The history of photography begins with the identification of two fundamental concepts: the projection of images through camera obscura and the discovery that certain materials undergo visible changes when exposed to light.
Prior to the 19th century, endeavors to capture images using light-sensitive substances were unsuccessful. In the 1820s, this changed with the development of a photographic process. This led to other processes that set the stage for further innovations.
In this article, we’ll take you on a tour of photography history, some early photographic processes that failed, and others that advanced the development of photography. From there, we’ll travel the photography timeline from the early cameras through the innovation of the digital camera and smartphone photography.
Early Efforts to Capturing Photographic Images
In approximately 1717, Johann Heinrich Schulze managed to record cut-out letters on a container filled with a light-sensitive mixture, producing a glass negative. However, he did not consider the idea of preserving the outcome of this experiment for a long period of time.
Around 1800, Thomas Wedgwood made an initial well-documented endeavor to capture images in a permanent form using glass plates. Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, Wedgwood’s experiments did yield intricate photograms. Unfortunately, both Wedgwood and his colleague Humphry Davy were unable to find a method to stabilize and preserve those images.
Breakthroughs in the History of Photography
In 1826, Nicéphore Niépce achieved a breakthrough in photographic technology by successfully fixing an image captured with a camera. However, this process required an extensive exposure time of at least eight hours and sometimes several days. But it resulted in permanent images, even though they were rather crude.
Building on Niépce’s work, Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype process. This marked the first commercially viable photographic technique and altered the history of photography. Unlike its predecessor, the daguerreotype process only required a few minutes of exposure time in the camera, producing clear and finely detailed images.
The world was introduced to the first photograph in 1839, a year widely recognized as the birth of practical photography. Shortly after the news of the daguerreotype spread, William Henry Fox Talbot developed a negative-positive process that employed gallic acid on light-sensitive paper, producing a primitive image.
Talbot named the process for producing a photographic image calotype from a Greek word meaning “beautiful picture.” Talbot’s invention competed with the daguerreotype and further expanded the possibilities of photographic techniques.
The Collodion Process Brought a New Innovation
Photography became more accessible and flexible due to subsequent advances. The introduction of new materials significantly reduced exposure times, progressing from minutes to seconds and eventually to fractions of a second. Additionally, the development of a new light-sensitive material offered improved affordability, sensitivity, and convenience.
In 1850, Frederick Scott Archer introduced the collodion process, which utilized a glass plate coated with collodion, a flammable syrupy solution.
This merged the quality of the Daguerreotype with more versatile printing options. This technique remained widely utilized for many years. However, it was a cumbersome process that required capturing the image and developing it before the solution dried.
Dry Plate Photography Ushered in a New Era
Numerous efforts were undertaken to discover a dry alternative to collodion wet plates. This would allow photographic plates to be prepared beforehand and developed at a later time, eliminating the need for a portable darkroom. Richard Leach Maddox proposed the concept of silver nitrate solution, which ultimately resulted in the introduction of factory-made dry plates.
The gelatin dry plate process was about 60 times more sensitive than the wet plates of the collodion process. Therefore, the faster exposure time eliminated the need for a tripod, resulting in a variety of smaller cameras that became available at lower costs. This 1878 event marked the commencement of a more contemporary era of photography.
Early Attempts at Color Photography
A major drawback of the early photographic processes was the lack of color. To address this issue, portrait photographers often hired artists to hand-tint daguerreotypes and calotypes. In Munich, Franz von Lenbach projected a light-sensitive image onto canvas and then painted over it. Hand colored woodcuts were popular In Japan, where labor was inexpensive. Some companies began selling delicately hand-tinted photographs of scenic views and daily life in the 1870s.
By the 1880s, photo-chromes, which were color prints made from hand-colored photographs, became fashionable and remained popular until they were gradually replaced by Autochrome plates in the early 20th century.
Ladies and Gentlemen, George Eastman
The history of photography would not be complete without a section on George Eastman. He was an innovator and played a major role in popularizing photography in the 20th century.
In 1888, George Eastman created flexible roll film and launched the Kodak camera. The camera included a 100-exposure roll of film that captured round images. The original Kodak’s list price of $25 included the roll of film and a leather carrying case. When the photographer finished the roll, the camera would be returned to the factory where the images were printed.
The Eastman Dry Plate Company was reincorporated as Eastman Kodak in 1892. From that point and most of the 20th century, the company dominated the camera and film market in the United States. The simplicity of Kodak, with a more affordable price of just $1 by 1900, and Eastman’s aggressive marketing accelerated the growth of photography.
With highly popular camera models, including the Brownie and Instamatic, the Kodak name was practically synonymous with a camera. “Kodak moment” entered the lexicon in the 1980s, describing an event that deserved to be captured on film.
Establishing Photographic Genres
From its beginnings, photography’s most popular genre was the portrait. Some early practitioners broke new ground through the artistry they achieved in their portraits. However, most appeared uninspired and relied on retouching and accessorizing.
Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, a Parisian caricaturist who went by the pseudonym Nadar, made portraits of prominent Frenchmen in the 1850s. He posed them in front of plain backgrounds in diffused daylight, which highlighted details of their face and clothing. He published a lithography, Pantheon Nadar, in 1854.
Photography Invented Photojournalism
From its inception, photography formed a partnership with the press. As early as 1839, French magazines began publishing images. Frequently, the byline read, “from a daguerreotype.”
Photography in war zones began in 1855 with Roger Fenton’s coverage of the Crimean War. In spite of the difficulties of developing collodion process plates in the summer heat and occasionally under enemy fire, Fenton captured 360 photographs. This was the first large-scale effort to document the war.
During the latter part of the 19th century, conflicts in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States kept photographers employed by news organizations. And war images became accepted as accurate portrayals of battle.
In 1888, print media began using the halftone process, which reduced production costs for newspapers and magazines. Newspapers relied on photographers to report on events of local or national interest. And while the quality of production improved, the style of early photojournalism was typically uninspired and rather dull.
Documenting Landscapes, Architecture, and Monuments
Images of landscapes, buildings, statues, and monuments appealed to both photographers and collectors. In the mid-19th century, British photographers found work documenting the far reaches of the empire.
Architecture was photographed out of curiosity, to promote preservation, and to document restoration projects. In the United States and Europe, photographs recorded the construction of the industrial infrastructure. Railroads, bridges, theaters, and monuments were frequent subjects for photographers, who were commissioned by governments or private individuals.
In the 1870s, William Henry Jackson found inspiration in the American West. His work conveyed a sense of the wild nature of this unsettled territory. The images he produced influenced the government to set aside land for Yellowstone National Park.
Photography has the power of persuasion, informing the public in such a manner that may lead to social change. This new genre, social photography, began in London in the 1850s with images of the working poor and homeless children.
Thomas John Barnardo continued this type of work into the 1870s. Barnardo employed before-and-after shots to advocate for social intervention. Later, he confessed to editing and staging the images for dramatic effect. Still, the technique became a convention in social documentation.
Jacob Riis, who worked as a police reporter, spent several years capturing images of New York City’s slum life. Riss believed the living conditions of the city’s immigrants led to criminal behavior. As a result, his candid photography persuaded reformers to undertake slum rehabilitation projects in New York.
Other photographers depicted the daily life, dress, and customs of people in Russia, China, and India.
The History of Photography as an Aesthetic Medium
Organizations promoting the aesthetic qualities of photography began forming in the mid-19th century. The Photography Society, later reorganized as the Royal Photographic Society, was formed in London in 1853. A year later, the Société Française de Photographie was founded in France.
Similar societies sprang up in other countries, advancing photography as an artistic medium. Many of these associations published journals that promoted photography as an art form and educated people on the history of photography.
Some controversy surrounded photography. Many quality images won praise for their sensitivity and objectivity. However, photos that were posed or arranged for the camera were criticized for their lack of originality.
The SLR and Other 20th Century Innovations
Development of the single lens reflex (SLR) camera and designs for interchangeable lenses were underway in the late 19th century. Coupled with small-format film, these compact cameras were a great improvement over the bulky cameras of the 1800s.
Leica introduced a 35 mm film camera in 1925. Ihagee, a German company, created the first 35 mm SLR camera and introduced it to the public in 1936.
By the 1950s, the SLR had established its reputation with both consumers and professional photographers. A later invention, the roof prism, allowed the photographer to view an upright, non-reversed image through an eye-level viewfinder. For the first time, the photographer could get a good idea of how the image would look before committing it to film.
Instant Camera Mania in the Mid-20th Century
Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid Corporation, worked on the idea of an instant camera during World War II. Land unveiled the Polaroid, the first instant camera, in 1948 at a Boston department store. It sold out almost immediately.
The early Polaroid camera produced a sepia-tone image, then black-and-white, and then color prints by 1972. The camera was very popular and commanded two-thirds of the instant camera market, despite competition from Kodak’s Instamatic and other low-cost options.
A Viable Color Process Arrives
French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière unveiled Autochrome in 1907. Mixing potato starch with a panchromatic emulsion, Autochrome elevated color photography and made previous attempts look primitive. It was the world’s reigning color photo process until 1935, when Eastman Kodak Company developed Kodachrome.
The disadvantage of Kodachrome was its processing. It required multiple chemicals and about a dozen steps to develop a negative image. However, it dominated the market until the 1980s, when Fuji and Polaroid introduced simpler color processes that began to eat away at Kodachrome’s market share.
From the 1950s until the advent of digital photography, color film was popular among professional and amateur photographers. But some, especially photojournalists, rejected color photography and considered it gaudy and unworthy of consideration as art.
The Advance of Automatic Features
Optimizing the camera with electronic features made it easier to use and more versatile. Agfa rolled out the Optima 1a, a fully automatic 35 mm camera, in 1962. It featured a dual-purpose selenium cell that measured the light level and powered the auto settings for shutter speed and aperture.
The Optima still required manual focus, but companies like Leica and Pentax were working on autofocus systems. Early efforts required an attachment and were rather clunky. In 1977, Konica released the C35 AF, a full autofocus camera that led to the development of point-and-shoot cameras and pointed the way to further autofocus design innovations.
In the early 20th century, photographers began employing the camera in new ways. They abandoned the conventions of modern art by expanding on what was regarded as art and what was considered suitable subjects for it. In this way, photography was a new and influential medium for expression.
A photographer, writer, and owner of an art gallery, Alfred Stieglitz was a key player in advancing modern photography. Stieglitz discarded the idea that photography should imitate paintings. Many of his photographs were studied in line and form with a direct rendering of the subject matter.
Paul Strand introduced street photography as a genre. Edward Weston captured close-ups of vegetables and other items to highlight the sensuous allure and sculptural nature of everyday objects. Dorothea Lange expanded the form of documentary photography, emphasizing the human aspects of people caught in poverty.
A throw-out-the-rules ethos took photography into postmodernism. Photographers sought to reevaluate what many considered dull material and applied their cameras to this notion. They preferred color, separating themselves from the early history of modern photography known for high contrast black and white images.
Photographers such as Barbara Kruger, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Cindy Sherman led a generation of artists who explored the concept of identity and the self. They helped establish photography as an accepted art form. Today, an art museum probably has a photography section. Museums around the world collect and exhibit photographs as part of their regular showings.
The History of Photography in the Digital Age
The idea of capturing digital images emerged in the 1960s when an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory proposed capturing digital images of the planets from space. Over the next few years, that plan and various attempts to create a digital camera all failed.
The breakthrough came in 1975 when Steve Sasson, an engineer for Eastman Kodak, developed a camera with a charge-coupled device (CCD) sensor. It weighed about nine pounds and looked like it had been cobbled together with spare parts. A sensor with a resolution of less than one megapixel captured black-and-white images that were stored on a cassette tape. But it altered the history of photography.
Sasson developed several prototypes, but none went into production. Kodak failed to see the potential for digital cameras and continued to concentrate on film photography.
From Film-less to Full Digital Photography
In the 1980s, Sony, Canon, and Nikon began developing electronic cameras. These devices recorded an analog image and stored it on a floppy disc.
Fujifilm introduced the first fully digital camera, which captured digital images and saved them to a memory card. The DS-1P, with its 2 megabyte card could store up to 10 images. That was 1988.
Digital photography boasted an immediacy that film could not approach. No longer did the photographer have to shoot an entire roll of film and then wait to have it processed or invest in expensive and time-consuming darkroom equipment and chemicals. In addition, digital cameras allow for greatly increased storage capacity. Today’s memory cards store thousands of images and are easily replaced to accommodate additional storage.
Mirrorless Cameras Change the Game
Mirrorless cameras took innovation another step by eliminating the flip-up mirror of the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera and making way for further technological leaps in sensor capability and artificial intelligence-aided features.
The major camera manufacturers now concentrate on mirrorless systems. Canon, Nikon, and Sony no longer produce DSLRs. Mirrorless has taken the lead as the dominant camera system.
We have an article on Mirrorless vs DSLR, if you’d like to get more detail.
Modern Digital Photography is Driven by Technology
Digital camera capability improves with innovations in sensor technology, image processing, and connectivity. As a result, high resolution, fast autofocus, and low-light performance come standard in today’s cameras.
There is increasing interest in photography among hobbyists and enthusiasts, spurring camera manufacturers to separate themselves from the competition with new technology and easy-to-use designs.
Lightweight cameras with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are essential for sharing on social media or uploading to media outlets. Also, high-definition video is increasingly in demand by professional, amateur, and enthusiast photographers.
The Smartphone Camera Comes of Age
Two cellular telephone manufacturers debuted camera phones in 2000. The Samsung phone required a computer connection to access its photos. A camera phone by Sharp, the J-SH04, could send photos electronically. How cool is that?
The Sharp camera phone boasted a resolution of 0.11 megapixels, which was not great but an improvement over Sasson’s prototype. In 2023, the average smartphone features a camera with 12 – 16 megapixels resolution. The difference in quality between digital cameras and smartphone cameras is shrinking. Apple, Samsung, and other companies are expanding the possibilities of mobile photography.
We have an excellent course on Smartphone Photography launched recently.
Recent developments in digital imaging are now part of the history of photography. No doubt, further innovations are on the horizon. From the earliest photograph of the Daguerreotype camera to today’s compact and smartphone cameras, it’s an evolving story.
This article is merely a brief history of photography. A full history would require several books. As a photographer, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned professional, you are the beneficiary of nearly 200 years of technological innovation and artistic trends.
If you have any questions or comments, please submit them in the comments section below.