The Important Modifications the CIA Made to Time Lapse Cameras

Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography.

Think about what you want in a time-lapse camera. You probably need it to be sturdy. But you also need it to be reliable. Well, that’s only part of what the CIA wanted in 1958. In a very rare and weird document, there are several pages of notes on essential changes. Most of what the CIA has on cameras involves small mentions in projects. Some of them deal with cameras, and others focus on lenses. But this is one of the few documents we’ve found relating to timelapse photography. Of course, timelape photography is a favorite hobby and past-time of many photographers. But in the late 1950s, it was a serious business for the CIA. Today, we probably use time-lapse most often for videos. But timelapse is still important when higher resolution photos of a scene are required.

The document in question covers a bunch of things we’re going to explore, but let’s start with the lenses. The CIA demanded a swap out to 50mm Leica lenses. If I had to guess, I’d say the Leica 50mm f2 Summitar was used. Some quick research on Ken Rockwell’s website and my personal knowledge lead me to this. A collapsing lens would make so much sense for the CIA. Further, the document cites the Leica thread system. They were replacing Wollensack lenses–which was part of the company that developed the leaf shutter.

Other major demands included:

  • A silver cell battery being replaced with nickel-cadmium
  • There needed to be reflex adaptability for 135mm lenses and longer
  • Eliminating the 200-foot magazine and instead giving it more magazines to work with
  • 2fps shooting. This seemed pretty advanced for back then. But later on in the document, it calls for what seems to be up to 16 images per second.
  • Shutter range between 1/5th and 1/500th
  • Eliminating the switch for moving targets and stationary targets
  • Altering the radio control for starting and stopping

The CIA was all about being sneaky, so they demanded a quieter shutter. But why were all these changes required? Well, this was the CIA trying to stay ahead of the curve. Nickel-cadmium was better and cheaper than silver cell batteries. Cost-saving was a big thing at certain times for the CIA. Some projects were awarded large amounts of money. Others, including R&D projects like this, varied. Staying ahead also possibly meant moving away from rangefinder-style cameras. So getting the reflex option meant more modernization. The SLR dominated photography for a very long time. And shooting with a 200-foot magazine meant that the CIA had to wait longer. If they instead had multiple magazines, they could process the images faster. If something went wrong with a 200-foot magazine, the entire roll might be compromised.

Two frames per second seem understandable if you’re trying to capture important data. 16 fps and getting a quieter shutter seems insane. Even cameras today have issues trying to do that. If anything, the camera the CIA wanted could have been used at the Olympics. I’m sure it would have won a photojournalist lots of major awards. Changing the shutter range only really made sense if the aperture changed. The ISO always stayed the same, but the shutter was probably controlled via Radio too. Sound familiar? Well, it should. Before you had app control on cameras, you sometimes did this via radio triggers like PocketWizards. They were very fun!

But why did the CIA need this? They needed to place the cameras around the world for documentation. Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, China, and other places all seem like credible reasons according to documents from back then. As the electronics got more advanced, they probably demanded even more weather sealing.

Lead image by Pranavian

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.