From the first camera obscura to 35mm film to the modern cameraphone, the tools photographers use have come a long way. How we understand and use imaging technology keeps advancing, and manufacturers are working hard to ensure they continue to create tools that meet the evolving needs of photographers. New cameras are released constantly, but most offer minor improvements and fail to leave a mark on history.
Here is a look at seven cameras that did the opposite, that revolutionized the industry and are still talked about today for their contributions to the art and craft of photography.
In the year 1925, Leica announced a camera that would change everything. Prior to its release, bulky glass plates were still the most common method of recording an image. But then Leica came along with an ingenious idea to take 35mm motion picture film, rotate it sideways, and put it into a handheld device. The Leica I wasn’t the first 35mm camera, but it was the first to really push and refine the format, making it more viable in the process. With the Leica I, high-quality photographs could be produced from a pocket-sized camera, which opened up completely new photographic disciplines. Thanks to its introduction, 35mm would go on to be the most popular film format ever, and Leica would forever live as a brand name synonymous with street photography.
Way back in April 1959, Nikon introduced to the world to its first SLR (single-lens reflex) camera, simply called the Nikon F. All the features of the camera had already been available in models from other manufacturers, things like a pentaprism viewfinder, instant return mirror, and bayonet-mounted interchangeable lenses. But what Nikon did that set the F apart was to bring all of those elements together into a single product that was vastly superior to anything the industry had ever seen and used before. Probably the biggest testament to the quality of the Nikon F was its long lifespan and use in extreme situations. Manufactured until 1973, it was used extensively by photojournalists around the world, including Don McCullin, who’s F absorbed a bullet impact in the Vietnam war, possibly saving his life. Modified versions of the camera were also used in space, including aboard the Skylab space station in the early 1970s.
Remnants of the F can still be seen in modern cameras. It introduced the F-mount, a lens mount that remains in use today on Nikon’s DSLRs (that’s digital single-lens reflex).
In 1975, while working for Eastman Kodak, electrical engineer Steven Sasson developed the world’s first portable digital camera, building on the earlier work of Kodak’s Bryce Bayer, who invented the now commonly-used Bayer filter sensor that sees red, green, and blue light. Sasson’s camera weighed around eight pounds and shot photos with a resolution 0.01 megapixels (that’s just 100 x 100 pixels). The camera was a prototype and never reached the consumer market. However, it was a catalyst for other companies to use the technology and make it attractive to the general public. Apple — who always finds itself being an innovator — was the first company to widely release a consumer-level digital camera with a Bayer sensor in the Apple QuickTake, back in 1994. As for the first DSLR, that credit goes to Fujifilm with the release of the FinePix S1 Pro in November 2001.
Kodak, which was making plenty of money selling film at the time, would never fully capitalize on its digital invention. Nevertheless, every other digital camera today is a result of Kodak’s pioneering work.
Released in Japan in 1976, the Canon AE-1 was revolutionary for two main reasons. One, it was the first SLR to be microprocessor-equipped, allowing for functions such as shutter-priority automatic exposure. Two, it was insanely popular. Because of a big advertising push, Canon sold over one million units, sales no other manufacturer was able to boast at the time. The AE-1 lived at the vanguard of the electronic SLR age, and its use of plastic and modular construction helped keep costs down, making it an attractive camera for beginners and more casual shooters. In 1981, Canon released the AE-1 Program, an updated model with a fully-automatic exposure mode that could set both aperture and shutter speed. The AE-1 used Canon’s FD lens mount, which would later be replaced by the EF mount with the arrival of the first EOS SLR in 1987.
In 2007 when Apple first released the iPhone, the camera on the device wasn’t anything to write home about — it couldn’t even shoot video. But as the tech giant developed its hardware and image processing, the cameras on iPhones became better and better, to the point of the three-camera system on the iPhone 11 Pro today. But it wasn’t so much the hardware that made the iPhone a popular camera, but the software. When apps like Instagram hit the scene (which was iOS-only in the beginning), people were suddenly taking and sharing photos from the same device, instantly. It changed both photography and social media, and inspired the annual iPhone Photography Awards, which showcases an incredible collection of work from around the world.
But it’s not just in the average person’s hands that the iPhone has found success as a camera. Photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown used an iPhone to document the war in Lybia in 2011. The iPhone is also commonly used in the street photography genre and the device’s cult following has branded iPhone photography as iphoneography.
The EOS 5D series has been a mainstay of Canon’s professional camera lineup for over a decade, but no model has achieved legendary status like 2008’s 5D Mark II. This was the first time Canon put a video mode into a DSLR, offering full HD 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second (a firmware update would later add 24 fps support after feedback from customers). Full HD combined with the Mark II’s large, full-frame sensor and interchangeable lenses made cinema-quality video more affordable than ever, and by a huge margin. Not only did independent filmmakers flock to the Mark II, but the camera also spawned an entire industry of accessory makers who built rigs, follow focus systems, sliders, and other lightweight support gear. The success of the Mark II with filmmakers is arguably what prompted Canon to launch its own line of dedicated cinema cameras a few years later.
Video is now a staple feature of virtually every new DSLR and mirrorless camera. Canon is no longer the star of this show, but the EOS 5D Mark II set the stage. That it was also a capable still camera with a high-resolution, 21-megapixel sensor was really just icing on the cake.
Although the Sony A7 was far from the first mirrorless camera (that title goes to the Epson RD1) it was a game-changer in the young DSLR-versus-mirrorless debate. It was the first mirrorless camera with full-frame, or 35mm, sensor, the same size as the sensors in professional-level DSLRs. Digital Trends named it camera of the year in 2013. This was the first time that many professional photographers could look at mirrorless as a viable alternative to bulky DSLRs. A 24-megapixel sensor packed into a body that weighed 474 grams was a big deal. Because of its build and image quality, the photo industry started to see a significant shift in photographers moving to mirrorless cameras — something that professionals would have scoffed at before the A7.
As a response to this industry shift, both Canon and Nikon released full-frame mirrorless systems in 2018 — but not before losing significant market share to Sony.
The imaging world is constantly changing, and we’ve seen many new technologies spring up in recent years — but none that have really changed the landscape. The Lytro Illum intrigued us with its ability to refocus images after the shot, but the party trick wasn’t enough to help the camera find an audience. 360-degree cameras, like the GoPro Max, bring a fresh and fun perspective to photos and videos, but this technology has yet to gain mainstream appeal. As digital photography matures, the next technological advancements may be marked as small steps rather than giant leaps, iterative updates that mask the complexity and history of how we got here. Cameras like those above changed how, where, and why we take pictures — as well as who was able to take them. Looking back helps us appreciate just how far we’ve come.