Early photography processes were all relatively insensitive to light. Although with each improved process exposure times had been reduced, until the dry plate arrived they were still in seconds or minutes. Exposures of this duration were made normally by removing and replacing the lens cap, the camera is firmly fixed on a tripod or stand. It was impossible to record moving objects; their movement produced a blur on the plate. Early attempts were made to devise an ‘instantaneous’ process which would enable the photographer to hold the camera and to record action subjects. Thomas Skaife’s ‘Pistolgraph’ camera, introduced in 1856, but subsequently greatly improved, was fitted with a Dallmeyer lens with an exceptionally large aperture of f1.1, enabling it to pass more than 200 times more light than the conventional landscape lens. This exceptional lens was possible only because of the very small plate used - a curved watch glass of about one and a half inches in diameter, requiring a lens of about one inch in focal length. A shutter powered by a rubber band permitted exposures sufficiently brief to stop the action of slowly moving subjects. Cameras of this type did not come into general use and the earliest ‘instantaneous’ photographs to be generally published were stereoscopic views. When stereoscopic photographs of scenes with movement were required, both pictures had to be exposed simultaneously. This led to the fitting of simple shutters over both lenses. Usually of simple design or flaps - these early shutters could be used to give exposures as short as a quarter of a second. This was practical because the small size of the image - about three inches square - required for the magnifying stereoscope made it possible to use lenses of short focal length and wide aperture. George Washington Wilson of Aberdeen pioneered the photography of street scenes and other action subjects in a series of stereoscopic views published in 1859. It is said that he made his brief exposures by uncovering and covering the camera lenses with his Glengarry bonnet!

Sir John Herschel is usually credited with coining the term ‘snapshot’ to describe an instantaneous photograph. In The Photographic News of 11 May 1860, writing about taking moving pictures, he referred to “the possibility of taking a photograph, as it were, by a snapshot - of securing a picture in a tenth of a second of time.” It is possible that the term may have been already in current use; in a report in The Photographic Journal (later to become The British Journal of Photography) of 1 July 1859, a report of a demonstration of Skaife’s Pistolgraph camera describes how the demonstrator’s assistant “was directed to snap his camera at the skylight.” However, the recording of action subjects without the use of special apparatus or techniques was not generally possible until the introduction of the gelatin dry plate.

One of the earliest photographers to make a speciality of action photography, and certainly the best-known, was the Englishman Eadweard Muybridge, who worked for much of his life in America. In the early 1870s, Muybridge began a photographic investigation into the movement of horses, using a simple shutter device to take brief exposures on wet collodion plates, but without conclusive success. After a break in his experiments, he succeeded, in 1877, with improved apparatus, in recording a trotting horse with exposures reputedly as brief as a thousandth of a second. Soon after, he created a system of a number of cameras in a row, their rubberband-assisted drop shutters triggered directly by the moving animal or released electrically in sequence by a suitable timing mechanism. Although Muybridge was the first to put this idea into practice it had been suggested earlier, notably by a Swedish portrait painter, Oscar G. Rejlander. In The British Journal of Photography Almanac for 1873 in an article, ‘On Photographing Horses’, Rejlander referred to the “vexed question” of the exact position of a horse’s legs when galloping and suggested a way of solving the problem. “Given a horse and a rider, take a point near or on a sandy or dusty white road, 150 yards off… Then I would have a battery of cameras and ‘quick-acting’ lenses ready charged and loaded. The signal given, the rider starts some distance off the focused point and at the moment of passing it - bang! With a strong wrist and sleight of hand, the exposure and covering is done.” This suggestion was probably seen by Muybridge, and it may have prompted him to devise his successful system some years later. The gelatin dry plate was ideal for his purpose, having great sensitivity and simple manipulation, and in the 1880s he made intensive studies with his batteries of cameras of the movements of animals and men. When published his sequence pictures upset all previously held ideas of the representation of movement. His work led ultimately to the successful introduction, by other inventors, of motion-picture photography in the 1890s.

Professor Etienne Marey, a French physiologist stimulated by Muybridge’s work, devised several cameras in which sequences of images could be recorded on a single plate. His experiments culminated in 1887 in a ‘chronophotographic’ camera in which long series of action pictures could be recorded on rolls of sensitized material. This device can be considered the first practical cine camera. Like Marey, Ottomar Anschiitz, a Prussian photographer, was influenced by Muybridge’s work and in 1882 he devised a small hand camera which used a fabric focal plane shutter. This permitted exposures as brief as a thousandth of a second. He produced and published many excellent studies of animals in action and, later, using a battery of cameras, made sequence studies like those of Muybridge. A commercial version of his focal plane camera was sold by C. P. Goerz of Germany in the 1890s.

The great public interest aroused by the publication of the results of these ‘chronophotographers’ led to the rapid development of hand cameras. At first, the larger stand cameras were adapted for hand use by fitting a shutter over the lens and by adding a viewfinder to help frame the picture. More compact cameras with built-in shutters soon appeared. Before long a fashion developed for concealing hand cameras. From the early 1880s so-called ‘detective’ cameras were disguised as or hidden in parcels, opera glasses, bags, hats, walking-stick handles and many other forms. Some, like the popular Stirn ‘Secret’ or waistcoat camera, were worn concealed under clothing. To modern eyes, few were convincingly disguised but they were sufficiently unlike the traditional stand camera to fool the Victorian non-photographer. Most did not perform very well through limitations of design or of the materials they employed. The glass plate then in universal use was a major drawback. Awkward mechanisms were needed to change a succession of glass plates inside the camera. The weight of the plates and the relatively large size of even the ‘detective’ cameras were a great inconvenience for all but the most enthusiastic photographer. Although the dry plate relieved the photographer of the necessity of making his own plates, he still had to process and print them, operations requiring a darkroom and the necessary skills. These problems, and the expense incurred, prevented photography from becoming a popular pastime. This was all to be changed by George Eastman.