t’s pretty easy to take the cameras on our smartphones for granted. We can shoot hundreds of photos indiscriminately without thinking twice about it. It’s just a bunch of zeros and ones, after all. But it took us a long time to get to the point where we could even capture a still image, let alone digitally.

Here’s a brief overview of how we went from the camera obscura, which was more of an amusement than anything, to the killer digital cameras we have today.

Ancient times (Approximately 300 B.C.)

Camera Obscura

Camera obscura (from Latin, meaning “darkened room”) is a device in a shape of a box or a room that lets the light through a small opening on one side and projects it on the other. In this simple variant, image that is outside of the box is projected upside-down. More complex cameras can use mirrors to project image upwards and right-side up and they can also have lenses. Camera obscura is used as an aid for drawing and entertainment.

Camera obscura is a very old device. Oldest mention of its effect is by Mozi, Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism, during the 5th century BC. He noticed that an image from camera obscura is flipped upside down and from left to right as a result of light’s moving in straight line. The Greek philosopher Aristotle noticed in 4th century that light from a sun eclipse that passes through holes between the leaves, projects an image of an eclipsed sun on the ground. Passing of light in the straight line also noticed Euclid 4th century BC and Theon of Alexandria in 4th century AD. Anthemius of Tralles, which designed the Hagia Sophia, used a type of camera obscura in his experiments in 6th century. Al-Kindi, Arab philosopher, mathematician, physician, and musician, performed experiments with light and a pinhole in 9th century and proved again behavior of light.

1836

The Daguerreotype

The daguerreotype was the first practical method of photography. Louis Daguerre perfected it in 1836 after the death of his partner, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. He covered a copper plate with silver and exposed it to iodine vapor to make it light-sensitive. The plate was “developed” by exposure to mercury vapor.

1870s

Le Phoebus Camera

Le Phoebus 1870, The “Le Phoebus” camera was typical, it was built of mahogany wood with a brass mounted lens in a rack-and-pinion focuser to adjust the projected image sharply onto a ground glass at the back. Most cameras like this used glass plates. The lens did not come equipped with a shutter; instead, the lenscap was removed and replaced to control the exposure time

1889

Baby Brownie

The Brownie was a long-running popular series of simple and inexpensive cameras made by Eastman Kodak. Introduced in 1900, it introduced the snapshot to the masses. It was a basic cardboard box camera with a simple meniscus lens that took 2 1/4-inch square pictures on 117 roll film. It was conceived and marketed for sales of Kodak roll films. Because of its simple controls and initial price of $1 (equivalent to $30 in 2018) along with the low price of Kodak roll film and processing, The Brownie camera surpassed its marketing goal.

It was invented by Frank A. Brownell. The name comes from the brownies (spirits in folklore) in Palmer Cox cartoons. Over 150,000 Brownie cameras were shipped in the first year of production. An improved model, called No. 2 Brownie came in 1901, which produced larger 2-1/4 by 3-1/4 inch photos and cost $2 and was also a huge success.

1923

Leica I

Oskar Barnack began experimenting with 35mm film for use in photography in 1913. World War I delayed any production plans for his new camera design, the Leica I, until 1925 but once it was manufactured it was a quick success that spawned a number of competitors.

1933

Ihagee Exakta

Single lens reflex cameras had been available for many years at this point, but the Ihagee Exakta shook things up with its compact design. It caught on so well that it was the main character’s camera of choice in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

1950s

The invention of commercially viable instant cameras which were easy to use is generally credited to American scientist Edwin Land, who unveiled the first commercial instant camera, the model 95 Land Camera, went on sale at the Jordan Marsh department store on November 26,1948 for a price of $89.95 (equivalent to US$938 in 2018), a year after he unveiled the instant film in New York City. The earliest instant camera, which consisted of a camera and portable wet darkroom in a single compartment, was invented in 1923 by Samuel Shlafrock.

1990s

Fuji DS-1P

Produced in 1988, the Fujix DS-1P is often described as the world’s first true digital camera. It contained a 400 kilopixel CCD and saved photographs to removable Toshiba SRAM cards.

Like other early Fuji digital cameras, it is marked Fujix instead of Fuji, FujiFilm or Fujica, but has come to be known as the Fuji DS-1P.

2000s

J-Phone

The first mass-market camera phone was the J-SH04, a Sharp J-Phone model sold in Japan in November 2000. It could instantly transmit pictures via cell phone telecommunication.

2010s

iPhone 4

The iPhone 4 features an additional front-facing VGA camera, and a backside-illuminated 5 megapixel rear-facing camera with a 3.85 mm f/2.8 lens and an LED flash. The rear-facing camera is capable of recording HD video in 720p at 30 frames per second. Both cameras make use of the tap to focus feature, part of iOS 4, for photo and video recording. The rear-facing camera has a 5× digital zoom.

2019

iPhone 11

The iPhone 11 has got a dual-lens camera array. The extra lens is an upgrade on the iPhone XR’s single camera, but the Pro and Pro Max devices have a total of three lenses.

The new secondary sensor is a 12-megapixel ultra-wide angle snapper, which can capture much wider shots thanks to the 120-degree lens. During the demo, Apple showed that you could easily switch between the two with the tap of a soft-key, and you can shoot video in wide-angle too.

Another new camera feature is slow-motion selfies, or ‘slofies‘, as Apple is calling them. This uses the updated 12-megapixel True Depth camera on the front to snap selfies that move. It sounds slightly gimmicky, but it has the potential to be another seriously popular feature like Animoji.

Another new camera feature is a dedicated Night Mode for shooting shots in low-light situations. The design of the iPhone 11’s camera module has proven to be controversial, but we’re happy that Apple has introduced a secondary sensor to the cheaper model.

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