Skip to main content

History of Photography

snapshot in time - a brief history of photography

It's amazing to think that photography - something so familiar and integral to our lives - has only been around for 200 years! Read on for a whistle stop tour of its history; from its labour intensive beginnings in home laboratories to the super swanky Lumix Super Zoom cameras of today. Photography is one medium which really has come a very long way...

Camera Obscura

camera obscura
18th century illustration of a camera obscura.

The earliest written references to the camera obscura date back to the fifth century BC, and they were probably in use well before that. Not really a camera as we would understand it, they are, nevertheless, the granddaddy of modern photography. Consisting of a box (or room) with a small hole, often fitted with a lens since the seventeenth century, they work like so: Light passes through the hole, hits a surface, and reproduces the view in front of the hole - in colour and with the perspective intact.

That view can then be traced to produce realistic drawings or paintings. To better understand how it all works, check out this great article from the BBC on the likelihood of Dutch artist Vermeer having made extensive use of a camera obscura.

But what if you didn't want to spend hours making the camera obscura image permanent? What if you could make that image 'fix' itself? In the late 1700s, these are the questions people began to ask themselves.

Nicéphore Niépce and the First Photograph

camera of Nicéphore Niépce

Niépce was the first to succeed in this quest, temporarily fixing negative images to paper coated with silver chloride way back in 1816. In 1822 he succeeded in creating a permanent image using heliography, a process using plates of glass or metal coated in Bitumen of Judea. The oldest surviving camera photograph is the view from Niépce's window in 1826, a picture which required several days exposure.

What a view!

In 1829 Niépce began to work with Louis Daguerre. After Niépce's death in 1833, Daguerre carried on alone, going on to create the daguerreotype.


The Daguerreotype Process - By This image has been created during "DensityDesign Integrated Course Final Synthesis Studio" at Polytechnic University of Milan, organized by DensityDesign Research Lab in 2015. Image is released under CC-BY-SA licence. Attribution goes to "Susanna Celeste Castelli, DensityDesign Research Lab". - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The above infographic by Susanna Castelli describes the somewhat arduous process of fixing an image to a thin sheet of silver plated copper, by producing a coating of silver iodide which made the plate light sensitive. The image was then fixed by exposure to mercury vapour, and a wash in heated salt water or sodium thiosulfate to remove any remaining silver iodide.

Daguerre was ready to go public with his invention in 1839, when it was purchased by the French government and given free to the world as a gift. Except the British Empire, where you needed to buy a license. (To be fair to the French, this was Daguerre's doing by taking out a UK patent.) The novelty of owning a perfect likeness ensured the system's success, and throughout the 1840s and 50s lords and paupers alike sat for a daguerreotype.

Robert Cornelius, 1839
Robert Cornelius taking a daguerreotype selfie in 1839.

But the daguerreotype still had plenty of problems. The image was fragile, needing to be protected by a case or glass fronted frame, and copies could not be made, other than by photographing the original plate. This, along with the amount of light needed and the long exposure times, meant that experimentation for a better process was constantly ongoing. (Ambrotypes, for instance, were created using less expensive glass plates.) These efforts ensured that daguerreotypes had largely fallen out of use by 1860.

Calotypes and the Collodion Process

Cameras were changing too; the bellows camera arrived in 1847, making focusing easier.

In 1841 William Henry Fox Talbot introduced the calotype, a process using paper coated with silver iodide to create a negative. Multiple images could be produced from this single image, which should have given it the edge over the daguerreotype in spite of the fact the image was not as sharp. But Talbot's patenting of the process limited its development, and it wasn't until it was adapted to a glass negative in the early 1850s that it really proved its worth.

This new 'collodion process' combined the clear definition of the daguerreotype with the reproductive abilities of the calotype, improving on both with its cheapness and the durability of its negative. It was chiefly used to create tintypes (images on thin sheets of metal coated in lacquer or enamel) and albumen paper prints.

hidden mother tintype
Longer exposure times meant sitting still was a necessity - resulting in poor mothers, like the one in this tintype image, having a blanket draped over their heads and holding their wriggly offspring, assured by the photographer that they would blend seamlessly into the background...

The collodion process could be done dry (with long exposure times) or wet (requiring a portable darkroom to complete everything in around ten minutes before the plate dried). Both methods had obvious pitfalls. Still, another breakthrough was just around the corner...

Kodak and the Roll Film

Kodak Box Brownie - CC BY-SA 3.0,
The iconic Box Brownie.

George Eastman patented the first practical roll film in 1884, perfected the first camera designed to use it in 1888, and began producing the kind of film we're familiar with today in 1889. The Eastman Kodak Company was established in 1892, and set about revolutionising what photography was all about.

For the first time you didn't need any experience to take a photograph. You didn't need vials of chemicals, or piles of expensive equipment. All you had to do was point the camera, press the button, and let somebody else transform your film into photographs. The Box Brownie, introduced in 1900, shifted 150,000 units in its first year of production alone.

Kodak advert, 1901
So simple, even a child could operate it.

Photography had come to the masses.

Size Really Does Matter

By © Kameraprojekt Graz 2015 / Wikimedia Commons /, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Film was now the way forward, but there was no consensus on what size that film ought to be. 35 mm film - later known as 135 film after Kodak started producing it - was largely the result of the fledgling motion picture industry. Thomas Edison was using 70 mm Kodak film, cutting it in half and splicing it together. This newly standard 35 mm film then found its way into still cameras.

A number of cameras were produced with the 35 mm format specifically in mind, like the Tourist Multiple in 1913 and the Furet in 1923, but it was Leica which really became associated with it. Although a prototype had been completed in 1913, the Leica I only went into full production in 1925. Good things come to those who wait - the camera proved so successful that Ernst Leitz GmbH, then known for microscopes, binoculars and optical equipment, today bears the Leica name. 35 mm film became ever more popular too, becoming the best selling format by the 1960s.


Nikon F, 1959

The first SLR (single lens reflex) camera was actually invented by Thomas Sutton in 1861. The concept was tinkered with, improved upon, and finally emerged as a viable and attractive prospect. It really took off with the introduction of Nikon F in August 1959 - widely used by professional photographers, it offered plenty of optional add-ons and remained in production until 1973 when it was replaced by the Nikon F2.

Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture

*Don't shake a modern Polaroid picture, you'll only ruin your shot.

Model 1000, an export only version of the Polaroid OneStep. With that retro rainbow stripe, it's a thing of beauty.

Instant cameras first hit the scene in 1923, but didn't become commercially available until the invention of the Polaroid Model 95 in 1948. The idea didn't really take off until the swinging sixties when the Model 20 'Swinger' swung onto the scene. (Too much swinging?) Easy to use, and relatively inexpensive, the Swinger became one of the best selling cameras of all time. Since the 60s the instant camera has enjoyed periodic bursts of popularity, appealing particularly to the youth and novelty markets.

Andy Warhol Polaroid
Andy Warhol - the personification of pop art - was a big fan of the Polaroid.

Things Can Only Get Better

By Rriemann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Example of a camera with an electronic flash unit - the 1993 Konica Hexar.

They say that a tool is only ever as good as the human (or future robot overlord) which wields it. To help overcome human fallibility, new technology was being introduced to cameras that made taking photographs easier than ever. The Konica C35 AF became the first mass-produced camera with autofocus in 1977, something which by the late 1980s was becoming standard.

Flash photography was improving too. The concept had been around since the 1850s, using magnesium ribbon or flash powder used in special lamps. Reducing the risk of singed hair and burns, the single use flashbulb first went into commercial production in the late 1920s - in the 1930s they became triggered by the shutter. By 1970 you could get multiple bulbs in the same unit, making the process less labour intensive. It was the 1970s, too, which saw the electronic flash unit start to become affordable; it wasn't too long before it became the norm.

The Digital World

Olympus 300
One of the most popular digital cameras of 2003 - the Olympus 300 boasted a resolution of 3.2 megapixels and a retail tag of almost $400.

Experiments with digital photography began in the 1960s: the first successful prototype digital camera took an image with a resolution of a whopping 0.01 megapixels in 1975. Analog electronic cameras trickled onto the market in the 1980s, and the first portable true digital camera to go into commercial production was the DS-X by Fuji - the year was 1989.

Hampered at first by low resolution, tiny storage space (relatively speaking!) and high costs, as technology improved during the 1990s so did sales of digital cameras. They outsold film cameras for the first time in 2003 - the same year that the sale of mobile phones equipped with digital cameras first outsold their standalone counterparts.

first digital photograph
The first digital photograph - a digital scan of engineer Russell Kirsch's baby son in 1957.

The Next Generation

Here we are in the present day, with the camera range which inspired this post - the Lumix Super Zoom Cameras. The pictured Lumix Communication Camera CM1 combines an android mobile phone with a 20 megapixel sensor and a Leica lens. It boasts LED flash, 16GB internal memory, 2.3GHz Quad-core processor, along with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. You can get it on Amazon for £379.

Just imagine what Niépce would have made of it, when he succeeded with those first temporary negatives 200 years ago!


  1. What an interesting history about photography

  2. Hey, just a note generally about your blog, it's great! Love the lay out and style, different fonts and icons! Very interesting stuff about photography too! :)

    1. Thank you so much! Everyone goes for sleek designs these days, but I can't part with the 'traditional' blog look, lol. :)

  3. Amazing how much photography has grown since the first cameras were invented. I love the look of the old ones :)

    1. They're so cool, I've seen some awesome steampunk reproductions too.

  4. Its amazing to see how things have changed over the years x

  5. It's amazing to think how far photography has come... I love taking pictures but I did NOT know about any of these trivias!

    Oliver •

  6. This is a really informative but easy to follow and succinct post. It is amazing how far we have come in such a realively short space of time. it seems so odd to me that even in my early adulthood we didn't have the capacity to take a photograph of anything just whenever we felt like it!

    1. The advances even in recent years have been so huge - no more waiting impatiently to pick up your photos, and finding out somebody blinked in them all! x

  7. It's amazing to think how much effort it took just to take a photo when cameras were first invented. And now it's just the press of a button! Really interesting post.
    Alana x

    1. I know, it's so weird to think that taking a photo would mean keeping still for so long - and even then having to hope for the best! x

  8. I had no idea that photography although not as we know it existed before the 5th century that is pretty incredible.

    1. It really is amazing how much technology there was in the ancient world!

  9. Photography has changed so much since I was a girl. To now take snaps on a smartphone would unbelievable to a 5 year old me!

  10. Its amazing how far the world of photography has come and how crystal clear pictures are these days I need a new camera

    1. I have a camera - but I still always end up using my phone instead! x

  11. I remember when I was little and we had to wait ages for a film to be developed. Sometimes we would lose all the photos in the film if it wasn't placed correctly! I am grateful for digital photography and how it has made our lives easier! :)

    1. Or you let the light get at it! I had so many ruined photos by not being careful enough taking the film out. x

  12. Photography really has come a long way, my era was the disposable cameras and now its almost all digital.

    1. I know, I remember being so impressed the first time I went to a wedding with disposable cameras on all the tables!

  13. I loved all these pictures! My kids were playing at the library children's area and there was this plastic toy shaped like a film camera from the 90s - they were all "Cool, look at this!" I asked if they had any idea what it was. Nope. They didn't.

    1. I always find that so weird! We were thinking of getting a vintage Fisher Price chatter phone for Marianna, but then we realised she probably wouldn't even associate it with a telephone in any way.

  14. It is amazing to see how far photograhy has come isn't it. I remeember developing reels and reels of film

  15. Im a photographer and really want an old style camera i think they are fantastic, its funny because alot of photographers use modern tech to get the old style look. I really should use my photography on my blog more. Great post! Marie :)

    1. They look so cool - I was quite surprised (but pleased) to find that people are still using the really old techniques, like the daguerreotype, even now. x

  16. Very informative. Thanks. This must have been interesting and fun to research. Pen xx


  17. Some of this is a bit like *my* history of photography (although I'm not quite old enough to have owned a Daguerrotype!). I'm sure I had the 70s version of a 'brownie' as a child, my dad definitely had a Polaroid at some point, I went on to buy myself a (non-digital) SLR Nikon round about 2003 - d'oh! I now make do with a top of the range Sony RX100 advanced compact camera (I hovered between that and an actual DSLR but plumped for the convenience of a much more portable item) but of course take most of my photos on my blooming iPhone! Lovely informative post Jess X #thetruthabout

    1. I'm the same - everything gets snapped on my Blackberry. I always wanted a polaroid so badly when I was a kid, they were like my epitome of grown up cool! x

  18. Ahhhh love the daguerreotype selfie! And the blanket-covered mom pic was kinda creepy... ;P

    I actually JUST did some research on this too (same with the music stuff from your other post!) in the last few weeks, for a historical fiction piece I'm writing set in the 1910s-1920s. What prompted your research?? So fun to see the parallels in what we discovered. :) Have you see the fold-out cameras from the 1910s? Kodak Brownies but that collapsed into a box for storage... I found some people demonstrating them on youtube. SO COOL. I want one really badly now! ;P

    1. Some of the hidden mother ones are so obvious - I really hope the photographer made an attempt to block them out before they handed the final product over!

      Ooh, that sounds really cool! I'm constantly meaning to finish up an Edwardian piece I've been writing, but I'm always getting distracted by the latest new shiny thing instead, lol.

      I love those! They look really cool, and it's also a really neat idea too. I love how innovative they were about everything, working with what they had.

    2. Ohh your Edwardian piece sounds fun! Especially with how amazing you are at research, I bet it will be such a cool read... I'm first in line to read it when it's done! ;)

      They were SO innovative, I agree. So interesting how fewer options and resources can actually result in more creativity sometimes...

    3. I've got a new desk coming on the 10th (I'm so excited already!) so I'll have my own little workspace then... and I'll have no excuse not to finish off all the different writing projects I've been meaning to finish since forever!

    4. Oh exciting! Having a set-aside space can make a big difference... I hope the new desk is an awesome writing-catalyst! :)


Post a Comment

I love to hear from you, so please don't be shy!

Popular posts from this blog

Over 200 UK Refer and Earn Offers for 2022

So many stores and services offer special rewards and discounts for recruiting them new customers. No matter what you're into, there's a refer and earn offer for you! Some of these translate to straight up free and easy money through cashback or reward sites, others require you to be an existing customer or jump through several hoops. There are over 400 offers listed on my Codes, Coupons and Discounts Pinterest board, and I am (slowly) working on updating this post to reflect the cream of the crop! CASHBACK, SURVEYS, REWARDS & DEALS 20 Cogs . Get £20 when your friend completes 20 cogs (i.e. offers), and 5% of their earnings for life. You also need to complete 20 offers yourself before you can cash out. Airtime Rewards . Get up to £1.50 bonus credit for each person who signs up with your referral code. Mine is 9CKQXLH8. Cashback Earners . Earn 5.00 CashCoins and 10% of their earnings from purchases. 20 CashCoins minimum payout. Cashback Kingdom . Both get a bon

Free Magazine Scans

Click the pictures below to find full cover guides to various teen magazines (primarily collated to make scale miniature magazine covers but I figure they'll also be useful for collectors and anyone into media history) and scans from my own magazine collection. I've also got a couple of kids' books I didn't want to part with - The Squirrel and Little Owl Book of Pets . The unwieldy size of my bookmark folders convinced me I needed a reference post for online magazine archives. Or, more accurately, free online magazine archives. Whether you're looking for leisure reading or research avenues, you're bound to find something useful in this list. :) ☆ Archive for the Unexplained - UFO mags galore. ☆   The Magazine Rack - over 140,000 digitised magazines! ☆   Lantern - thousands of vintage film magazines. ☆ FANZINES  - a number of online archives now exist for these including  FANAC  (SF), ScoTpress  (Trek), Sandy Herald Collection  (media fandom, major

British Food

A/N: On a previous blog wrote a whole series of posts on British life, explained for American fiction writers. This week I'm reposting the entry explaining British cuisine... Britain is world renowned for its stodgy, uninspiring cuisine. (Which should explain the deep suspicion Britons have of most foreign cuisine, unless it's been suitably adapted for the British palette.) BBC sitcom Goodness Gracious Me explains it best via the 'going for an English' sketch - a play on the popular British past time of 'going for an Indian (i.e. curry)'. " What's the blandest thing on the menu? " asks one character, later encouraging another, " Just have something a little bland, huh? Waiter, what have you got that is not totally tasteless? " Because, the truth is that traditional British fare is far from a taste sensation for those who haven't been raised on the stuff. Still, read on, and you can judge for yourself... Breakfast  The be

Simply Cook Review

I kept seeing ads and deals for Simply Cook everywhere, so as there was a special offer on at OhMyDosh! Rewards (£3 for the box and £3.50 cashback) I figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a try. What Is It? Recipe kits packed into boxes which fit through your letterbox. The usual price is £9.99 for a kit of 4, with each one serving 2-4 people depending on your serving sizes. All you need to do is buy the fresh ingredients required and follow the instructions. Here is Simply Cook's own helpful diagram: Does It Work? For me, as the person just eating it, it was awesome. Everything tasted great - the mushroom penne in particular was so good I went back for seconds - and I liked that the sauces weren't as rich as Anthony would usually make them. For Anthony, who cooked them, they weren't as impressive. He complained that the food was bland and that it was actually quite a lot of faff, as Lidl didn't stock everything we needed which meant another trip ou

Free Fabric Samples x 200

Choosing upholstery and soft furnishings can be a nightmare - especially if it arrives and isn't quite what you expected. Fabric samples are a great way to avoid costly mistakes, as well as providing a fab source of material for your crafts box. Here are over 200 places offering completely free fabric samples in the UK: