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Top five: photography innovations

Armed with a digital device and the right software, the modern world is chock full of budding photographers. But things weren’t always as easy as pointing a phone and pressing a button

The photograph: although the theories behind photography have roots in ancient times, as far as we know nobody had put them together and attempted to produce a photograph until 1800. That year, in England, Thomas Wedgwood, son of pottery magnate Josiah, made an unsuccessful stab at capturing a stable image from a camera. But it was not until the early 1820s that the extravagantly monikered Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce successfully developed what he called heliography – literally “sun drawing”. This led to the production of the first photographic prints. It is unclear exactly when he was first successful – letters to his sister indicate it may have been as early as 1816 – but there is evidence he produced a photograph of Pope Pius VII in 1822. The oldest surviving images he made date from 1825, followed by what is now considered the world’s oldest surviving photograph of a real-world scene, which was made in 1826 or 1827.

The colour image: after Niépce’s monochrome efforts, it was not until 1866 that we entered the world of colour photography. In 1855, physicist James Clerk Maxwell proposed the concept of merging three separate single-colour exposures into one image to produce a colour image. After many attempts, in 1861, Clerk Maxwell – assisted by photographer Thomas Sutton, the inventor of the single lens reflex (SLR) camera – met with success. Their subject was a tartan ribbon that they took three separate exposures of – one red, one green, one blue. On 17 May, Clerk Maxwell showed their single, full colour image – produced by projecting the slides through the same colour of filtered lens – at a lecture on colour theory at the prestigious Royal Institution in London. Although primitive by modern standards, Clerk Maxwell’s work laid the foundations of modern colour photography, and professional photographers used the basic techniques until the 1980s.

The compact camera: in Clerk Maxwell’s day, cameras were large, cumbersome objects. Although camera dimensions shrunk over the decades, up until the 1930s SLRs were still unwieldy objects. Loaded with 35mm film, the first truly successful SLR camera was the Kine Exakta, first produced in March 1936 by Ihagee Kamerawerk Steenbergen, founded by a Dutch businessman in the German city of Dresden in 1912. The factory was destroyed in the infamous firebombing of the city in 1945. Despite an unlikely looking trapezoid shape, left-hand film winder and shutter release, as well as waist-high view finding, this camera set in motion the post-World War II boom in 35mm camera design and sales. Another quirk was the fact that it had two spaces for film rolls, one for exposed and one for unexposed film, and a bladed tool for removing exposed frames. Its basic features were employed in camera design right up until the 1970s, and the looks of some of the latest digital cameras hark back to the Kine Exakta.

The digital camera: with even basic digital cameras today offering 12 megapixels (i.e. more image quality than most people need), it is amazing to think that the first prototype had just 0.01. Dreamed up by 24-year-old electrical engineer Steve Sasson at Eastman Kodak in 1975, the camera took just 50 milliseconds to capture an image, but 23 seconds to record it on to a cassette strapped to the side and then another 30 seconds for the tiny 100 pixel by 100 pixel black and white image – one megapixel being 1 million pixels – to appear. Sasson knew he had invented a game changer, but senior management were not so convinced. With a monopoly on the US photography market, from film processing to flash cubes, the company saw its profits being eaten up and development was slow. Meanwhile, competitors around the world caught on and rapidly developed their own versions, sending film photography to the great photo studio in the sky.

The image-tweaking software: last February was the 25th anniversary of a software package that has revolutionised how images are presented. The now ubiquitous Photoshop – the only software we are aware of that has spawned a verb – is used to tweak, often not so subtly, almost every image you see in print media, fashion and advertising. Adobe Photoshop 1.0 shipped on 19 February 1990 but was developed in 1987 by American brothers Thomas and John Knoll and sold to Adobe the following year. The sons of a computer- and photography-buff father, they developed the software in order for him to be able to work with better quality images on his Apple Mac Plus, throwing in more and more plugins such as controls for balance, hue and saturation and the ability to manipulate certain parts of the image along the way. Many generations later, the software dominates the media industry, while the recently released free app Photoshop Fix offers many of the parent software’s main features.

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