Whether it’s a sketch, painting, or another medium of expression, the visual arts always had an important place in documenting human history.

However, few mediums convey the authentic human experience the way that photography can.

Some of the most powerful images in modern history derive from a single photograph, effectively capturing the human experience in a still image that may speak volumes.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper, 1932

Today, we discuss the invention of photography itself, tracing its conception from the renaissance to the modern age.

While venturing through the history of photography, we will discuss key dates and figures such as the inventor of photography and when photography was invented. But first, we will start by answering an essential question.

What is photography?

On a basic level, we all know what photography is. Whether you have a smartphone, a polaroid, or a professional-level camera, it seems as simple as pointing and shooting. But, we can get a little more technical than that.

Photography is the art form of capturing reflected light by way of film or digital sensor. The light, captured by a device known as a camera, creates a picture of visible wavelengths that come together to make an image.

People use photography all around the world, capturing real, authentic moments of the human experience throughout time. The invention of photography is, without a doubt, one of the most important developments in human expression.

Yet, who invented such an amazing art? What is the history of photography?

The history of photography

A fascinating development took place around the 5th century B.C. Early historians noted the phenomenon known as camera obscura, the manner in which a pinhole image casts a reversed projection opposite the site of the pinhole.

The technique quickly captured the attention of artists and scientists alike. Artists would use the projection to aid in their landscape paintings and astronomers would use projections to observe solar eclipses. 

In the 16th century, camera obscura devices evolved. Artists, scholars and scientists alike suggested technical improvements. Biconvex lenses and diaphragms were added to create clearer, sharper images cast from the projection.

By the 17th century, the device underwent physical changes, shrinking from the size of tents to small boxes to allow for portability. 

The first permanent image was captured by Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. The View at the Window of Les Gras is forever etched in the history of photography.

The first photo after the invention of photography
View at the WIndow of Les Gras by Nicéphore Niépce

The image itself took eight hours to develop, and is mostly blurry and unrecognizable. However, Niépce is often credited as the inventor of photography, kicking off an artistic and historical revolution.

Bright beginnings: The evolution of photography

Just ten years after the invention of photography, fellow Frenchman and innovator, Louis Daguerre, made an invention of his own.

Utilizing iodized silver plates, Daguerre discovered one could create a sharper image with significantly less exposure time by employing mercury fumes. Dubbed the Daguerreotype, the technique went public as Daguerre received pension from the French government.

This photography invention was exceptionally popular, and gave rise to the portrait industry which was especially popular in the United States.

Taken 10 years after the invention of photography
Boulevard du Temple by Daguerre

Around the same time, British inventor William Henry Talbot Fox began to develop his own photographic process. Instead of using iodized silver plates, the Calotype process used photosensitive paper.

Although the exposure times were similar, Talbot’s process created “softer” portraits. The images dampened certain features on human faces, and were often preferred by those receiving portraits. 

When photography was invented, a new era of innovation was begun.
William Henry Fox Tablot’s commercial calotype establishment in Berkshire, UK

Talbot and Daguerre sparked a new age of innovation in photography. Many inventors and innovators alike sought to improve both the Daguerreotype and Calotype processes with different techniques and chemicals. But, in 1851, the collodion process rendered earlier techniques obsolete. 

English sculptor Frederick Scott Archer further improved photography with the invention of the wet-collodion process. Archer’s groundbreaking invention created sharper, crisper negatives that could be easily copied like never before.

The new method greatly reduced exposure time from ten minutes to just a few seconds. In 1861, the first color photograph was taken by Thomas Sutton.

Despite the high-quality images, the collodion process proved to be quite cumbersome. Photographers often lugged around heavy plates and photography tents.

While revolutionary, photography wasn’t widely available to the public.

The invention of color photography

When photography was invented, the chemically-involved photography process of the 19th century made it difficult for amateurs to get involved.

Yet, an English photographer changed all of that in 1871 with the conception of  “Dry” plates. Robert L. Maddox created a new photographic plate that could be preserved over longer periods of time. The plates could be easily stored and packaged for mass production.

Maddox’s development led to the creation of film by inventor George Eastman. Film was much more portable than plates, with film rolls allowing photographers to take multiple photographs in rapid succession.

The invention led to the first Kodak camera, thus greatly increasing accessibility to photography for the general public.

Film took a major turn in 1907 when French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiére marketed an additive coloring process called “Autochrome.” Using a potato, the brothers added dyed grains of potato starch to panchromatic images to create vivid, colorful images.

Kodak evolved this process in 1935 with Kodachrome film, making color photography available to professionals and amateurs alike.

The invention of digital photography

In 1957, a team of scientists from AT&T Bell Labs utilized a charge-coupled device (CCD) to capture images in first-generation digital cameras.

Combined with photographic scanning methods used in the 1950s, the first digital cameras began to hit the market. By 1986, Kodak evolved the CCD process even more to create the world’s first megapixel sensor, an essential component in digital cameras.

Today, popular digital camera companies like Nikon and Canon turn photography into a multi-billion dollar industry. What was once a profession with limited public access is now widely accessible in the form of digital cameras, smartphones and beyond.

The power of photography is at our fingertips, granting us the power to document the human experience and our history like never before. 

Some of the most powerful images in human history derived from digital cameras and photography techniques, including the 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning series that documented the communications black-out in Kashmir.

History shows that photography is a true service to society, lending us the ability to explore the universe and push the boundaries of imagination. 

How to learn photography 

As accessible as photography is, truly captivating pictures come with experience and practice. Photography, like any skill, takes time to learn.

With commitment and passion, you can take powerful pictures to capture life in all of its glory.

For more information on photography and where you can learn how to take breathtaking photos, check out these online photography courses.