The 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 the Spy 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 daguerreotype photography.

The World's First Photograph
Daguerreotype 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.


This Daguerreotype image of Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen.
John A. McClernand; Antietam, Md. September-October 1862 has been very well
preserved and greatly enhanced from the original Daguerreotype. There are not
many like the quality of this. Most Daguerreotype photos fad over a few years
and tend to have a very shiny mirror appearance to them. Some fad so bad, the
images in the photo almost disappear or become so faint, they are hard to view
with the naked eye.

By 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.

Daguerreotype photography 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 the scene.

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.

Most cameras 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 expensive.

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 of photographs.

Super 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 Watch Camera.

Entering The Film Evolution

Ansco 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.

Tica 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.

Lumiere 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.
Petal Camera 1940's
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.
Micro 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)

Minox 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.

The 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 industry.

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 in practice.

Steky IIIB Miniature Spy Camera With 40mm
Telephoto Lens 1950's

Steky IIIB Miniature Spy Camera With 40mm Telephoto Lens was a highly popular miniature camera with long range shooting ability with the telephoto lens. The camera measured a mere 2 1/2 inches tall and shot 16mm film. A very fine camera!
Minute 16 Mini Spy Camera from Universal Camera
Corporation, 1950's

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 up.

The First Button Camera, 1950's

Used 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 agencies. Click 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.

Private 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.

KGB 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 Land.

Polaroid 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 was changing.

Note: 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:
The Spy And Private-Eye Museum
The Spy Exchange And Security Center
9513 Burnet Road Suite 101, Austin, Texas 78758
Phone 512-719-3595

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.

Using 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.

Digital photography 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 Equipment And
Optics This photo comes from Chief Jessie Curry's book, The Assassination Files.I have
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.

Mavica 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.

LawMate Grade

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.


What's New In Covert Video

Micro Video And Pinhole Video Cameras

Covert Video Cameras Built Into All
Kinds Of Stuff
Bodywear Covert Video Cameras-
Cameras You Wear Or Covertly Carry
Tiny Bullet And Weatherproof Cameras Access Video Off The Net From Anywhere
Portable Mini Digital Video Recorders Complete Video Monitoring Systems
Camcorders & Still Digital Cameras Video Recorders
Total Digital Video Cameras & Gear Night Vision Optics
Quad Systems And Processors Simulated Video Cameras
Special Operations Video Video Camera Detection Gear
Other Surveillance Aids And Optics Surveillance Training Aids

The History And Evolution Of Covert Video Surveillance Evidence Gathering By Ralph Thomas

Choosing The Right Video Camera For Your Job- By Cody Woods


Audio Evidence And The History And Evolution Of The Audio Recorder By Ralph D. Thomas

Early Detective Agency Advertising And Private Investigative Trends From The Past
- By Ralph D Thomas

Copyright: 2011, Ralph D. Thomas
All rights reserved.