The history of photography is one of continuous technical innovation in search of the perfect picture, and has produced hundreds of historically interesting and visually attractive cameras to appeal to the collector.
Towards the end of the 19th century, taking photographs changed from a mysterious process practised largely by professionals to a simple hobby enjoyed by millions of amateurs. The modern age for the camera began in 1888, when George Eastman produced the first hand-held Kodak camera, sold ready-loaded with enough film to make 100 circular exposures. His slogan, 'You press the button, we do the rest' sounded the death knell for the bulky plate cameras that until then had been state of the art, though they continued to be made and used professionally well into the second half of the 20th century.
In 1900, Eastman introduced the even simpler Brownie box camera, which was aimed at children - the box it came in was decorated with pictures of cherubic fairy folk - but which swept the adult world.
Box Brownies allowed no variations in focus, but more sophisticated contemporary alternatives had a lens which moved in and out on an extensible leather bellows to bring objects into focus. This folded into the body of the camera when not in use.
Single-lens reflex cameras, where a system of mirrors allows the photographer to focus his subject by eye, rather than measurement, were invented before
World War 1. In Germany, a man named Oscar Barnack designed a camera combining this principle with the use of 35mm cine film. In 1925,
Leitz, the optical instrument company he worked for, marketed it as a Leica 1, the first modern camera, fully portable but with a professional quality lens.
About the same time, another German firm, Franke & Heidecke, introduced the Rollei range of compact twin lens reflex cameras, which took larger format pictures of great sharpness and clarity.
RISE OF NIKON AND PENTAX
Germany continued to lead the way in classic cameras until the 1950s, when two Japanese firms, Nippon Kogaku and Asahi, who marketed compact 35mm cameras under the brand names
Nikon and Pentax, began to take over. They became popular in the west when newsmen covering the Korean War began to use them instead of German models, for which they could get no replacement parts.
Though the 35mm format was standard for quality cameras in the 1950s, other formats were used for cheaper cameras, where a larger negative made up for the lack of sharpness in the lens. Snapshot cameras and instant cameras - first made around 1950 - still had the bulk of the world market in terms of the number of cameras sold.
In the 1960s, a further technological revolution came with the Japanese-led introduction of cameras with electronic controls, capable of setting shutter speeds, focus and apertures automatically.
CAMERA COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Classic cameras, from the antique to the relatively recent, are collected worldwide. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century plate and film cameras tend to be expensive, and are rarely seen. Some, like the art deco styled models of the
1930s, are collected by other than camera specialists. The largest market
currently is for high-quality 35mm cameras of the post-war period. Look for them in specialist
dealers, general photographic shops, at auction or in the pages of magazines.
Some collectors buy old cameras because of their historic interest, or simply for their looks, and display them on shelves. Most, though, are photographers, and will expect to use their can eras to take pictures.
THE RIGHT CAMERA FORMAT
If you're keen on getting an old camera to use, make sure that you can obtain the correct film stock
before you buy. Though dozens of film formats have been developed in the last 100 years, only a few are readily obtainable today. Some others can be found in very specialized outlets, but many, including such recently popular ones as 127, simply can't be had nowadays.
Camera collectors' twin interests, display and use, are recognized by some dealers, who grade cameras' looks and functioning on a 10-point scale, from 0 (new) to 9 (for parts only) for looks, and from A (as new and under warranty) to K (irreparable) for functioning. The scale was developed by
Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, a regularly updated publication listing the prices of over 8,000 classic cameras. Other dealers may use different systems, so make sure which one is in use if buying a camera unseen.
Generally, worn or damaged bodies may affect price a little, but needn't affect a camera's ability to take pictures, unless it's no longer lightproof. Damaged mechanisms can be repaired, though this may be costly. Always open the back of a camera before buying it to check the shutter and winder at least are working, and that that there is no sign of
corrosion or other damage inside.
Some detective cameras were disguised as books or watches or mounted in a
hat. One was shaped as a pistol, though it is difficult to see how this would have been inconspicuous. Most were boxes or cases, with the camera at one end and storage for plates at the other.