History of Photography

The Most Important Developments in Photography

Published December 20, 2011

In my last article I listed the three most important developments in photography. Then someone pointed out that I’d made an error. I mean, I may have misspoken.  Wait, I mean I was less correct than I might have been. I listed the invention of the camera first (that part is pretty hard to argue with) but realized later that optical glass (which I said was second) probably should have been third. So, since I had to make a correction . . . I mean amendment. Wait, scratch all of that – let me start over.

It seemed like it would be a good idea to expand the list of the most important developments in still photography that I started in my last article. In doing so, I made some slight modifications to the first few events in order to make the list more complete. Yeah, I like that. We’ll go with that.

So, ladies and gentleman: without further ado, here for your argumentative pleasure, in order, are the most important technical developments in still photography as we practice the craft today. And if you think, perhaps, this list is less correct than it could be, feel free to leave a comment.

The Most Important Developments in Photography

1. Invention of the camera. Daguerre. 1837.

Without the camera, nothing else really matters, so this has to go first. Although you could argue a bit over how much it was Daguerre’s invention.

2. Collodion wet plate process developed. Archer, 1851.

Without good negatives and prints, photography only mattered to a few people. Even before the internet photographers wanted to show everyone their photographs.

3. Optical crown and flint glass. Abbe and Schott (Zeiss), 1880s.

If you don’t have good glass, you can’t have sharp lenses. How can you have sharp lenses if you don’t have good glass?

4. Anti-reflective coatings. Smakula (Zeiss), 1935.

Without anti-reflective coatings, only a few glass elements can be used in a lens. Do you have any lenses with just a few glass elements?

5. Photographic film. Eastman, 1880s.

“Here come the rabble.” was Charles Dodson’s (AKA Lewis Carrol) remark when he was first told about the new invention, film. He stopped photographing soon afterwards. He was right: the rabble was us — all the millions of camera users who didn’t want to mix collodion and coat it on glass plates.

6. Cooke Triplet Lens. Tayler, 1896.

The nearly perfect lens, it led to the development of more modern lenses (including the zoom lens) than any other lens ever.

7. Image-forming CCD chip. Fairchild Semiconductor, 1973.

Of course there was photography before digital, but digital is the most important camera development since film. At least it is to 98% of us.

8. Mathematical formulas used to calculate lens design. Petzval, 1840.

This could be ranked higher or lower: there were many good lenses designed by trial and error. But all modern lenses (since 1900) are designed by formula and calculation.

9.  Phototelegraphy (transmitting photos by wire). Korn, 1902.

Until television was invented (and even after) this was how most people got to see world events. And it made photojournalists and sports photographers employable. The only thing better than being a full-time photographer is being an employed full-time photographer.

10. 35mm photo camera developed using sprocketed movie film. Barnack (Leica), 1914.

It’s still the genre we use, so I have to give some props to that. But it was more a convenience and economic decision than a brilliant innovation. And it’s what started Leica (before there were collectors looking for platinum and ostrich skin cameras).

11. Strobe lights for photography. Edgerton, 1923.

What, you want to use flash bulbs? Really? Well, actually people mostly did for 40 years or so. Bulbs were cheap, strobes were expensive. Come to think of it, strobes are still expensive. Whatever happened to bulbs?

12. First zoom lens (for photography). Voigtlander, 1959.

I guess this was a good thing? It is a good thing! The majority is always right! Zooms for the People!! (Blend in with the herd, Roger, or the wolves will get you first!)

13. Photoshop. Adobe, 1990.

With apologies to those shooting film, digital is today’s photography and Photoshop had a lot to do with making it that way.

14. Autofocus. Minolta (who stole it from Honeywell), 1985.

See comment for number 12. Actually, now that my  age starts with a “5” I’m beginning to think maybe autofocus is a good thing. But for those who claim it’s absolutely necessary, I point out that Neil Leifer never used it, and he probably was the greatest action sports photographer ever. But that was back when men were made of iron and ships made of wood.

15.  Exakta SLR camera. 1936

The first SLR. Without this we’d all be shooting rangefinders, looking down at our waist-level finders, or pulling a cloth hood over our heads to see the ground glass.

16. Image stabilization. Canon, 1976 (patented)

IS, VR, OS, or whatever they choose to call it improves the sharpness of photographs in some cases, and improves the bottom line of the camera manufacturer in every case.

17. Multi-layer color film. Kodak, 1936.

Well, it’s not necessary, obviously, but like the song said “Momma, don’t take my kodachrome away”. (Nobody ever wrote a song about Agfa Scala 200X or Ilford HP5 Plus.) Sunsets, tropical fish, and fashion catalogues just lose something in black and white. Zebras don’t though.

18. Bayer filter-mosaic. Kodak, 1975.

See number 17. There are about a million internet discussion about ‘isn’t there a better way to create digital color than the Bayer filter?’, but apparently there isn’t. As soon as someone comes up with one (no, Foveon is not it, at least not yet) I’ll drop it off the list.

19. Tie: Nikon F- SLR, Nikon, 1959. CDS-100 SLR, Kodak, 1991. Canon Digital Rebel (KISS), Canon, 2003.

They all helped shaped the photography we do today. In order they are: the first professional quality film SLR; the first professional quality digital SLR; and the first high-quality digital SLR priced for the rabble, as Dodson would say. None ranks higher than this, though, because all were just ‘first to the market’. Someone else was on their heels and would have released a similar product a year or two later.

So there you have it, the complete, annotated list of the most important the technical developments that shaped photography as we practice it today.

It is possible, however unlikely, that one or several thousand of you might have some small disagreement with this list. If so just leave me a comment. As you can tell I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong. Or at least admitting when I’m not quite as correct as I had planned to be.


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in History of Photography
  • gandalfii

    Cameras have been around for 1000 years, using a pinhole to cast an image (which could be traced) on a wall or paper. This is what Clarke had in ming when he discovered Great Falls in about 1803 and said “I wish I had a camera.” Similarly, it has been known for hundreds of years that silver chloride turns to metallic silver in the presence of light. The critical photographic development (pun intended; the earliest photos had no developer) was the invention of fixer, which allows a photograph to be viewed without continuing to darken.

  • Henrik

    Oh, forgot to say the most important thing:

    Roger Cicala: thank you so much for all these articles. During the last days I’ve spent endless fascinating hour reading your photography blog articles. They have all been interesting, but the camera and lens history parts have been just the best! Thank you so much for writing these excellent articles!

  • Henrik

    Carl, you write a lot but say little. The truth of it is, Bayer sensor users, myself included, have had 20+ megapixels on our 35 mm cameras since 2008. The new, impressive 15 megasite sensor from Sigma is finally becoming affordable, but starting with Nikon D800, Bayer sensor cameras are moving into the 40 megapixel realm. For those people interested in the image quality across the image at a given print size instead of just looking at single pixels (which is utterly irrelevant), Bayer has given and still gives better resolution, dynamic range, and high ISO.

    As for Foveon sensor theory: Foveon advertisement material shows a sensor where one layer captures pure blue, one pure green and one pure red colour. Unfortunately, this isn’t the truth. The topmost layer catches all wavelengths, but blue a bit more than the others. The next catches a bit more green than other wavelengths, and the bottom one pretty much the rest. This is a far cry from the clean colour separation you get with a Bayer filter. So, while Bayer is wasteful of photons, Foveon gives muted, unclean colours in the RAW file (and NO, I am NOT saying that you would ever see these brown colours in an actual photo: see below).

    So the three elements in the Foveon sensor receive raw data that is far from “pure red, green, blue”. What follows is that colour separation has to be increased in RAW->JPEG / RAW->screen processing, and this is what causes colour noise and colour blotches at high ISO. This data is the result of both of what I have seen and from discussions with a guy in our company who actually has designed a working 35 mm X-ray sensitive sensor all by himself.

  • Jean

    So… If Fujis new pattern stands up to the test like the early samples indicates, will you be dropping number 18:Bayer filter-mosaic of the list soon?

  • Noticed there was no mention regading a significant “turning point” in photography – introduction of the dslr by Canon i.e. the D30.

  • Clay Taylor

    Hi Roger –

    May I humbly offer up one more innovation?

    Through The Lens (TTL) Flash Exposure Photography.

    The Olympus OM-2 pioneered the Off-The-Film Metering system, which was initially designed by Minolta but licensed to Olympus (so they could do the real-world de-bugging of the system) and introduced in the OM-2. While the auto exposure system worked well (they tinkered with really mod-art silver patterns on the shutter curtains before realizing that light reflecting off the film emulsion was good enough), it was the TTL Flash that was “amazing”!

    With TTL, the flash duration was determined by the camera’s light meter watching the light of the flash coming through the camera’s lens at the stopped-down shooting setting, and multiple flashes could be utilized, too. We were all flabbergasted, especially us macro guys using bellows setups.

  • Good read. Of course there are some enabling technologies missing (NAND flash was mentioned), but the list is long enough as-is.

    Here’s my minor quibble for the “who invented what”:

    Minolta brought autofocus to the mass market, but the Nikon F3 AF was available two years earlier, and multiple manufacturers had shown prototypes much earlier (E.g. Nikon: AF-Nikkor 4.5/80 on the Cicago Camera-Show 1971).

  • Flavio Rose

    I apologize for not having mentioned this earlier, but Daguerre did not invent the camera; he invented the daguerreotype. Cameras existed as aids to drawing before Daguerre, but they were not really that useful because talented people could make drawings just fine without that crutch. See this article http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/vermeer_camera_01.shtml. Cameras are mechanical and optical, whereas Daguerre’s invention was chemical in nature.

  • Colin

    And one more consideration: Instant cameras (i.e. Polaroid), obsolete now, but imagine the DMV without them.

  • Colin

    In place of image stabilization (nice but far from necessary) I would put exposure metering and/or exposure automation. You could get away with experience/guessing in B&W and color negative film, but color positive film requires correct exposure. Hand-held meters are good, but through the lens (TTL) exposures are even better most of the time. The Pentax Spotmatic showed the first prototype, but Topcon was the first production SLR camera with a TTL meter. Kodak had a camera in the late ’30’s with a built-in meter, but it was for rich amateurs and not a big seller.

    You might want to point out that film (i.e. getting past the collodion process) was a huge, major, vast improvement in photography and safety. Not only did the wet plate process require a portable darkroom (Matthew Brady had a specially built darkroom wagon which required two horses to pull), but collodion is a mixture of the explosive called gun cotton, mixed in the highly volatile, incredibly flammable chemical diethyl ether and flammable denatured alcohol-not the most user friendly ingredients! The explosions would have restricted photography to outdoor scenics-imagine the Secret Service letting the press photograph the president using a bunch of explosives and anesthetics, or having a portable darkroom filled with explosives and flammable materials on the sideline of a football game-the plates had to be used while wet, so you only had about 3 minutes from plate production to exposure.

    Lastly, another consideration for your list. In 1959, Nikon (with the F) invented the first ‘system’ camera, designed from the beginning to have interchangeable lenses, interchangeable finders, interchangeable backs (polaroid, motor, long roll), locking-up mirror, interchangable everything but the shutter. Not only was this stuff interchangeable, but it allowed the basic camera to be upgraded (finders advanced from no meter to external meters to multiple TTL meters) and thus not go obsolete. Hasselblad, Canon, Mamaiya, Leica, and others eventually adopted all or most of these features, but it worked best in the Nikon F, as it was designed that way (no add-on reflex viewfinders as in the Leica Visoflex).

  • Carl

    One more thing regarding ISO performance. The Canon camera I own, when shot RAW, seems to yield what I would call “practical full color” up to about ISO 2000, with proper exposure technique. By comparison, my Sigma’s “practical full color” would be about ISO 320, but it’s nearest available option is ISO 400.

    So I can only guess, but a similar ISO color performance level on the Canon 1DMk4, would be ISO 8000. Perhaps on the forthcoming 1Dx, it would be much higher, maybe ISO 25k or 35k. Of course, its pixel diodes are much larger than the 1D4, and gigantic compared to my crop camera…and yet smaller than Nikon’s current pro cameras…

    It just all depends on what type of photography you need to do, and how big your equipment budget is. If you need speed for sports, by all means, choose your favorite bayer DSLR (I would say anything above $1k msrp, if you can’t swing for a “pro”), because they are just plain better and more versatile. Rent a few of the pro-telephoto lenses, decide which you like best, and buy that one. Be ready to spend a few grand…

    But that is discussing which cameras are “better”, and not which sensor technology is “better”. You could argue that “better” depends on what is important to the photographer, and to a degree that is true also. But that wasn’t quite what Roger said. He did clarify with “yet”, but really, at or below ISO 200, for anything other than fast sports…the future is now, and has been for a few years.

  • Carl

    Samuel…Actually it’s not a fair comparison because foveon and Sigma don’t have the budget or manpower thrown at them, that the larger companies do.

    As for color and dynamic range, they are similar if not superior to a mosaic sensor (within the low ISO range, admittedly). I have directly compared my 4.6 MP sensor with the bayer sensor in my Canon. You can also look online at reviews that compare the dynamic range. The foveon camera I have has tremendous dynamic range, particularly into the dark end, when set at ISO 50. There are other quirks regarding the color, but they can be worked around easily. And this is what, the first generation foveon sensor with second generation processing? How many generations are the latest mosaic sensors on now?

    How many generations of aircraft used propellers before the jet engine finally took over? Then they finally decided the best efficiency was obtained by using a jet to drive a propeller…

    If ultimate dynamic range in a single shot is what you care about most, then you have to forget about everything other than a medium format digital, whose system records 16 bits RAW (rather than 14 or less).

    The color of my Sigma camera when shooting RAW at ISO 50, can yield images with a very wide and natural looking color range to my eyes, very similar to what a Nikon D3 or D700 can do. I’ll admit that starting at ISO 200, the Sigma begins to get more compromised…and by ISO 400 it loses quite a bit of dynamic range and introduces noise, albeit very “film-like” noise. ISO 800 “is there” as Roger says, as are ISO 1600 and 3200. “Do with them what you will”…some say they’re good for grainy black and white images…I’m not really into making black and white pics.

    But if you really want to compare a modern mosaic sensor to a foveon sensor, you don’t really have to look for a 4.6 megapixel bayer…you simply only need to compare a 15 MP bayer to the 15.4 MP sensor in their new SD1 camera. Sure, it’s VERY pricey for what it is, and I’m sure as a camera it’s “slow”, but really…if you are wanting the ultimate pixel resolution for say, doing telephoto work…there surely couldn’t be any comparison with literally ANYTHING else. I have no personal experience with the SD1, but I have seen full-size pictures shot with it online. It resolves as much detail as a 30 MP bayer would, if not more. At that point on a crop sensor, the lens and technique are more of a factor than the sensor is. One of the wide-angle shots revealed easily the limitations of the wide angle Sigma lens they used, so the only real detail was in the center.

    So, that’s at least if resolving detail with a telephoto lens is your goal. Now you could argue that just buying a longer telephoto lens would do it, but that’s not really the case. For example, a used 1200mm telephoto costs nearly $100k, and those actually aren’t as sharp as the new 800mm. If you want to talk using tele-converters, that’s another story.

    The only other way to have as much pixel density as the SD1 has, would be with one of the Micro 4/3 16 MP sensors, but I have read those have incredibly bad noise performance. Then there’s the use of the camera adapter, which might give you focus confirmation, but certainly won’t let you use AF in your super-telephoto lens.

    With foveon, the whole advantage of stacking the pixel colors at each pixel site, is that each one occupies the entire size of that pixel site, taking in all the light photons. So a 15 MP sensor has crammed 45 color megapixels into that 1.5x “crop” space, where a mosaic filter only has what, 7 MP of two of the colors, and 6 MP of the third color? Something like that. The processing takes care of, or rather “invents” the rest…

    It’s easy to get drawn into a debate on a forum like this. All I can say is, if your personal experience differs from mine, that’s fine. You should use whatever you like and be happy (maybe not if it’s an iPhone, haha). I use both foveon and mosaic, and I’m happy most of the time. Just like in “high end” audio, there’s…”more than one way to get there.” And there’s a never-ending supply of “fanbois” who would rather debate it online rather than actually get out and take pictures…

    My initial, original point was, a 4.6 MP bayer sensor IS NOT REMOTELY as good as the foveon sensor in the camera I own, so to say bayer mosaics are “better” is just not correct at all. With only Photoshop, I have scaled up many of my images to 18 and 21 MP, with no apparent loss of detail. So that makes me wonder what the SD1’s images could be scaled to…perhaps 60 megapixels. I don’t see anything from Nikon or Canon coming close to that in a crop camera for the next 5 years or more, and even when they do, they will have to deal with fewer light photons at each color pixel diode.

    Whether that is the “actual” resolution of my camera, I don’t know…it’s probably more in the 14-16 MP range. But you don’t really start to see obvious softening until going up to, or especially above 21 MP. This is of course while “pixel-peeping” at 100%. I had read several reviews before buying it, that said it out-resolved 12 MP bayer cameras, and I can pretty much see that.

    I want to try “Perfect Resize 7”, or whatever new name they will have for it…because it’s supposedly better than Photoshop. They should have kept the old name, and just called it “super duper fractals” or something, haha.

  • Flavio Rose

    Couple comments: Photoshop was created by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). I see that in this Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Light_%26_Magic and remember reading it in a book about ILM that was printed on paper, probably the one by Mark Cotta Vaz and Patricia Rose Duignan (1996).

    On a different subject, the use of film as a flexible backing should be distinguished from the use of gelatin to hold the photosensitive compounds, an innovation which applied both to the newfangled film and to old-fashioned glass plates. The latter continued in use for decades in parallel with film.

  • re: foveon: the fair comparison is the best foveon design you can manufacture today for $$$ vs the best bayer pattern design you can manufacture today for that same $$$
    and you also have to look at things like color reproduction, dynamic range, etc

  • A

    @ Roger. Excellent work as ever!

    > Carl wrote: For evidence that a mosaic is WORSE right now, just dig up any bayer filter camera with approximately 4.6 megapixels, and compare it to the foveon. There’s no comparison there.

    Quite probably not. Unfortunately for Sigma/Foveon, Bayer array sensors have moved on a bit since, and you’d now have to dig quite hard to find the 4.6MP camera in question 😉

  • A Couple of additional comments:

    I also do think that NAND Flash NVRAM does deserve a place on your list. Without it, we would have cameras that had to write to optical disks.

    I honestly think that color film needs to be WAAY higher on the list – like around number 6 – it did more for photography than even the Cooke Triplet lens and certainly more than Photoshop, or autofocus, or image stabilization.

    As for the previous commenter on the future of the Foveon – I hope you’re right, but for now it hasn’t revolutionized anything yet.

  • Carl

    Oh, and from my understanding, Foveon was an AMERICAN company in California, before they were bought by Sigma. So I guess that’s one other thing America has done right, even though we do fewer and fewer things right these days! (Hmm, first it was Kodak with 35mm film, then Kodak made CCD sensors for Leica S series, and then somebody in california thought of foveon and made it work, immature though its development may be…yea, sometimes Americans do it right, or even do it first!)

    I hadn’t even read Dusan’s post…good work man, you and I agree wholeheartedly!

    I think people just like to knock the idea of the foveon, the same way they like to knock the idea of Sigma (whether it’s lenses or cameras). SNOB APPEAL. It’s no different than someone with a Phase One camera knocking any of us who don’t own or use a medium format digital…

    At some point, snobbery needs to be ignored or filtered out, because all it really does is stir hard feelings, HINDER innovation, and close people’s minds to the truth!

    For example, my Cosina Voigtlander lens is better than any Canon L 50mm lens, so I guess I need to paint a little red stripe on the metal hood, otherwise I won’t be seen as worthy of doing good photography by anyone who knows cameras, who might be at my shoots!

  • Carl

    I agree with William on the storage media and the monitors.

    I disagree that Foveon is “not it”, because well, it IS it. Just because no one else is doing it, doesn’t mean it won’t eventually catch on. A mosaic is never “better” than actual resolution. For evidence that a mosaic is WORSE right now, just dig up any bayer filter camera with approximately 4.6 megapixels, and compare it to the foveon. There’s no comparison there.

    The filter mosaic is obviously just EASIER to build…but it’s not “better”. I’m glad that the redheaded stepchild of Japanese camera/lens makers has embraced having all colors at every pixel site, since none of the others are right now. Of course, if this stepchild is ever bought or “adopted” by one of the big players, I personally think things will begin to move away from mosaics and aliasing.

    But I’m all for whatever works best from a practical standpoint in the here and now, though. Then again, things don’t always get “better”, it just depends on what the market thinks is “better”, and what it doesn’t.

    Even Canon’s mighty forthcoming 1Dx won’t autofocus AT ALL with an f/8 lens…what’s up with that? How is that particular aspect “better” than the 1D4?

    Some see the proliferation of cell phone cameras as being “better” than dedicated cameras. As I hinted at in another post, Annie Liebowitz suggests everyone just use iPhones as their camera. It’s a good thing she’s not Queen of Photography and we not all her serfs…

  • I was about to give it my nihil obstat when I realized I don’t see the digital equivalent of film — the on-board storage card/device/medium. Obviously, it was adapted for photographic needs, but so were optics. Telescopes, microscopes, etc preceded cameras, but optics made much more possible photographically. Without the on-board storage, digital cameras are essentially one-shot devices. You’d have to get to a computer or some off-board storage device to download the image and be ready to create another.

    I also wonder about monitors; without them, we don’t see much. Another adaptation, from TV, but still necessary.

    Let’s keep working on this.

  • Well, you called for it. The very first item, although you included the disclaimer needs facts:
    -Aristotle book Problemata (approximately 350BC) is the first one describing “camera obscura” simply from observation, not with understanding of what happens.
    -First scientific examination and full understanding of “camera obscura” is by Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) of Iraq in his book Perspectiva (approximately 1000AD).
    Than in 19th Century Daguerre applied these long known and long used devices to the new invention of photographic material.

    Side note on #18: From my field of study (both in use as Astronomer and as sensor designer in my earlier career as Solid State Physicist and engineer) I must assure you that Foveon is IT. What people typically do not understand is that underlying technological concept of Foveon is indeed beating pants out of Bayer pattern sensors. The problem with Foveon is that the concept have been developed and patented by company with poor abilities to make of it what it deserves. Production and material engineering of Sigma lags at least two generations behind cutting edge manufacturers. Hence, advantages of Foveon technological concept are lost by building it poorly from poor materials in expensive process. Other way of saying it would be that if Nikon or Canon were given right to make Foveon-like sensor quantum leap in performance would be such that Bayer pattern would cease to exist in one production cycle. My prediction is that such event will occur in next 5 years (either by Sigma folding or prudently selling the technology). Foveon is inevitable future of photo sensors.
    Side-side note: I am scientist and in no way, shape or form related to Sigma camera company. Just my scientific opinion from both sides of the story, production and usage (and in neither case is any Sigma product involved).

    Everything best, good work!

  • very nice read

    my only complaint: I like it better in chronological order:

    Invention of the camera. Daguerre. 1837.
    Mathematical formulas used to calculate lens design. Petzval, 1840.
    Collodion wet plate process developed. Archer, 1851.
    Optical crown and flint glass. Abbe and Schott (Zeiss), 1880s.
    Photographic film. Eastman, 1880s.
    Cooke Triplet Lens. Tayler, 1896.
    Phototelgraphy (transmitting photos by wire). Korn, 1902.
    35mm photo camera developed using sprocketed movie film. Barnack (Leica), 1914.
    Strobe lights for photography. Edgerton, 1923.
    Anti-reflective coatings. Smakula (Zeiss), 1935.
    Exakta SLR camera. 1936
    Multi-layer color film. Kodak, 1936.
    First zoom lens (for photography). Voigtlander, 1959.
    Nikon F- SLR, Nikon, 1959.
    Image-forming CCD chip. Fairchild Semiconductor, 1973.
    Bayer filter-mosaic. Kodak, 1975.
    Image stabilization. Canon, 1976 (patented)
    Autofocus. Minolta (who stole it from Honeywell), 1985.
    Photoshop. Adobe, 1990.
    CDS-100 SLR, Kodak, 1991.
    Canon Digital Rebel (KISS), Canon, 2003.

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