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History of (d)SLR

The year was 1975 when I was browsing small dusty workshop located next to the garage within our house backyard. It was perfect combination, I was about to turn 7 years old, eager to explore the darkest corner of my childhood realm and the dark workshop was the most mysterious chamber in our entire family estate, no bigger than four cubic meters occupied with heavy and old greenish oak cabinet with couple of drawers and compartments filled with tons of different tools, mechanical devices and various interesting stuff I didn't know their origin and purpose. It was, more or less, the year when I started to break things in order to find out what was inside or to find how something works, foolishly believing that I would be perfectly able to put things together back.

Well, from this point of view in time, I can't remember if there was at least one mechanical device I "inspected" in such manner that I successfully restored after unscrewing all the bolts and junctures or by simply breaking the metal hood. One thing is for sure though. What I found that summer morning in the workshop I definitely never managed to restore. I simply succeeded to dismantle old thing beyond any possibility for repair. But the knowledge I gain from what I found inside was priceless. It was something I never saw before. When I broke hard metal hood of an old binocular I found hidden in one old bag stored in the old oak, at first glance I thought I found a treasure. Two shiny, perfectly aligned and beautifully shaped objects smiled at me from the inside of the optical instrument. I was too young to understand what was their purpose but in a following days I learned everything about it. That very day I discovered a prism. Two of them.

Needless to say I instantly became attached with my newest discovery to the point that I kept them with me all the time. I was carrying them to the school and bragging around with their almost magical abilities of bending light in different directions. Well, I wasn't any different from any other kid at that age. Only in this case with a little twist. Guess what the twist is? I still have one of them (above photo).

Leica IIIa, rangefinder camera 1935-38 (responsible for the kiss photo**)

After almost 40 years, one prism survived and in more or less expected shape after four decades, still playing with photons the same as years before. But this is not the end of the story about this particular prism. The history of the little thing goes even more in the past. Actually this binocular belonged to my grandfather who brought it directly from the World War II. Some 30 years before I found it hidden in old cabinet, my grandfather was experiencing final year of his captivity in one of those German camps for military personnel imprisoned back in the year of 1941. After German capitulation he was traveling half an Europe on foot, trying to find his way home carrying this binoculars with him. Sometimes, I wonder what exactly little prism saw in these turbulent years changing who knows how many owners during the war and how many untold stories are lost forever and hidden in little crystals now perhaps more than 80 years old.

But to get back to the title story, basically technology behind the acronym is connected to the camera's solution of how photographer's eye is monitoring shooting object. In the history of photo cameras, way back in 19th century, first professional cameras were designed with two objective lenses, perfectly aligned and with same focal length, one for taking the light to the photographic film and the other toward the viewfinder. Single lens system was natural step forward where mirror-prism system mounted between lens and film forced light to make couple of sharp turns and to end directly to the viewfinder. The result is obvious, framed image shown in front of you eye is the one forming the final picture after mirror is lifted up and photographic film is lit during desired exposure time. What is also obvious is that if objective lens, mirror, pentaprism and eyepiece are manufactured with more quality, the better image you see in viewfinder before final moment of triggering shutter mechanism. The other non-optical part of analog era SLR photo cameras directly responsible for the quality of final product is of course sensitivity of photographic film as well as quality of embedded microscopically small light-sensitive silver based crystals responsible for contrast and resolution of the film. Back than in analog era, photographing process didn't end by clicking the button. The film needed to be chemically developed and with another optical/chemical process of illumination the negative taken images are finally transferred to the photo paper.

If you were photo enthusiast back then in seventies and eighties of previous century like my father was you might imagine that having a proper cameras along with photo laboratory with dark room was not very cheap hobby. But thousands of images were worth all the effort. My favorite memories from those days were all connected to spending hours in dark photo room with red light producing pictures on paper. The moment of appearing the image on the surface of photo paper submerged in a dilute solution following by washing the photograph with fixer liquid and water was my favorite part. I was typically in charge for these final steps in the process along with hanging wet photos for final drying. In this part of Europe in those times best amateurish and semi-professional cameras and all the equipment needed for photo laboratory for hobbyists with all the chemicals and supporting devices came from East Germany and Russia. My father owned couple of those days cameras and the one I remember the most was Zenit E/EM (pictured to the left), manufactured couple of years before Olympics in Moscow 1980. Zenit was made by KMZ (Красногорский завод), leading Russian enterprises in the area of optical and electro-optical engineering and you would be amazed how nice photos this little fellow made 25-30 years ago.

In conclusion, after little history and technicalities, in final chapter of this blog post, let's talk a little about digital SRLs. Basically, optical systems used in old cameras are the same. Two things changed though. Quality of manufacturing all optical parts in nowadays photo cameras are far advanced than before and all aspects of final image increased to the edge. There is a software term in early digital era called WYSIWYG, meaning "What You See Is what You Get" initially referred to printing documents looking the same as seen on display of your computer. I guess photo industry today reached the same goal and with not even too expensive lenses and moderate dSLR cameras, final photos reached the quality of the image appearing in viewfinders or the one seen with your naked eye. Second major change is in simple fact that all the chemical industry and paper photos are replaced by pure digital systems. Film is removed by light sensor in form of electronic chip filled with matrix of millions of tiny analog to digital converter dots capable of instantly saving image into fast memory card. Perhaps the third change is the fact that each dSLR device today is also a specialized computer and comparing to old systems they are now able to perform various post-processing procedures, to assist you with intelligent zooming, face recognition, adapting to shooting conditions, filming entire video clips and maintain detailed database of taken images.

Nikon D5200 dSLR and Zenit EM SLR*

Considering all the features of one dSLR I can surely say that this one device replaces my father's entire environment, from the camera through darkroom for developing photographs till the bulk photo albums where final photos are stored. And all that with smaller price and what's more important with far more space for creativity and for taking photos in professional manner. To me, today's worldwide market is taken by two big players, Canon and Nikon, Japanese multinational corporations, both specialized in the manufacture of imaging and optical products especially in the market of digital SLR cameras. It wasn't easy to choose one of their models and I took several days of browsing stores and reading about all the specifications, but eventually chose Nikon D5200 that fits all the requests and budget I had in my mind.

At the very end let's speculate a little of how the future of photo cameras might look like. Will it be further development and improvement in optical and digital systems or with upcoming ultimate speed of future computer circuits or with introduced quantum computers digital system will "evolve back" to the analog world it remains to be seen. One thing is for sure though, miniaturization of optical systems is still not possible by simple fact that more photons you get in the sensor the better image is saved and it this case size really matters.




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