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history of the camera
roll film camera
single lens reflex camera
lens reflex
modern invention
camera obscura
magical device
evil spirits
magic lantern
A Short History Of The Camera - The Rise Of The Single Lens Reflex (slr)
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A Short History Of the Camera  -  The Rise Of the Single Lens Reflex (slr)

The single lens reflex camera is by no means a modern invention, at least in concept. Its prototypes span most of the history of the camera. The SLR is a photographic version of the magic lantern - the famous Renaissance instrument that helped keep folks in check, producing 'marauding evil spirits' during theatrical presentations of High Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

This article is an overview of these simple devices which literally brought the world of the camera and photography to millions of people during the reign of the roll film camera.

A What is a Single Lens Reflex Camera, or an SLR?

The magic lantern is the simplest representation of a single lens reflex camera. In order to qualify as one, the camera obscura, must be fitted with a lens, and always have a mirror equipped inside allowing the image to be reflected by the mirror inside the box, and projecting the light image to a desired surface outside.

Modern SLRs are far more sophisticated, having precision shutter mechanisms, timers, prisms and a more elaborate array of optics, yet still qualifying as a single lens reflex camera. They always have a viewfinder, which may be independent of the main path where the light enters the camera and reflected by mirrors and prisms to the film. Today we have digital versions of the SLR, simply known as a digital single lens reflex...or a DSLR. These cameras, though qualifying as an SLR, are designed and built quite differently.

The SLR rapidly gained in popularity in the late 1940s and continued so until the digital versions began to emerge.

Truly a Magical Device, the Magic Lantern Debuts as an Artist's Tool.

The early SLRs were used for theatrical presentations, as noted above. Their original usage was for projecting an image to a translucent screen where an artist could trace out the image, producing an accurately rendered. The earliest of such devices were not true SLRs because they lacked the lens, instead having a simple pinhole through which light passed.

The device was further perfected with the needs of the theatrical industry on the rise for more realistic effects. The early SLRs were the perfect solution when fitted with a slot in which slides were inserted. On these slides were the evil spirits the camera personnel would manipulate. With a little bit of smoke or steam on the stage, these images could keep the audience under its spell.

The magic lantern version of the SLR remained in use in theatre well into the 19th century until the advent of modern photography, which annihilated the stage play production industry in a short time.

SLR Cameras of the 20th Century

The development of the SLR, of course, began with the magic lanterns. Albeit, the SLR, as a photographic camera was first patented in the UK in 1861 and later in the US, in 1884. Though these are 19th century developments, they are the forerunners of our modern SLRs.

Simple in design, as more features were added to them, the SLR during the early 20th century were terribly complicated to use. Consequently, these were not for general use though intended to be so. They were very hard to use and the failure rate was high amongst amateurs trying to use them. It wouldn't be until the 1960s when optical advancements brought about great improvements to the camera.

As the camera became more sophisticated but easier to use, its popularity vastly increased. During the 1970s, electronics were added into the works, creating a mass market for the devices and putting the camera into the hands of many, and anyone with an average intelligence could easily operate one. In spite of digitization and the advent of the computer, SLRs continue to be the low-cost camera of choice, and having evolved into the modern "throw-aways" that we have in department, convenience and pharmacy stores targeted for the quick weekend outings and tourism.

Even with the advent of the digital versions of the SLRs, the better-made, film-based ones still remain popular amongst photography amateurs and are still a healthy market, in spite of the next emerging generation of high definition sports cameras now available.

To Recap the Above:

  • Adding a lens to the camera obscura with projection mirrors, and we now have a primitive single lens reflex camera, or an SLR.
  • Today’s modern SLRs are far advanced with precision shutter systems, optical settings and user-interface, else they share the primitive characteristics as above.
  • [Sidenote:] The creation of innumerable award-winning images, the earliest of these, a large selection of drawings and paintings that have been optically enhanced during the initial sketches.
  • At the advent of photography, the days of magic lantern productions had its days numbered.
  • The early prototypes of the modern SLR were not practical for mass marketing. They were complicated and very hard to use.
  • From the 1970s to the digital age, SLR cameras were perfected and enjoyed unprecedented success amongst photography enthusiasts.
  • The DSLR (digital single lense reflex) is a digital representation of the analogue of the older SLRs. They are currently dominating the current age in the history of the camera, but this too, is coming to pass.

There is a whole new generation of cameras on the market now which do not follow the design of the SLRs. They are indeed, a whole new concept in photography.


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