History And Evolution Of Spy
And Investigative Photography
By Ralph Thomas
I find cameras and their history quite fascinating and as a collector
of spy and subminiature cameras, I thought I would share with you the
history and evolution of such cameras and investigative photography. When
you get to the actual samples of the cameras in this article, you can
click on the links to see bigger images and get more information about
them. When you are in the Texas area, be sure to plan on stopping in at
Exchange And Security Center showroom to see our PI
Vintage Spy And Private-Eye Museum rooms where you can see these cameras
and much more in person.
Investigative and evidence
photography has gone through three basic evolutions. The first one was
daguerreotype photography which was the first photography. The second
evolution was film photography. The third evolution is digital photography
which we are in today.
Starting in the 16th century, artists learned how to project images onto
surfaces. However, it was not until the 1820's that photography was invented.
In the summer of 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the
world's first photograph from a second story window utilizing pewter plates
in France. He didn't announce his discovery publicly until 1839, another
ten years. Before there was photography as we know it today, there was
The World's First Photograph
photography was really the first successful photo process. It caught
on like wild fire in the late 1830's and early 1840's. Daguerreotype
photography was done with copper plates that were coated with iodine
which produced light sensitive silver iodide. Once made, plates had
to be used within about a hour or they were no good. Exposure to light
for several minutes was needed to obtain a proper exposure. One had
to stand very still for a long time in order to obtain a Daguerreotype
photo. If one moved around, you would generally get a blurred image.
Take a look of the photograph below. Lincoln's face is a little blurred.
That's likely because his head moved just a little during the several
minute process it took to expose this photo.
image of Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen.
John A. McClernand; Antietam, Md. September-October 1862 has been very
preserved and greatly enhanced from the original Daguerreotype. There
many like the quality of this. Most Daguerreotype photos fad over a few
and tend to have a very shiny mirror appearance to them. Some fad so bad,
images in the photo almost disappear or become so faint, they are hard
with the naked eye.
the time of the Civil War, Daguerreotype photography was well established
in the United States. The ability to take a detailed exposure in
black and white of what the eyes see was quite a marvel for it's
time. However, photography as an investigative and spy tool had
limited use. Since one had to stand still for a long time to get
a good photo, covert photography as we know it today, was not in
existence. Photography could be used to record various types of
outdoor scenes as well as crime scenes. Indoor scenes could be done
with proper lighting conditions. Night time photography was about
out of the question.
equipment was big and bulky. The camera almost always had to be
used with a tripod because of the long exposures needed. In these
days, you couldn't just "snap" a photo. Once a photo was
taken the one plate had to be carefully removed from the back of
the camera. There were a lot of chemical processes involved. People
who did Daguerreotype photography did, for the most part, develop
their own plates. Film as we know it today had not yet been invented.
To the left, is what a daguerreotype camera looked like. You can
click here to learn more about the cameras and processing.
|To the left
is a daguerreotype photo of the assassination scene in Ford's Theater
right after the assassination of President Lincoln. The photo was
taken during the early morning hours after the President's death.
Note the blurred image of the soldier standing guard in the right
bottom portion of the photo. The image is blurry simply because the
soldier moved while the exposure was being made. This daguerreotype
photo is very well preserved. It's part of the FBI files which has
a small file on the Lincoln assassination it has collected even though
the FBI was not in existence at the time of the Lincoln assassination.
This is one of only a couple of known daguerreotype photos taken at
Crime Scene Daguerreotype Photo
This well preserved crime scene photo was taken just after the Lincoln
assassination at Ford's Theater. It shows the stage door in which John
Wilkes Booth exited the stage after jumping from the Presidential box.
The Daguerreotype on the left has scratches and blotches on it. The Daguerreotype
on the right has been restored in Photoshop by the author of this article.
were very big and very bulky. The cameras themselves were mostly made
of wood and were placed on wooden tripods. It was not until about
1865 that a small sliding box camera 1 inches by 1 2/3th of inch was
developed. This was likely the first subminiature spy camera that
was developed in France. These cameras worked just like the huge and
heavy Daguerreotype cameras with a light box, lens and a sliding frame
in the back for the light sensitive plate to be placed.
Contrary to what many believe,
there were people experimenting with color in the Daguerreotype photography
age. However, the colors would fade out. Using additive and subtractive
methods, the first permanent color photo was taken by a physicist by the
name of James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. Useable methods to sensitize plates
to color with green light were discovered in 1873 and orange light in
1884.However, sensitivity to red light did not happen until film was discovered
in the 1900s.
Daguerreotype photography had
it's limits. The process was quite expensive and time consuming. A huge
assortment of plates, chemicals and bulky camera equipment had to be carried
around for anyone who wanted to take photographs. Making copies was highly
There were several other processes
that improved upon daguerreotype photography but these processes were
sort of short lived and merely improved the end results. These news processes
did not improve the massive bulkiness of the overall photography process.
The wet-plate process came into existence around 1851. The wet-plate process
eliminated the flat reflections of daguerreotype photography. In 1856
a process called tintype came into being which further developed the quality
Subminiature Box Camera, 1870's
The Super Camera was a subminiature box camera that worked via the
dry plate process. It would take one exposure at a time by placing
the plate in the back of the camera. The camera eye leaver to expose
the plate had to be timed. That is, you would pull down on the shutter
leaver and then release it once you felt you had enough exposure
time to place the impression on the one plate. This camera measured
2 inches wide by 2 3/4th inches long by 3 inches deep. It was one
of the smallest known cameras for it's time.
In the late 1800's, dry plate
snapshot photography came into being. These cameras were rare and expensive.
That all changed when George Eastman discovered film that replaced the
Daguerreotype in 1884. In 1888 the Eastman Kodak camera with film hit
the market. Suddenly, a photographer no longer needed to carry around
boxes of plates and toxic chemicals! The age of the Daguerreotype, wet-plate
and tintype photography had ended. It wasn't long before miniature film
was made and really small miniature and subminiature spy cameras hit the
market place. One of the first miniature film cameras was the Ansco Memo
Camera that came out in 1927. The first subminiature was the Tica Expo
Entering The Film Evolution
Memo Miniature Camera, 1927
The Ansco Memo Miniature
Camera was made by Agfa Ansco of New York. It was marketed as the
only camera that could take 50 pictures with one roll of fifty cent
film. The Memo Camera, as it was called, sold for $20.00 and featured
an F: 3.5 Anastigmat lens. She measured a mere 1.5 inches wide,
4 inches long and 2 inches deep. Really small for 1927. The camera
was known for taking good photos of action and speed. Photos could
be taken quickly one after the other. This was state-of-the-art
and a modern marvel for it's time. The Memo Cam became a favorite
camera for private detectives. If you think the $20.00 price tag
was cheap, $1 in 1927 had the same purchasing power as $32.35 does
today. That makes this a $640.00 camera by today's value.
Expo Watch Camera, 1890's -1920's
Before most of us were born, men generally carried a watch in their
pocket and not on a watch band on their arm. They were, of course;
known as pocket watches and almost all successful business people
had one. Spies, undercover officers and private-eyes needed a way
to conceal a camera they could carry on their body. What better idea
that one built into what looked like a pocket watch. The Tica Expo
Watch Camera is likely the most famous watch spy cameras every made.
Thousands of them were sold around the world in the late 1800's and
early 1900's. The Expo brand was made by Expo Camera Company of New
York. The Tica Expo had an attachable viewfinder that would attach
to the top of the pocket watch type unit.
The first really useful color
film did not reach the USA market until 1907. It was called Autochrome
film. It was based on a screen-plate method.The first modern film to produce
color was in 1935. It was called Kodachrome.
ELJY Subminiature Camera, 1930's
The Lumiere ELJY Subminiature Camera was a French camera developed
by Auguste and Louis Lumière. This was really a marvel for
it's time period. It was a high end spy camera. The lens extends out
from the camera and locks in place. The view finder pops up. The shutter,
which is located in the lens barrel, makes it possible to have speeds:
1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100. . The Lypar f3.5 lens has a variable focus
of 0.5m to infinity (20 inches on the imperial version). It
measured a mere 24x36 mm.
The Petal Camera was the spy camera from the 1940's hoarded by American
private eyes and sold for ten dollars (US). That might seem really
cheap by today's standards but ten bucks was a lot of greenbacks back
then. In fact, that was almost a week's pay. The Petal Camera is a
tiny, round camera about the size of a US quarter. It has a fixed-focus
12mm (f5.6) lens. Speeds could be set at B and I and it produced six,
6mm circular images on a 25mm film disc in a special cassette. The
Petal is so small, in fact, that it is listed in The Guinness Book
of World Records as being the smallest camera ever produced.
16 Subminiature Spy Camera 1940's
The MICRO 16 was made by Wm. R. Whittaker Co., Ltd. in Los Angeles,
California, USA. from 1946-1950 and was highly popular. It was about
the size of a package of cigarettes and was often hidden inside a
pack when used by spies and private-eyes. The Micro 16 took 16 mm
film. It had a 90 degree viewfinder. The aperture was controlled through
a lever and could be adjusted to bright, dull and color. The plunger
on the top of the camera could be pressed to advance the film and
could be made to stay down flat on the surface. A film counter was
viewable from the back. It was quite a modern marvel for it's time!
The camera sold for about $30.00 in the 1940's. However, in the 1940's
that was just above what the average weekly paycheck was for an American.
These little box cameras as
shown above are becoming quite valuable. In 1991 a Lucky Strike camera
from Cold War history much like the camera above with the exception that
it had fake cigarettes where the push button is sold for $30,000 at Christie's
auction. Since that time, they have gone up even higher and are becoming
quite rare to even find for sale.
It was not until the Minox
spy camera hit the market place in the 1940's that investigators and spies
had a huge assortment of controls they could use to adjust a small camera.
The Minox camera was the first subminiature camera with truly professional
controls including, focus, Aperture of the lens, duration of exposure
(or shutter speed) and focal length and type of lens (telephoto, macro,
wide angle, or zoom)
Spy Camera 1940's, 1950's,1960's
Known throughout the world as the subminiature camera to have, the
Minox spy camera was in the hands of almost all intelligence agents
and spies in the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's. The camera was very good
at taking close up document photography. The camera was so small and
so good for it's hay-day that it had restricted sales to governmental
and military intelligence agencies in many parts of the world such
as the United States. In the late 1960's through the 1980's if you
were a private-eye and hand one, you had the very latest high tech
subminiature camera on the market. They were also very expensive.
Minox Spy Cameras stayed king
of the subminiature camera world and released an endless selection of
options including a high end light meter, various flash attachments, a
subminiature tripod, telephoto lens and a right angle lens. Still, other
small spy cameras were produced in massive numbers. On of the most popular
of these special function cameras was the Steikeck ABC Wrist Watch Camera
that came out in the 1940's.
Steineck ABC Wrist Watch Camera, 1940's
One of the longest running sales of a unique spy camera was the Steineck
ABC Wrist Watch Camera. It was sold in the USA from the late 1940's
until the late 1950s. Although this was not a watch, and is really
was disguised, it was a highly popular camera for it's time. if you
were a private investigator and had one, you were the talk of the
During the mid and late 1950's
a huge assortment of small cameras hit the market place. Some of these
cameras were very good cameras. Some of them were very cheap and didn't
work well. Just about all of the small camera makers used special film
that one would have to purchase from the camera maker. Not only that,
they all maintained their own processing labs and did it in a way that
one would have to use only the processing lab of the camera maker. This
produced a steady flow of profit in the form of both camera sales, film
sales and film development income from the labs. Steky and Minute 16 cameras
shown below were two of the more popular subminiature cameras of this
time period. The Steky camera was a very good camera. The Minute 16, although
millions were spent on it's research, never did really work that well
16 Mini Spy Camera from Universal Camera
The Minute 16 Mini Spy Camera from Universal Camera Corporation was
unique in that it could shoot movie pictures or stills. That was quite
a feat for it's time! It's tiny! Measurements where about three inches
by two inches. After the success of the Minox spy camera, many such
cameras came into the market place with the business idea that the
camera company could make money off of processing the film (which
only they could do of course!) The Minute 16 was one of the more popular
ones because of it's size and multi-functional ability. However, it
didn't last long. Some state that over two million dollars was poured
into the design and research of the camera. However, it didn't work
that well. In the 1950's the Universal Camera Corporation went belly
The First Button Camera,
by intelligence agencies during the cold war in the 1950's and 1960's,
the world's first button camera could only take still shots and was
so bulky, it could only be used with a heavy coat. The actual button
was a plate that screwed onto the camera lens of a small subminiature
camera. The button camera plate had a cord that ran into the agent's
pocket. Using this method, when an agent wanted to take a still photo,
he simply placed his hand in the pocket and pushed the lever.The center
part of the button would quikly slide away to expose the camera lens
and the shutter would open. Since the exposure was done on small subminiature
16 MM film, one had to develop the film before one could see the results
of the efforts. Most agents had their own film developing kits. The
coat used had to have the button camera installed on it with matching
buttons as well as a hole torn inside the coat pocket so the camera
lever could be installed. No one knows for sure exactly how many of
these were around but it's rather rare to find one today.
They were custom made by intelligence
agencies such as the CIA. Crude by today's standards, these were highly
rare, custom made and state-of-the-art in the 1950s. Quite different from
the equipment in use today by investigators, law enforcement and intelligence
Here for more details and an online video of the first button cameras
from the 1950's.
The Private-Eye Camera pictured
below was a highly popular camera for private-eyes in the 1950s. It was
a camera for those who could not afford nor did not need the high end
features of a Minox. The camera functioned well for it's time.
Eye Shirt Pocket Camera, 1950's
This camera was made in France and was marked "Private Eye".
It was produced in the 1950s and marketed in the USA. It was really
small for it's day and took good still photos. The Private-Eye had
a double micro-coated f6.3 and 1/50 second shutter that (according
to it's promo material) insured sharp in-focus shots. The film was
16 mm film that would take18 exposures. When the film was advanced,
the camera was automatically "cocked" for taking the next
photo. There is a pen-type clip so you could carry it in your shirt
pocket. No doubt every private-eye that was into the latest gadgets
and equipment wanted one of these.
In the late 50's and early
60's, America was in the mist of the Cold War and spying between the US
and the USSR was everywhere. The KGB had developed a highly powerful camera
that came to be known as the Photosniper. With it's rifle stock to aim
the camera and keep it steady along with it's super powerful telephoto
lens, the Photosniper was developed to take close up facial shots of people
going into and out of embassies around the world. For a long time, the
Photosniper became the industry spy standard telephoto camera to get close
ups from a long way away. When the USSR fell apart, there was a huge flooding
of the photo market place with the Photosniper. Today, they are rather
hard to find.
Stock Mount Sniper Camera With
Long Range Telephoto Lens
This long range telephoto camera was used by the KGB to take photos
of people going in and out of American Embassies in the 1950's,
1960's and 1970's. It was called the Photosniper because of the
stock on the camera which could be pointed like a rifle. After the
collapse of the USSR, these units were imported to the USA for a
time. They are now hard to find
In the late 1950's and early
1960's Polaroid started a new camera revolution with film that developed
itself in a matter of seconds and the finished photo could be pulled right
out of the camera. It created an instant camera. It was invented by Edwin
Automatic 250 Land Camera, 1960s, 1970s
When the Polaroid Automatic Land Cameras came out, they were the rage
for professionals including police officers, insurance adjusters,
inspection services and private investigators simply because there
was no film developing. State-of-the-art on the spot instant developed
photos helped get investigative reports done with photos quick and
easy. If you had a Polaroid Automatic Land Camera, you could take
a photo and five minutes later, hand it to your client. The world
You can view online a huge assortment of vintage subminiature spy
cameras by clicking
here. You can also see this assortment of vintage and antique
subminiature spy cameras and a huge assortment of other spy and investigative
artifacts in person in Austin, Texas at:
And Private-Eye Museum
The Spy Exchange And Security Center
9513 Burnet Road Suite 101, Austin, Texas 78758
Entering Into The Digital Evolution
Computers have always been able to store images. The better early computers
were able to take screen shots of it's screen and then covert them into
a digital image. However, computers were just not powerful enough to handle
digital photography at the resolution we needed until the late 1990's.
Since that time, the digital photography revolution has taken off. Digital
photography has many advantages over film photography. Since their is
no film processing involved, it is, of course; cheaper and faster. Resolution
is much better than in film photography although it didn't start out that
way. It's been only a few years ago when the first digital mega pixel
cameras came out. Mega pixels is the number of pixels per inch. Mega means
million so a one mega pixel camera has a million pixels per inch. Today,
it's quite common for digital cameras to have between 3 and 12 mega pixels.
That is quite a bit of resolution. Since digital photography is integrated
with computer technology, it's very easy to take digital photographs and
place them right into an investigative report.
With software programs such
as Adobe Photoshop, it's quite easy to adjust digital photographs making
the computer one's do-it-yourself digitial darkroom. Adjustments such
as brightness, contrast, color balance, resolution, size, and cropping
are easy and fast. One can now do on a computer what used to be highly
time consuming and highly expensive in a conventional film processing
lab. Software today even lets an investigator do forensic analysis of
photographs that was impossible just a few years ago. With software programs,
even forensic restoration can easily be done.
The photo of the
left is an old Daguerreotype photo of Allen Pinkerton, the first American
private-eye on horseback. The original is cracked. By scanning these into
a digital image, Photoshop lets you restore such photos as shown in the
photo on the right. You can
click here to see larger images.
The Old And The New
Using digital imaging with Photoshop, we believe we may has stumbled upon
the only known photograph of Kate Warne, the first female private investigator
who was hired by Allen Pinkerton before Lincoln become President of the
United States. While doing background research, Barbara Maikell-Thomas
found the photo on the left of Allen Pinkerton setting in a chair during
the civil war. Barbara noted that the person standing directly behind
him looked like a female. The photo is a well preserved daguerreotype
photo in the Library Of Congress. We ordered a high resolution copy of
the photograph from the Library Of Congress. Before the photo came in,
we did some checking and came to find out the Kate Warne was indeed with
Allen Pinkerton at the time this photo was taken. When you scan the photo
into a computer and blow it up with Photoshop, a close up of the person
reveals that makeup is being used. The above photo bar is small image
samples of the work done with Photoshop You can click
here to learn more about Kate Warner, the first American private investigator
and the photo.
is moving so fast these days, it's very hard to keep up with it. Photography
in the digital world has moved into what is called future shock. Future
shock means that things are moving so fast, products are almost out of
date a few weeks after you purchase them. Here's a review of some digital
cameras as it relates to the investigative world.
The Famous Oswald Backyard
Photos In Digital Form
Remember these photos? They were of Lee H. Oswald, the man claimed to
have been the killer of President Kennedy. These photos turned up after
the assassination and were published in Life Magazine. They are photos
of Oswald in his backyard with the rifle that is claimed to have murdered
the President. Several years ago, I digitized the famous Backyard Photos
of Lee Oswald and used Photoshop to analyze them. You will find it very
revealing what I came up with. They where likely faked. Who faked them
and for what reasons is still not clear but you will be amazed with this
evidence which anyone can do with programs like Photoshop.
Click here to review the report.
Dallas Police Photo Of Lee Oswald Possessions. Minox Camera, Other Photo
Optics This photo comes from Chief Jessie Curry's book, The Assassination
added the red arrows myself.
What's even more
revealing is that Oswald himself owned a Minox Spy Camera. It was found
among his positions after the assassination, inventoried by the Dallas
Police and then quickly covered up. Some claim that the photo does NOT
reveal a Minox Spy Camera, only a Minox Spy Camera Case and an Exposed
Minox Light Meter. Ok, I will concede that fact! You can not see the camera.
However, I have yet to know one person who would have had a Minox spy
camera case and a light meter without the camera. Aside from the Minox,
the photo (above) reveals a number of other interesting objects including
other cameras, film, various small binoculars and other spy type photo
and optic equipment. All owned by a man who was a minimum wage inventory
clerk who lived in a rooming house. Yea right! When you study Oswald,
it's quite clear he was some sort of low level spy or intelligence operative.
Who he was working for and why is a house of mirrors that I don't believe
will ever be solved. Well anyway, I don't need to go on and on about it.
I'm just revealing some sample stuff youcan do in Photoshop and now retired
from the bottomless pit of the Kennedy Association so please don't email
me about it.
Floppy Disk Digital Camera, 1990's
The Sony Mavica Digital Camera was highly popular as one of the first
digital cameras simply because you could transfer photos from the
camera to your computer on a floppy disk. When digital cameras first
came out, the question was always how one gets the digital photos
from the camera to the computer. There was a lot of "compatibility"
problems. The Mavica solved that problem by simply storing the images
on a floppy disk which everyone liked.You would simply remove the
floppy disk from the camera and insert it into the floppy disk drive
of your computer. Today, more and more computers doesn't even have
floppy disk drives. The Mavica hay-day wasn't all that long ago and
is a good example of how quickly the digital camera and computer products
have developed in just a few years.
Cutting Edge Covert Video And Still Photography from Lawmate -The Famous Name In Covert Gear
There certainly isn't any doubt that Joseph Nicéphore Niépce,
the man who took the first photograph that we talked about at the start
of this article in 1826; would be highly impressed with the advancements
and the evolution of photography today. Below is a review of state-of-the-art
equipment for both still and video covert photography.
ART REVIEWS BY SUBJECT
COVERT VIDEO SURVEILLANCE CAMERA AND SUPPLY MENU
History And Evolution Of Covert Video Surveillance Evidence Gathering
By Ralph Thomas
The Right Video Camera For Your Job- By Cody Woods
Evidence And The History And Evolution Of The Audio Recorder By Ralph
Detective Agency Advertising And Private Investigative Trends From The
- By Ralph D Thomas
Copyright: 2011, Ralph D. Thomas
All rights reserved.