11 tech innovations that refocused photography

Inventions that tore up the rulebook


Taking a photo and then posting it online for everyone to see just wouldn't be possible without someone coming up with these inventions first.

1. Silver halides

In this instant digital age, it's easy to forget that taking a photo used to be a long-winded process - photo pioneer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce once spent eight hours taking the first permanent picture.

The key to taking a photo and then keeping it lie in the unique properties of silver, and its sensitivity to light. Modern photographic films rely on silver halides, a combination of silver with halogens (bromine, chlorine and iodine) that are suspended in a gelatin-based emulsion. This magic formula offers fast exposure times, high light sensitivity and stability.

fujifilm provia

2. Flash

Given that a key requisite of photography is exposure to light, the invention of flash guns was pretty much a necessity, especially if you wanted to shoot indoors. The first indoor photos were captured using limelight and electric arc lights, but photographers quickly switched to alternatives. These included magnesium, which let out the characteristic flash, along with a lot of smoke and ash. The first modern flash using a bulb appeared in 1927.

canon speedlite

3. SLRs

First invented in 1884, the Single Lens Reflex camera uses a system of mirrors between the viewfinder and the lens to give you a true picture of what your photo will look like. Popularised in the 1930s with the first 35mm models, SLRs have given rise to a whole host of photography innovations, from auto focus to through-the-lens metering (TTL).

nikon d3

4. Auto focus

First developed by Leitz in the late 1970s, auto focus uses a series of sensors inside the camera lens to analyse a scene and determine which areas should be sharp - saving you the bother of using the lens ring to focus manually.

Modern Auto Focus systems are surprisingly sophisticated, using complex algorithms to focus on many objects within a frame, even if they are moving. Face detection and smile detection are just two innovations that are a result of the development of auto focus tech.

sony dslr a380

5. The Polaroid instant camera

If photography is all about the now - getting instant access to your photos and then sharing them, maybe it's Polaroid we have to thank. From 1947 onwards it gave us exactly that, enabling generations of party goers and bedroom lotharios the freedom to see their snaps without the embarrassment or hassle of sending them off to a photolab. Ironically the arrival of digital cameras pretty much killed off Polaroid, although its now going through a bit of a renaissance.

polaroid 300 analogue instant camera

6. The digital camera

The biggest game-changing innovations take technical advances - like those outlined above - and them wrap them up into a convenient, user-friendly package. Which is what the digital camera does. Best of all, it's freed us from one of the biggest bugbears of photography: buying, using and then developing film only to see big chunks of your money and time go to waste if you got it wrong. Today, you can rattle off hundreds of shots and instantly review each one - making it easier to learn from your mistakes, while also leaving you free to experiment.

digital camera

7. Adobe Photoshop

Propagandists, politicians and publishers have been manipulating photographs since Abraham Lincoln's head appeared on John Calhoun's body in 1860, but now anyone can do it, thanks in large part to Adobe Photoshop. Originally developed for the Apple Macintosh II, Photoshop is just as much a part of a photographer's toolkit as the camera, flash and tripod. The latest version for Mac and Windows includes tons of tools for tweaking your snaps, although it can be all too easy to

take things too far.


8. Image sensors

Film camera enthusiasts are commonly greeted with a mixture of pity and derision, chiefly because digital photography is so ubiquitous - from pro-level DSLRs down to the crappy versions found in most mobile phones.

It's all due to the development of the image sensor, a piece of circuitry that processes light and converts it into an image without the need for film, silver halides or nasty chemical processes – a technology that was first used as far back as 1951. Today many cameras use CMOS image sensors rather than CCDs because they're cheaper and easier to make, as well as being a lot less power-hungry.

canon cmos image sensor

9. Lithium-ion batteries

Thanks to technologies like auto focus and motorised film winders, cameras have always needed a little oomph to make picture-taking a breeze. But the arrival of consumer digital camera in the mid-1990s put power needs through the roof. Sony came to the rescue with its first lithium-ion batteries in 1991 – cells which pack a lot of power into a very compact size.

sony cybershot camera showing lithium ion battery

10. Solid-state storage

When the first consumer consumer digital snappers appeared in the '90s, makers came up with all kinds of ways to store the resulting image files - from floppy disks to microdrives. Even then flash memory cards emerged the clear winners, even though they offered limited storage and cost a bomb to buy. Nearly two decades on and things have certainly changed - you can pick up most cards around £20 or less, although the price of SanDisk's Extreme Pro 64GB may still make your eyes water.

sandisk extreme pro 64gb compact flash card

11. The internet

From Facebook to Flickr, it seems we now have an insatiable desire to document every minutes of our lives and then stick the results up online - often for complete strangers to see. None of this would be possible, of course, it it wasn't for the internet, the World Wide Web, computers, integrated circuits, silicon...


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