The Three Eras of Photography: Plate, Film, and Digital

Since their invention in the early 1800s cameras and photography have experienced three major eras: The plate era (film era), the digital era (digital era), and then again in the late 1800s. This article will give you a brief history about photography through the lenses of each era.

The Plate Era

Louis Daguerre presented the first photograph to the French Academy of Science on January 7, 1839. This was essentially a news conference. William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman, called a conference a few days later to announce that he had been taking photographs on paper for many years. The Plate Era of photography was born and thus began the controversy.

Glass was used to make negatives that could then be contact printed onto paper by 1851. The glass was then coated with a light sensitive emulsion in the darkroom and placed in plate holders. Finally, it was exposed to the camera. It took only minutes to develop the glass plates before the emulsion dried. This method worked well in controlled environments, such as a studio. One person coated the plates and another used the camera. Perhaps a third created the plates.

On-site, this was much more difficult and risky. Photographers of the early days traveled with a black tent, crates of glass plates (larger than 11×14 inches) and bottles of chemicals. They documented the country from the Civil War battlefields to Yellowstone National Park.

A new process in England was developed in 1867 that allowed plates to be coated in a factory before being sold to photographers. They didn’t have to be developed immediately, but could be returned to a darkroom to be developed and printed. This made it much easier to photograph on location or in travel.

The chemical stains inside and on the plates can be used to identify wet plate cameras or plate holders. Cameras made during the dry plate era were not exposed to chemicals and are generally clean inside. The 19th century was the “Plate Era” in photography, with wet plates, dry plates, and other processes like tintypes or ambrotypes.

Dry plates.
A Lancaster plate camera.

The Film Era

George Eastman, a Rochester-based dry plate manufacturer, invented a method and a machine to coat the photographic emulsion onto flexible materials in 1884. Although he designed and sold a roll-film adapter for plate cameras, he faced difficulties in the market as long rolls required special equipment and were more difficult to process than glass plates. The film was difficult to keep flat, which led to blurred images.

Eastman recognized that he needed a new system that was based on rolls of film. Eastman introduced “The Kodak,” a camera that was designed to work with roll film in 1888. The camera’s name is based on the sound it makes when exposure occurs. His slogan was “You press the button and we do the rest.”

The customer purchased the camera with enough film to take 100 photos. The customer then returned the camera to Kodak in Rochester, where it was processed and printed. The 100 prints were then printed on the film loaded onto the camera and returned to the customer.

The initial Kodak was $25, with developing, printing and reloading costs of $10. $25 would have been the equivalent to about $750 in 2022 dollars. $10 would have been about $300.

The customer could reload the next Kodak models and they came in short rolls with 8-12 exposures. The “Brownie,” a lower-priced Kodak, was introduced. By 1900, the world was “Kodaking” and the Eastman Kodak Company was the most prominent photography company for the entirety of the 20th Century.

The 20th century was known as the “Film Era”. Eastman Kodak was the leading supplier of paper, film and chemistry. The original Kodak launched amateur photography and spawned all branches of the photofinishing industry.

There were many sizes and quality levels of film cameras available in the 20th century. This was from 1900 to 2000. The Brownie, later Instamatic, was a low-priced roll film camera that allowed anyone to take photos of their family, friends, or travels. Film cameras from companies like Pentax, Pentax, Nikon, Pentax and Leica elevated photography to a whole new level. The introduction of Kodachrome color film in 1936 brought with it the standard 35mm film cassette, which allowed the same film can be used in all 35mm cameras.

Kodak had two distinct divisions during the golden age of film. One was for the consumer market, with films like Kodacolor and another professional division that produced film and paper for the pro-lab and professional markets. The Eastman Kodak Company, a chemical company with a product that was chemical-based, was the most basic.

Digital Era

A small group of scientists from Eastman Kodak started to experiment with electronics-based photography in the mid-1970s. This new way of storing digital images was not only for video but also for audio. The special back of a Nikon standard camera was used to store the files. Kodak began offering digital backs to 35mm cameras like Canons and Nikons in the 1990s. Management at Kodak, a chemical company, didn’t see digital photography as a viable business and, if they did see it, it was considered a threat for their core business of film and paper and chemicals.

It was real. Eastman Kodak was left behind by the digital age and ultimately went bankrupt. The failure of Kodak to transition to digital will continue to be a textbook case in business schools for many years.

Eastman Kodak’s vision problems left digital photography advances to companies that had been making precision cameras since the beginning and who were eager to distance themselves the the “Yellow Father” of Rochester. Sony and Panasonic, giant electronics companies that are accustomed to rapid technology developments and not tied to legacy film technology, were even more prepared.

The digital technology advanced rapidly and the prices dropped until digital photography was clearly superior to film. The year 2000 marked the tipping point for digital photography.

In 2002, the majority of major camera manufacturers sold 5-megapixel cameras for between $1,000 and $1,500. These cameras were affordable for serious photographers who wanted to use Adobe Photoshop and all the other conveniences of digital photography.

Some people predicted that digital cameras would need to have 30-megapixels in order to match 35mm film. It seemed impossible to imagine 1-megapixel cameras at the time. Digital cameras only require 10-megapixels, as they use the same chip to capture all three colors.

This prediction also missed the fact film is always at minimum a second-generation image. Negative to print. A projection lens can even degrade a projected slide. Digital images are always the first generation by definition. Even if copied, 35mm resolution is equal to 5MP cameras. Medium format film quality can easily be surpassed by cameras in the 12–15 megapixel range.

The history of photography is perfectly incorporated into the calendar, from the 19th century plate era through the 20th century film era and on to the 21st century digital era. Anyone who is alive to see the 22nd Century and what it might look like for the imaging industry will be amazed at the possibilities.

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