Photography is a word derived from the Greek words photos (“light”) and graphein (“to draw”). The word was first used by the scientist Sir John F.W. Herschel in 1839. It is a method of recording images by the action of light or related radiation onto a sensitive material.
Alhazen (Ibn Al-Haytham) was a great authority on optics in the Middle Ages who lived around 1000AD. He invented the first pinhole camera (also called the Camera Obscura} and was able to explain why the images were upside down.
The first casual reference to the optic laws that made pinhole cameras possible was observed and noted by Aristotle around 330 BC. He questioned why the sun could make a circular image when it shined through a square hole.
The First Photograph
On a summer day in 1827, Joseph Nicephore Niepce developed the first photographic image with a camera obscura. Prior to Niepce, people just used the camera obscura for viewing or drawing purposes, not for making photographs. By letting light draw the picture, Niepce’s heliographs, or sun prints as they were called, were the prototype for the modern photograph.
Niepce placed an engraving onto a metal plate coated in bitumen and then exposed it to light. The shadowy areas of the engraving blocked light, but the whiter areas permitted light to react with the chemicals on the plate. When Niepce placed the metal plate in a solvent, gradually an image, until then invisible, appeared.
However, Niepce’s photograph required eight hours of light exposure to create and would soon fade away.
Fellow Frenchman, Louis Daguerre was also experimenting with ways to capture an image, but it would take him another dozen years before Daguerre was able to reduce exposure time to less than 30 minutes and keep the image from disappearing afterwards.
Daguerre was the inventor of the first practical process of photography. In 1829, he formed a partnership with Niepce to improve the process Niepce had developed. In 1839, following several years of experimentation and Niepce’s death, Daguerre developed a more convenient and effective method of photography and named it after himself.
Daguerre’s daguerreotype process started by fixing the images onto a sheet of silver-plated copper. He then polished the silver and coated it in iodine, creating a surface that was sensitive to light. Then, he put the plate in a camera and exposed it for a few minutes. After the image was painted by light, Daguerre bathed the plate in a solution of silver chloride. This process created a lasting image that would not change if exposed to light.
In 1839, Daguerre and Niepce’s son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government and published a booklet describing the process. The daguerreotype gained popularity quickly and by 1850, there were over seventy daguerreotype studios in New York City alone.
Negative to Positive Process
The inventor of the first negative from which multiple positive prints were made was Henry Fox Talbot, an English botanist, mathematician and a contemporary of Daguerre.
Talbot sensitized paper to light using a silver salt solution. He then exposed the paper to light. The background became black and the subject was rendered in gradations of grey. This was a negative image. And from the paper negative, Talbot made contact prints, reversing the light and shadows to create a detailed picture. In 1841, he perfected this paper-negative process and called it a calotype, Greek for beautiful picture.
Tintypes, patented in 1856 by Hamilton Smith, was another medium that heralded the birth of photography. A thin sheet of iron was used to provide a base for light-sensitive material, yielding a positive image.
Wet Plate Negatives
In 1851, Frederick Scoff Archer, an English sculptor, invented the wet plate negative. Using a viscous solution of collodion, he coated glass with light-sensitive silver salts.
Because it was glass and not paper, this wet plate created a more stable and detailed negative.
Photography advanced considerably once sensitized materials could be coated on plate glass. However, wet plates had to be developed quickly before the emulsion dried. In the field, this meant carrying along a portable darkroom.
Dry Plate Negatives & Hand-held Cameras
In 1879, the dry plate was invented, a glass negative plate with a dried gelatine emulsion. Dry plates could be stored for a period of time. This meant photographers no longer needed portable darkrooms and could now hire technicians to develop their photographs. Dry processes absorbed light so rapidly that the hand-held camera was now possible.
Flexible Roll Film
In 1889, George Eastman invented film with a base that was flexible, unbreakable and could be rolled. Emulsions coated on a cellulose nitrate film base, such as Eastman’s, made the mass-produced box camera a reality.
In the early 1940s, commercially viable colour films (except Kodachrome) were brought to the market. These films used the modern technology of dye-coupled colours in which a chemical process connects the three dye layers together to create an apparent colour image.
The first flexible roll films, dating to 1889, were made of cellulose nitrate, which is chemically similar to guncotton. A nitrate-based film will deteriorate over time, releasing oxidants and acidic gasses. It is also highly flammable. Special storage for this film is required.
Nitrate film is historically important because it allowed for the development of roll films. The first flexible movie films measured 35-mm wide and came in long rolls on a spool.
In the mid-1920s, using this technology, 35-mm roll film was developed for the camera. By the late 1920s, medium-format roll film was created. It measured six centimetres wide and had a paper backing that made it easy to handle in daylight. This led to the development of the twin-lens-reflex camera in 1929. Nitrate film was produced in sheets (4 x 5-inches), ending the need for fragile glass plates.
Triacetate film came later and was more stable, flexible as well as fireproof. Most films produced up to the 1970s were based on this technology. Since the 1960s, polyester polymers have been used for gelatine base films. The plastic film base is far more stable than cellulose and is not a fire hazard.
Today, technology has produced film with T-grain emulsions. These films use light-sensitive silver halides (grains) that are T-shaped thus rendering a much finer grain pattern. Films like this offer greater detail and higher resolution, translating to sharper images.
Advancement of Cameras
By definition, a camera is a lightproof object with a lens that captures incoming light and directs the light and resulting image towards film (optical camera) or the imaging device (digital camera).
All camera technology is based on the law of optics first discovered by Aristotle. By the mid-1500s, a sketching device for artists called the camera obscura (dark chamber) was common. The camera obscura was a lightproof box with a pinhole (later lens were used) on one side and a translucent screen on the other.
This screen was used for tracing by the artists of the inverted image transmitted through the pinhole.
Around 1600, Della Porta reinvented the pinhole camera. Apparently, he was the first European to publish any information on the pinhole camera and is sometimes mistakenly credited with its invention. Johannes Kepler was the first person to coin the phrase Camera Obscura in 1604. And in 1609, Kepler further suggested the use of a lens to improve the image projected by a Camera Obscura.
The earliest cameras used in the daguerreotype process were made by opticians, instrument makers or sometimes even by the photographers themselves. The most popular cameras utilized a sliding-box design. The lens was placed in the front box. A second, slightly smaller box slid into the back of the larger box. The focus was controlled by sliding the rear box forward or backwards. A laterally reversed image would be obtained unless the camera was fitted with a mirror or prism to correct this effect.
When the sensitized plate was placed in the camera, the lens cap would be removed to start the exposure.
George Eastman, a dry plate manufacturer from Rochester, New York, invented the Kodak camera. For 22 dollars, an amateur could purchase a camera with enough film for 100 shots. After use, it was sent back to the company, which then processed the film.
The ad slogan read, “You press the button, we do the rest.” A year later, the delicate paper film was changed to a plastic base so that photographers could do their own processing.
Eastman’s first simple camera in 1888 was a wooden, light-tight box with a simple lens and shutter that was factory-filled with film. The photographer pushed a button to produce a negative. Once the film was used up, the photographer mailed the camera with the film still in it to the Kodak factory where the film was removed from the camera, processed and printed. The camera was then reloaded with film and returned.
Blitzlichtpulver or flashlight powder was invented in Germany in 1887 by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke. Lycopodium powder (the waxy spores from club moss) was used in early flash powder.
The first modern photoflash bulb or flashbulb was invented by Austrian Paul Vierkotter. Vierkotter used magnesium-coated wire in an evacuated glass globe. Magnesium-coated wire was soon replaced by aluminium foil in oxygen. In 1930, the first commercially available photoflash bulb was patented by German Johannes Ostermeier. These flashbulbs were named the Vacublitz. General Electric also made a flashbulb called the Sashalite.
Filters – Frederick Charles Luther Wratten (1840-1926)
English inventor and manufacturer Frederick Wratten founded one of the first photographic supply businesses in 1878. The company, Wratten and Wainwright, manufactured and sold collodion glass plates and gelatine dry plates.
In 1878, Wratten invented the “noodling process” of silver-bromide gelatin emulsions before washing. In 1906, Wratten, with the assistance of Dr. C.E. Kenneth Mees (E.C.K Mees), invented and produced the first panchromatic plates in England. Wratten is best known for the photographic filters that he invented and are still named after him, the Wratten Filters. Eastman Kodak purchased his company in 1912.
As early as 1905, Oskar Barnack had the idea of reducing the format of film negatives and then enlarging the photographs after they had been exposed.
As development manager at Leica, he was able to put his theory into practice. He took an instrument for taking exposure samples for cinema film and turned it into the world’s first 35 mm camera: the ‘Ur-Leica’.
Polaroid or Instant Photos
Polaroid photography was invented by Edwin Herbert Land. Land was the American inventor and physicist whose one-step process for developing and printing photos created instant photography. The first Polaroid camera was sold to the public in 1948.
Fuji introduced the disposable camera in 1986. We call them disposables but the people who make these cameras want you to know that they’re committed to recycling the parts, a message they’ve attempted to convey by calling their products “single-use cameras.”
Innovations that changed the face of Photography
Photography as we know it today wasn’t an invention that appeared, fully formed, overnight. Rather its arrival was a gradual process over nearly a century with each step refining or moving on from the innovation that came before it. It is hard to talk of the ‘inventor’ of photography since there are so many types of process that could qualify as a ‘photograph’ and so many different starting points for each type of technology.
So here’s a list of five major innovations that have shaped our idea of photography and some of the people we should be thankful to for helping to give us the astonishing little devices we all own today.
The first colour photo
James Clerk Maxwell was born in Scotland in 1831. Throughout the scientific community he is known as the mathematician and physicist who unified the theory of electromagnetism. But Maxwell was also responsible for the first colour photograph.
The image in question is a tartan ribbon photographed by Thomas Sutton at a lecture given by Maxwell in 1861. (Sutton himself went on to invent the Single Lens Reflex camera). It was made up of three exposures through red, green and blue filters. This colour plate – and two others – are now housed in a small Museum in Edinburgh in the house where Maxwell was born.
Photography for all: The Box Brownie
When the Eastman Kodak Box Brownie was first introduced in 1900 it was marketed as low-cost and simple photography (the first cameras sold for just $1). Due to its accessibility and cheap processing the Brownie is widely regarded as having instigated the notion of a ‘snap-shot’. Bizarrely, Kodak named their egalitarian cardboard box camera after Canadian Palmer Cox’s cartoon character stories.
In 1908, Austrian architecture critic Joseph August Lux argued that the accessibility of the camera meant everyday people could document their environments and gain some sense of permanence in the hectic rise and fall of the modern world. One wonders just what Herr Lux would have made of 2012?
The 35mm revolution
The arrival of 35mm film liberated photographers, changed what could be photographed and consequently re-wrote the history of photography. Leica initially led the way with the UR and followed it with the legendary Leica I in 1925. Contax got into the game next in 1932 and were rapidly followed by Kodak in 1934 and Canon in 1936.
Earlier this year, a 1923 35mm Leica sold at auction for £1.7 million – thus making it the most expensive camera ever sold! Digital may be the future, but the 35mm legacy still pulls at our heart (and purse) strings!
The man who made time stand still
Although a form of artificial flashing light was developed in the late 19th century, it was in the early 1930s that Nebraskan engineer Harold E. Edgerton came up with a repeatable short-duration electronic flash (stroboscopic light). His strobe lights were capable of firing 120 per second and could capture balloons bursting, drops hitting the surface of water and, famously, a bullet passing through a playing card.
These happenings were genuinely too fast for the human eye to see and so his flash technology not only changed photography, but also how we all view the world.
A billion camera phones
Whatever your opinion on everyone documenting their daily activities there is no denying the way in which the camera-phone has affected our world – and the onward development of our notion of photography. Everything in our day, from personal experiences to the news content we consume, is delivered through our camera-phones.