Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Short History of Consumer Cameras in the US Since the 1970s

When I got into the photo business in the early 70s, 35mm and medium-format (120, 220, 620) were for professional photographers and serious amateurs. At the time, the dominant consumer cameras were Instamatics, which were instant-load cameras that took cartridge film. The first were 126; later came 110. Before the 1960’s, not every family had a camera; Instamatics’ ease of loading made photography much more mainstream. Family photography as we know it today came about in the late 1960’s. My dad had a Instamatic X45, which he loved.

126 film had negatives that were about the size of a 35mm negative, which was to say, negatives big enough to support good-sized enlargements. They were the first cameras to take flash cubes as opposed to flash bulbs, which made it possible to take four images in quick succession. Though the first 126 cameras were very simple, more complicated cameras came later, including the Kodak Retinas, which had interchangeable lenses.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Kodak was a marketing powerhouse, and one of the early adapters of personality-based marketing. 110 was a success from a marketing perspective, but because of the small size of the cameras, the film had to be quite narrow, which meant that the negatives were very small. Many people were frustrated by the marginal quality of images from 110—especially at sizes bigger than 4x6 or so.

35mm was originally for serious photographers, but the 35mm’s climb to dominance in the broader market was started by the Canon AE-1, and in particular, Canon’s Jimmy Connors advertising campaign. The camera was preprogrammed and fully automated. The pitch was something like, “the professionals use this, now you can too--professional quality images through automation.”

Kodak’s next innovation was disc film, in the early 1980s. The product launch was huge in advertising dollars, and there were attractions—especially the camera’s automation and its small size. However, the product had its liabilities--the image was too small to yield good prints. The film was color negative only, 15 exposure. It had to be loaded on a spindle and spun in chemistry to be developed.

APS stands for ‘Advanced Photo System’; it was a creation of a conglomerate of the major manufacturers of photo and photolab equipment (Kodak marketed it as ‘Advantix,’ Fuji Film as ‘Nexia,’ and Agfa as ‘Futura’). APS came out in the mid-1990’s, when photography was already anticipating the digital revolution; APS was marketed as a bridge to digital photography. In fact, the technology was not that different than that of standard analog photography. APS cameras were able to capture images of different aspect ratios--you could set your camera to ‘classic,’ ‘high-definition,’ or ‘panoramic.’ The film was a cartridge film, and it was possible to change film mid-roll.

From the 1990’s on, the emphasis in consumer photography came to be about producing better point-and-shoot cameras cheaper—and with more features for ease of use. Auto-load and auto-advance were both popular features. Eventually the trend culminated in single-use cameras, which made decent images available for very little more than the price of a roll of film.

The trend in late twentieth-century consumer photography was finding ways capture images more and more precisely at a lower and lower cost. By contrast, the return to film photography in the new millennium seems largely to be a “lo-fi revolution”—what is compelling about film to today’s photographers is largely the ways in which the image is captured imprecisely.


  1. 1) Kodak Retinas were manufactured starting in the 1930s
    2) 35mm was popular long before the Canon AE-1 arrived on the scene. Between 1938 & 1966 Argus manufactured 2 million+ 35mm cameras in Ann Arbor Michigan.
    3) If 110 was so terrible,why then was the Disc so popular?
    4) Holgas & Lomos aside most film photographers I know are using it for the INCREASE in resolution and color saturation not rendered digitally.

  2. Yes, the Argus C4 was a very popular camera way before the late 60s and 70s, and don't forget the millions of box cameras from the 40s and 50s too.


  3. yes, of course you are correct, j.ed..the 35mm retina was much earlier, but the 126 retina came along later to heighten the capabilities and make the drop-in load camera more appealing. perhaps for those who didn't want to bother learning to load a 35mm? the zeiss lens were/are incredible, and i think made the camera seem 'more legitimate'? it wasn't an inexpensive piece of gear in those days..and the accessories..megabucks!

    o yeah, the argus was/is a tank..squared edged and heavy. i dropped mine on my foot one time..the sharp square edge and weight of it felt made a memorable and lasting impact on me! i should get it out and run a roll through it..for old times sake..but i will wear shoes when i do so.

    i sold cameras in the 60's and 70's..but for the customers i dealt with, 35mm format never took off until it was popularized as: 'now anyone can do it like a pro'. i certainly related my sales increase to the popularity of jimmy connors and the hefty advertising canon put to into it. our sales of all 35mm slr cameras increased as a result. it sold something over 5 million units.

    honestly, my dad had a konica autoreflex camera that was just as automated and easier to use, but konica just never had the advertising and marketing to get their products in to the mass consumption market here in the states. in japan, they did very well, however.

    good question on the 110 vs disc. kodak was a giant back then, and had a huge advertising campaign using. i remember them using andy williams, his beautiful wife, and a big white dog to this day. they created some very emotion packed marketing. i think it was pretty leading edge for its time, and people connected with it. they created a demand for their consumer cameras, and their photographic paper.

    millions purchased the disc camera as a result..even though it was far from being a better mousetrap. as photofinishers, it was difficult.. new printers, processors, and ways of handling film. all plus dollars..largely for kodak. as a small photofinisher, it was easy to process in batches, and relatively fast to print. for the consumer, however, i saw so many disappointed faces when they reviewed their pictures/memories. shudder shudder. it took a while for it to fade, and they still pop up now and then today from the past...much to my chagrin.

    film.yes! i totally agree with you..there is just so much good information /detail / tonality available in film. digital has certainly come a long way in the last few years. in the hands of some people who know their camera and how to work seems okay. still, to continues to be something that just captures the essence of what we are striving to preserve. i guess it's all good, but for has the edge. in the last two years, the film base has swelled dramatically for our lab with both younger and older users coming in. i like it!

    yes, chris..there were millions of brownie box cameras sold. i had a 127 with a built in flash. it was light-creamed coffee colored. i really didn't consider it to be a box camera, since it didn't look like the original boxes manufactured for so many years. still, they were the beginning of roll film photography for the masses.

    my parents were children of the depression, and i am always amazed at how they documented the family gatherings and their lives. it was important to them.. even though they did not have much money. thank heavens, there was no 'delete' button. the roll film camera was a great innovation on many fronts..but to me, i give it credit for allowing us to have more family memories. what's better than that?

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