A Quick, Fascinating Breakdown of Photography History

photography history

The word photography comes from the Greek words photos and graphein, which mean ‘light’ and ‘to draw’. It was first used as early as the 1830’s.

But the photography history actually extends much further back than that. As many as 2000 years ago, the ancient Greeks and Chinese understood how to make what could be considered the earliest photographs.

Very different from the pictures we snap on smartphones today, this history is rich and fascinating. To learn more about how we went from the camera obscura to smartphones, keep reading.

Earliest Photography History

The idea of using a dark chamber or room with a hole in the wall to create pictures dates back over 2,000 years. The ancient Greeks and Chinese were aware of this method of picture-making.

Through the hole in the wall, objects outside of the room could be projected onto the interior walls. This was known as the camera obscura.

By the late 16th century, scientists and inventors were using lenses to project these images. They created pictures images by tracing the objects and filling them in.


Nicephore Niepce was an inventor that was interested in lithography. This involved drawing or copying images onto lithographic stone. These were then printed in ink.

Niepce invented heliography in 1822. Heliography referred to ‘sun drawing’ because he used light from the sun to draw his images.

He copied oil engraving onto stone, glass, zinc and pewter plates. Although he attempted to create paper prints using his heliographic technique, he was unsuccessful.

The Daguerreotype

In 1829, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre partners with Niepce. His goal was to shorten the exposure time needed to create images of the real world.

Three years after his partner’s death, Daguerre was successful in his attempts. By exposing images on a plate of iodized silver to mercury vapor, he developed images more quickly.

Unfortunately, these images could not be kept permanently. The images would eventually dissolve once exposed to light.

It wasn’t until 1837 that Daguerre figured out how to make an image permanent. Using table salt to dissolve the unexposed silver oxide, the permanent photograph was born.

The Evolution of the Daguerreotype

Once the Daguerreotype became a permanent image, the process began to spread across the globe. Scientists and inventors in the US, as well as Europe, attempted to make improvements on the chemical, optical, and practical aspects of this new medium. The goal was to make them feasible for use in portraiture.

The first photography studio in history opening in 1840 in New York Studio. By 1841, the first European photography studio opened in London.

It was the US that would take the daguerrotypes to new levels. Portraiture became a widespread genre in the US. Women would hand-color the lips, eyes, jewelry, and clothing of the portraits.

Because of the development process and the paper on which they were printed, daguerrotypes were extremely fragile. They had to be covered in glass and framed to ensure their longevity.

The Calotype

The calotype produced by Fox Talbot in England was an attempt to rival the popular daguerreotype. In so doing, Talbot made his own important contributions to photography history.

Talbot produced images on paper that was sensitized with layers of silver nitrate and salt. He developed images quickly. On a sunny day, an image could be developed within 30 seconds.

This process created negative images that could be reproduced in unlimited numbers. His images were less clear than the daguerreotype, but his development times were intriguing. Artists and inventors tried to improve this process by making negatives on a piece of glass instead of paper.

Modern Film

By 1878, artists and inventors began using dry plates and silver bromide in gelatin to produce images. By 1883, they were placing this emulsion on celluloid. This futuristic material was the forerunner of modern film.

Celluloid was a flexible and durable medium. It eventually allowed photographers to load negative film into cameras. By 1895, film could be loaded without the need for a darkroom.

These developments brought photography to the average person and boosted its popularity.

Modern Cameras

By 1900, the modern camera began to develop. Shutters could control aperture and shutter speed. Cameras slowly became lights and small enough to carry around.

By the mid-19th century, photographers began to use flash to take higher quality photos indoors. By 1925, a magnesium wire made it possible to introduce the flash bulb. And by the 1950’s, dry cell batteries were invented and small, light flashes were placed on increasingly small and light cameras.

In 1913, German photographer Oskar Barnack built the very first 35 mm camera. The Ur-Leica was faster, lighter, more versatile, and produced higher quality images than all of its predecessors. In 1925, the 35mm was available for purchase.

In the 1950’s, Polaroid invented the Model 95. Using this camera, an image could be taken, developed, and viewed within a minute.

Although expensive for the average person, the instantaneous photograph revolutionized the photography world. By the 1960’s, Polaroids were widely available. By 1979, they were a $1.4 billion company and more people could afford to take photographs.

Today’s Photography

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, cameras became small, light, and automatic. They could make decisions on their own. With these developments, casual photography became a possibility.

Photographers didn’t have to have a deep knowledge of the workings of the camera to shoot a good photo. These cameras automated shutter speed, aperture, and focus.

All the photographer has to worry about is the composition of the image and which frame to put it in. For the history of photo frames, you can read more here.

In the 1990s, point and shoot cameras were capable of storing images electronically. Using digital film, photographs could be stored on computers and digital photography began making a statement in the art world.

Today, photography is as easy as taking your smartphone. Amateur photographers who know little about the history of the working of their camera can make part-time jobs selling their images. And with the popularity of portraiture such as the selfie, photography has never been as popular or accessible as it is today.

Curious About Technology?

Photography history has been in the making for thousands of years. From the camera obscura of the ancient world to the daguerreotype and the Polaroid, people have been fascinated with capturing images of the real world for much of history. That’s now a possibility, and popular past time, for people across the world.

Are you interested in technology and its evolution? Check out our blog for more fascinating tech information.

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