The History of 35mm Still Photography Cameras

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The History of 35mm Still Photography Cameras
35mm film cameras revolutionised still photography. (camera image by Vladislav Gajic from

35mm film cameras are the most popular and widely used film cameras in the world. The measurement of 35mm refers to the width of the film that the camera takes, rather than any dimension on the actual camera. Initially developed for use in moving image cameras, it was adapted for still photography at the start of the 20th century and has remained popular.


The first 35mm film stock was developed for shooting motion pictures and remains the most commonly used film stock for shooting cinematic releases. Using film given to them by George Eastman, the founder of the Kodak company, William Dickson and Thomas Edison adapted it for use in movie cameras in 1892. While other systems over subsequent decades saw the invention of other gauges of stock, the 35mm version remained the preferred choice and was adopted as a standard gauge internationally in 1909.

Development For Still Photography

Oskar Barnack was a German engineer specialising in optical devices. He was also a keen amateur photographer who, hampered by the heavy camera equipment of the day and his poor health, set about inventing a small, portable still film camera. In 1913, he became the chief of development at the German camera company Leitz and began making prototypes of the 35mm camera. Because of World War I, the company began marketing the first 35mm portable camera in 1925, calling it the Leica (a combination of "Leitz" and "Camera").


What made the invention of the 35mm camera and its attendant film stock so revolutionary was its compact size and thus its portability. Barnack's designs incorporated the ability for a small area of the light-sensitive film to be exposed in capturing the image (a "frame" on a roll of film), the negative from which a larger positive image could be produced in a darkroom. This is among the most important developments in photographic history, as cameras could be taken anywhere easily (e.g., into war zones) and were more affordable, allowing anyone to take up photography.


Leitz remained the only producer of 35mm cameras for 10 years after the launch of the Leica. This meant that their equipment was still comparatively expensive. In 1936, the first American-made 35mm camera was produced by the Argus company, enabling American consumers to afford the new technology. It was after this development that Kodak, the biggest name in camera film and equipment, began producing their own 35mm cameras, having previously concentrated on medium-sized film formats. The lower cost of producing 35mm cameras combined with Kodak's reputation and national distribution capabilities accelerated the spread of the 35mm camera. Other notable producers are Olympus, Canon and Pentax in Japan.

35mm Vs. Digital

Since the 1980s, digital cameras have become increasingly sophisticated and more widely available. They enable the photographer to transfer images onto computers and also to be able to see the result of their picture-taking immediately on an in-built screen, rather than having to wait for a 35mm film to be developed. Digital cameras have had a huge impact on modern photography. However, fears that it could spark the death of the 35mm camera appear to have been unfounded. Many professional photographers, such as Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson, still prefer to use the 35mm. For them it remains truer to the chance element that film photography originally entailed, the unique play of light an shadow and captured by the opening of the shutter, being less open to post-development manipulation. 35mm and digital cameras offer different effects and possibilities and continue to co-exist.

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