The History and Evolution of Camera Lenses

History of Camera Lenses

Lenses are one of the essential parts of photography and cinematography. Many say that your photography is as good as your lenses are. But did you ever wonder- how the concept of the lens came and who contributed to the improvement of lenses? Do you know that the history of lenses is older than the history of cameras? If you want to know the evolution of lenses, you have to go thousands of years back. Lenses have been around us for centuries, enabling us to see what we cannot with our bare eyes. Many people put their effort into the betterment of lenses, and it gets better and better as time goes.

The earliest concept of lenses developed thousands of years back, almost between 965 and 1040. The First known experiment was done by Abu Ali Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham, an Arabic scientist who observed the shape of an object changed when looked through a glass sphere. After that, Ibn AL-Haytham researched deep in the study of optical systems using spherical and parabolic mirrors. He also measured the magnification ability of a lens. His experiments paved the way for more studies on lenses in the upcoming centuries, and during the 1500s scientist who studied optics became well aware of the fact that the quality of vision through a lens can be improved further if an aperture is added to it, though the reason was still a mystery. Later on, scientists discovered the fact that aperture can reduce distortion, which results in a better view.

Another major innovation during the 1500s was the camera obscura which was basically a large room that had a lens mounted on a wall. This machine was capable of producing an image of an object positioned in front of the lens. The researchers of camera obscura also played a vital role in the development of lenses as they built a biconvex lens for the machine.

Obscura device. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Now, get down to photography lenses. In 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the first practical process of photography, known as the daguerreotype. This invention greatly influenced the history of camera lenses as it motivated Charles Chevalier to came up with an achromatic lens. The invention of Charles Chevalier didn’t stop there. In 1840, he invented the world’s first lens that features a variable focal length, made particularly for portraiture. However, Chevalier’s lenses needed a long exposure time, which made them difficult to use.

Later on, the work of Chevalier inspired Joseph Petzval to make the first portrait objective lens which had a focal length of 160mm. It was an improvement over the lens Chevalier invented in terms of speed and exposure time. In the next few years, the world saw the invention of several lenses like the panoramic lens which was introduced by Thomas Sutton. Then comes the globe lenses, which was essentially a wide-angle lens developed by Charles Harrison in cooperation with Joseph Schnitzer. The invention of the Orthoskop lense is also noteworthy, which was made by Petzval.

In 1858, John Waterhouse brought the notion of selectable aperture in lenses. Back in those days, there was no ring to adjust stops, rather, there were brass plates that contained holes of different sizes and these plates were used to change the aperture. During the second half of 18th century, the structure of lenses increasingly became complex as new inventions were reshaping the traditional lenses and packing them with new features.

The first zoom lens that was able to maintain almost sharp focus was introduced by Clile C. Allen in 1902. The first cinema to use Zoom lenses was a movie named “It” starring Clara Bow. After that, the first telephoto lens, called the Busch Bis-Telar, was developed in 1905. It had an aperture of 8. Until 1930, lenses were slowly evolving with small innovations and development efforts by many researchers. But then the time came when cameras were no longer limited to portraiture or science and became more widespread between both professional and amateur shooters. Besides, there were also various kinds of cameras, such as aerial cameras, movie cameras and many more. As the availability and usage of cameras rose, the demand for lenses also increased.

In 1931, Taylor & Hobson introduced the first inverted telephoto lens. It was a 35mm lens with an aperture of 2. These were all examples of glass lenses. But in 1934, the world saw the emerge of non-glass lenses. KGK Syndicate marketed the first plastic lens, named Perspex lens. The first lens made of acrylic was the Plexiglas lens which also comes into the market in 1934. These elements were so widely used during world war 2 that many thought glass lenses would go obsolete. The post-war period also witnessed the rise of new lens designs for using in motion pictures and Televisions. As Japan was devastated by the consequences of the war, it took some economic restructuring measures by investing more in the technological sector, and as a part of that measure, it started to make high-quality cameras, as well as lenses which form a market base for Japanese photography companies.

evaluation of camera lenses

After the 1950s, Kodak dominated the camera and lens market. In 1959, they came up with the world’s first camera with a plastic lens, the Brownie 44A. These cameras were so popular back then that Kodak was able to produce about 50 million Instamatic cameras with plastic lenses within the following decade. After 1970, Japanese companies started to gain a substantial amount market share of lenses around the world. Today, Companies like Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Tamron, Sigma, Sony produce lenses that are widely used all around the world. Lenses Today also include advanced features like wider aperture, stabilization, aberration control glass, and many more.

Lenses have a long history. A lot of people have contributed to the improvement of lenses to take them where they stand today. But the development process of lenses has not ended yet. Since more and more breakthroughs are coming up to contribute to the betterment of lenses. So, what changes would you like to see in future lenses? Let us know in the comment section.

Joe Pfeffer

Joe Pfeffer

What started off as just a dream for Joe Pfeffer, turned into his passion and livelihood. He started his career as a wildlife photographer and then transitioned into becoming a cinematographer. With a decade of raw on-the-field experience, Joe Pfeffer has all the technical knowledge about the ins and outs of cameras. Now, he uses his vast experience to educate others about photography.