The Art of Photography: History and Inception

Photography History and Technology

In a time long forgotten—before the iPhone—many pioneers were faced with a challenging task. How to capture light and store it in a medium? It was a formidable task indeed, because as far as we know, we cannot capture light in a bottle.

The term ‘Photography’ was coined by English mathematician and Astronomer John Hershel in 1839. It was created from the Greek roots phōtos, meaning light and graphé, meaning drawing, they combine to give  ‘Drawing with light’.

Photography, as we know today, did not originate as a hobby for the masses. It has a rich history behind it. From the time when people tried to capture light using metallic plate coated with silver to the invention of the first film camera, the story unfolds over a hundred years. Before its invention, the only way to capture a slice of time was through paintings. It was tedious and expensive. Photography not only resolved this problem, but it also freed the artist from being bound to reality, he could now paint what feels real to him.

History of Photography

The camera obscura (latin for Dark Room) is the predecessor of the pinhole camera. It’s the phenomenon which occurs when an image of a scene is projected through a tiny hole and onto a screen. For the image to be clear the room had to be dark. It was used as a drawing aid in the mid 16th century. Sometimes, lenses are used to increase the aperture so that a usable brightness of the image can be obtained.

Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura

The greek philosopher Aristotle observed and noted this idea in 330 BC when he questioned how the sun could make a circular image when it shined through a square hole.

Solar Eclipse through leaf canopy

Solar Eclipse through leaf canopy. The tiny holes in the leaves follow the same optics as that of the pinhole camera, projecting the image of the sun.

In 1614, Angelo Sala demonstrated that powdered silver nitrate is blackened by the sun, as was the paper wrapped around it. In 1777, the chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele was studying the more intrinsically light-sensitive silver chloride and determined that light disintegrated it to microscopic dark particles of metallic silver.

The earliest surviving camera photograph, taken in 1826 , known as View from the Window at Le Gras

The earliest surviving camera photograph, taken in 1826 , known as View from the Window at Le Gras

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

In 1816 Joseph Nicephore Niepce made the first photographic image with a camera obscura.  Using a paper coated with silver chloride, he succeeded in photographing the images in a small camera, but he could only capture negatives, darkest where the camera image was lightest and vice versa, and they were not permanent. Niépce could not find a way to prevent the coating from darkening all over when it was exposed to light for viewing.

Louis Daguerre

Louis Daguerre


In 1833 Louis Daguerre experimented with photographing camera images directly onto a mirror-like silver-surfaced plate fumed with iodine vapor,  which reacted with the silver to form a coating of silver iodide.  It produced positive images when it was suitably lit and viewed. But the exposure times were still impractically long. Imagine sitting with your camera for 8 hours to take a photo, the sun would have moved to the west and the resulting image would be bereft of any shadows.

"Boulevard du Temple", taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris

“Boulevard du Temple”, taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris, the earliest known candid photograph of a person. The image shows a busy street, but because the exposure was several minutes, the moving traffic is not visible. However, at the lower left, a man apparently having his boots polished, and the bootblack polishing them, were motionless enough for their images to be captured.

William Henry Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot

Daguerre made the pivotal discovery that a slightly invisible or latent image produced on such a plate by a much shorter exposure could be developed to full visibility by mercury fumes. This brought the required exposure time down to a few minutes under optimum conditions. A strong hot solution of common salt served to fix the image by removing the remaining silver iodide. “I have seized the light – I have arrested its flight!”  Daguerre said, upon seeing the image.

In 1840, Henry Fox Talbot invented the calotype process which, like Daguerre’s process, used the principle of chemical development of a faint latent image to reduce the exposure time to a few minutes. A Paper with a coating of silver iodide was exposed in the camera and developed into a translucent negative image. It is stabilized by either washing it in potassium bromide, which converted the remaining silver iodide to silver bromide, or by dipping in a solution of hot sodium thiosulphate to wash away the remaining silver iodide particles. Multiple positives could be made from the translucent negative images by simple contact printing. This gave it an important advantage over the daguerreotype process, which produced an opaque original positive that could only be duplicated by copying it with a camera.

Robert Cornelius took the world's first self-portrait in 1839. He sat in front of the lens for a over a minute, before leaving the seat and covering the lens.

Robert Cornelius took the world’s first self-portrait in 1839. He sat in front of the lens for over a minute, before leaving the seat and covering the lens.

There was an increasing demand for Portraiture from the middle classes during the Industrial Revolution. This demand, which could not be met in volume and in cost by oil painting, added to the push for the development of photography.

The first color photograph made by the three-color method suggested by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855, taken in 1861 by Thomas Sutton

The first color photograph made by the three-color method suggested by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855, taken in 1861 by Thomas Sutton.

In 1884 George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, developed dry gel on paper or film, to replace the photographic plate so that a photographer no longer needed to carry boxes of plates and toxic chemicals around. In July 1888 Eastman’s Kodak camera went on the market with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest”. Now anyone could take a photograph and leave the complex parts of the process to others, and photography became available for the mass-market in 1901 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie.

The kodak brownie, the most important camera ever produced.

The kodak brownie, the most important camera ever produced. It placed the art of photography into the hands of the ordinary people.


The Kodak Brownie

The Kodak Brownie Camera


Before the invention of the Brownie, photography was not something the ordinary people indulged in. The Brownies revolutionized the photography industry by the sheer volume of sales, Millions were sold. The first brownies were sold with film installed to take 100 shots and after the roll was over, the entire camera was returned to the company for developing the images. The revolution came 12 years after when Frank Brownell designed the new Kodak Brownie in which the film could be taken out and developed by Kodak stockists, chemists or even at home. The camera was sold for a sum of $1 and the film could be developed for $2. This made it very affordable. The camera had lean features, a single shutter speed, a narrow aperture which provided a large depth of field, a basic viewfinder, and the lens could not be focused.

Single Lens Reflex camera (SLR)

Leica IIIf viewfinder camera, 1951

Leica IIIf viewfinder camera, 1951

Before the Invention of the single lens reflex, all cameras with viewfinders had two optical paths: one through the lens to the film, and another positioned above  or to the side. Because the viewfinder and the film lens cannot share the same optical path. The viewing lens is aimed to intersect with the film lens at a fixed point in front of the camera. This is okay for taking pictures at a middle or longer distances, but parallax caused framing errors in close-up shots. Moreover, focusing a fast lens when it is opened to wider apertures is not easy. And the viewed image could be significantly different from the final image.

How did they focus old film cameras?

A Foca camera, 1947

A Foca camera with a rangefinder, 1947

In an earlier viewfinder camera, the photographer had to estimate the relative distance between him and the subject and set the focus by rotating the dial on the focusing ring. Some earlier film cameras were equipped with a rangefinder, this helps the photographer measure the distance between the camera and the subject,   Most varieties of rangefinder show two images of the same subject, one of which moves when a calibrated wheel is turned. When the two images coincide and fuse into one, the distance can be read off the wheel and the photographer is required to transfer the value to the lens focus ring to keep the image in focus. It becomes quite arduous when shooting at different focal lengths.

Cut out of a modern DSLR camera.

Cut out of a modern DSLR camera.              Image source

A single-lens reflex camera (SLR) uses a mirror and prism system that permits the photographer to view through the lens and see exactly what will be captured. A viewing image that will be exposed onto the negative exactly as it is seen. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips out of the light path, allowing light to pass through to the film or sensor, capturing the image. There is no parallax error, and focus can be confirmed by eye especially in macro photography and when photographing using telephoto lenses.

SLR technology gave us the best preview method available, it gave us the ability to see the world through our cameras. No more guess work, and hoping you got everyone in the shot.

From the time of cave paintings and even in the renaissance period, people have always wanted to express what they saw around them, to me photography serves that purpose, to tell stories that cannot be told in any other way. We may be prisoners of time, forever transitioning from the past to the present, but with the help of photography, we can hold a precious few of those moments with us.

No matter if you are shooting with your iPhone or a DSLR, we are standing on the shoulders of these giants. Photographers play an important role, we are here to tell stories of the world, how it is, and how it was. We are the only ones who can stop time in its tracks. Happy shooting.

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