History of Photography
The Most Important Developments in Photography
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.