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Photography’s primary types of cameras

Since the advent of photography more than 200 years ago, there are still only a few basic styles of cameras. To be sure, digital has added a couple of new styles, but the overall basic operation of a camera hasn’t changed that much and still requires a human being to take the photo. Otherwise, what’s the point?

As you read the descriptions below, keep in mind that certain cameras work best in certain situations, despite what camera makers tell us.


This is one of the oldest and simplest type of cameras. Despite efforts to bring it into the digital era, most who use a view camera still use film and a handheld light meter.

These cameras usually have traditional bellows, although when using a wide-angle lens, bag bellows are preferred.

A view camera offers incredible flexibility when it comes to correcting for perspective or altering the focus plane.

There are some limitations. It’s a slow process, which isn’t a bad thing. And the number of photos that you can take usually is limited by the number of film holders that you can carry at one time.

The view on the ground-glass screen is laterally reversed and inverted, and you have to cover your head with a dark cloth and use a magnifier to focus your photo.

View camera lenses can be modern multi-coated lenses or simple designs from the 1800s. Aside from press cameras, view camera lenses are set in leaf shutters. And a leaf shutter is ideal, because you don’t need super quick shutter speeds.

Leaf shutters for view cameras can be opened so you can focus.

You need to adopt a routine: Open shutter, focus, close shutter, insert film holder, remove dark slide, set aperture and shutter speed, take photo, insert dark slide and either flip or remove film holder.

The set-up time for a view camera can be lengthy. First, you have to pack everything into a bag or box, including a sturdy tripod. You have to preload the film holders, because that isn’t something that you want to do in the field.

And then you have to get everything into place. The results from a view camera are unmatched.


As plates got smaller, so did the cameras.

George Eastman pronounced, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Roll film came along. Cameras changed. There was no longer a need to carry a large, bulky view cameras. Every man (and woman) could be a photographer, carrying eitheIr a Box Brownie .

As cameras shrank in size, photographers needed a new way to compose their photos. The viewfinder camera was born of necessity, because it wasn’t practical (or possible) for many cameras to provide the direct viewing of the scene.

The viewfinder could be as simple as a tiny mirror reflecting the image onto a piece of frosted glass to modern viewfinders with several lens elements and reflected framelines.

The shortcoming of the viewfinder camera is that the framing is approximate, and the reason is parallax error. This occurs because the field of view isn’t exactly the same as the lens. As the subject gets closer to the camera, parallax error increases.

Some cameras attempted to correct for this by either tilting the viewfinder or having the frame lines shift in the correct direction.

However, no matter what camera makers did, the viewfinder never provides an exact representation of what is captured in the final image – whether it be film or digital.


A rangefinder is a type of viewfinder camera. In this case, it has a focusing mechanism built into the body.

With the loss of the direct view of the view camera, photographers began to demand a way to ensure that the image was correctly focused. While the Kodak Box Brownie camera introduced the “point and shoot” method, and required no focusing, the serious amateurs and professionals demanded more.

The rangefinder was born. The singular purpose of the rangefinder is determine the distance from the film plane to the subject. That is, find the range.

The simplest rangefinders use two mirrors – including one that is semi-transparent (also called semi-gilded, as well as a beam splitter).

Some rangefinders were handheld and were meant to be used with any camera, while others were made for specific cameras with distance scales that matched the lens.

For cameras with integrated rangefinders, there are two kinds: Uncoupled and coupled.

With an uncoupled rangefinder, the user turns a dial and focuses on the subject. The dial will indicate the distance to the subject, and the lens is then set to that same distance.

With a coupled rangfinder, the lens and rangefinder are mechanically linked. As you adjust the rangefinder, the lens is set to the correct distance. There is just one scale, and it is the lens’ distance scale.

Note that the rangefinder camera suffers from the same drawback as the viewfinder camera when it comes to accurately representing the scene. Some rangefinder cameras have framelines that move to adjust for parallax error.


Reflex cameras have been a part of photography since before photography. The camera obscura was a reflex device in that a lens and mirror reflected the image onto a piece of paper.

Reflex cameras began to take hold with some of the early press cameras, such as the Graflex. These were fitted with a “chimney” viewfinder, which was a tall, collapsible device that had a magnifier inside of it to allow for precise focusing. The mirror reflected upward onto a ground glass screen.

The image was laterally reversed, but the photographer could see exactly what the lens would capture, and parallax was no longer an issue.

Twin-lens reflex cameras used a slightly different approach, using one lens to record the photo and a second lens above it reflect the scene upward onto a viewing screen. The image in a twin-lens reflex camera is laterally reversed, and vertical parallax can be an issue for cameras that don’t compensate for it in the viewfinder.

T he Exakta was the first 35mm camera to offer reflex viewing, while the Italian Rectaflex was the first 35mm single-lens reflex camera to have a pentaprism, which provided an upright, laterally correct view.

The Contax S followed a year later and provided the physical design upon which most SLRs were based. Other cameras followed, and all SLRs – film and digital – use a pentaprism design.

The SLR allowed for precise focusing, which became easier as viewing screens were made brighter and added aids, such as fresnel screens, split-image prisms and ground-glass collars.


Aside from a tiny number of products, all film cameras included a viewfinder. With the arrival of digital cameras and LCD monitor, the optical viewfinder was no longer needed.

Sony was one of the first to do away with the optical viewfinder in some of its point and shoot models, providing only an LCD monitor.

As camera makers shifted to digital, nearly all of them turned to their film cameras. In fact, the top pro digital models from Nikon and Canon closely resemble the flagship models of their film lineup.

When the Micro Four Thirds models arrived, many were shocked that these higher-end cameras lacked viewfinders. Consumers didn’t seem to mind, because by that time, Apple’s iPhone taught them that it was OK to use the LCD screen to frame and take photos. In fact, the iPhone didn’t even have a mechanical shutter release.

These cameras have created an entire new market segment with a strong following. Every camera maker now has a mirrorless camera system.

However, to address the needs (or complaints, perhaps) of some photographers, some cameras have the ability to accept an accessory viewfinder, which is always electronic and never optical.

The most unusual of the mirrorless cameras don’t have a viewfinder – or a body and hardly any controls. They are clipped onto a smartphone or tablet, interfacing wirelessly with the mobile device to use its larger screen to operate this device.


Without a doubt, the smartphone has reshaped photography. Despite its technical limitations, it has become the only camera for many people.

Now, there is no need to peer into a tiny eyepiece, because the smartphone’s entire screen is the viewfinder.

A large LCD screen makes it easier to take close-up photos of pets, plants and household objects, as well as landscapes. LCD screens can still be difficult to see in bright sunlight, but advances in technology should overcome that some day.

The smartphone has introduced a new category of photos: the “selfie” for those who want to take photos of themselves or with friends.

“Foodies” might find it be the perfect camera to take a photo of their meal and share it with others.


Photography companies are full of surprises. Some will work, and some won't.

How will we know which ones are viable? The consumer decides by flocking to it or shunning it.

The only thing that most photographers want is that he or she continue to be the person capturing the photo.