Box cameras rely on the most basic form of photographic technology, utilizing a sealed rectangular container with a fixed focus lens on one end and film at the other. Early designs from the mid-1800s generally lacked any control over focus, aperture, or shutter speed.
Most box cameras came equipped with meniscus lenses, which are convex on the exterior and concave inside, and were sunk into the front panel. Box cameras frames were typically made of wood or metal, but later included detailed leather finishing or shiny Bakelite plastic.
Limitations of the box camera design made them best for daylight photography with subjects at an intermediate distance from the photographer. Yet because of their simplicity, box cameras introduced millions of amateurs to photography, and created the concept of the snapshot as we know it today.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented a box camera prototype while working from various camera obscura, or pinhole camera, designs in the 1820s. Others began creating their own versions of Niépce’s design, and by 1870, a model called Le Phobus was available for sale in France. Le Phobus was a wooden box camera without even a formal shutter—users simply removed the camera’s leather lenscap to begin exposures and re-covered it when they were finished.
Kodak developed the first roll-format film during the 1880s, which made the box camera much easier to use and came to dominate all subsequent camera designs. At the time, most box cameras included single plate exposures, which required the photographer to replace each negative after taking a photo, or a series of drop-plate exposures, in which a stack of plates or cut film were loaded into the camera and then removed after each exposure.
In 1892, S.W. Turner created the Bull’s Eye Camera, which featured film backed in black paper for loading in full daylight, along with a new exposure number that was visible to the user. Three years later, George Eastman bought Turner’s patent and continued to produce a version of this design as Kodak’s first Pocket Camera.
The Pocket Camera eventually relocated the interior film spools just beyond the lens mechanism, greatly decreasing the overall size. Kodak later made the camera even more compact...
In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie series, which would become the most successful box cameras in history. The renowned German company Zeiss Ikon updated this generic amateur format for its Box Tengor, giving users the choice of three apertures and focusing ranges.
During the 1920s, companies like Hako, Kodak, and Voigtländer marketed early versions of the twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera, which incorporated a second focusing lens attached to a viewfinder. This allowed photographers to better anticipate their shots, but because the two lenses had no linking mechanism, actual exposures varied widely from the initial preview.