Snapshots are everywhere – in family albums, scrapbooks, and even in forgotten corners of dresser drawers. With the advent of affordable digital cameras and smart phones, we can now have a highly capable camera with us at all times, ready to record something of interest at any moment. Yet it wasn’t always so easy for the average person to snap a simple photo.
In the early days of photography, the primary type of photographic image was a carefully staged studio photograph that was recorded in high-resolution on large-format film. In fact, this type of photography was common up through the World War II years. Families would save up money, and go to a photo studio to have portraits made that would be cherished as precious family possessions.
As the middle class grew larger, a market evolved for more portable cameras (such as the Kodak Brownie series) that could capture ordinary family events and trips. The greater use of private automobiles on the new interstate highways allowed families to make many more trips outside their local neighborhoods, which increased the opportunity for candid photographs.
Although small box cameras existed all through the first half of the 20th century, they really came into their own in the 1950s with the introduction of the first plastic Kodak Brownie portable cameras. These cameras had fixed focus and limited optical quality, but were low-cost and easy to use for the non-professional.
The small format black and white “Type 127″* film was reasonably priced, relatively easy to load and could be securely wrapped by the user on the take-up spool to be sent to a film processor. These cameras were designed primarily for use outdoors, although there were options for external bulb-based flash units. Unfortunately, flash photography of this type was a hit or miss proposition… and removing those super-hot used flashbulbs was no picnic!
The 1960s brought a revolution in the ease and use of portable snapshot cameras with the introduction of the Kodak Instamatic models. These compact cameras used a new technology for handling film – this “Type 126″* film was contained in an enclosed drop-in plastic cartridge that made loading the camera virtually foolproof. Flash photography was also simplified with the introduction of flash cubes that eliminated the handling of hot bulbs.
The first Polaroid instant camera was introduced in 1948, but the brand really took off in 1965 with the popular Swinger model, which brought instant photography to the masses for a quite affordable 20 dollars. Polaroid continued to be a viable alternative to portable film cameras until the advent of low-cost digital cameras.
The introduction of inexpensive color film, coupled with the growth of a network of local drop-off points for developing negatives, made taking photographs a more enjoyable process for many more people. We also saw the establishment of local print shops that would print small snapshots relatively quickly at a good price. There were even tiny drive-through kiosks in shopping mall parking lots for convenient photo drop off and pick-up.
Taking photographs had finally become accessible to the masses. As a result, there was an explosion in the number of photographs taken at picnics, graduations, birthdays, and vacation spots.
Small cameras continued to evolve in the 1970s as the Pocket Instamatic became the latest hit in the Kodak line. It was a much smaller version of the original Instamatic, but used the new “Type 110″* film contained in very small cartridges. This small size made it super easy to carry, but the tiny negatives yielded poor images and were virtually useless for slide photography.
Other cameras improved their quality of the optics in their lenses, and there was a wider acceptance of cameras using “35 mm”* film as their prices dropped. The 35mm film format had been in use for decades by the press, professionals, and serious photo enthusiasts using classic cameras made by Leica, Nikon and Canon. This format provided a good size negative that featured fine-grain resolution that yielded sharp, detailed prints and slides.
Small 35mm rangefinders* (easy to carry cameras with exterior viewfinders and generally foxed lenses) were the most popular cameras for taking impromptu snapshots, and yielded better quality photos than cameras using the smaller film formats.
Cameras continued to improve and now were equipped with auto-exposure systems* that took the guesswork out of manually setting shutter speeds and lens apertures. Flash units became more reliable and were incorporated into a number of compact film cameras that were easy to carry. Flashes were also incorporated into the bodies of many cameras with an “auto-on” feature.
Disposable cameras became very popular during this time for their convenience and low price. Often little more than cardboard boxes with rudimentary plastic film advance mechanisms and small fixed lenses, these cameras contained film that could be processed by dropping off the entire camera at a photo lab or printshop.
in the 1990s autofocus cameras became quite common, while low cost disposables continued to improve – often incorporating quality flashes as well as sleeker plastic bodies. The prices became so reasonable that they were often seen as promotional giveaways or even party favors. In general, the optical quality of lenses improved significantly and were incorporated into many compact film cameras that were built to high standards.
The biggest innovation in film was the introduction of the Advanced Photo System (“APS”), with an image area about 60% the size of 35mm film. The new technology promised virtually the same quality as 35mm film but in an easier to use, self-loading, drop-in cartridge. It was the first film format to incorporate data along with the images. Of course, this system required a whole new range of APS cameras specifically designed to take advantage of the new features. Camera makers jumped into this new market with many new model cameras, often with interchangeable lenses and other high-end features.
This decade also saw the beginning of the digital revolution. Digital was a fundamentally different approach to capturing images. Instead of film’s light sensitive coatings that had to be developed to yield an image, digital cameras utilized an array of light sensors* on an electronic chip. The resulting signal could be recorded onto electronic media and then transferred to computers or shown on exterior displays.
A number of digital cameras were introduced, yet were slow to gain acceptance in the mass market due to high cost and relatively low resolutions. However, the die was cast for the eventual demise of film as the primary method of capturing photographic images.
At the dawn of the truly digital age, film cameras were primarily relegated to specialty professional uses or higher functioning disposables with good flash units. By mid-decade, both Polaroid and APS film systems had been discontinued and digital cameras are becoming widely available at reasonable prices. Image resolution* improved virtually every year, yielding sharp photographs from even the more modestly priced portable cameras.
The continued miniaturization of components ultimately allowed cameras to be embedded in cell phones, computer laptops, tablets, and a host of other portable devices. This allowed people to take photographs (and even video) in virtually any setting, and at any time. Photography had become an indispensable feature of electronic media, websites, and social media.
*Boomer Tech Talk Guide to Technical Words Used in this Article:
127 Format Film: 46mm square film size commonly used in Brownie cameras through the 1950s
126 Format Film: 28mm square film size first used in Kodak Instamatic cameras in 1963
110 Format Film: 13x17mm film size first used in Kodak Pocket Instamatic cameras in 1972
35mm Film: 24x36mm film format first used in professional cameras and later in popular consumer cameras
APS Format: Introduced in 1996, the Advanced Photo System used 17x30mm film housed in cartridges
Rangefinders: compact cameras that used 35mm film, most commonly using non-interchangeable high quality lenses
Auto-Exposure: Electronic systems that measured light coming into the lens and automatically adjust the lens opening and/or the shutter speed to ensure an acceptable exposure.
Light Sensors: Specialized electronic chips designed specifically to measure light striking its surface and translate that light into electrical signals that create digital images of the subject in front of the lens.
Image Resolution: The measure of how much detail can be captured on film or in digital form. For digital cameras, this is commonly expressed as the number of total individual pixels (points of light) that can be captured on the light sensor.