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History of the 35mm: The Original Compact Camera

Latest posts by Colleen Welsch (see all)

Whether we imagine a professional photographer at a photoshoot or a tourist on vacation, the image of a 35mm camera in now ubiquitous in our culture.

We take them for granted now, but compact 35mm cameras completely revolutionized photography and the way that we share information with one another.

Prior to the invention of the 35mm camera, photographers had to haul around heavy plate cameras. These cameras were large and inconvenient to bring to most locations. However, with the release of 35mm cameras, photographers could easily take pictures anywhere in the world.

These photographs could be shared with people all around the globe, allowing viewers to see distant lands in print for the first time ever.

Follow along as we visit the invention, rise, and fall of 35mm cameras in the 20th century.

Invention of 35mm Film & Early Models

American Tourist Multiple, circa 1913

American Tourist Multiple, circa 1913

35mm film became the standard of the motion picture industry in the late 19th century when William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, an employee of Thomas Edison, sliced 70mm Kodak film in half and spliced the ends together.

After the invention of 35mm film, many inventors tried to use the new film for still photography instead of motion pictures.

In 1908, a patent for a 35mm camera was issued to Leo, Audobard, and Baradat in England. However, this camera was never produced or sold.

The first 35mm camera to go into production was Jules Richard’s Homeos camera, which was sold between 1913 and 1920. However, very few Homeos cameras were produced during this time period and they never became very popular.

The first 35mm camera widely available to the public was the American Tourist Multiple, which was released in 1913.

The Tourist Multiple cost $175 in 1913, an equivalent to $4000 in modern United States dollars. Because of its high price point, the camera was not accessible for most people.

Related: The Polaroid Camera: The Story of Instant Photography

The Leica is Introduced

LEI0060 186 Leica I Sn.5193 1927 Originalzustand Front-2 FS-15

Leica 1927 © Kameraprojekt Graz 2015 / Wikimedia Commons / , via Wikimedia Commons

35mm cameras became popular with the release of the Leica I in 1925.

Oskar Barnack, a development engineer for Leitz, first created his compact 35mm in 1913 in order to use 35mm film for still photography rather than motion picture photography. However, production was delayed due to WWI.

By the time the Leica I was in production, there were several other 35mm cameras available on the market, but the Leica became the most popular by far.

The Leica and other 35mm cameras cemented 35mm film as the standard for high-end still photography cameras.

Early Leica camera are now considered to be highly collectible.

Learn more about why you should own an analog camera.

Explosion of Popularity

Argus C3 Camera

The Argus C3, courtesy of Flickr

Although the Leica sold well, 35mm camera and film were too expensive for most people until 1936, when the Argus A was introduced.

For the first time, would-be amateur photographers had access to a compact 35mm camera that could be taken anywhere. Because 35mm cameras were accessible to so many people, 35mm dominated the film market by the 1960’s and remains the most popular type of film today.

Improvements in Design

Kine Exakta 1 1936 02

Kine Exakta SLR camera, By Hans-Peter Scholz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Kodak released the first preloaded 35mm cassettes in 1934. Prior to the invention of preloaded cassettes, photographers had to load their own film into reusable cassettes in a dark room.

The pre-loaded cassettes allowed photographers to switch rolls of film on-the-go. Kodak’s preloaded cassettes were designed to work with the Leica and Zeiss Ikon Contax camera, as well as Kodak’s Retina I.

Kodak Retina Ia, y Michele M. F. from Milano, Italy (Retina Ia) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Kodak Retina line was enormously popular, and was in production until the late 1960’s.

Another improvement in the design of the 35mm camera was the invention of the single-lens reflex camera, or SLR.

An SLR camera uses the same lens for the image on the film as well as the viewfinder, allowing the user to accurately focus and frame the image using the viewfinder. In 1936 the first 35mm SLR camera, the Kine Exakta, was introduced to the public.

However, early SLR cameras had viewfinders that “blanked”, meaning the mirror jumped away from the optical path while the image was taken and returned when the film was wound.

While the mirror of the viewfinder was out of the optical path, the user could not see through the viewfinder. This changed with the invention of the instant-return mirror, which restored site through the viewfinder without the need to wind the film.

The first camera to have an instant-return mirror was Japan’s Asahi Pentax. The instant-return mirror helped to popularize 35mm SLR cameras because they made picture-taking easier and more convenient.

35mm Cameras Become the Standard

Nikon F SLR camera with NIKKOR-S Auto 1,4 f=5,8cm

Nikon F Model, By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, Nikon released their F model, which produced extremely high quality photos and encouraged professional photographers to finally switch over to the versatile 35mm format cameras.

By the 1970’s, interchangeable lens and point-and-shoot 35mm format cameras had become dominant in the marketplace.

The first single use cameras were released in the 1980’s. These “disposable” cameras came preloaded with 35mm film. They were inexpensive and allowed users to take photographs without the commitment of investing in a whole camera.

The 1980’s also saw the release of all-in-one processing and printing machines, which could be installed in pharmacies and grocery stores. This made it even easier for the general public to take photographs, as they no longer needed to go to a specialty photography store to have their film developed.

Digital Cameras & The Decline of 35mm Cameras

In the 1990’s, digital cameras began to enter the market. Since then, sales of all types of film have declined, though 35mm remains the most popular.

Although the majority of cameras produced today are digital, the 35mm camera still leaves a legacy. For example, digital image sensors in modern digital cameras are made to mimic the dimensions of the old 35mm format cameras.

35mm film cameras are still produced today, and they are still cool to collect especially by high-end manufacturers. Professional and amateur photographers alike prize 35mm film cameras for the rich quality of their images, which digital cameras cannot provide without the aid of post-editing.

The camera and photography has come along way since the days of plate cameras. 35mm format cameras revolutionized the photography world and brought photography to the masses.

Nowadays, most people have a camera in their phone within hand’s reach at all times, yet the 35mm camera still lives on as a popular tool for photographers to create beautiful images.