From a simple pinhole camera to the latest digital cameras, let's take a quick look at the journey. The sharpness of the projected image in a camera obscura depends on the size of the pin hole.
Developed by Louis Daguerre and Joseph Niepce, daguerreotype used a copper plate coated with silver and treated with iodine vapor. Gelatin dry plate invented by Richard Maddox led to the development of cameras that could be taken outside of the studio. Before full blown digital cameras, camera manufacturers had started integrating a lot of electronics in the cameras including through the lens light metering, auto focus and auto exposure. Though the concept of digitizing and storing images electronically is much older than the advent of digital cameras, the most improtant thing for thses cameras to be practical was the ability to use the digitized images. The earliest digital cameras were essentially still video cameras that recorded single frames to a floppy disc or a magnetic tape.
Digital cameras have adopted the same standards as film camera and have mimicked similar film camera formats making it easier for users to shift from film to digital.
There is a new category taking shape in higher end digital cameras which is the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. While the optical quality of the kit lenses is not bad they are not as good as the prime lenses either. Comparing all the advantages that you get with a 50mm prime, the price seems to be inexpensive. The Canon EF 70-200 f2.8L IS is a very versatile lens for the professional and serious amateur photographer. Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS a€“ with 3-stop image stabilizer and rubber ring around mount to repel dust. Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS II a€“ with 4-stop image stabilizer, small improvement in image quality thanks partly to 1 fluorite element and 5 UD elements, and flourine coating at front and back glass surface to repel dust and moisture. Smaller the pin hole, the sharper the image but smaller pin hole also reduces the amount of light (see aperture) resulting in a dim image. The dry plate was an improvement over 'wet plate' that had to be used within 10 minutes (before it dried) hence not very practical. Though the photographic film and kodak cameras that used them were available in the late 1800s, they were not very popular in the professional community.
TLRs and SLRs use a similar concept to allow the photographer to look through the lens and get a sharp focussed image before lifting the mirror and recording the image on the film. The earlier cameras manufactured by polaroid used two different rolls of film but the more later versions that many of us have seen use square format integral film that produce a print without any intervention from the photographer. The avialability of portable color printers and the internet are the two most important reasons in my opinion that let to the enormous popularity of digital cameras inspite of the higher cost and inferior photographs (compared to film). Like film cameras, digital cameras are available in two broad categories- compact and Interchangeable lens cameras.

In general they use a tiny sensor- the largest about 5% the size of a 35mm film frame in terms of area.
Earlier DSLRs and most professional DSLRs do not provide 'live preview' as the mirror for the optical viewfinder blocks the sensor while you frame and focus the view.
Prime lenses give you sharper and crisper images with less flare and the least aberrations.
Less than a ?100 and with super imaging quality, there is little more that you can expect in the budget. Well, a Camera Obscura in its initial days was not meant to be carried around and certainly not meant to capture still images.
In 1913, Leica developed a prototype 35mm camera (35mm refers to the width of the film) and launched a production model in 1925.
There is a third more limited category of 'digital backs' used by professionals with their existing medium format equipment.
The smaller sensor reuires lenses with small focal length which are usually also conveyed in 35mm equivalent focal length.
Many mid and higher end consumer DSLRs however now support live preview similar to compacts and offer other bells and whistles available in consumer compact cameras.
One of the standards in these cameras is the 'Four Micro Thirds' with a sensor size of 17.3x13mm. Also, the prime lenses are many times cheaper than the pro lenses that give you the same details.
A camera obscure was simply a room (later compacted to a box) with a pin hole on one side that results in an inverted projected image of an object placed outside the pinhole on the opposite wall.
Adding a lens created a device capable of forming a relatively bright & focussed image- the only thing missing at this time was a medium capable of capturing and retaining the images. After exposing them to light (for as long as 10 -20 minutes) the plates were treated with mercury and fixed with a salt solution. After about 100 exposures, the camera had to be sent back to the factory for developing and reloading. Leica was a hit and it's still considered one of the most prestigious brand names in photography.
The mechanism of two lenses are coupled so when you focus through one lens, the other lens move in conjuction creating the same image on the film as you see thru the focussing lens. Since there are multiple sensor sizes, the 35mm focal length provides a good basis for comparison.
In terms of image quality, the most important difference between a DSLR and a compact is the sensor size.
These cameras offer the advantage of interchangeable lens and better image quality but in a compact body. If you are one among the many contemporary photographers, your (D)SLR must have come with a common 18-55 kit lens.

Even in low light you will be able to hold onto the image longer without the necessity of a flash. I can imagine the novelty aspect of such a device but sometime in the 18th century, devices were made using angled mirrors to project the image on the top of the box or below to a sheet of paper. The earliest such meduim developed by Joseph Niepce used a pewter plate coated with bitumen. The dry plate could also be made very senstive to light resulting in an exposure time of fraction of a second compared to minutes. The most important disadvantage is the absense of through the lens optical viewfinder which is preferred by most professional photographers.
As you get more involved with your camera, there will be a rising necessity to add more lenses to your kit. 50mm primes on the other hand allows a maximum aperture between f1.2 and f2, making it possible for you to take photos in low light situations. Bitumen hardened on exposure to light and the unexposed bitumen would be washed away to create a crude image.
In earlier cameras, the photographer would remove the cap of the lens manually and keep the lens open for several minutes to explose the plate. Most DSLRs accept lenses made for the film cameras but those with less than full frame sensors have what is known as a 'crop factor'.
A micro four thirds camera such as a panasonic GF-1 with a compact 20mm lens is a very handy street camera. While the first ones maybe a macro or a telezoom, at some point of time you will definitely have the necessity of a prime lens.
The faster exposure time resulted in the development of a mechanical shutter - a feature of portable cameras that's still around. An SLR or single lens reflex camera as the name suggests uses a single lens for focussing as well as taking the picture. The zoom range is usually defined as a multiple- for example a 3x zoom means that the maximum focal length of the lens is 3 times the minimum focal length.
Developed later by William Talbot, they used paper coated with silver iodide but treated differently to create a negative image hence making multiple positive copies possible.
SLRs have a mirror at 45d in front of the shutter that allows the image to be seen through a viewfinder set with a prism (in higher end SLRs) or another mirror. When you press the shutter release button after focussing, the mirros flips up and the shutter is activated to record the image.

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