Inventive Genius: Single Lens Reflex Camera
FOR ENGLISHMAN Thomas Sutton, it was a heady detour from architecture that led him to the invention of a process that led to the development of the single lens reflex (SLR) camera,
Sutton was born on September 22,
1819 in Kensington, London.
He studied architecture before attending Caius College in Cambridge, and graduated in 1846 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Photography first entered the young man’s life in 1841 when he posed for a daguerreotype portrait in Antoine Claudet’s famous studio. Claudet is believed to have encouraged Sutton to contemplate photography as a vocation. A short time later, he became acquainted with a daguerreotypist in Jersey, and decided to experiment with photography, but his first efforts were hardly encouraging.
During the 1850s, while travelling through Switzerland and Italy with his wife and young son, Mr. Sutton met photographers Frederic Flacheron and Robert MacPherson, who would further educate him on the calotype process.
He learned the albumen-on-glass technique from MacPherson and the wet-paper technique from Flacheron. After comparing both, he found the paper negative process more to his liking.
In 1854, Mr. Sutton wrote a letter that expressed his support of albumen as opposed to collodion negatives.
During the late 1850s, Mr. Sutton received a patent for the single lens reflex plate camera and wrote several books on photography, including the Dictionary of Photography, first published in 1858. The following year, Sutton invented the first wide-angle lens’ panoramic camera.
The SLR has become the universal standard for today’s professional and serious amateur photographers. But where did this highly successful camera design come from, and what turned the SLR into the success that it is today?
While it may come as a surprise, the first SLR camera didn’t have the kind of viewfinder we use today! It was built in Hungary in 1948, and resembled a rangefinder camera, using an intricate system of mirrors to project the image onto a small viewfinder.
In 1949, Zeiss built on this design, launching the first SLR with a pentaprism viewfinder. Despite their utility relative to rangefinder or large-format cameras, these SLRs weren’t perfect, as they lacked features that even film SLR users of the 70’s would take for granted.
And while most early SLRs originated in Europe, in later years much optical innovation would actually take place in Japan by a company founded in 1919, known as Asahi Optical.
Asahi Optical Company was the first to introduce many of the features that are common in SLRs as we know them today. In 1952, they launched the first-ever Japanese SLR, known as the Asahiflex, which featured an eye-level viewfinder.
The modern-day giants of photography, Canon and Nikon, followed in the footsteps of Pentax, each launching their first SLRs (the Canonflex and Nikon F, respectively) in 1959.
While the Canonflex seemed to be two steps behind the competition, the Nikon F—which employed all of the features of the Pentax—was targeted at professionals, and demonstrated the superiority of the SLR, as well as the high quality of Japanese camera design. For the next 40 years, the SLR would be the camera of choice for professional photographers.