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Brief History of Photography: From Kodak to iPhone X

Programmer, Freelance
Oct 24, 2017 11:45 AM 7 min read

The brief history of photography started from the View from the Window at Le Gras, taken by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. With barely recognisable buildings amidst a backdrop of French countryside, this image is often cited as the world’s first photograph. The journey from Niépce to the iconic Kodak and eventually the iPhone has been a fascinating ride so far. 


Cameras had arrived much earlier in the form of a crude apparatus called the Camera Obscura. Latin for ‘dark room’, references to this device can be traced back to 4th century BC. With a small opening and a biconvex lens, it leveraged the optical phenomenon of a pinhole projecting an outside scene on a surface in reverse.


View from the Window at Le Gras, taken by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826
View from the Window at Le Gras


At a time when cameras were still bulky contraptions, Kodak took photography to the masses by introducing the Kodak Brownie Box in 1900 – an affordable and more importantly portable camera available at an initial price of a dollar! Brownies in a way democratised photography by bringing it outside the realm of professionals. They became the world’s first hand-held cameras, setting standards for newer models through the next century.


Kodak Brownie Box
Kodak Brownie Box


A German inventor, Oskar Barnack wanted to make the camera smaller still, when he invented the Leica in 1913, which revolutionized the industry by replacing huge 8x10 inch plates with 35mm film stock. Barnack designed Leica based on motion picture cameras which also used vertically transported 35mm films. He recognized the need for a bigger negative and incorporated a horizontal film-loading system. He introduced the concept of ‘shutter-cocking’ which meant pulling the shutter curtains across while applying pressure on the springs to allow a picture to be taken.


Leica, 1913

Leica, 1913


At a time when film rolls were manually “developed” to reveal captured moments in black and white, James Maxwell presented the first ever colour photograph in 1861. He used additive colour by projecting three separate black and white photographs through red, green, and blue colour filters. In 1881, physicist Gabriel Lippman used interference i.e. a combination of two or more waveforms to form a resultant wave, for producing the world’s first direct colour photograph without pigments, dyes or additive colour. This discovery won him the Nobel Prize in Physics. His method was however complicated. It required high-resolution emulsions with long exposure times as well as toxic mercury.


In late 1890s, a scientist by the name of Hermann Vogel discovered that Maxwell’s additive colour theory could be used to create emulsions that were sensitive only to certain colours through addition of specific dyes. This process underwent trial and error and eventually allowed the Agfa-Ansco company to introduce the first tripack film named ‘Colorol’ in 1930s which was a roll type film for snapshot cameras. Later in 1935, Kodak entered the race with ‘Kodachrome’ using three layers of emulsion on a single base to capture the red, green, and blue wavelengths. This became so popular that it ended the monochrome era and took visual stimulation to the next level.


In the following years, there was a slight lull in the evolution of cameras until the arrival of digital. Digital cameras made films obsolete and opened a world to unlimited and inexpensive photography. Unlike films which required replacing after 30 odd pictures, digital cameras could hold thousands of pictures depending on the camera’s storage capacity. Film to digital transition was smooth, quick and effective.


Digital cameras made film-based cameras irrelevant, resonating how smartphones are now pushing digital cameras behind. The J-SH04 was the first phone to have an integrated camera. It was manufactured by Sharp in late 2000 and had a 0.11-megapixel camera (the more number of megapixels a camera has, the more information it gathers to produce a digital image with higher clarity), much less than the digital cameras of that period which were operating in a range of 1.5-2-megapixels.


The J-Phone (J-SH04) - by Sharp


But the trade-off was that the J-SH04 was comparatively cheaper and offered features of a mobile phone as well. Inspired by this success, Sony Ericsson integrated a front-facing camera in its flagship SE-Z1010 in 2003. This was a game changer in personalizing the photography experience by enabling users to take “Selfies”. Cameras became an indispensable part of smartphones.


Once the smartphone market started gaining momentum, camera technology advanced rapidly and the pixels count started blowing up. In 2013, Nokia released the model 1020 as a part of their Lumia series equipped with a 41-megapixel camera, almost unimaginable a decade ago. Such progress transcended not only across still but also motion capture, most notably through advances in the frame rate; the frequency at which consecutive images are displayed in an animated exhibition. Typically, our eyes recognize footage recorded at 24 fps as high definition, but today we have cameras with fps of up to one trillion.  


The fine line between photography as a hobby versus a profession is difficult to mark. Rapid innovations in digital photography combined with the ingress of social media has led to an exponential rise in consumption and distribution of pictures and videos. Facebook serves as an excellent sharing platform prompting people to capture and share more photos by the day.


The cameras in today’s phones allow users to choose resolution, exposure, panorama mode and picture density. Some of them are on an equal footing or even better than digital cameras in terms of zoom, pre-set filters and real-time image editing. Professional DSLRs are still more powerful but come at a higher price.


Apple has always been a pioneer when it comes to camera integration in phones. They have come a long way from the basic 2-megapixel camera in the first iPhone to the latest iPhone X’s dual 12-megapixel wide-angle and telephoto lens with dual optical image stabilization (OIS). The 12-megapixel wide lens is active by default and allows users to cover a bigger/larger area thereby enabling one to include more of the scene in a picture. The telephoto camera can be accessed by tapping a button and can shoot pictures in portrait or landscape orientations with blurred backgrounds and foregrounds. Both cameras come equipped with OIS which increases the mechanical stabilization of the phone to prevent blurry images due to movement. In addition, the iPhone X has a one of a kind ‘TrueDepth’ camera which analyses more than 50 different muscle movements to mirror the user’s expressions. It enables real-time portrait lighting allowing users to capture selfies with a depth of field effect focusing only on the face and artfully blurring the background.


What is exciting is the deep degree of machine learning being applied to predict how light interacts with the user’s facial features. This enables a small device in the palm of your hand to execute studio quality tweaks such as varying contour lighting, facial feature accentuation and grayscale isolation. Portrait lighting constructs a 3D model of the scene and re-lights it based on the natural lighting.


The iPhone X is essentially automating photography. Its camera is targeting any formulaic setting such as studio lighting, portraiture etc. that earlier involved several manual actions, and in turn allowing the user to achieve an optimised setting at the tap of a screen.


But, one must not forget that a good device can only ensure higher quality images but to ensure higher quality “content”, the user needs to recognize and be skilled in framing and composition. A well composed image draws the viewer’s attention towards the photographer’s perspective. Good lighting is equally important and makes all the difference between a good picture and a great picture. Professional photographers note the direction, intensity and colour of the light before taking a shot. Lighting, when used effectively can determine the mood and tone of a picture. One of the characteristics of a good photographer is their ability to manipulate lighting in their favour by changing colour balance, temperature, sharpening and reducing noise. 


The next big thing in camera technology is the 360 capture which encapsulates a scene in its entirety and renders footage that is VR compatible. There are several external gadgets that are available, but this feature is yet to be integrated into our phones. Earlier this year, ProTruly introduced the Darling smartphone, which is billed as the world’s first phone with an in-built 13-megapixel 360-degree camera.


This is a small step towards the ocean that is virtual reality but it signifies the direction in which we are heading in terms of innovation in camera technology. Companies like Apple and Google are not far behind and have already invested quite some time and effort in researching VR. 


Nearly all the photos taken today are from smartphones and a lot is riding on camera technology to initiate the next phase in mobile photography. With every passing year, the specs are getting better and newer features are being introduced. We are in a very exciting phase and it will be interesting to see what the future holds.



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