A Brief History of the Photographic Lens
The Lens Before the Camera
The first experiments with lenses are ancient, often attributed to an Arabian scientist named Abu Ali Hasan. Hasan lived more than 1,000 years ago, between 965 AD and 1040 AD. In his experiment, he looked through a glass sphere, noting how the shape of the sphere itself changed what he was looking at. Though this experiment is primitive by today’s standards, it was considered a lens nonetheless.
Hasan’s experiments led to more experiments with optics and by the 1500s, it was well known by researchers that if you applied an aperture to a lens, the things you would see through that lens would be higher quality. At the time, however, scientists were unaware of why this was. It was only later discovered that an aperture helps to prevent distortion.
The next major development to photographic lenses also came in the 1500s with the camera obscura. The camera obscura was essentially a large room with a lens in one wall. As light would shine through that lens, an image of whatever was before the lens was projected onto the wall. Developers of the camera obscura refined lens designs, creating such things as the biconvex lens. A biconvex lens is simply a glass element that curves outward on each side. Obscura designers, vintage engraving.Obscura designers, vintage engraved illustration. Industrial encyclopedia E.-O. Lami - 1875.
Photography is Born and the Lens Evolves
The very first camera lens, as we would know it today, was invented by the maker of the first camera, Charles Chevalier. This was shortly after Louis Daguerre invented photography in 1839. Chevalier’s lens was an achromatic landscape lens — basically, a lens with two elements that reduce chromatic aberration. This lens had two apertures only, f/14 and f/15 and in order for it to work, exposure times needed to be incredibly long, on the order of hours or days.
Lens produced and designed by Charles Chevalier in 1840 (Museo Nicéphore Niépce)
The Lens Undergoes Rapid Development
From 1839 on, the photographic lens underwent a transformation. In 1840, Chevalier developed the world’s first variable focus lens, specifically for portraiture. This lens sported an aperture of f/6, requiring shorter exposure times. This design was shared among the newly born photographic community and Max Petzval developed an even better portrait lens, also in 1840. This lens was made by Voigtlander.
After these came lenses like the panoramic lens, which was developed by Thomas Sutton, the globe lens, by Charles Harrison and the Orthoskop, developed by Petzval. For the next 100 years, lenses such as these would be developed and improved upon or scrapped depending on the faults or strengths of each.
Selectable apertures were first invented in 1858 by John Waterhouse. Unlike today’s aperture stops, the Waterhouse stops had no adjustable ring. Instead, to change the aperture, photographers used brass plates with holes of different sizes, changing plates between shots to adjust the aperture. It took about 30 years for this innovation to become the new standard — it was the 1880s when photographers began to realize that aperture affected the image’s depth of field and therefore, depth of field could be used to create various effects.
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