Photographic equipment industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Over the decades since the photographic equipment industry’s beginnings during the nineteenth century, it has evolved from serving a small, exclusive group of professionals to supplying cameras to a vast population of amateur photographers and hobbyists.

The earliest photographic images and processes–the daguerreotype and the calotype–were developed in Europe during the early nineteenth century. These photographic images were captured on sensitized metal plates in a rather arduous procedure. To begin with, cameras were large and cumbersome, weighing as much as forty pounds. They were made of wood and had bellows for adjusting the lens made of leather or fabric. The plates used to record images were made of glass and consequently heavy and subject to breakage if not handled carefully.Photographic equipment industry

Chemicals used to develop photographs included collodion and silver nitrate, used to coat the glass plates, and the fixative required to render images permanent. The wet collodion process required that the glass plate, coated with the solution, be exposed to the image while still wet, because its light sensitivity was lost once the plate dried. Consequently, the plates had to be coated with the solution just moments before the picture was to be taken, and the development process had to take place immediately after exposure. This process required photographers to travel not only with their cameras but also with all the equipment and chemicals needed to prepare and process the plates, the equivalent of complete portable studios and darkrooms.

Late nineteenth century cameras came equipped with a single view lens, and they cost about $38 in 1896. For an extra $14 or $15, one could add an extra three-speed shutter to the apparatus, making it a fairly expensive device.

Early U.S. Companies

The Scovill Manufacturing Company and the American Optical Company made cameras during the 1880’s. Between 1893 and 1900, Rochester, New York, was considered America’s optical center. Many camera manufacturing companies were established there, including Rochester Optical, Rochester Camera, Ray Camera, Monroe Camera, Century, and Seneca. By 1900, the Western Camera Manufacturing Company was operating in Chicago. Several older companies went out of business or merged by 1900. By 1887, George Eastman, GeorgeEastman, a young businessman in New York, developed a camera that used paper film instead of the wet collodion process. He introduced his first Kodak camera in 1888. Eastman switched to a more durable celluloid film in 1889, and by 1896, he had sold one hundred cameras. By the beginning of the twentieth century, his company was making several models of low-priced box and folding cameras that amateurs could use and enjoy.

Eastman’s first camera, the KodakKodak, was a box-style camera with a fixed-focus lens and a single shutter speed. It sold for $15. It came preloaded with enough film to take one hundred pictures. Once all one hundred exposures were taken, the camera had to be sent back to the factory, along with a $10 processing fee. There, the film was developed, prints were made, the camera was reloaded, and the prints and camera were returned to the customer. (This process was revived in modified form with the advent of single-use or disposable cameras that enjoyed popularity during the 1990’s and the early twenty-first century.)

Early Twentieth Century Innovations

In 1901, Eastman introduced the Kodak Brownie, which sold for between 25 cents and $1.00, making it affordable for practically everyone. The Brownie was a square camera made at first of wood, metal, or leather; after 1930, Brownies were of plastic construction. They were extremely simple to use, allowing amateur photographers merely to point and shoot. Unlike the earlier Kodak camera, however, the Brownie required customers to purchase film separately and load it into the camera themselves. After the film had been exposed, customers would unload it and send it to the Kodak factory, where it was processed and the prints were mailed back.

A photographer holds a large-format camera in 1914.

(Library of Congress)

Eastman’s slogan for the popular Brownie was “You press the button, we do the rest.” From a business point of view, the Brownie increased the amount of money Eastman’s customers could spend by making it possible for them to purchase and expose multiple rolls of film at once. Owners of the earlier Kodak camera temporarily lost the use of the camera whenever they sent it to the processing plant.

Thirty-five millimeter (mm) film for use in still cameras became popular during the mid-1920’s after a German, Oskar Barnack, designed the LeicaLeica, a camera that used 35mm film. American companies soon came up with their own versions of the 35mm camera, including the Simplex and the Tourist. The small size of 35mm cameras and their ability to take up to thirty-six exposures in fairly rapid succession made them extremely popular among serious photographers. Thirty-five millimeter cameras were more expensive than other cameras on the market, however. Even Kodak’s Retina I, introduced in 1938, was too expensive for the average consumer. In 1939, the more affordable Argus cameras came on the market, and the popularity of the 35mm camera remained very high into the 1960’s. Argus sold thirty thousand of its low-cost (around $12.50) cameras in their first week on the market. The Argus Model C3 was the best-selling 35mm camera in the world for thirty years.

It became easier to take pictures in a broader array of settings in 1930, when flashbulbs were developed. Previously, a dangerous flash powder was used when there was insufficient natural light. Flash powder was made from the waxy spores of club moss, a substance called lycopodium powder. Quite flammable, it was also used in fireworks. Even professional photographers had to handle flash powder with extreme caution. Flashbulbs by contrast were small glass globes containing an illuminant, a magnesium-coated wire, that, when set off, created a bright flash sufficient to light photographic subjects. The advent of the flashbulb was thus a boon to all photographers, professional and amateur. General Electric produced a popular version of the flashbulb, which it named the Sashalite. Flash photography increased the popularity of the hobby by making it possible to take snapshots almost anywhere.

Kodak started marketing color film in 1935, and a new era of photography began. Kodacolor film increased the realism of snapshots. Color film relieved professional portrait photographers of the need to hand-tint their pictures; the film produced more natural skin tones and other colors than could be achieved with tinting.

American scientist Edwin Land, EdwinLand developed a process of instant photography during the 1940’s. He made a camera, the PolaroidPolaroid, that could develop black-and-white pictures within minutes of their exposure. The film packs used in the camera contained the chemicals needed to develop the pictures; the camera started the development process and ejected pictures on which images then gradually emerged. The instamatic camera was an immediate success. Not only was it easy to use, but it also provided instant gratification. The drawback of the instamatic process was that it lacked a negative, so only one copy of a photograph could be made. When color snapshots began to dominate the field, Polaroid developed instant color pictures in 1963.

Industry-Changing Innovations

Easy-to-use cameras were a boon to the photographic equipment industry. Cameras were inexpensive, disposable, instamatic, and capable of taking high-speed action shots or close-up shots of distant subjects. Cameras became popular gifts for recipients of all ages, and the wide spectrum of quality and features resulted in cameras coming at many different price points. With the surge in camera users, there was a concomitant growth in the photo finishing industry, which processed the thousands of rolls of film being exposed. The laboratories that processed film restructured their facilities to adopt assembly-line methods of processing. It became possible to move two hundred to five hundred feet of roll film on racks through huge tanks full of developing chemicals, producing two thousand to three thousand finished prints per hour.

Eventually, however, cameras stopped using film, as the industry transitioned from analog to digital photography. The electronic camera had preceded the digital camera in 1972, signaling the eventual loss of favor of film cameras, but it was nearly twenty-five years before a consumer-friendly, relatively inexpensive camera incorporating digital technology came on the market. When it did, the need for film was greatly reduced.

Photographic companies adjusted. Computer industry;digital photographyKodak eventually joined with the computer company Microsoft in an arrangement that allowed its digital cameras to transfer their images to compatible computers for printing and e-mailing. In addition to being stand-alone devices, cameras began to be incorporated into other digital devices, especially cell phones, and these devices’ manufacturers also made compatibility arrangements to ensure that users could print or share photographs taken with such cameras.

Digital cameras, unlike conventional analog cameras, translate visual information into a digital language and store the resulting images electronically. To accomplish this, they incorporate computer technology. Conventional cameras, by contrast, require chemical and mechanical processes to operate. Some people consider their picture quality to be superior to that of digital cameras, but the ease and convenience of the latter have made digital cameras more popular than analog cameras. Prices of both conventional and digital cameras have dropped sufficiently for photography to remain a widely enjoyed pastime. Argus, for example, manufactures some of the market’s lowest-priced models with color liquid crystal display (LCD) screens and sells digital cameras for less than $50.

The instant camera business has suffered from the advent of digital technology. In 2008, the Polaroid Company, which was devoted primarily to self-developing film cameras, closed down factories in Massachusetts, Mexico, and the Netherlands and eliminated more than four hundred jobs, as its instamatic cameras lost popularity to digital cameras. The company ceased production of film cameras altogether, and after years of successful marketing–with its sales peaking in 1991 at nearly $3 billion–it shifted its focus to digital photography. Polaroid developed an eight-ounce photograph printer that can almost fit into the palm of one’s hand and can print pictures from digital cameras.

Digital cameras’ capacity to take and store a large number of pictures has increased the growth of online services that can create and share online photo albums. These services store photographs online, where a photographer can access them from any Internet-enabled computer, share them with friends and family, or publish them publicly for anyone to see. Such services often allow viewers to see and download digital images for free, but they charge to print and ship physical copies of photographs, either as individual prints, as books, or incorporated into novelty gift items such as mugs. The services will also ship compact discs-read only memory (CD-ROMs) or digital versatile discs (DVDs) full of photographs to consumers. The American consumer’s involvement with photography seems only to grow, and businesses continue to find new ways to profit from it.

Further Reading
  • ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography. 6th ed. New York: Allworth Press, 2001. More than twenty industry experts discuss pricing, using electronic technology, standard practices in stock and assignment photography, and financial tips. Clarifies accepted business standards.
  • Jenkins, Reese V. Images and Enterprises: Technology and the American Photographic Industry, 1839-1925. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Explores business, technical, and social factors influencing the photography industry from 1839 to 1925. Eastman’s impact on amateur photography is discussed.
  • Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. 2d ed. Columbus, Ohio: Prentice Hall, 2006. Discusses the historical, social, and economic development of photography from its origins before the nineteenth century.
  • Moran, Barbara. “The Preacher Who Beat Eastman Kodak.” American Heritage of Invention and Technology Magazine, Fall, 2001, 44-51. Recounts a patent battle between George Eastman and a minister over flexible film technology.
  • Wensberg, Peter C. Land’s Polaroid: A Company and the Man Who Invented It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Biography of Edwin Land presents behind-the-scenes activities as the company is formed and managed. The Eastman Kodak attempt to usurp the instant photo effort is given attention.
  • Zimberoff, Tom. Photography: Focus on Profit. New York: Allworth Press, 2002. Discusses the requirements for successfully operating a profitable photography business, including required equipment, business management, and accounting practices.

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