DescriptionFolding camera to produce half-plate
Time Period1850s
DetailsBrass and mahogany camera with two
accompanying mahogany film slides
DimensionsCamera measures 21 x 24 x 10 cm, film
holders measure 23 x 15 x 2 cm closed
(they open like books)
LocationUCL Cabinet of Obsolete Media
Inventory nºUCL201737

The folding camera is designed to produce half-plate photographs. It is made up of a wooden front panel containing the lens, shutter and diaphragm and a wooden back panel housing a sheet of ground glass onto which the image is projected before the photograph is made, allowing the image to be composed and focussed. These panels are connected by folding bellows, which taper towards the front. The light-tight bellows allow the distance between lens and plate to be altered, changing the focus of the image. During the second half of the nineteenth century, when cameras like this became popular, plate sizes varied in terms of dimension, but the majority of half-plates measured approximately 11 by 14 cm. The plate is inserted into the plate carrier in the dark room, with the emulsion facing outwards, and is later inserted into the back of the camera.[1] When the photographer wants to expose the plate, the dark slide is moved upwards. Following exposure, the camera is reloaded with a new plate carrier. Plate cameras such as this tended to be used with a hood and a tripod; some of the processes they accommodated required long exposure times and the size of camera required for plate photography did not lend itself to hand-held devices.[2] The length of exposure required to form a legible image differs according to the process. Plate cameras accommodate a range of processes, the earliest models having used the metal plates required for the Daguerreotype process, before glass-plate negative processes were developed, starting with wet collodion which was overtaken by dry gelatine plates.[3] Early photographers, including Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre all experimented with the camera obscura in the first half of the nineteenth century.[4] The first commercial cameras imitated this in their wooden box-like structure. In 1851, W. and W.H. Lewis of New York patented a design using collapsible square-cornered bellows, and in 1857 a highly influential model using tapered bellows for increased compactness was patented by C.G.H. Kinnear of Edinburgh.[5]  Cameras to accommodate roll film were subsequently developed, eliminating the need to reload the camera as frequently. Plate cameras were necessarily big and cumbersome, and the plate size determined the size of the finished image. However, the high-resolution quality of the pictures they produced (unlike enlarged negatives, the final image does not show grain) led to their enduring utility.[6]


[1] ‘Camera Anatomy – Plate Cameras, Part 1’ [date accessed: 12/04/2019].

[2] Alistair Jervis, Camera Technology (Hove: Wayland, 1990), p.10; ‘Camera Anatomy – Plate Cameras, Part 1’.

[3] William Griggs, ‘The daguerreotype, the ambrotype and the photograph’ in Journal of the Franklin Institute (1909), 2, p.99.

[4] Jervis, Camera Technology, p.10; Bernard Marbot, ‘The New Image Takes its First Steps’ in Jean-Claude Lemagny and André Rouillé (eds.) A History of Photography: Social and Cultural Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.20.

[5] Colin Harding, ‘Camera Design: 2 (1850)’ in John Hannavy (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography (New York: Routledge, 2008), p.246.

[6] Jervis, Camera Technology, p.11.