The first cameras were smaller versions of a viewing device that had existed for several hundred years—the camera obscura—a tool that 19th century landscape painters employed to aid in achieving proper perspective. French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre built upon the work of fellow-countryman Nicéphore Niépce, whose eight-hour exposure from 1826 is widely regarded as the first photograph, and came up with a camera and process to make an image on a copper plate. The result became known as a daguerreotype.
Daguerre’s camera was a simple but cumbersome two-part wooden box camera. An inner box with the copper plate attached to the rear, slid within the close-fitting outer box that carried the centre-mounted lens. With a black cloth over his head and the camera, the photographer would focus the image by moving the inner part of the box with the plate closer or further away from the outer box with the lens.
Illustration of the camera obscura principle from James Ayscough's A short account of the eye and nature of vision (1755 fourth edition). Public Domain.
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, ca. 1844. The Met. CC0 1.0 Universal. Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283101
As Daguerre stream-lined his process, two Austrians came up with a better lens design than the simple lens designed for Daguerre by a Parisian optician. Voigtlander, one of the lens makers, also reduced the size and thus the portability of the box design in 1841. The sliding concept of the two-part box gave way to a leather, accordion-type bellows with a lens plate at one end, and the light-sensitive plate holder at the other end. These plate cameras have remained relatively unchanged, although now called view or large-format cameras. Updated versions are still in use today by commercial and professional photographers, albeit with a high-resolution digital back replacing the early metal or glass plate holder.
Daguerre’s time-consuming, multi-chemical process gave way to successively quicker and more convenient processes: calotype, ambrotype, wet collodion process on glass, tin or ferrotype, dry plates and finally, just before the turn of the century, nitrate sheet and roll film.
George Eastman, who had made his name originally by making dry glass plates, turned his attention to film and the burgeoning amateur market coming up with the first Kodak camera in 1888. This relatively small rectangular box was suitable for hand-holding and came with a 100-exposure roll. When all the exposures were made, the whole camera was sent back to Rochester, New York for developing and printing, then returned to the customer with a new roll of film.