The motion picture camera is the basic tool of the filmmaker, used to capture images on film. The word "camera" comes from camera obscura , a device developed during the Renaissance that was a precursor to modern-day photographic cameras. The camera obscura (which literally means "dark room") consisted of a darkened chamber or box with a small hole in one wall. Images from outside the camera passed through this hole, which acted as a lens, and appeared, inverted, on the opposite wall. Reduced in size, the camera obscura became the pinhole camera; lenses and photographic plates were added in the nineteenth century to create the photographic camera.

Several technological advances were necessary before it was possible for cameras to record moving images. The glass plates used in early photography needed to be replaced by flexible film stock, and a mechanism was required to pull the film through the camera. An intermittent device was needed to stop each frame briefly in front of the lens, and a shutter was added to block light between frames. Finally, the lengthy exposure times necessary for early photography—from several minutes to more than an hour—needed to be reduced significantly for moving pictures, which require a minimum rate of twelve frames exposed per second to successfully create the illusion of motion. Developments made throughout the nineteenth century by countless inventors around the world culminated in the introduction of the movie camera in the 1890s, and with it the birth of motion pictures.

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