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Camera portability made it possible to capture travel scenes and everyday life, right from the earliest days of cinema


More than 120 years ago, as cameras became increasingly easy to transport and use, many inventors sought ways to create cameras that could capture movement. In 1895, the Lumière brothers invented the Cinématographe, a portable camera that could record both everyday moments and exotic travel films.

In this section, you’ll learn why the Cinématographe was considered a portable camera, who invented it and how it worked. You’ll also hear stories from camera operators of long-ago days and discover some of the films that were shot with this camera.

Refer to the Additional Resources section to see a glossary of technical terms.

A portable camera from the earliest days of cinema

It may not be as light as your smartphone camera, but back in its day, the Cinématographe was designed as a portable device. Like other photographic cameras of the late 19th century, the Cinématographe was designed to be lightweight and easy to operate, allowing filmmakers to leave the studio behind and film people living their daily lives, as well as shoot travel films all over the world.

In addition, the Cinématographe made it possible to record and project films using the same apparatus, all in the same day. Much like your smartphone, which allows you to record a video and then watch it, camera operators (then commonly called “operators”) could move around to capture “views” and then project them on a screen placed in front of viewers. 

Back then, the term “views”  did not mean the number of times an online video was watched. It was used to refer to movies.

A new way of seeing the world: The Lumières’ animated views

Between 1895 and 1905, the Lumière brothers created a catalogue of 1428 views shot with the Cinématographe.

Although the views seemed to have been captured on the fly, in actual fact, operators diligently prepared their shots. Images were carefully composed and the placement of the Cinématographe was meticulously selected. There was also some staging. During shoots, operators asked people not to look directly at the camera, to give the impression of true candid shots. In addition, operators sometimes orchestrated movements and changes in position so that the action always took place in front of the camera.

The desire to document daily life and discover cultures that were unfamiliar to Europeans at the time is evident in the selection of films in the catalogue.


Bains en mer filmed by Louis Lumière in 1897
© Institut Lumière
Swimmers jump into the water from a jetty; a rowboat passes by.



Course en sacs filmed by Louis Lumière in 1896
© Institut Lumière
Young people race in gunny sacks between two rows of spectators, who are entertained by the tumbling and antics that take place during the amusing contest.


Examples of films showing everyday life:

In the garden in front of their villa in Lyon, Auguste Lumière (left), his daughter Andrée (middle) and his wife Marguerite (right) eat and drink.

Photogram from view no 88, Repas de bébé, filmed by Louis Lumière in 1895.
Public domain

Repas de bébé is an example of a film showing everyday life. It was one of the first home movies ever made. Auguste Lumière, sitting on the left, feeds his daughter Andrée. His wife Marguerite is on the right-hand side of the frame.

A train pulls into the station. Travellers on the right-hand side of the frame wait on the platform.

Photogram from view vue no 653, Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat, filmed by Louis Lumière in 1897.
Public domain

Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat is another view of everyday life. The framing of this view highlights the movement of the train, which was a symbol of speed and modern technology.

Examples of travel films:

These views, which were filmed around the world, provided glimpses of countries and cultures unfamiliar to European viewers.


Porte de Jaffa : côté est filmed by Alexandre Promio in 1897
Public domain
Pedestrian traffic in a street in Jerusalem.

A caravan of camel drivers passes in the foreground. In the centre is the Sphinx of Giza and in the background is the pyramid of Cheops.

Photogram from view no 381, Les pyramides (vue générale), filmed by Alexandre Promio in 1897.
Public domain

This view, which was shot in Egypt, features the Sphinx and the Pyramid of Cheops, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A caravan of camel drivers passes by in the foreground, speaking to the authenticity of this faraway land.

The origins of an invention

In the late 19th century, many inventors were searching for ways to record motion. The idea of photographing bursts of still images and projecting them sequentially was meant to give the brain the illusion that the static images were in motion.

Close-up view of two hands scrolling through the pages of a tiny book. Each page shows a photogram of a small boy. When the pages of the book are flipped quickly, the little boy appears to move fluidly; the broken movements become linked together. The well-dressed little boy makes a face and then claps his hands.

Flip book entitled Gamineries, 1967. It consists of images from Émile Cohl’s film.
© Christoph Benjamin Schulz

A few years before the invention of the Cinématographe, Étienne-Jules Marey invented portable devices capable of reproducing movement, such as the chronophotograph and the chronophotographic gun.

A man standing by the sea aims his gun at something out of sight. Slung across his shoulder is a box that protects the sensitive photographic plates from light.

Engraving of the chronophotographic gun designed by Étienne-Jules Marey, as published in La Nature, 1888, p. 328.
Domaine public

Image showing twelve successive positions of a gull in flight. The caption reads “Fig. 3. Photograph of a gull in flight. Photogravure reproduction of shots obtained with the chronophotographic gun.”

Marey, Etienne-Jules. 1882. “Le fusil photographique.” La Nature : revue des sciences, vol. 18, no. 464: 326-330. Image obtained using the chronophotographic gun, showing twelve shots of a gull in flight.
Public domain

These twelve images were photographed in one second. For each image, the exposure time was 1/720 of a second.

Decomposition of the movement of a galloping white horse with a man on its back.

Chronophotograph on fixed plate by Étienne-Jules Marey, negative, 1886. The image creates the illusion of movement by superimposing twelve shots that were captured in one second.
Public domain

The purpose of chronophotography was primarily scientific; the objective was to take multiple photographs in order to analyze the different positions of bodies in motion.

The Cinématographe was invented by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Both were entrepreneurs, engineers and inventors. Auguste and Louis began their careers in Lyon in 1884 as partners of their father, photographer Antoine Lumière, in the Société Anonyme des Plaques et Papiers Photographiques Antoine Lumière et ses fils. Between the two brothers, they filed nearly 340 patents over the course of their careers. Revenue from their patents and from the sale of photographic plates provided them with the financial means to develop the Cinématographe.

Auguste Lumière (left) and Louis Lumière (right), dressed in suits, seated, in profile.

Photograph of Auguste Lumière (1862-1954) and Louis Lumière (1864-1948).
Public domain

In the introduction to the Cinématographe patent, the Lumière brothers explained their intent to design a self-contained machine that would be light, portable and easy to operate. Operators could be amateurs with a basic knowledge of photography, who would be able to move around to capture views and then project them, all on their own.

Image de la première page du Brevet sur laquelle on lit : Bureau des brevets d’invention français et étrangers Lépinette et Rabilloud à Lyon. Brevet d’invention de 15 ans pour un appareil servant à l’obtention et à la vision des épreuves chronophotographiques apparaît. Demande formulée par MM. Auguste Lumière et Louis Lumière. Mémoire descriptif. View

Lumière, A., and L. Lumière. 1895. Brevet d’invention de 15 ans pour un appareil servant à l’obtention et à la vision des épreuves chronophotographique [Fifteen-year patent for an apparatus to film and view chronophotographic proofs]. No. 245032. Lyon, France. 11 p.

pdf (2.01 MB)

Today, we can capture videos on our smartphones, anytime, using just our fingertips, thanks to camera inventors who searched for ways to record movement!

A non-portable device from the same era: The Kinetograph

To better understand why the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe was considered portable and how it allowed operators to work alone, let’s compare it to a camera that was invented by Thomas Edison at around the same time: the Kinetograph.

In 1891, a few years before the Cinématographe was invented, Edison developed the Kinetograph, which he used in his studio called the Kinetographic Theater (nicknamed the Black Maria). The Black Maria made it possible to control light levels, thus meeting Edison’s requirements for indoor shoots, which included circus acts and vaudeville performances.

In West Orange, New Jersey, just across from Manhattan, Thomas Edison built the world’s first film studio, called the Kinetographic Theater. It was a lightweight building constructed entirely of tar paper. The interior was painted black, and on sunny days, it was stifling hot. Laurie Dickson […] called it the Black Maria—the slang name given to the paddy wagons of American police forces—which said a lot about how uncomfortable it was. The roof was retractable to let in the much-needed daylight, and as the sun moved across the sky, a central rotating platform and circular track repositioned the small building (Briselance and Morin 2010, 25). [Translation]

(Briselance et Morin 2010, p. 25).

The Kinetograph was situated inside Edison’s studio and ran on electricity. It could not be moved.

Inside Edison's studio, the Kinetograph (right foreground) sits on a table. The camera is connected to the Phonograph by cables. In the background, actors are performing in front of a black background

Drawing by E.J. Meeker of a film being shot inside Edison’s studio, 1894.
Public domain

Wide shot of a large black shed. A section of the roof is open. A track surrounds the building.

An 1894 photograph of the world’s first movie studio, the Kinetographic Theater, also known as the Black Maria, designed by Thomas Edison in New Jersey in 1892.
Public domain

By comparing the dimensions of the Cinématographe and the Kinetograph, we quickly understand that their inventors had two completely different visions of what films and film shoots should be. The Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe made it possible to change locations to capture people’s everyday lives and make travel films, whereas the Kinetograph made it possible to film performances indoors in a controlled environment.

Cinématographe technical data sheet

Which of this device’s features made it portable and easy to use and allowed it to get close to its subjects?


22.5 cm x 19 cm x 28 cm It was relatively small and easy to handle.
Wood, metal, leather and fibres.
4.3 kg, including the projection lens and unloaded magazine (no film) The body of the camera was relatively light.
Frame rate
Approximately 16 frames per second (fps). The speed could be varied because the film was advanced by a crank handle powered by the operator. Hence the importance of maintaining a constant speed.

Components and accessories

Main unit
Wooden box.
A lightproof wooden box to protect the blank film.
Take-up magazine
A metal box inside the main wooden box containing the exposed film (on which the images were printed).
A 17-metre strip lasting about 50 seconds.
Crank handle
For advancing the film inside the housing. To keep a steady pace, operators often sang “Sambre et Meuse.”
Taking lens
Equipped with a lens that reproduced the approximate angle and perspective of the human eye.
Projection lens
A lens with a long focal length. Presumably, this allowed the camera to be concealed at the back of the room.
The Cinématographe was set on a tripod to allow operators to hold the camera firmly with their left hand while operating the crank with their right.


The camera could record, develop and project images.
Flexible film
While glass plates continued to be used for still photography, the Lumière brothers used film that was flexible and transparent.
No viewfinder
A viewfinder is a small window through which the operator can see the image that will be shot. The Cinématographe was not equipped with one.
No microphone
The Cinématographe could not record sound. All films shot with this camera were silent.

Operation and handling

You’ve probably never read an instruction manual for your smartphone camera, have you? The Cinématographe may not have been as intuitive to use as your phone camera, but with some basic photography knowledge, along with the Lumière brothers’ instruction manual, an amateur photographer could operate it.

The following excerpt from a letter written by Louis Lumière illustrates his desire to design a device that could be used by a single operator.

From Louis Lumière to H. Mesnier on October 22, 1895,

Mr. H. Mesnier, Bordeaux

We are in possession of your correspondence dated the 20th of this month and have read its contents. We have not forgotten your previous request concerning our Cinématographe, but we are not yet certain of the price of this apparatus, nor of the timing of its sale. As soon as we can inform you, we will do so.

Our simple device will be easy to use and is unlikely to be damaged if placed in the right hands.

There will be no need for special knowledge when handling this device. A basic knowledge of photography will suffice.

Our device has an advantage over Edison’s (1) in that for public presentations, the projected images may be viewed by a very large number of spectators at once, which is not the case with the Kinetoscope (2).

Yours sincerely,

L. Lumière.

Note 1: Before inventing his famous phonograph in 1878, Edison improved the printing telegraph system and invented an automatic telegraph that used perforated tape. Considered the father of moving pictures in the United States, he became interested in this subject following a lecture given by Muybridge. He wished to reproduce not only movement, but also the sound that accompanied it. Edison’s genius allowed him to not only invent and perfect numerous systems, but also to surround himself with a highly qualified team. To ensure images were equidistant, they used Eastman’s celluloid film, which at first was notched (1888) and later perforated (1889). From 1890-1891, they developed the Kinetograph, which was the first real movie camera. Surprisingly, however, Edison did not see a future for the projector. In an individual apparatus, the spectator viewed the synthesis of movement: when the Kinetoscope arrived in France in 1894, the Bulletin de la Société française de Photographie wrote, “Ce n’est qu’un jouet de haute valeur [It is nothing but an expensive toy].” The Kinetoscope must of course be included among the many elements that Louis Lumière drew upon to create the Lumière Cinématographe.

Note 2: It weighs less than 5 kilograms and is easier to handle than its main competitor the Kinetograph, whose greater weight and volume make handling it much more awkward, especially for reporting. Moreover, images from the Kinetoscope can only be seen by one viewer at a time through an eyepiece in a box. Contrary to public screenings, in dark rooms, on a large screen, much more similar to what we call cinema today.”  

Lumière, A., and L. Lumière. 1994. Correspondances 1890-1953. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma. [Translation]

In the Lumière brothers’ 30-page instruction manual, operators could find detailed explanations of the camera’s functions and the preparations to be made before shooting.

Image de la première de couverture de La Revue du Siècle datant de 1897. Au centre de la page se trouve le dessin d’une étoile dans laquelle deux femmes lisent un livre. Autour se trouve les informations de parution et du directeur Camille Roy View

Lumière, A. and L. Lumière. 1897. “Le Cinématographe Par MM. Auguste Et Louis Lumière.” La Revue Du Siècle, no. 120: 233-63.

pdf (5.59 MB)

So, how was the Cinématographe operated?

The operator’s first step was to set up the Cinématographe on its tripod. Next, the image had to be framed and focused. Like photo cameras of the time, the Cinématographe did not have a viewfinder (a small window through which the operator could see the image being shot). The operator had to plan the frame before shooting because once the camera started rolling, it was not possible to see what was being filmed.

The body of the Cinématographe is open. All parts of the drive mechanism can be seen. The film is also visible.

Illustration by Louis Poyet in the instruction manual, showing the interior of Cinématographe in open position. It shows the position of the film as it advances through the drive mechanism before the camera is closed for shooting. In order to make the drawing easier to understand, the take-up magazine enclosing the exposed film was not included. Framing and focusing were done with the camera open.

Public domain

As with a photographic chamber, the operator framed before loading the film with the camera open, through the camera gate and the lens, using a polished surface on which the image appeared. The film was then put in place, the machine was closed, the crank was inserted, and shooting could begin whenever one wished. All these operations, including the shooting, were technically
‘blind’: the camera operator, beside his machine, could control what was
in the frame only by guesswork. (Turquety 2019, 83). [Translation]

(Turquety 2014, 83).

When operators were ready to start filming, they turned the crank with their right hands. The crank had to be turned at a rate of two revolutions per second to advance the film past the print window at a speed that would record about 16 frames per second. Beginner operators often hummed certain songs to maintain a steady pace. Because the body of the camera was relatively light, operators used their left hands to hold it firmly in place and keep it as stable as possible. They therefore had to remain next to the camera while shooting.

Close-up illustration of the positions of the operator’s hands on the Cinématographe. The camera is set on the tripod in camera mode. The operator’s left hand immobilizes the camera by holding the top of the camera body, while the operator’s right hand turns the hand crank.

Illustration by Louis Poyet in the instruction manual, showing the positions of the operator’s hands while filming. The left hand holds the device firmly while the right hand operates the crank.
Copyright: Public domain


To capture everything they wished to record on the 17 metres of film available in the camera—that is, about 50 seconds’ worth—operators had to meticulously prepare their shots.

The Cinématographe operator: A one-person team

So, who had the pleasure and privilege of operating the Cinématographe?

In 1896, a few months after the first public paid film screening in Paris, the Lumière company trained operators to go out on location, all around the globe, and create a “catalogue of views,” that is, a collection of short films. During the first year, these operators were the only people to use the device. 

In May 1897, the device was made available for sale. Between 400 and 500 Cinématographe cameras were produced and used, mostly by people who wished to pursue the occupation professionally. The Lumière brothers primarily wished to appeal to professionals, as well as to amateur photographers who had a good knowledge of photography and were already customers of theirs. However, the camera was not within everyone’s financial reach, nor was film. With all of its accessories, the Cinématographe cost 1,650 former francs, or about $10,000 CAD. 

Amateur filmmakers and professional operators hired by the Lumière brothers developed a unique relationship with this camera that provided them with so much freedom to move around. Cinématographe operators could transport the camera around the world and then record, develop and project their films, all in one day.  In a manner of speaking, the operator was a one-person team.

Two operators are standing next to their Cinématographe, outdoors in front of a large staircase. In the background, a crowd is gathered in front of the entrance to the property.

Photograph of Alexandre Promio immortalizing a wedding in front of the Lumière villa, n.d.
© Institut Lumière

In his memoirs, Félix Mesguich, an operator employed by the Lumière company, recounted his multiple trips around the world, attesting to the freedom enjoyed by Cinématographe operators of the time, who could film while travelling.

Ah! When we set out for an isolated and distant corner of our planet, we didn’t bother with a retinue. It was not an expedition. No help was needed, other than a few hirelings recruited on the spot when conditions were difficult. I recall roaming through mountains and valleys, in unfamiliar countries, heavily laden with my tripod and this magic reel with which I recorded the world and stored it on film.

Alone! Yes, I was alone, or almost! I had to think of everything, prepare the itinerary, find lodging, transport the accessories, find the subjects, take the shots, develop the negatives, fix the positives, and often even project them” (Mesguich 1933, xii). [Translation]

(Félix Mesguich, Lumière operator, 1933, p. xii).

Image d’une page de texte. On y voit marqué en en-tête avant propos puis le texte. View

Mesguich, Félix. 1933. Tours de manivelle : souvenirs d’un chasseur d’images. Paris : Grasset.
(Archive from which the above quote is extracted)

pdf (600.66 KB)

Additional information

This motion picture glossary will help you better understand some of the terminology used.

Are you the inquisitive type? Would you like to learn more about the Lumière Cinématographe? The following websites will provide you with additional information.


Briselance, Marie-France et Jean-Claude Morin. 2010. Grammaire du cinéma. Paris: Nouveau Monde.

Coissac, Georges-Michel. 1925. Histoire du cinématographe de ses origines à nos jours. Paris: Éditions du Cinéopse.

Lumière, Auguste et Louis Lumière. 1895. Brevet d’invention de 15 ans pour un appareil servant à l’obtention et à la vision des épreuves chronophotographique. No. 245032. Lyon, France. 11 p.

Lumière, Auguste et Louis Lumière. 1897. “Le cinématographe par MM. Auguste et Louis Lumière”. La revue du siècle, no. 120, p. 233-263.

Lumière, Auguste et Louis Lumière. 1994. Correspondances 1890-1953. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma.

Mesguich, Félix. 1933. Tours de manivelle: souvenirs d’un chasseur d’images. Paris: Grasset.

Rittaud-Hutinet, Jacques. 1985. Le cinéma des origines: les frères Lumière et leurs opérateurs. Seyssel: Champ Vallon.

Turquety, Benoît. 2019. Inventing Cinema. Machines, Gestures and Media History. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


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