The most important cameras of the last 135 years

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To celebrate our 135th anniversary, Andy Westlake takes a look at how the camera has evolved over the past 135 years. Read on to discover some really iconic and innovative designs which helped to change photography forever

Since AP published its first edition, photographic technology has changed beyond all recognition. In 1884, photographers were using cameras constructed from wood and brass, and taking pictures on glass plates coated with light-sensitive emulsion. Since then, plates have given way to roll film and then cartridge film, before digital technology transformed image capture. Folding cameras have been superseded by fixed-body designs, rangefinders by SLRs, mechanical shutters by electronic, and manual focus by autofocus. Right now we’re in the middle of another big transition – from DSLR to mirrorless. All the way through, AP has been following and commenting on the trends of the day.

In this article we’ll be taking a look at how cameras have evolved and progressed over this time, by focusing on a few specific models. Some were trailblazers that debuted a particular feature or design approach, while others are classics that have became archetypes of their kind. Together they illustrate how we’ve progressed from cameras crafted from mahogany and brass through to the digital marvels we’re using today.

Sanderson full plate camera – ca. 1896

While this particular camera wasn’t made until a decade or more after AP’s birth, it’s still representative of what amateur photographers of the time might have used. This Sanderson ‘full plate’ model uses a classic folding-bellows design, and produces 8 1⁄2 x 6 1⁄2in exposures. The image would have been focused onto a ground-glass screen, which would then have been removed and replaced by a plate holder. The exposure times would generally have been in the order of seconds.

Cameras bearing Frederick Sanderson’s name were all based on a patent he filed in 1895, which describes a specific arrangement for holding the lens board using two pairs of slotted struts. Initially they were manufactured by Holmes Brothers in Manchester, before the firm was incorporated into the great British camera company Houghtons Ltd. Overall, about 27,000 Sanderson cameras were produced between 1896 and 1939.

Kodak Brownie – 1900

While amateur photographers of the late Victorian era may have used big, complex, bulky cameras, the everyday snap-shooter wanted something smaller and simpler (sound familiar?). No company did more to deliver photography to the mass market than Kodak, and this was the first model to bear the famous ‘Brownie’ name. The original Kodak box camera of 1888 had come preloaded with a 100-exposure film, and needed to be returned intact to the factory for processing. But the Brownie used 117-format roll film that could be reloaded by the user, and cost just $1. It was hugely successful, with over 150,000 Brownies being made in the first year of production alone. The following year, the Brownie Number 2 adopted the larger 120-format film, which is still in use today. The Brownie name continued to be used on Kodak cameras all the way through to 1986.

Rolleiflex – 1928

Early in the 20th century, a young designer with Voigtländer by the name of Reinhold Heidecke invented a twin-lens reflex (TLR) rollfilm camera. It solved the problem of focusing an image onto the film by using two linked lenses, one above the other, with the upper ‘viewing’ lens projecting an image onto a ground-glass focusing screen via a mirror. When the image on the screen was sharp, the film could be exposed in correct focus using the lower ‘taking’ lens.

Voigtländer wasn’t interested in Heidecke’s creation, so he formed his own company with businessman Paul Franke to build it. The resultant camera – the Rolleiflex – was the first production TLR, and through its many iterations became one of the most iconic cameras of all time. In our 3 April 1929 issue, AP described it as ‘a dainty and efficient camera, capable of doing first class work’.

Leica III – 1933

In 1913, Oscar Barnack made the initial prototypes of his miniature camera that was the first to make practical use of 35mm cine film. Around 20 years later, the Leica III was released to great acclaim, with its major new feature being a slow-speed shutter dial allowing speeds as slow as 1 second. Suitably impressed, in our 28 June 1933 issue, we declared that ‘Leica has done its devotees a great service.’

While the Leica III is surely the great pre-war 35mm camera, it remained in production in its various iterations until 1960. This one is a post-war Leica IIIf, which itself came in sub-variants with different shutter speeds, and with or without a self-timer. The Leica’s small size and quiet shutter endeared it to a whole generation of candid photographers and photojournalists led by Henri Cartier-Bresson, and it was only with the emergence of high-quality Japanese cameras in the 1960s that their allegiance switched to SLRs.

Kine Exakta – 1936

This bears the distinction of being the first truly successful 35mm SLR – a design approach that allowed the use of a much wider range of focal lengths than rangefinder cameras like the Leica. The image from the lens was reflected by a mirror to a waist-level hood viewfinder, with a powerful magnifier available to enlarge the image. AP’s reviewer marvelled at how this meant ‘the difficulty of accurate focusing with so small a picture has been completely overcome’ (AP 28 July 1937). When the shutter button was pressed, the mirror flipped up for the picture to be taken. Winding the film then reset the mirror and shutter for the next shot.

An extremely influential design, the Kine Exakta shot 36 24x36mm exposures on a roll of film. A focal-plane shutter offered speeds from 1/1,000sec down to 12sec, while a range of lenses was available up to 250mm. All told, some 80,000 were produced.

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