There are hundreds of cameras in existence, some more successful than others. However, some cameras have become icons that managed to define the industry and technology for years. Despite technology evolving rapidly in the past 20 years and cameras becoming too good to be true, some pieces of gear were so perfect that professionals used them despite newer versions coming out. In this article, I will look at five of the most iconic cameras ever made.
Widely regarded as the camera that made photography accessible, the Kodak Brownie is as easy to find in 2023 as it was back in the day. First introduced in 1900 by George Eastman, who went on to create the Eastman Kodak Company, this compact camera set the scene for the industry for many generations. It gave the camera to simple users who wanted to capture their precious moments in photographic quality without being professional photographers. The Kodak Brownie was perfect. It was lightweight and easy to use, an ancestor of the point-and-shoot, and later the smartphone camera.
I consider this camera significant because of its ability to give photography to the masses. This was the first camera to prioritize getting the shot above image quality. The lens was primitive, the process was simplified, and the image was just good enough to be a reflection of the events that took place. Personal photography emerged as a direct outcome of the launch of the Kodak Brownie.
One of the first 35mm cameras to enter the market, this camera was a portable and lightweight device that allowed professional photographers to take their gear anywhere. Just like now, companies race to make the most portable gear for photographers to take with them. It was introduced in 1925 by Oskar Barnack, a German engineer. Capturing candid moments became easy, and street photography jumped in popularity as a result.
In my opinion, this camera put the start to many of the iconic photographers who are widely regarded as the founding fathers of the craft. Photojournalism and press photography became much more accessible, and giants such as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson used Leica cameras to take some of the most important photographs in the history of the period. They were able to easily blend in with the crowd, take shots while going unnoticed, and capture authentic and real moments happening at the time.
Polaroid Land Camera
Edwin Land was not happy with the fact that images took a while to process, and seeing the immediate outcome was impossible for the user. As early as 1948, he introduced the Polaroid Land Camera, which reinvented the way photography was seen. It used a self-developing film to create instant prints.
For me, this camera holds a dear place in my heart as some of my childhood memories exist as Polaroids (albeit from a much later period). Growing up in the post-Soviet climate in Ukraine and seeing images pop out from the camera instantly fascinated me at the time, as much as it does now.
The Polaroid Land Camera was loved both by amateurs and professional photographers. It was very common for families to grab a Polaroid on their holiday and capture their memories, just as it was common for photographers such as Helmut Newton to put a Polaroid back on their professional camera and make sure the image was exposed properly. In a way, this was the first-ever method of setting up a shot without a light meter and simply by feel. As someone who rarely if ever uses a light meter, I could absolutely see myself using Polaroids back in the day. Nowadays, when looking to purchase an old medium-format film camera, I will certainly go for buying a Polaroid back just for this function.
Nikon F This was the first ever SLR camera introduced in 1959. The SLR technology still dominates the professional landscape, even in the era of mirrorless photography. The Nikon F was more compact than medium format cameras, but also retained some of the modularity found on medium format bodies. While you couldn't swap out backs for different films, you could change lenses, add accessories, and carry them around. It also saw the introduction of the Nikon F mount, which became a standard for all Nikon SLRs and DSLRs. Some pros stayed with Nikon simply because it allowed them to put their older lenses on new bodies and vice-versa. The electronic contacts were added to the existing mount, making upgrading cheaper and easier for photographers.
Canon 5D This camera was the first ever true full-frame DSLR, giving photographers capabilities previously unseen in the digital world. Introduced in 2005, it featured a mere 12MP full-frame sensor, but it still meant better dynamic range, enhanced low-light performance, and a sea of other benefits. The Canon 5D set the scene for what a professional DSLR is and the 5D series has become the go-to for pro photographers from all walks of life. Some still keep it in their gear drawer for backup. In fact, I would not have a problem shooting a studio shoot with such a camera. I personally use the 5D Mark IV and the 5Ds. In the past, I used the 5D Mark II. These days, I would still recommend the 5D Mark II to anyone who wants to become a professional photographer doing studio work or landscape.
Your First Camera
Your first camera I want to put this on the list as a photographer's first camera is always the most precious one. It may be a smartphone or it may be a Canon EOS300 (in my case). This primitive Canon camera helped me become the photographer that I am. It taught me the basics of photography, and it holds a dear place in my heart. No other camera feels as special as this one. It is safe to say that I would not be a photographer if that camera did not come into my life. Funny enough, I broke my very first Canon EOS300 by sticking my finger in the shutter. I then bought an identical body and used the old one for spares. The hot shoe on the Canon 5D Mark IV I have came from the original EOS300. I still take the old EOS300 out for a spin when feeling nostalgic.
What are your top 5 iconic cameras? Let us know in the comments!
I went into grad school for photography with a Canon Rebel XTi, but the school had a 5D in the cage that almost no one used because they were all Nikon shooters. I pretty much had free reign on it and used it so much. Loved that camera and pre-ordered a 5D Mark II the second it was announced. So many miles spent on 5D cameras for me.
That said, Canon already had a full-framer before the 5D! It was the 1DS a couple of years earlier, but the OG 5D was sort of like the Ford Model T - the full-frame camera for the masses, and in that, it really succeeded.
I still have my Brownie 127 that I got for Christmas when I was 7 years old. Little did I know it would change my life. The Brownie was an economical way to get people involved in photography. My first 35mm was an Argus A4 and I ran a lot of films through it. In the military was the Speed Graphic 4x5. It was used for decades, It was versatile and a great way to learn your craft. I ran so much film through my Minolta SRT101 I wore it out. My first digital was the HP C200 digital that came out in the early 90s. It was like using the Brownie 127 as it was simple to use, with almost instant results and images to get you on to the internet. From there I moved up to a Fuji FinePix with a 10x zoom lens. All great cameras in their own right.
Nikon F was a nice camera, but not the first SLR. I think Praktiflex was the first ( 1939 )
I would add the various Rollieflex and Hasselblad cameras because of all the iconic photographs made with them. Professional workhorse cameras. I would even say that the square format and overall quality of these cameras made them influential, inspirational and aspirational. They gave you ideas.
Nikon F wasn't even close to being the first SLR.
Graflex made SLR cameras starting in the 1910's -
The first were 5x7 and 4x5. It was a box, with a spring-loaded mirror inside, a ground glass on top with a collapsable hood, a lens that could be racked in and out for focus. It had a focal plane shutter that had different width slits, and also different spring tensions for various speeds.
A "Single Lens Reflex" camera.
They were very popular for photo journalism in the 1920's and 1930's. They later made smaller ones that took roll film. I think they made a 4x5 model until the early 1950's.
Nikon wasn't even the first 35mm SLR - Exakta SLR's were made in the late 1930's before WWII.
The catalog page is from a 1916 catalog - See attached photos of Alfred Steiglitz (1910's?) and Dorethea Lang (1937).
If your first camera counts as iconic then add the Olympus OM1. With a fairly new driver's license I drove from one side of Dallas to the other side to buy it. I still use some of the old lenses on digital cameras.
My first camera is the Canon A-1 that I bought new in 1980. I use the present tense since I still own it and use it. July 2013, I bought one of my "bucket list" cameras, Canon F-1N with the AE Finder FN and the AE Motor Drive FN. December 2013, I added the 5D III.
Only 5? How about the Hasselblad 500? And maybe the Rolliflex that journalists used in the '50's.
Anyway, as a teenager I was using a point and shoot mini-film camera that was taking crappy photos when I decided to get into photography and bought a used Nikon FM with their Nikkor 50mm f1.8 which I used for decades before it died.
My first camera was the ever popular and mighty Pentax K-1000! This was the camera that opened up the Universe to me and I have never looked back. So simple and easy to use,great variety of company and third party lenses,and the finest quality of photographs this camera produced are legendary. I still push film through it to this day
Wow! No Pentax Cameras made the list!
A reasonable and thoughtful list. I might have leaned to a Rolleiflex somewhere in there but I have a weak spot for them
I kind of like my Contax IIIa and various Zeiss Sonar and Tessar lenses. Body inherited from my dad 60 years ago and I've managed to purchase a few additional lenses since then. The 180 is missing from photo.
"Nikon F This was the first ever SLR camera"
"Canon 5D This camera was the first ever true full-frame DSLR"
Does nobody review your articles before you publish them? Do you not know how to use Google? This is pathetic. Hey Patrick and Lee - why are you letting this happen to your site?
My five iconic cameras are: Minox B; Nikon F2; Polaroid SX-70; Widelux F7; Stereo Realist f/2.8. . To mention just 5 Is a short number. It should be ay least 20. Greetings from Colombia. Eduardo Vuh
Sony Nex3. First compact WYSWYG camera. First camera of the modern age. Minolta Maxxum 7000. First autofocus camera with motorized film advance
My first serious camera was a Zenit B in the early 70s. I used it for a couple of years to figure out what I liked, disliked and wanted in a future camera.
The next camera was a Canon EF, a shutter priority auto exposure workhorse that I used as my main camera for over 15 years.
Next was the last FD mount professional camera, the superb Canon T90. It was a multi-metering, motor driven camera with all of the exposure options that we take for granted now. That lasted a decade and set the requirements for my major venture into digital.
After letting my photography habit mostly lapse for a decade, I bought an Olympus E-M10. This showed me what was possible and made me forget about the image quality 35mm film had. I'm now using a couple of OMDS OM-1 bodies and am done hunting for 'improvements'.
Mine was the Olympus Trip 35. A great little film camera I still have today.
Interesting, I’ve had both a Brownie (never used, bought as decor) and a 5D. My current fav is my R3 which has been a blast from the first shot. But, I suspect the Leica Monochrome I’ll be buying in a couple months will be my all time fav both in terms of its small form factor and incredible B&W imaging
There were several full-frame DSLRs before the 5D.
DPReview has two articles on significant cameras that came out during their 25 years. The 5D is mentioned as an important full frame. Not because it is the first, but because it was the first full frame to be a low enough price for serious enthusiasts.
Oh hell, you KNOW there are so many others left off this list. I'm seeing on here so many additions. The Hasselblad 1600 and C. The Nikon F4. Olympus, pick one. Pentax K1000. Leica M3. Come on people, take it from here