The History of Photography, Part 1


Anywhere you go, you can find someone taking pictures. Whether it’s with a camera, phone, tablet, or even laptop, the practice of photographing elements and moments of our lives is a part of our routine. We typically think of photography as a modern art form that developed due to advances in technology. However, the early developments of photography date back over 2,000 years ago. Multiple forms of photography and the camera were created throughout history by various innovators. While the old film camera may seem ancient and complicated, the first photography processes and innovations were even more complicated.


The inception of photography begins with the camera obscura. This dated technique is described as a darkened room or box with a small opening or lens on one side. Images were projected on the opposing wall. The practice of camera obscura is over 2,000 years old and is considered to be well-known to Chinese and Ancient Greek. By the 16th century, many artists, such as Johannes Vermeer, used this method to trace the pictures that were forecasted and curate paintings from them. Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited as one of the first minds to practice camera obscura as his findings trace back to the 4th century. However, the earliest recorded mention of the camera obscura is linked to Chinese philosopher Mozi who lived from 470 to 390 BCE.

The camera obscura was an ingenious invention of its time. The problem with this practice is that the finalized image traced from it depended on the artist's skills. In 1822, inventor Nicéphore Niépce concocted the next development of photography. Interested in the practice of lithography (a method of copying drawings onto lithographic stone and then printing them in ink), Niépce hatched a technique that allows light to create and draw desired images. He oiled engravings and put them on a light-sensitive solvent-covered pewter plate, which then sat in the sun. After a few hours of exposed sunlight, the solution that lay under the lightened portions of the engraving became hard while the darker areas were softer and wiped away. This process's outcome was a permanent and more accurate representation of the engraving than a hand-drawn piece. As this process relied on the sun’s exposure, Niépce coined the term heliography, meaning sun drawing, to describe his process.

Several years after his invention of the heliograph, Niépce successfully generated the first-known photograph from nature. The image depicted a view of a courtyard of his country estate captured from his home's upper window. The photo’s exposure time was around eight hours and included the sun setting from east to west, so it is visible on both sides of the image.

Around the same time Niépce concocted the process of heliography, Parisian scene painter Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was developing his own method of capturing images with light. Daguerre and his partner Charles-Marie Bouton painted large scenes onto translucent paper and strategically used lighting techniques to create striking and realistic images.


Like Niépce, Daguerre aimed to capture photos of nature. In 1829, the two early photographers worked together to share insight and perfect their techniques. Daguerre’s primary goal in his work was to shorten the exposure time it took to capture an image while Niépce continued to experiment with using different plates. Niépce passed away a few years later, but Daguerre continued their work and found a way to reduce an image’s exposure from 8 hours to 30 minutes. He used mercury vapor, which rests on the exposed elements of latent images that developed on plates of iodized silver. Daguerre discovered that the mercury vapor helped make the image visible but not permanently. Once the image was developed, the parts of the silver plate that weren’t exposed to any light eventually darkened and rendered the image invisible.

Eventually, in 1837, Daguerre found a solution to his problem, literally. He used a solution including table salt on the plates to dissolve the parts of silver that weren’t exposed to light. Daguerre used his newfound technique to curate a highly detailed image on a silvered copper plate that didn’t fade over time. With approval from Niépce’s son, this process became known as the daguerreotype.

These techniques were still far from what we use today to capture images as they were quite complex. However, they were the first steps in creating the concept of photography and the development of cameras. Thanks to Niépce and Daguerre's work and progress in technology, others began to try their hand in photography and eventually brought us to where we are today! To learn about these next advancements, be sure to check out part two of this blog to learn about the following developments in photography.


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