A Brief History of Photography

A Brief History of Photography

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A Brief History of Photography

Photography has played such a vital role in human history. Before photography, information was relayed by written word, word of mouth, or by illustrations and paintings. The advent of photography heralded the first and only way to fully replicate something a person saw with no error, no exaggeration to the story and no tampering. It was one of the greatest breakthroughs in human technology.

Photographs could tell stories and provide evidence at the same time. This became the true power of photography. From the crude beginnings of a strange projector-like box named 'camera obscura' to modern-day smartphones and D-SLR cameras, photographic mediums have come a long way. If you're interested in learning how things have evolved over the years in the wonderful world of cameras, then let's take a dive into the history of photography!

A Brief History of PhotographyHistory of photography timeline. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Creation, Camera Obscura and Pinhole Images

Let me tell you something – the first cameras weren’t cameras at all. They were projectors, of a sort. This concept was mentioned as early as the 5th century BC, when a Chinese philosopher named 'Mozi' recorded the creation of an image from light rays passing through a small hole into a dark room. He called this darkened room a “collecting place” or the “locked treasure room”. This effect was also mentioned by Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in “Problems”. This natural optical phenomenon later became known as 'camera obscura' (Latin for “dark chamber”) or what we now refer to as a 'pinhole image'. 

To understand the pinhole effect, imagine a dark room with a tiny hole that allows light in from the outside. The light passes through the tiny hole onto the wall in front of it, projecting an inverted image of what's outside the room on to the wall. The inverted image proves the natural law of physics that light travels in straight lines.

A Brief History of PhotographyCamera Obscura effect. Photo by: 'Wikimedia Commons'.

Here's another example. Imagine that you are taking a picture of a big, bright building. The light from the top of the building travels at a downwards angle to get to the pinhole, thus continuing at a downward angle as it hits the wall it is projected on. The light from the bottom of the building does the same, traveling upwards through the pinhole and upwards on to the wall. This creates an inverted image.

The camera obscura concept was thoroughly studied and documented in 1021AD by Arab physicist, AIbn Al-Hytham, also known as Alhazen. Over the centuries, many others began experimenting and studying the nature of light with camera obscura. Many of the first camera obscuras were large rooms used for safely viewing solar eclipses.

In the 16th century, the image quality was improved by adding a convex lens to the aperture. Later, a mirror was added to reflect the image down onto a viewing surface. This was often used as a drawing aid for artists.

The actual term “Camera Obscura” was finally used in the early 17th century by German astronomer, Johannes Kepplar, who used a portable tent for surveying in Austria.

The camera obscura then evolved from a portable tent, to a small box. The term “pin-hole” in optics context was first introduced in a book by James Furgusson in 1764, titled "Lectures on Select Subjects in Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, and Optics". In 1856, the Scottish inventor, David Brewster, described in his book Stereoscope, “a camera without lenses, and only a pin-hole.”

The First Permanent Images

Up until the early 1800s, portable camera obscuras were primarily used for drawing and projecting images for entertainment. In the 1820s, that all changed dramatically. A French inventor named Joseph Nicephore Niepce experimented with a camera obscura to expose light to a pewter plate coated with bitumen. The plate was exposed for many hours to the light and when the bitumen hardened in the exposed areas, the unexposed areas could be removed with a solvent. This left a positive image, with the light areas being the hardened bitumen and the dark areas being the bare pewter. To view it, the plate had to be lit and angled to show the contrast between the light and dark.

A Brief History of PhotographyThe first photograph, taken in 1825 by Niepce. Photo by: 'Joseph Nicephore Niepce, Wikimedia Commons'.

Niepce worked in partnership with fellow Frenchman, Louis Daguerre. The pair refined the bitumen process by using a more sensitive resin and different post-exposure treatment, resulting in shorter exposure times (still in hours) and higher quality images.


In 1833, Niepce suddenly died, leaving all of his notes to Daguerre. As Daguerre carried on working, he began to experiment with exposing images onto metal plates. The result was the creation of Daguerreotype.

A Brief History of PhotographyDaguerreotype photo taken of Louis Daguerre, taken in 1844. Photo by: 'Jean-Bapiste Sabatier-Blot, Wikimedia Commons'.

The process employed the use of a copper plate coated in silver, exposed in iodine vapour to create a silver iodine coating, before being exposed to light. After exposure, the result was a positive image when lit and viewed. Exposure times were still impractically long until Daguerre discovered that a plate with an invisibly faint or “latent” image from a much shorter exposure could be “developed” to full visibility with mercury fumes. Then a hot solution of salt was used to stabilise or “fix” the image by removing the remaining silver iodide. This resulted in exposure times of only a few minutes, a feat which was announced to the world in 1839. The Daguerreotype process became the most commonly used process until another new discovery in the 1850s.

Emulsion Plates

An Englishman named Frederick Scott Archer and a Frenchman named Gustave Le Gray are said to have almost simultaneously invented the collodion process, or "collodian wet plate process", in 1851. The plates used an emulsion process instead of a simple coating, resulting in a much faster exposure time of only a few seconds. The collodion plates were required to be coated, sensitised and developed all within the span of fifteen minutes, necessitating the use of a portable dark room. The most common emulsion plates were ambrotype, which were made on glass plates, and tintype, which were made on tin plates.

A Brief History of PhotographyPresident Lincoln with Gen. George B. McClellan and group of officers. Photo by: 'Alexander Gardner, Wikimedia Commons'.

This cheaper, faster, more efficient process to make photographs instantly took over the Daguerreotype. Many of the photographs from the American Civil War were taken on emulsion plates, with photographers carrying around their portable darkrooms around the fields.

Dry Plates

The wet emulsion plate process was a revolutionary discovery. However, the process was still not ideal because the plates had to be sensitised, exposed while still wet and processed immediately after. Richard Maddox, an English physician and photomicrographer, noticed that the ether vapour from the wet plates was beginning to affect his health. He began searching for an alternative and in 1871, discovered a new process which he named the 'dry plate'.

A Brief History of PhotographyDry plate glass negative. Photo by: 'Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons'.

Also known as the 'gelatine process', this technique radically changed photography once again. By sensitising cadmium bromide and silver nitrate coated on a glass plate in a gelatine coating, the plates could be stored and used when needed, rather than being prepared as they were needed like the wet plates. This marked the dawn of a new era for photography. Improvements were rapidly made, decreasing exposure times so that cameras could be handheld.

Eventually, a mechanical shutter was introduced. This enabled photographers to be more mobile, taking photos faster and more efficiently.


An American entrepreneur named George Eastman entered the photography world in the late 1880s. Smaller, commercial handheld cameras had been springing up throughout the market but a company named Kodak Eastman produced the one that was easiest to use.

In 1888, the New Yorker created a camera that used a cylindrical roll of paper-based film that contained 100 exposures. When the last exposure was used, the entire camera was sent back to Kodak to be developed. With the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest”, Kodak’s camera greatly accelerated the growth of amateur photography.

A Brief History of PhotographyThe Kodak slogan. Photo by: 'Wikimedia Commons'.

The paper-based roll of film was replaced the following year by a plastic nitrocellulose film that had been invented by Reverend Hannibal Goodwin of New Jersey in 1878. While other companies had been putting forward cameras for commercial use, Kodak really took the market. The ease of use and relatively low cost of the Kodak camera enabled photography to take off for the public. It was no longer a pursuit reserved just for professional photographers and the wealthy. Now, almost anyone could take photos for themselves.

War and Photojournalism

From 1853 to 1856, the allied forces of Britain, France, Sardinia and Turkey fought against Russia. A painter and photographer named Roger Fenton was the first official photographer to be sent to document the war with photographs. Due to the size, weight and long exposure time of his equipment, he was only able to capture stationary objects and landscapes. During his time along the war fronts, he captured over 300 usable large format images that were displayed in galleries, with some being published in print in the Illustrated London News.

A Brief History of Photography"The valley of the shadow of death" Crimean War photograph. Dirt road in ravine scattered with cannonballs, circa 1855. Photo by: 'Roger Fenton, Wikimedia Commons'.

This echoed with a man named Mathew Brady during the American Civil War. Brady travelled through the frontlines with 20 assistants, capturing images before, after and even during battles. However, the technology at the time prevented him from capturing movement. The main difference between Brady and Fenton's work was that Fenton didn’t believe in photographing the ugliness of war quite as much. Instead, he wanted to demonstrate the glory of war. Whether it was a question of ethics or orders, he didn’t photograph injured soldiers. On the other hand, Brady’s photographs revealed the true brutality of war. He photographed injured soldiers, which signified a huge step toward in the advancement of truth in storytelling and modern journalism with photographs.

A Brief History of PhotographyA wounded Union soldier, American Civil War, 1865. Photo by: 'Mathew Brady, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons'.

Photographers began to use photography to help journalists tell stories. Hearing or reading words about something was one thing but the power of a photograph was undeniable. Publications began sending photographers with journalists to document events. Photography soon became integrated into the news media.

A Brief History of PhotographyRaising the Flag on Iwo Jimo, taken in 1945. Photo by: 'Joel Rosenthal, Wikimedia Commons'.

In 1939, World War II broke out and photojournalists had adopted a new style in the documentation of the war. It was a combination of wanting ore truth in their photographs and the pressure to "one up" each other for more attention. Improvements in technology meant that the posed and staged photographs of prior wars gave away to a more realistic and raw look behind the scenes. Photographs like Joel Rosenthal’s 'Raising the Flag on Iwo Jimo' captured real moments in history as they happened. The new advancements in technology allowed photographers to move about and take photos in action.

This came to be known as true photojournalism. It was a pivotal point in the history of photography because it illustrated the truth in events and shaped the media for the future.

A Brief History of PhotographyFront cover of the March 27, 1944, issue of Life magazine. Photo by: 'George Rodger, Wikimedia Commons'.

Through the 1930s to the 1970s, photojournalism experienced its “golden age”. Technology advanced even further and public interest in photography grew dramatically. People wanted to see real documentation of events. They believed that the images told the stories in full. Photo-driven magazines such as LIFE, The New York Daily News, and Berliner Illustrate Zeitung began to employ large numbers of photographers, using photo essays to disseminate the news to the public.

Instant Film

In 1948, a man named Edwin H. Land and his company, Polaroid, debuted the first commercial instant photo camera. It was the model 95 Land camera. This camera used a secret chemical process to develop the film inside the camera in less than a minute.

A Brief History of PhotographyThe Polaroid 95 Land camera. Photo by: 'Daderot, Wikimedia Commons'.

Although the camera was fairly expensive, the idea of instant photos caught the eye of the public. Imagine the process before instant film; you would buy a camera, take 100 photos (which would take however long it took you to finish), then you would send the camera back, wait for it to be developed and then finally, your photos would arrive. It could be several months from the time you bought your camera until you received the photos. As you can see, the idea of an instant film camera must have been positively shocking to the public.

By the 1960s, Polaroid had multiple models of instant cameras out on the market which were extremely popular.

Black and White to Colour

Although colour processing in photography had been explored throughout the 19th century, it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that it became commercially viable. Early experimentation with colour photography had rendered unstable results and images where the colours eventually faded out and disappeared. Two French inventors, Louis Ducos de Hauron Charlec Cros, were some of the first to patent methods of colour photography in 1862. However the first colour photograph was credited to the famous Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, who was known for his work in electromagnetism. He accomplished this by photographing a tartan ribbon three times – one with a yellow filter, one with a red filter and one with blue filter. Then he combined the composite image to create the colours. It was supposed to mimic how the human eye processes colour.

A Brief History of PhotographyThe first colour photograph, taken in 1861. Photo by: 'James Clerk Maxwell'.

The colour photograph process took many notable twists and turns throughout this time but it wasn't until 1935 that it became commercially used when Kodak company released its first tri-colour film, “Kodachrome”. Originally, Kodachrome was released only for 16mm home movies. The following year, it was introduced to 8mm home movie film and 35mm still photography.

Colour film was much more expensive than black and white film. It was also more difficult to use. As such, even into the 1950s, black and white film was still the norm for the public.

As technology advanced, costs lowered for colour film and it became more readily used, replacing black and white. In 1963, Polaroid introduced the first instant colour film, creating a new wave of colour enthusiasm. 

Asahi and Nikon

In the 1950s, two Japanese companies took photography to the next level. Asahi (later to become Pentax) and Nikon introduced the single reflex lens (SLR), which remains the most widely used system for photography to this day.

A Brief History of PhotographyCameras have evolved a lot over the years. Photo by: 'Unsplash'.

SLR cameras use a moveable mirror behind the lens, which reflects the image in the lens on to the viewfinder. The advantage of this is that the photographer sees exactly what will be recorded onto the image medium. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up and the light passes straight through to the image medium. Nikon also introduced their F series SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses, which offered more variety and capturing power. This made cameras easier and more effective for professionals and amateurs alike, further adding to the growing love of photography throughout the public.

Compact Cameras

Photography had begun to capture the world’s eye. Everyone wanted to capture their own version of the world around them, from hobbyists to artists and professionals. However, for the everyday person, the learning curve was still slightly high. You still needed to have a mild understanding of the basic mechanics of a camera in order to use one and the equipment was still quite bulky.

A Brief History of PhotographyCompact cameras have brought photography to the masses. Photo by: 'Dirk Meyer, Wikimedia Commons'.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, even that changed. To further ease commercial use of cameras into the public, compact “point and shoot” cameras were introduced. These small, lightweight and smart cameras made photography available to everyone, even children.

The first “point and shoot” compact camera, the C35 Jasupin, was released by Konica in 1977.  This camera had an automatic focusing system. In addition, it could automatically calculate the necessary shutter speed and aperture, giving a properly exposed photo with just the press of a shutter button. While professionals and serious hobbyists still preferred to use SLR cameras for more control, the compact camera took over the market for casual use. They quickly became a staple for every family, being user-friendly and fun to use when taking photographs and capturing memories. From this point, the curve of camera technology continued to skyrocket ever upwards. 

Digital Cameras

The first recorded digital image was taken in 1975, long before digital cameras would become commercially available. A Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson was given the task to create a digital image. He designed an eight pound camera with no moving parts that recorded in digital format and in December 1975, it took the first digitally captured image in black and white. 

Then in 1988, Fuji unveiled the first digital camera aimed towards consumers, the Fuji Fujix DS-1P. This 400,000 pixel camera never made it to market but it had a massive piece of technology attached to it. The camera had a removable SRAM (static RAM) memory card developed with Toshiba. This was the first sign of reusable memory, a concept that would eventually change photography forever.

The first digital camera to hit the public market wouldn’t be until several years later. In 1991, Nikon released the Nikon F3, the first commercially available DSLR. The 1.3 megapixel camera required the photographer to carry an external memory source on the shoulder with a strap. It was still a bit ahead of its time, along with several other models other companies had put forward. 

A Brief History of PhotographyNikon F3, the first digital camera to hit the market in 1991. Photo by: 'JamesPFisherIII', Wikimedia Commons'.

In 1994, Kodak collaborated with the Associated Press to release the Kodak/AP NC2000, which was specifically tailored for photojournalists. It only had a 1.3 megapixel sensor like the Nikon F3 but a huge advancement was its ability to use removable memory cards and an ISO sensitivity of 1600. Both of these improvements were a huge deal at this point. The price tag for this equipment? Oh, just a mere $17,950!

From here, the digital camera manufacturers advanced technology even further, finally arriving at the cameras that we have today.

Smartphone Cameras

As cameras were becoming smarter, smaller, lighter and more efficient, mobile phones were also advancing. The age of the cell phone was already underway as early as the 80s. They too were becoming smaller and smarter.

By the mid 90s, mobile phones were becoming a normal item to carry around, much like a point and shoot camera so it was no surprise that in 1997, the first prototype cellular phone with a camera debuted. An inventor named Phillipe Kahn shared the first image taken by a camera phone: a photo of his newborn child, which he sent to 2000 people via cellular radio. The first camera phone to then hit the market was Kyocera’s VP-210 in Japan. The phone could record 20 still photos and video at a 2fps rate. 

A Brief History of PhotographyThe first phone with a camera: The Kyocera VP-210. Photo by: 'Morio, Wikimedia Commons'.

Hot on its heels was the SHARP J-SH04, invented by Phillipe Kahn. Very soon, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and others would follow and the camera phone revolution began.

Not much later, Apple released the first iPhone in 1997 and we all know how it's gone from there. The iPhone has since taken over the market, changing casual photography, communication, media and ultimately, human behaviour forever. 

How Photography Has Changed the World

The overall impact of photography on the world has been the ability to bring the truth to people's eyes. In an old world that could only obtain information by someone’s verbal or written story, drawing or painting, we were very much at the mercy of the author’s perspective. Depending on the source, a story could be completely exaggerated or even false. Even drawings and paintings could be altered to “enhance” the scene. Some would even argue that doing so was part of art.

However, when photography came into the world, it enabled the truth of an event to be told. In the early days, a photograph couldn’t lie or be altered. Photographers became as important to the news and media as writers. Photography also enabled the public to encapsulate memories – a piece of their life – forever. It has achieved so much greatness for human history and it continues to do so. 

A Brief History of PhotographyPhotography has been used extensively in news media. Photo by: 'Unsplash'.

Today, photography has become an integral part in life. It’s everywhere you look and it’s in everything we do. With the advancement of technology and the Internet, the entire world now runs on digital information displayed as text, photos, and video. Modern cameras are small, even on your smartphone, and can be taken anywhere. Memory storage is essentially unlimited and everything can be shared instantly across the entire world. What a massive achievement this has been. The power to share events, news or just keep in touch is absolutely mindblowing, to say the least. 


Of course, there are drawbacks to what we know as present day photography. With unlimited storage, ease of access and instant sharing, I wonder if it has devalued photographs in certain ways. A photograph used to be difficult to take and you had a limit, so there was a lot more thought put into taking one. Each individual photo held a lot of value and importance. These days, people will take 1,000+ photos of the same thing, only to end up using one in the end.

Have photographs become dispensable by being so accessible?

A Brief History of PhotographyWhere will technology go from here? Photo by: 'Unsplash'.

Another issue is that we as a society have become image obsessed. I don’t just mean in the way of self, superficiality, vanity and taking a hundred selfies (well that too). I'm literally just talking about our appetite for images. Think about opening up a Google search or Instagram: how many photographs does your brain consume in a day? Our exposure to photographs is endless. Scrolling through, it just goes on and on. Is this a good thing?

A Brief History of PhotographyPhotographs are no longer restricted to photo albums. Photo by: 'Unsplash'.

Without a doubt, photography has changed the world in glorious ways. It has brought light to the world in ways that nothing else could have before. However, images are more able to be easily manipulated these days with software. It's hard to even know whether the scenes we are being exposed to these days are realistic or just representative of an artist's vision. This might be a blessing or a curse, depending upon how you look at it. Photography has evolved so much and impacted upon society so heavily that it begs the question: where will it go from here?

A Brief History of PhotographyPhotography has come a long way. Photo by: 'Unsplash'.


The path that photography has taken from inception is a fascinating story – conceptualised first by philosophers, birthed by scientists, raised by artists and adopted by journalists – these days, almost every human on Earth has a hand in taking photographs. It is estimated that over one trillion photos are taken every year. Today, you can’t go anywhere in public without seeing people taking photographs with either smartphones or cameras.

Photography has transformed the way that information is spread throughout the world. It has revealed the ugly horrors of war, unearthed the raw beauty of nature and captured pieces of history to be forever memorialised for future generations to come.

About the author:  Sean Ensch is a landscape photographer based in the USA. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Facebook and Instagram.

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