An Introduction to Spy Photography and Cameras
by: Andy McCarrick
When you think about spy photography, the first thing that probably comes to mind is miniature cameras. These cameras can be easily snuck into anywhere without detection. Sometimes they are disguised as ordinary objects, and sometimes they are just so small that a picture can be quickly captured without notice.
In the evolution of photography, various forms of technology needed to advance in order for spy photography to be possible. Mainly, size and speed needed to come together if photography were to have any chance of being covert. The first cameras were large and required tripods because of the long exposure times, and also required almost immediate developing before the images were lost. Because of photography’s bulky beginnings, 35mm cameras were actually considered “miniature” when they were introduced.
Cumbersome cameras that required their subjects to stay still, and time-sensitive photographic plates hardly fit into our image of spies. To help us on our way to sleek, stylish, undetectable spy cameras, there needed to be a change in how cameras did their work. The answer came in 1889 when George Eastman, founder of Kodak, created the first film camera. It was capable of holding a roll of film that had 100 exposures on it. Before this invention, 100 exposures would have required a lot of equipment. Now it was possible to carry it all in a single hand-held device.
As demand for cameras among less-wealthy consumers grew, so did the need to simplify the cameras, both in technology and in size. The goal of camera companies at this time was to satisfy consumers. Customers were not looking for spy cameras, they were just looking for smaller cameras that could be carried around and taken anywhere. It was not until the introduction of the Ticka pocket watch camera, that concealing the camera became the focus.
–>In 1905 the first Ticka Watch cameras were made available to the public. The first model had the shell of a pocket watch and the inner workings of a camera. It was not until 1909 that Ticka affixed a clock face sticker to the front of the camera. This is one of the earliest examples of a camera that was specifically designed to be mistaken for something else. The Ticka also lead the way in practicality with its 25 exposure film spool. This spool allowed the camera to be loaded with film in daylight, allowing for many more pictures on the go.
As technology and society advanced, cameras were designed to look like many other objects including rings, radios, cigarette packs, matchboxes, pens, and guns. As fashion turned from pocket watches to wristwatches, so did subminiature camera technology. The Steineck ABC and Wristmatic were of the first wristwatch cameras. In 1949 several prototypes were made of a camera that actually slid into the empty package of cigarettes, and in the 1970’s cameras were factory made into plastic replicas of cigarette packages.
–>Many attempts to disguise cameras eventually came across to public appeal as a novelty. In the end, the most successful subminiature cameras would be the Minox cameras that hit the market in 1937. Minox cameras were small and accurate. They could be easily hidden from detection, take quick snapshots, and then just as quickly be hidden again. Not only did they give the photographer complete control, but they fulfilled public demand with a sleek design and a seemingly endless supply of gadgets and accessories.
–>In spy photography, function quickly won over design. A genre of photography that started out with cameras that were just as fun to look at as they were to shoot with had been replaced with cameras that were so well hidden that fashion didn’t even play a part in the design. Since their conception, spy cameras have been sought after by investigators, and even found in the possession of spies, but it would be the new era of digital photography that made the greatest impact. Digital advancements have taken spy cameras out of the hands of people and attached them to remote locations completely out of sight, keeping their operators at a safe distance. Technology has also shifted spy photography from political and professional investigations to mostly private surveillance.
* Find subminiature cameras and accessories in stock at KEH.com
* Spy and Private-eye Museum
* Subminiature Camera Cameos (movie and TV)