How to Clean Your Camera Lens: The CIA’s Guide

Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography.

I’ve seen some pretty crazy things get recommended for cleaning lenses. A few years ago, Pop Photo said that Vodka worked. We’ve done a few demonstrations with Isopropyl alcohol. But a document in the CIA’s archive is different. Their approach is a lot more like what an eye doctor would say today about your glasses. One would wonder why a document like this needed to be written. Well, of course, someone was messing up big time. And cleaning lenses with anti-reflective coatings needed a reference document.

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There’s a Fascinating Story of the CIA’s Kodachrome Slides of Potatoes

Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography. Hit the Listen to this Article button to follow along with the story.

Of all things, potatoes are probably one of the most boring photography subjects. But they’re incredibly important. There are many documents in the CIA’s database talking about potatoes, harvesting, potato alcohol, and even introducing pests to other countries. But the very perplexing documents are all about Kodachrome transparencies of potatoes. Why would this matter? We’re curious, and we find beauty in the mysterious question. Could someone have just been really bored and wanted to photograph potatoes? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answer. We dug deep into the records too. But the entire exchange is pretty weird.

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Corona: The Curious CIA Satellite That Used a Unique Lens

Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography. Hit the Listen to this Article button to follow along with the story.

If we mention the word Corona today, we’d be referring to the virus. That’s just the way of common vernacular. In the early 1970s, though, the word meant something different to the CIA. Corona was the name of a spy satellite. And according to many documents, it’s one of the first spy satellites. Satellites were used for many things back in the day. In an earlier Declassified episode, we talked about their use by civilians. In fact, citizens gathered lots of information about the Russians with their satellites at home. As the predecessor to drones, satellite use by common folk quickly fell out of favor. And none of them were as capable as the Corona.

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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.

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A Mysterious F1.4 Lens Gave the CIA Gear Lust and a Surprise

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

I think most people reading this have never heard of a brand called Wild, but they made lenses that particularly caught the eye of the CIA. If you’ve been following the Declassified series, you’ll know the CIA’s issues with low light photography. High-speed film helped a bit, but there were more complications involving color vs. black and white. However, the 1960s saw significant optical progress for the Central Intelligence Agency. And one specific lens really made their jaws drop. Called the Falconar Lens by Wild in the document, it boasted an f1.4 aperture and a 4″ focal length. The CIA got wind of it from NATO, which convinced them to use it as well. In all my years in the photo industry, I’ve never heard of them before.

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Spying with Telephoto Lenses Interested the CIA in the 1950s

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

Photographers today are very demanding. But in the 1950s, the CIA presented a plan for an even more demanding lens. Let’s get one big fact out of the way first: telephoto lenses are large. If you look at the Sigma 200-500mm f2.8, then you’ll know how true that is. However, the CIA didn’t want big telephoto lenses: they wanted a lens that telescoped. What’s more, they wanted lenses that were at least f8. This isn’t unreasonable if you consider the kinds of clandestine operations they did. Sometimes they’d need to hide in a car, a building, etc. and shoot photos outside of a window. This was combined with high-speed film, which the CIA loved in black and white. Three specific documents detail the CIA’s needs for such telescoping telephoto lenses.

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Color Film Photography Was Such a Big Headache for the CIA

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

We previously reported on how aerial color film photography was a headache for the CIA. But the problem wasn’t just with aerial photography. One document in the late 1960s tells about all the checks and concerns there were about color film. Today, you’d easily think it was standard fare. The transition from black and white was a slow one, though. Color didn’t really become the norm until they started to move to digital. One would think that slide film would have done the trick, but that’s not the case. It seemed like everyone wanted it. But the labs, the treasury, and the higher-ups all thought it would make things too complicated. The CIA had many concerns. Let’s put this into perspective.

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How the CIA Made a Checklist on Photographing UFO Sightings

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

In the late 1950s, an anonymous man explored space from his backyard using his telescope. Just like many of you, he was fascinated by what’s out there. And what he found intrigued the CIA. Some probably thought that he was crazy. But a report details the high-resolution photography and emulsions he was using to get the photos. Strange objects were appearing not far from the moon. The CIA received things like this all the time, but the outstanding, high-resolution images this man shot began a vintage X-Files series of investigations. It concerned them enough that they started studies almost 62 years ago.

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In the 1970s, the C.I.A.’s Bird Camera Program Spied on the Soviets

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

The C.I.A. is no stranger to working with animals. And for a time, the common pigeon was a clandestine photographer in the name of Uncle Sam. In the mid-1970s, the C.I.A. describes what’s called the Bird Camera Program. Tests were done all around the United States to send our feathered friends into the Soviet Union. There, the undercover pigeons would fly from point A to point B. Along the way, a camera would photograph whatever was below on the ground. A modified Minox camera was developed to do that. Minox was a company that was well known for their spy cameras and using the 110 film format to get essential photos. 110 film is around the size of a modern Four Thirds sensor. Many years before Olympus and Panasonic developed its spiritual successor, the C.I.A. was putting it to use for spying.

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In the 1960s, High-Resolution Color Photography Pained the CIA

The Declassified Series is a Phoblographer original series that digs deep into historical government documents to examine how they used photography.

To say that Color Photography was a big headache for the Central Intelligence Agency is an understatement. Considering their use of Kodak Aerochrome, it was a huge priority for them. Aerochrome was an infrared film that turned greens into reddish-purples. Ultimately, it let the government find well-camouflaged guerilla fighters in the Congo. But before that, the US had some major frustrations with the format. Depending on who you ask, color photography processes properly began in 1907 with the Lumière Autochrome process. Still, most of the world’s iconic photographs were shot on Black and White after color processes were developed. In the 1960s, the CIA needed high-resolution color photography: Black and white photography wasn’t cutting it. So they went to Kodak–the American film brand the entire country trusted.

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Declassified CIA Document Details Civilians Using Satellite Imagery to Spy on Russian Military

In fact, civilians used to use satellites of their own to see how crops were doing, manage land, etc.

We’re no doubt in some pretty crazy times involving government spying and well as some crazy politics; but a recently declassified CIA document shows us that we’ve pretty much just always been in those times. You see, drone photography isn’t really a new advancement–according to said document the agency had been tracking civilians using satellites of their own to spy on the Russian military back in April 7th 1976.

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In 1972, the CIA Went to the Bottom of the Ocean to Retrieve Film

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Photos courtesy of the CIA

Right now in America, we’ve been going through a lot of questioning of our government because of allegations of domestic spying. But what some folks don’t know is just how far America has gone before with their spying efforts. In 1971, they sent a spy satellite up into the atmosphere to collect intelligence. The satellite was part of the HEXAGON program that took loads of photos on film–mostly because digital wasn’t really progressed that far yet and film was still superior. One of the satellites was supposed to deploy its parachute upon returning to the surface, but it broke off–and so it crashed into the ocean. But it was supposed to be snagged in midair.

And that is when the CIA decided to go high tech–and went 16,400 into the Pacific Ocean.


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