Camera History: Early Fixed Images

It’s another installment of Camera History!  Last time, we covered the precursor of the modern camera, camera obscura.  Today we’ll delve into the very beginnings of photography with the earliest cameras and experiments in capturing an image without having to trace it.

The first partially successful photograph was taken in 1816 by one Nicéphore Niépce.  When I say “partially successful,” I mean that the photograph was not permanent and eventually darkened completely.  Niépce used a small camera of his own design and a piece of paper coated with silver chloride, which darkened where it was exposed to light.  He didn’t know how to remove the unused silver chloride, which is why it was not permanent.

Before the photographic process was perfected, there was no way to truly preserve the images.  After some experimentation, in 1826 Niépce used a sliding wooden box camera (made by Charles & Vincent Chavalier in Paris, France) and bitumen to create a permanent photograph that still exists today.  It’s not a perfectly preserved image, but it was a huge step forward.

I want to get in to the chemical details of both silver chloride and bitumen, but first I just want to give a sort of shout out to Johann Zahn.  Zahn envisioned the first camera that was small and portable enough to be used for practical photography in 1685.  It wasn’t until about 150 years later that his vision would be possible, but gotta give credit where credit is due!

Alright, time for some science mixed in with this history!

First up is Silver Chloride (AgCl).  It’s known for it’s low solubility in water.  How it works in photography is that when silver chloride is exposed to light or heat, it changes into silver and chloride.  The silver appears as a grey or purple coloration where as the chloride dissipates into the air.  It is also used as/in:

  • an infra-red transmissive optical component that can be hot-pressed into window and lens shapes
  • an antidote for mercury poisoning
  • a way to create yellow, amber, and brown shades in stained glass manufacturing
  • bandages and wound healing products

Then we have bitumen, aka asphalt (that surprised me, too!).  It’s used in the oldest surviving photograph.  It can still be used for photography today, but it’s a long process to get any outcome.  First, you have to thinly coat a pewter plate with bitumen.  It takes many, many hours of exposure to light to create a picture.  Exposure to light hardens the bitumen and makes it insoluble.  When the final picture is rinsed with a solvent, only the sufficiently light-struck areas remain.  However, ultimately, using bitumen in photography is extremely impractical.

And that wraps up our lesson for today!

I’d like to take a moment to apologize for getting off schedule.  I was at a wedding over the weekend, and Anne was on a photojournalist gig.  She’ll be posting on Sunday and then starting on that Sunday, posting is going to get more intensive!  We’re going to attempt to post every day of the week!  So stick with us through September to see all the cool things we come up with!

Get out there and shoot!


Camera History: Camera Obscura

If you’ve come to this post looking for Camera Obscura the band, you’re now stuck reading the whole thing to get to the video at the bottom.  I’m using the honor system here, so no cheating!

Alright, my dear readers, it’s time for a history lesson.  Today I will be writing about the history of the camera.  Well, part of the history of the camera.  There’s a lot more to the invention of the camera than I thought, and a lot more steps from that to the DSLRs we use today that I think are important to cover more in depth.  Especially since the history of the camera goes back farther than the history of photography.

To get to the invention of the camera, we have to start with it’s predecessor, the camera obscura.  This device dates back to ancient Greece and ancient China and was a tool that helped mankind learn about light and vision.  The term “camera obscura” is Latin and means a darkened chamber (camera = vaulted chamber/room, obscura = dark).  German astronomer Johannes Kepler – you might know him from Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, if you paid attention in science class – coined the term in 1604.  The basic purpose of a camera obscura is to project an image of it’s surroundings on a screen or wall and is used for entertainment and drawing/painting.

Image found by Google search;

Image found by Google search;

A basic description for this type of device was first mentioned by Chinese philosopher Mozi (470 BC – 391 BC).  He described what we now call a pinhole camera-type device, referring to it as a “collecting plate” and a “locked treasure room.”

Alhazen, an Arabic scientist and astronomer, gave the first clear description of a camera obscura as well as an analysis of the device and what it does.  He was the first to demonstrate that what was being projected is an image of everything on the other side of the hole, instead of just light, as previously used.  He did this by successfully projecting an entire image from outdoors onto a screen indoors.

In the 9th century, Chinese scientist Shen Kuo attributed the fact that the image is inverted to it being projected through a small hole.  Earlier beliefs held that the reason for the image being inverted was caused by other things.  For example, one earlier Chinese philosopher wrote that the inversion of the image was caused by the camera obscura being set up next to the sea and the image being of the sea.

Image found by Google search;

Image found by Google search;

While the camera obscura had mainly been used for entertainment as well as studying various aspects of light, in the 13th century Englishman Roger Bacon suggested that the device could be used to safely observe solar eclipses.  It’s use as a drawing aide wasn’t widely seen until the early 15th century.

Giambattista della Porta ‘perfected’ the camera obscura by adding a convex lens to the hole to make the projected image both brighter and more in focus.  He used this as an easy-to-understand example of how the human eye works.

Early models of the camera obscura were quite large, needing an entire darkened room or tent to function correctly.  But as advances in science were made, the camera obscura became more and more easily portable around the 18th century.

Portable, but larger camera obscura; Image found by Google search;

Portable, but larger camera obscura; Image found by Google search;

Portable camera obscura; Image found by Google search;

Portable camera obscura; Image found by Google search;

The camera obscura, while not an actual camera, is still used today.  It’s main purpose continues to be entertainment, education, and is still used as an artistic aide.  Basic ones are fairly easy to put together, as seen in the picture below, but more complex configurations exist as well.  You can see a neat visual of the timeline of the camera obscura here.

How to make your own camera obscura; Found by Google search;

How to make your own camera obscura; Found by Google search;

And now, lovely readers, I do believe I promised you some music.  If you actually read this post, honest and true, I commend you for not just scrolling down like I probably would have.  Enjoy “Let’s Get Out of This Country” by Camera Obscura.