The History of Snapshot Technology

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.

Brownie 2 camera

A classic pre-WW II Kodak Brownie Camera - photo by Hakan Svensson

1950s
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!

1960s
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.

Polaroid Land Camera Model J66

Polaroid Land Camera, circa 1962 - photo by Colin Burnett

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.

Kodak Instamatic 100

Kodak Instamatic 100 with pop-up flash - photo by Camerafiend

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.

1970s
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.

Kodak pocket instamatic kit

Kodak Pocket Instamatic with flashcube - photo by Carsten Corlets

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.

1980s
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.

1990s
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.

Kodak disposable camera

Kodak disposable camera with built-in flash - photo by Hakan Svensson

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.

2000s
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.

About Ray Gordon

Ray Gordon is a registered architect with a masters degree in City and Regional Planning. He has held a variety of professional positions in both the private and public sectors, with jobs ranging from managing an environmental sciences firm to art director with advertising agencies in Japan. In addition to work in architectural design, Ray is also a professional photographer, videographer, film editor, and graphic designer. He was a professor of architecture and urban design in the graduate programs at Pratt Institute for 17 years, and also taught the regulation of real estate at New York University’s graduate Real Estate Institute for a six year period, with an emphasis on environmental regulations. 

Ray has worked with computers for almost 30 years.  Over the years, he developed a working knowledge of many types of software programs, from spreadsheets and data bases, to illustration and video editors - with hands-on experience on lots of computers and peripheral hardware as well. Ray's writing and photographs have been published and exhibited in both the USA as well as Japan (where he lived for 12 years). He authored the chapter on urban design for a recently published World Bank book, wrote the chapter on waterfront construction infrastructure in "Understanding Infrastructure," edited the Urban Design Review newsletter, and has contributed to a number of magazines on travel and design.

Connect with Ray Gordon on Google+ and Twitter @RayJGordon.

  • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

    I had one of those early Instamatics and boy, did I love it! Excellent article, very informative, and a wonderful companion to the nostalgic view of the same subject in the Evolution of Tech series!

  • Pingback: Evolution of Technology Explores 35mm Photography and Darkrooms()

  • Peggy Fitz

    Love this post! My grandfather worked as a Chemist in Research & Development at Eastman Kodak his entire career. I saw each of these cameras and often wonder what he would think of digital technology.

    Thanks!

    • http://ItsDifferent4girls.com Linda Sherman

      @pegsta1 Thank you Peggy! #usguys That is a very special perspective. I’ll bet you have lots of family photos! It was fun watching @RayJGordon put this history together.

      • Peggy Fitz

        I wish that I had talked to him more about it, he was brilliant and an amazing grandfather. He was always taking photos. Some of my favorites are the black and white photographs that he tinted before color film was invented.

        You’d be very interested in going to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. It is a Photography Museum but also the mansion where George Eastman lived.

        • Anonymous

          @pegsta1 In those early days, many top photographers had artistic skills as well to colorize B&W photos properly. Thanks for the tip – I’ve heard the Eastman House is definitely worth the visit!

    • Anonymous

      @pegsta1 – Your grandfather was intimately involved in the creation of some of the finest films created, especially Kodachrome. It’s sad that these films are now only manufactured in very limited quantities for super enthusiasts and some professionals. Yet the legacy lives on in the thousands of slides in my personal library, and the collections of millions of other fans around the world.

  • http://twitter.com/tedbraverman Ted Braverman

    Great article! This brings back wonderful memories of how I started with film and photography. From my early days I had these types of camera’s passed on to me. Then working in a photo lab I started to collect them only to seel them at a certain point. the last 10+ years I’ve been all digital but recognize the benefit of these gems.

    • http://ItsDifferent4girls.com Linda Sherman

      Did you have good luck selling those cameras Ted? We really appreciate a professional photographer such as yourself stopping by to comment. Hope to see you in Florida some time!

    • Anonymous

      Ted, having also moved on to digital for most projects, I still admire the shadow detail and vivid colors you get from professional slide film. As you know, the difficulty with slide photography was the very narrow exposure band (about a half-stop over or under) you had to stay within to get the perfect exposure and color aturation. Although modern professional grade digital cameras make getting great exposures in the field a whole lot easier, I too miss some of the creative applications of film.

  • http://twitter.com/TheLeicaBoss Bart J Zoni

    Ok, so now I’m motivated to get out my Brownie, respool some 120 film (yikes!) and shoot a roll of film. Very exciting stuff – and interesting how yesterdays snapshot cameras are today’s fine art projects, collectors’ items, and museum pieces!

    • Anonymous

      Fortunately, that 120 film is still used by medium format 645 cameras, so you’ll be able to pick some up, dust off that Brownie and head into action!

  • http://twitter.com/geekbabe Jean Parks

    We are so caught up in wanting the next best thing that it seems we want a better, newer device almost as soon as we’ve got the latest & greatest gadget in our hands. Thank you for givng us these snapshots in time, it’s amazing how far cameras have come isn’t it/

    • Anonymous

      It used to be that professionals would purchase a film camera body that was built to last… with digital cameras, the bodies are obsolete in a year or two, so cameras are now selected primarily on features, focusing systems and exposure systems. The thing is, the newer digital cameras generally ARE significantly better than previous models… at least my old pro lenses can be used on the newer bodies. Times sure have changed!

      • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

        Wow, Ray, I had no idea that the new digital camera were built not to last. We really seem to have become a disposable society!

        • Anonymous

          Bruce, although most consumer snapshot cameras are now made of durable plastic components, with advances in manufacturing technology their build quality is actually great compared to older snapshot cameras.

          My primary point was in regards to obsolescence, created by the ever-increasing speed of technological advancement. My digital SLR cameras are made with magnesium frames, precision metal mounts and rather sophisticated gaskets – just like my Nikon F5 film camera. Both can withstand many years of rigorous use and hundreds of thousands of exposure cycles. Yet my F5 remained cutting edge technology for over a decade – while advances in digital exposure systems, increased resolution and sensor technologies make the average digital body virtually obsolete in a couple of years (that’s about the rate of any particular model being replaced with the next generation, even for pro digital gear).

          My older digital camera bodies still work fine – I still have a functional Nikon D-1 from over ten years ago. It’s just that the new batteries are much smaller and way more powerful, the resolution has jumped from 3 to 24 mega-pixels, the focus points in the viewfinder have gone from one to over 50, there is now 3-D color metering, flash technology is vastly superior… when you’re on a photo shot, these improvements really make a difference in speed, reliability and image quality.

          For the average consumer, that 10 megapixel point-and-shoot purchased last year will work fine for years… but that 16 megapixel model over there sure looks cool, and it’s smaller, and the lens has a bigger zoom range, and…

        • Anonymous

          Bruce, although most consumer snapshot cameras are now made of durable plastic components, with advances in manufacturing technology their build quality is actually great compared to older snapshot cameras.

          My primary point was in regards to obsolescence, created by the ever-increasing speed of technological advancement. My digital SLR cameras are made with magnesium frames, precision metal mounts and rather sophisticated gaskets – just like my Nikon F5 film camera. Both can withstand many years of rigorous use and hundreds of thousands of exposure cycles. Yet my F5 remained cutting edge technology for over a decade – while advances in digital exposure systems, increased resolution and sensor technologies make the average digital body virtually obsolete in a couple of years (that’s about the rate of any particular model being replaced with the next generation, even for pro digital gear).

          My older digital camera bodies still work fine – I still have a functional Nikon D-1 from over ten years ago. It’s just that the new batteries are much smaller and way more powerful, the resolution has jumped from 3 to 24 mega-pixels, the focus points in the viewfinder have gone from one to over 50, there is now 3-D color metering, flash technology is vastly superior… when you’re on a photo shoot, these improvements really make a difference in speed, reliability and image quality.

          For the average consumer, that 10 megapixel point-and-shoot purchased last year will work fine for years… but that 16 megapixel model over there sure looks cool, and it’s smaller, and the lens has a bigger zoom range, and…

  • http://twitter.com/BertaArt Clara Berta

    This is a cool blog, thanks Ray. I remember being photographed back in 2005 with an old 4 x 5 camera it was so fun and the image is truly special called landscape of the body.

    • Anonymous

      Clara, photos taken with a large-format 4×5 camera are meant to be cherished… with a film size about 15 TIMES the area of 35mm – and even larger than the other snapshot formats mentioned in this article – you can easily see how much more detail can be captured with these classic professional cameras. Of course, they aren’t snapshots, since it takes time to set the photos up and that large 4×5 needs a trunk, not a pocketbook to carry with you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/firststreetinc firstSTREET

    Awesome “snapshot” of the history of cameras. The disposable ones seem so long ago already! Although digital photography is easier and more eco friendly, I don’t think you can ever really get the same quality photos and experience as those from a traditional analog camera. Great job on the research for this post!

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I agree that this article is an “Awesome “snapshot” of the history of cameras” @firstStreet!

    • Anonymous

      About 10 years ago, I finally dove into the professional digital camera world, having waited until camera capabilities met minimal standards for high quality 35mm photography (at the time “only” 3 Megapixels but on a huge full-frame sensor).

      Today, digital has finally achieved the resolution of film (you can get a 35mm SLR with more than 35 Megapixel resolution), yet still falls short of the tonal quality, shadow detail and color saturation of the images we can get from the best pro slide films.

      There have been amazing advances in digital photography since its infancy, and the technology continues to improve in leaps and bounds.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PYI4PVQ4GIEW25CYSLMYA532GA anil

     http://anilmathewm.blogspot.com/2010/07/web-camera-snapshot-flash-actionscript.html

  • AP@Memoir Tree

    The “flashcube,” wow. I had forgotten all about that.

    As a digital photo buff, I’m particularly fascinated by the rapid pace of digital photo technology. Amazing how far they’ve come improving upon old problems like aliasing and dynamic range!

    Did you know that President Obama’s Presidential Portrait is the first official one taken on a digital camera?