A Snapshot of History

Illustrations by Jessica Weber

Earlier this year, the California Museum of Photography received a donation of more than 500 American field cameras, which date to the 19th century, from collector Larry Pierce. Designed for portability, field cameras were used to photograph major events, scenic landscapes, and travels through the American West. They provided everyday people some of the earliest access to photography and played an important role in the documentation of U.S. history. Learn how these early cameras worked in the illustration below.

American Field Camera, Scovill Manufacturing Company, 1885

  1. Body: Field cameras were typically made of lightweight wood. This model was made of sycamore — unusual for this camera type — and brass hardware. The front board, or “standard,” held the lens, and the rear standard held the ground glass.
  2. Plate Holders: This double-sided plate holder held two glass-plate negatives, allowing for two separate exposures. This camera used dry plates, which were precoated with light-sensitive chemicals. A thin sheet of cardboard was slotted in front of the glass plate to protect the plate before and after exposure. After removing the lens cap, the cardboard would be pulled out, exposing the glass plate. The cardboard was replaced after a few seconds of exposure, protecting the latent image for later development.
  3. Ground Glass: Attached to the back of the camera, the ground glass was used for manual focusing. With the lens cap removed, an inverted image was projected onto the ground glass. Sliding the glass along a set of rails would focus the image. When the image was in focus, the ground glass was removed and replaced with the plate holder.
  4. Viewfinder: This camera also included a viewfinder, which attached to the front standard and could be adjusted to portrait or landscape orientation. The viewfinder aided the photographer with orienting the shot and seeing what it would look like in advance.
  5. Bellows: Made of fabric, the bellows changed the size of the camera’s interior space as it moved along the rails, changing how far light traveled through the aperture while focusing. The bellows also allowed the camera to be folded, unlike cameras made of solid wood.
  6. Rails: The rear standard of the camera slid on the rails allowing for focusing with the ground glass, and an adjustable metal knob locked the camera in place. The front and rear standard could be pushed together along the rails, making it compact. The rails could be folded and locked with two keys for more portability.
  7. Lens: These camera models had different-sized lenses attached to a board. The hole in the lens, or aperture, filtered light into the camera and projected the image on the ground glass. The bigger the hole, the more light would enter the camera and the shorter the exposure time needed.

Visit ucrarts.ucr.edu for more information about the museum and collection.