A Brief History of Photography

Antique cameras

How many photographs are there on the earth? How many photos does people make every day? A party photographer today may take as many shots in one busy day as a photographer in the 1880s took during an entire year. The history of photography is an astonishing journey into the past that begins when there was no electricity and no lens.

Commercially invented in 1930s, photography came to be publicly recognized a decade later. Today, it is one of the most popular hobbies in the world, with the industry generating multi-billion dollar revenue.

Photography has played a key role in documenting human history. Before the invention of photography, human history and information was relayed in form of word of mouth, paintings, and illustrations.

It remains to be one of the greatest inventions in human history as images could tell a story and at the same time provide evidence with no exaggeration, tampering, and error.

From the rudimentary inventions of use of projector-like box referred to as camera obscura to modern-day DSLR camera and smartphones, photography inventions have come a long way.

In this guide, we simplify the history of photography to show you how this fascinating technique came to existence and show how things have evolved over the years in terms of cameras and hardware.

Use of Project-Like Camera Obscura


In the past, before photography was invented, people were using a projector-like box named camera obscura. This box used the same basic principles of a camera lenses.

They projected an image on a piece of paper or a plain-colored wall. However, printing was impossible at that time. Recorded images were processed using camera obscura.

Camera obscura, which is Latin word for dark room, existed before photography came to existence. It is believed that this technology was invented around 13th or 14th centuries. However, writing by Hassan Ibn Hassan, claimed that the principles in which camera obscura works on and which analogue photography is based today were invented in the 10th century.

We can term a camera obscura as a dark, enclosed room shaped in form of a box with a hole on the front side of it. The hole has to be made in a way that it is small enough to be proportionate to the box so that the image can fit in the camera obscura properly.

When light passes through the small hole, it projects the image on the surface it falls on, in this case it is the wall of the box. But the image is flipped and appears upside down. To correct this, the modern analogue cameras use mirrors. If people wanted a printed version of the projected image, it had to be drawn on the canvas by a painter.

When it was invented, the camera obscura frightened many and people thought it was sorcery. In fact, Giovanni Battista, an Italian scholar, was arrested for writing an essay on how to draw easily using camera obscura. He was prosecuted for sorcery.

The techniques used in camera obscura formed the basis for modern day cameras, especially analogue photography.

The First Shot


Original plate (left) & colorized reoriented enhancement (right). The photo was found to be taken at his home from a second-story south-facing bedroom window.
By Jonnychiwa - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88887615

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first photo picture, which shows a view of Le Gras from the Window in 1825.

The exposure lasted for 8 hours as the sun had to move from east to west so as to shine on both sides of the building where the picture was to be take.

To produce the image, Niepce used a petroleum derivative he called “Bitumen of Judea.” Bitumen hardens when exposed to light, while the unhardened material inside the ‘dark room’ could be washed away.

This metal plate was then polished to create a negative image that could be easily coated with ink to create a print. The main downsides to these images is that the metal plate was too expensive to provide and was heavier. Not to mention that it took a lot of time to produce.

The Onset of Photography


By Julia_Margaret_Cameron_-_John_Herschel_(Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art_copy,_restored).png:Julia Margaret Cameron(1815–1879)DescriptionBritish photographerDate of birth/death11 June 181526 January 1879Location of birth/deathCalcutta, IndiaKalutara, CeylonAuthority control: Q230120VIAF: 61616074ISNI: 0000 0000 8140 6854ULAN: 500118804LCCN: n50031545NLA: 35169417WorldCatRestoration by Adam Cuerden - This file was derived from:  Julia Margaret Cameron - John Herschel (Metropolitan Museum of Art copy, restored).png:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32043884

Sir John Herschel can be credited as the man who accelerated photography. In 1839, he came up with an improved negative made of glass. He is also the person who coined the term Photography.

The term was derived from the Greek words “fos,” which meant light, and “grafo,” which meant write.

However, even though Sir John Herschel made this process easier and results better, there was still a major room for improvement for photography to be recognized.

Initially, photography was either used to help a painter do his/her work easily. The first publicly recognized photography work were portraits of one person and family portraits.

After decades of improvement and refining photography techniques, Eastman’s Kodak began to produce cameras. The cameras were easier to use and reliable. Kodak’s camera were released into the market in 1888, with the slogan “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”

Kodak continued to improve their cameras and in 1900, they made the first commercial camera that took black and white shots. It was called Kodak Brownie and was very popular thanks to its efficiency.

Invention of Colored Photography

Colored photography came to existence in 19th century, but it became commercially viable in the 20th century. Two French inventors, Charlec Cros and Louis Ducos du Hauron, can be credited for improving color photography.

The first colored picture came to the market in 1907 and was produced through a screen of filters. The screen only allowed the primary colors- red, green, and blue. These screens developed a negative that was later used to make a positive.

It was the work James Clerk Maxwell, a famous Scottish physicist, who was popular for electromagnetism work.

However, his accomplishment in the field of physics overshadowed his inventions in the field of photography, which explains why he is rarely mentioned in colored photography improvement.

This method, even though it has been tremendously improved, is the same that is used in processing. Red, green, and blue are primary colors used in computer screens and Television.

With that in mind, let’s now discuss some of the notable events and accomplishment in the history of photography

Present World Photography

So far, humankind has taken around five trillion photographs. We use cameras every day, not only to remember special moments in our lives, but also in innovative scientific processes. Photography and cameras have changed our lives significantly. When traveling or moving to another country, it offers our friends and relatives back home an instant pictorial connection to our new surroundings. When memorizing data, it serves as an instant notebook. Camera usage has gone way beyond its preliminary purpose which was simply to capture reality.


Evolution of photography began when people started painting realistic masterpieces to capture nature and their surroundings as a whole. The first camera by this definition came into being at the time of ancient Greece. The first attempt to catch the moment proceeded with the so-called camera obscure. It is a camera that has no film inside-it has nothing but a wall with a small hole. The light that shone through the hole created an image on the wall behind it, and this image became the foundation of the modern cameras we use every day.

Photochemical effect

Somewhere between the years 1200 and 1600, a group of scientists discovered a variety of silver-containing chemicals, and came up with silver nitrate. They had made the discovery that silver nitrate was photosensitive. The study of all these years was structured and formed in an official way by Wilhelm Holmberg in 1694. He successfully named it the photochemical effect.


Photograph of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1765-1833

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1765-1833

People began expanding on Holmberg's research at the turn of the 18th century, developing their own methods and research. They put a lens to the hole in the wall and conducted other experimental research in this direction. A major figure to come out of this new age of image making research was Joseph Niepce. In 1826, the idea of permanent photography came to his mind. It required eight hours of work to take the very first photo. Thirteen years later, his successor discovered daguerreotype. It allowed the process to go from 8 hours to just a few minutes. For that time, these photos were referred to as plates.

Dry plates by Kodak:

John Herschel invented the glass negative some time later, in 1839. An interesting fact to consider is that since the photo took around two minutes, sitting people had to use a special brace to help support their head as it staying in one place for so long. It helped in keeping it still and steady for the better picture. Eight years later the Kodak camera designed dry plates, creating a huge development apparatus known as dark rooms.

Dry Gel:

Fifteen years after Hershel's innovation, George Eastman developed dry gel on paper, which changed the history of photo industry forever. It was a predecessor to film that was in standard use for the following 50 years. This was the time that Kodak created its famous slogan, "You press the button and we do the rest."

33mm Camera

The first 33mm camera was invented in 1924. This moment revolutionized photography forever. It was the first time in the history of photography, that camera was so concise and light that any person could put it into their pocket. The next innovation took place in the year 1949 when the first single lens reflex camera appeared. Very fast, it became the standard for professional photographers.

Digital era

Since that moment, things began developing very quickly. The first Polaroid camera came in 1965 and in 1985 is the date marked in a calendar with autofocus, and the 1990s opened the digital era. Kodak stopped producing film cameras in 2004. Soon after, the camera was used to equip for videos.

Photo of camera Sony


The history of photography features many mesmerizing stories and many various experimental and beautiful pictures from the past. The invention not only relieved painters of backbreaking work, but also changed visual reality. It is important to acknowledge all the ways that the picture is a representation of a moment in the past.

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