Eastman Kodak, one of the most famous in the world.
The word “Kodak” was invented by Eastman himself, after asking for suggestions from his mother. George wanted something that was easy to pronounce, unique, short, and which would not sound similar to any other product, brand or company-name then in existence. After twisting a few letters around, George and his mother, Maria, came up with…”KODAK”.
Young Georgie Eastman had entered the world of photography at a critical moment in history. In 1887, the world’s first photographic FILM had been developed! Building on Dr. Maddox’s dry-plate technology, it was a simple process of changing the photographic medium from heavy, fragile and delicate glass plates, to light, flexible celluloid sheeting, or ‘film’. Film was more compact, much lighter, and far easier to transport.
By now, it was possible to have photography on the move! You had faster exposure-times, cleaner, lighter materials…and more compact cameras!…which were yet to be invented…but improved technology had paved the way for their eventual development.
A Little Black Box
This doesn’t look like much, but it is the great-granddaddy of the fancy, compact digital camera sitting on your desk right now.
This, is the Kodak Box Camera.
Invented by Eastman using the latest film-technology, the Kodak box-camera was the world’s first-ever “point-and-shoot” camera, designed to be idiotproof. You simply wound up the film, aimed the camera, peeked through the viewing-window, and pressed the lever to actuate the shutter and get a snapshot! Easy as pie!…although the exposure-time was still a few seconds, so…hold that pose!
This was the camera that launched the Eastman Kodak Company, and it was the first commercially-produced snapshot camera that anyone could use. Designed to be cheap, simple and functional, it could bring photography; previously an expensive and time-consuming hobby of the rich, to the hands of ordinary people.
With the Kodak camera, it was now possible to photograph rooms, houses, parks, family-outings, one’s children, famous events, significant occasions and almost anything else. Now, everyone could stand together and have a group-shot where-ever they wanted to!
Kodak advertised its new cameras as being super-easy to use. The popular slogan was: “You Press the Button…we do the rest!”
“The rest”, included the development of the film and photographs, and the loading of the camera. You simply used up the film in the roll, and then you sent the film, along with your camera, to the Kodak offices in America…So long as you lived in America, this might be convenient. For people living in Europe, perhaps not. It was for this reason that the Kodak company didn’t kick it off right away with the Box Camera, but things would improve, once they’d set up branch-offices in other locations.
So what happened when you sent your camera back to Kodak?
The developers at Kodak would open your camera, retrieve the film, develop the pictures, put them into an envelope for you, reload your camera with a fresh roll of film, and then send back your camera, your new film, and your photographs, all in one neat little package! And your camera was all ready for another round of shooting!
The End of Eastman
I’d like to say that George Eastman, the man who brought us the snapshot camera, and founded one of the most famous photographic-equipment companies on earth, lived to a ripe old age and died rich and happy.
Sadly, I can’t.
He did live to a ripe old age…77, and he was rich, but he was hardly happy.
In later life, Eastman was struck down by crippling back-pains. These spinal problems made it impossible for him to stand upright, walk, or even move to any great extent, without serious pain. He was essentially crippled, and confined to sitting in a wheelchair. He suspected that he had inherited the same condition from his mother, who had also had back problems later in life, and who had died in agonizing pain in a wheelchair of her own.
Guessing that he would be in for a long, slow, painful death, Eastman took his own life. He left a brief suicide-note, and then shot himself in the chest. Once. Killing himself instantly. The note which he left to be found, read:
“TO MY FRIENDS: ‘My work is done. Why wait?‘”.
George Eastman died on the 14th of March, 1932 at the age of 77.
But while Eastman was dead, the camera was not!
The Kodak box camera, later reborn with the enchantingly cute name of the “Brownie”, was the mainstay of point-and-shoot cameras for years. Decades! Even in the 1960s, you could go out and buy a brand new Kodak Box Brownie!
Shooting for the Masses
It was thanks to portable, film-using cameras such as the Brownie, that gave birth to photography as a real and practical hobby. For the first time in history, shutterbugs were everywhere, snapping everything that moved, and even more things that didn’t. EVERYONE used a Box Brownie. Everyone. Even royalty! Queen Mary; grandmother of the current Queen of England, photographed the royal family on holiday, using her own Box Brownie!
In the late Victorian era and from then onwards, photography as a serious and practical hobby really took off. Now, it really was possible to photograph anything, almost anywhere! Photographs of things previously impossible, due to the size and impracticality of Victorian-era photographic technology, were now commonplace. Picture-postcards became popular. And professional photographers could make a lot of money going around snapping exotic sights and selling them to companies to print off postcards.
In the 1920s and 30s, there was a boom in international travel. Now, with fast steamships, automobile ownership and extensive railway networks, families, couples and singles could flit off on a jolly holiday. And they could photograph everything that they wanted, and bring their memories home with them. A hundred years ago, such things were almost impossible, unless you knew how to draw or paint!
Cameras captured some of the most famous events of the 20th century, now. The Crash of the Hindenburg, the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the launching of the Titanic. Some intrepid photographers even risked life and limb (but mostly life) climbing the unfinished scaffolds of famous Manhattan skyscrapers, to photograph the construction-workers at their job.
A Flash in the Stand
Especially with early cameras and photographic technology, light was essential for the capturing of images. Exposure took a long time, and bright light was needed to capture an image.
As photographic technology improved and photographs could be taken faster, there remained the issue of getting enough light to successfully take a clear shot of something where light was insufficient. To do this, flash-photography was invented.
The earliest flash-photography used a stand loaded with “flash-powder”, which was ignited by an ignition-switch held in the photographer’s hand at the moment of exposure. The stands, called ‘flash-stands’, and the powder with which they were filled, are iconic pieces of early photographic equipment. They were invented in the 1890s by a man named Joshua Lionel Cowen (last name also spelt ‘Cohen’, because he was Jewish).
Does the name sound familiar? Probably because it’s also the name of a popular line of children’s model trains. No co-incidence…Cowen invented those, too.
Early flash-photography was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The stands were loaded by hand with a measure of flash-powder, which was ignited with a spark at the moment of the photograph. If too much powder had been loaded into the stand, you were more likely to get an explosion rather than a flash! And if you didn’t have enough powder, you were likely to get a rather dark, useless photo that nobody could see! Getting the balance right was a real skill.
A Victorian-era camera with separate flash-stand and powder. Note how close the photographer’s right hand is to the igniting flash-powder
The flash-stand and powder produced dramatic, loud explosions when the flashes went off. This allowed for photos to be taken at night, and in dark rooms where there might not be enough natural sunlight. But there was one serious drawback. The imprecision of loading the powder into the stand was a serious fire-risk. Incorrect loading of the powder could result in a real explosion when the camera went off, and a photographer could have his hand burnt, or even blown off by the blast of the flash if he had overloaded the stand with powder! Nasty stuff…
The dangers of early flash-photography are dramatically shown in this 1939 Mickey Mouse cartoon; “Society Dog Show“. The results are rather exaggerated for purposes of comedy, but improper loading of the flash-stand really could start a fire.
Early flash-photography using a stand and powder allowed photographs to be taken at night, in dark places, or in places without sufficient natural sunlight. But it had one serious drawback. Because everything was done manually, there was a significant risk of mishap. Too much powder could result in injurious explosions which were not only life-threatening, but also a major fire-risk!
To try and improve the safety and uniformity of flash-photography, the flash-bulb was invented.
Remember those scenes from those period movies of reporters and photographers in the 1930s with their three-piece suits and fedora hats with their “PRESS” cards in them? How they’re waving around their portable cameras with the flash-holders attached? They take a shot and POOF! There’s a loud, distinctive “Pshink!” as the flashbulb goes off, and a dazzling white light blinds you for the rest of the film?
“Take your picture, mister?”
That’s a flashbulb-camera in action.
In fact, they say the flashes were so bright, Hollywood movie-stars in the 1920s and 30s pioneered the wearing of sunglasses so that they wouldn’t be blinded by the constant camera-flashes at important social or industry events.
Flash-bulbs made night, or low-light photography safer, faster and more portable. However, it was still dangerous.
The bulbs worked in the following manner: The flashbulb-holder was attached to the camera which would use it. The bulb was screwed into the socket in the holder. When the shutter was actuated, the flashbulb was ignited and went off!
The famous blinding white light is the result of the ignition of oxygen and magnesium inside the flash-bulbs. Anyone who’s done highschool science will probably know that when you put a match to magnesium, it burns bright, dazzling white. It’s the exact same thing in old-fashioned camera-bulbs.
The big drawback to this was that the intense flash let off a lot of heat. Once one photograph had been taken, you would have to wait for the flash-bulb to cool down, first! If you tried to unscrew it right away and set in a new bulb for another flash, you’d burn your fingers! You could probably overcome this using gloves, of course, but the white hot flash-bulb was still a fire-risk. Throw it carelessly into a waste-paper basket and you could set a whole building on fire!
Improving Things in a Flash!
Edwardian flash-photography allowed photographs to be taken at night, or in low-light conditions. But it was dangerous and prone to mishap. The flash-bulb invented shortly after, made the process faster and safer, but the intense heat generated by burning magnesium flashbulbs made it impossible to take more than one good flash-photograph at a time, unless you could safely remove the used bulb and insert a fresh one without burning your fingers!
In the 1960s, companies like Kodak, with its Instamatic Camera, invented the flash-cube! A fantastic little detachable light-cube that you stuck on the top of your camera. Now, you didn’t have to change the bulb every time you wanted to take a shot, and you didn’t even have to wait for it to cool down! You simply snapped it on the top of the camera, and flash-flash-flash-flash! Four flash-shots in one! Huzzah!
Although expensive, (early cameras of this type went for hundreds of dollars in the 1960s and 70s), they were the next step in flash-technology, until eventually at the end of the 20th century, the flash had been incorporated entirely into the body of the camera; just as it is today, with no bulbs to change, or flip, or replace, or pans to fill with exploding powder. Simplicity…and choice! Now you can choose to turn the flash on, or off, and you don’t have to carry anything extra around with you, to make that choice with.
Almost any digital camera worth its salt today, will have a sepia-tone option on it. It allows you to take photographs in that famous yellowy-browny tinge reminiscent of old-fashioned photographs, which have yellowed and faded in their frames…without having to wait 50 years for it to happen!
But what is this famous tint called ‘sepia’?
The word ‘sepia’ is actually a…FISH.
That’s right. A fish. That swims in water. Specifically, the cuttlefish.
In older times, photographs were inked using the ink taken from the cuttlefish. As photographs aged and the ink was exposed to sunlight, the darker pigments in the ink would fade, and the natural brown colour of cuttlefish-ink became more pronounced as the darker colours faded away, leaving us with the famous golden-brown tinge on old photographs that everyone loves to try and recreate today.
Shake it like a Polaroid Picture!
Aaaah, instant cameras. Magical boxes of incredibleness that seem to defy the laws of physics!
The most famous instant camera, capable of producing instantly-developed film, was of course, the Polaroid camera. What could be simpler? Aim, shoot, print, shake…voila!
The concept of the instant camera dates back to the Roaring Twenties, a time of great technological change and wonder!…but things were not to be. Although the idea for the instant camera goes back to 1923, it wasn’t until the 1940s that something practical was invented.
The man who invented the modern instant camera was a fellow named Edwin Herbert Land (1909-1991). He unveiled his new creation in 1948, and ever since, we’ve been enjoying the benefits of instant photography, which would probably not be surpassed until the coming of digital cameras in the 1970s and 80s.
Land’s invention of the instant camera, and the foundation of the company that would make them (Polaroid), was born out of a nagging request from his daughter, Jennifer, who constantly asked her father why, after taking a photograph, it was not possible to view it straight away. Of course, the photograph had to be taken to be developed, and this lengthy process between taking photographs, and actually getting to see what they looked like, annoyed Land, leading to the invention of his instant camera and instant photographs!
So. What’s with the shaking?
Believe it or not…nothing at all!
The phrase ‘shake it like a Polaroid picture’, came out with the song “Hey Ya”, in 2003!, and it refers to the fact that some people would shake Polaroid photographs in order to try and develop them even faster. But it doesn’t actually do anything at all.
Shaking the pictures was once done by early instant-photographers, in order to dry the pigments used in the development of their photographs. But shaking doesn’t actually help the photograph develop any faster! In fact, it probably screws it up!
What happens when you take the photograph is that the light enters the camera and reacts with the photo-sensitive chemicals on the photographic card, which begin to develop. Shaking the card actually separates the chemicals, and more importantly, the colour-pigments, distorting and damaging the resulting image!
Risks of Early Photography
Especially Victorian and Edwardian photography, was full of risks and hazards, mishaps and dangers. A few have already been highlighted – Exploding flash-powder, scalding-hot flash-bulbs, but one which hasn’t been mentioned is the dangers of developing fluid.
For ages, photographs had to be developed the old-fashioned way, by dipping the photographic cards into solutions, to make the photosensitive chemicals in the paper take on their proper shades and/or colours, to show the image in its fullest clarity.
Although this sounds dangerous enough with chemicals and solutions everywhere, it was made even more dangerous because of the use of cyanide, one of the most poisonous chemicals known to man. Cyanide was used in early photography, when wet-plate processes were still the main form of capturing images. Excessive exposure to cyanide, even in the small amounts used in photography, could lead to poisoning and even death. That’s one way to suffer for your art.
A Clearer Picture?
This is about where my posting on this subject ends. But if you want to know more, here are some of the links I used…
History of Photography
Pieces of Science: A History of Photography
Stephen Fry’s 100 Greatest Gadgets (Documentary).
“Thoroughly Modern”: The Snapshot Camera (Documentary).
…Anything with Stephen Fry in it is inherently educational and conducive to the growth of personal intelligence.