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Photography Throughout History

Updated on July 18, 2011
A Camera Obscura example
A Camera Obscura example

Painters And Artists

Maybe vanity can explain why man has always needed to make permanent pictorial records of himself and his surrounding environment. Up until relatively modern times this task fell upon painters and artists who have left pictorial accounts of our history. The advent of the camera changed all of that.

Although the modern camera wasn’t invented until the 1800’s, the two fundamental components of a working camera had been known for centuries. As early as the 1400’s it was common knowledge an upside down image could be produced by light shining through a pin hole in a closed box or container.

The first reference to optic laws making pinhole cameras possible was by Aristotle around 330 BC, who pondered how the sun could make a circular image shining through a square hole. Later, Alhazen (pronounced Al-Haytham), an optics authority who lived around 1000 AD, invented the first pinhole camera.

Nicphore Nipces earliest surviving nature scene, 1826.
Nicphore Nipces earliest surviving nature scene, 1826.

Camera Obscura

This technology, called "camera obscura" was used by sketch artists. An image was projected onto paper inside a dark box allowing artists to trace the outlines. It was also known there were light sensitive chemicals capable of developing an image on a surface, but combining the two technologies was not successfully done until fairly recent times.

The first permanent photograph was an image produced in 1826 by French inventor Joseph Niéphore Niépce. The image was later accidentally destroyed. Niépce made the first photographic image using a camera obscura. Previous to Niépce, it had only been used for viewing or drawing purposes.

Robert Cornelius self-portrait, Oct. or Nov. 1839.  On the back are the words The first light picture ever taken." This is the first known photographic image of a human ever made.
Robert Cornelius self-portrait, Oct. or Nov. 1839. On the back are the words The first light picture ever taken." This is the first known photographic image of a human ever made.

Sun Prints

Heliographs, or sun prints as they were called, were the forerunners of the modern photograph. It was produced on a polished pewter plate spread with a petroleum base called Bitumen of Judea. Following exposure the bitumen is washed away and the metal plate polished, which makes a negative image. An image can then be coated with ink and impressed upon paper, producing a print. However, his photograph took eight hours of exposure to create and would soon fade away.

It was early in the 1800's when the first attempts to make images on paper surfaces that had been coated with light sensitive materials were done. The process worked, but it wasn’t feasibly practical. Notwithstanding exposure times, the problem was how to make a captured image on a surface permanent.The Daguerrotype image, named after its’ French inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, solved some of the problems.

Going Mobile Circa 1855
Going Mobile Circa 1855


Daguerre's process 'fixed' the images onto a sheet of silver-plated copper. He polished the silver and coated it with iodine. This created a surface that was sensitive to light, one that wouldn’t change after being subjected to light.

An image could be captured and the exposure process stopped. However the image could easily be lost by surface chemical damage. Exposure times were also not practical. In time entrepreneurs and technologists solved these glitches. Exposure time was cut and multiple copies of any image could then be produced as easily as one.

Niépce And Daguerre

Working as partners, Niépce and Louis Daguerre, refined the existing silver process. In 1833 Niépce died leaving his notes to Daguerre. He made a few changes to the process and announced he had invented a process using silver on a copper plate called the Daguerreotype. The French government immediately bought the patent and made it available to the public.

Frederick Scoff Archer, an English sculptor, invented the wet plate negative in 1851. A solution of collodion was applied to glass having light-sensitive silver salts. This allowed for a more stable, detailed negative.The term "photography" comes from the Greek words photos ("light") and graphein ("to draw)" and was first used by scientist Sir John F.W. Herschel in 1839.

Tintypes, were patented in 1856, and were another boon to the field of photography. It was simply a thin sheet of iron on which a light sensitive material was coated creating a positive image.

Around the time of the Civil War photographers became more mobile. Portable dark rooms, housed in tents along with necessary chemicals and equipment, could easily be packed in large suitcases. Taking pictures and developing them were done on site.

With the process perfected enough for commercial use, portrait studios became common place and people could get their portrait made economically.

In 1879, the dry plate process was discovered. It was a glass negative plate treated with a dried gelatin emulsion. They could be stored for longer periods. This made portable darkrooms no longer a necessity and technicians could be employed to process their photographs. The dry process absorbed light more rapidly enabling companies to develop hand-held cameras.

Camera themselves were also evolving. It was becoming possible to decrease exposure times by making the shutter releases mechanically operated instead of having to be manually opened.

In the 1800’s, it was a man named George Eastman,a dry plate manufacturer from Rochester, New York, who invented the Kodak camera which could be purchased for $22.00. Eastman's first simple camera in 1888 was a wooden, light-tight box with a simple lens and shutter that was factory filled with film.

He also developed the concept of film sheets on a roll holder inside of the camera. After each exposure, the roll could be advanced and after being fully exposed, the whole camera was simply mailed or brought back to his processing labs for developing. The advertisement read, "You press the button, we do the rest." The frail paper film was later changed to a sturdier plastic base.

In the beginning color prints were not stable because organic dyes were used to make an image. Images would simply disappear from the film as the dyes became old. Kodachrome was the first film to produce prints that could last in 1935.

Modern technologies can produce prints capable of lasting centuries. New methods utilizing computer generated digital images, offer even better permanency.

Today, “T-grain emulsions” are used. These films use light-sensitive silver grains that are T-shaped. This produces a much finer grain pattern offering greater detail and higher resolution making sharper images.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      You are welcome sweety!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      This is a great history of photography. I never knew most of those things. Thanks for a piece of history.