History of Photography


Introductory Statement

As my first piece on the website, I wanted to start at the beginning. To learn how cameras were invented centuries ago and how they have transformed the cameras we shoot with today. This piece will cover the major milestones of the technological innovations of the camera and how the definition of photography has changed since its inception.

Early Definitions of Photography

What is photography? Today, photography is considered the practice in creating an image through a means of capturing the light of the scene. It is seen as an artform today. However, that opinion was not very popular among artists in the 19th century.

In the early stages of the creation of the first camera, people saw it as an easier format of art. Compared to painting, sculpting, and many other formats of art at the time, photography was a simple form of art. There was no need to attend art school to be able to create beautiful paintings or intricate sculptures. The scene was already set in real life, you only had to find it.

From today, painting is dead.

Paul Delaroche - French Painter

The Daguerreotype

The artists were quick to critize the validity of photography, but that did not stop the inventors from finding ways of creating a standardized system to produce images. Louis Daguerre, a french artist and photograper was the first to the table with his daguerreotype process; published in August 1839 . There were many who had made systems prior to the daguerreotype, however there were many problems with them. They were not publicly available, they had to be captured in an incredibly dark room, and they took around eight hours to expose a single image. Daguerreotypy first cut the exposure time to an hour, however, newer lenses and higher light-sensitive fumes brought the exposure time down to under a minute. It was a revolutionary solution that made photography more accessible.

Photo courtesy of Susanna Celeste Castelli from DensityDesign Research Lab

How the Daguerreotype Process Works

A daguerreotype style camera had two compartments. One for the lens and another, smaller box that slid into the back of the first compartment. It housed the plate of which the image would be casted onto. You would adjust the focus by sliding the smaller box back and forth. The process to create an image is quite intricate. You start by polishing your copper plate that had a thin coat of silver. After polishing the plate until it shines like a mirror, you have to expose the plate to iodine fumes in an enclosed box. The iodine makes the plate sensitive to light. In a holder, the plate gets transferred to the camera’s compartment. Now you would set up the scene and adjust focus, and finally take the photo.

After the exposure, you must develop it using mercury fumes until the image emerges, then set it in a bath of sodium thiosulfate. After all that painstakingly complex work, you will get a true, daguerreotype image. 

The Uprising of the Collodion Process

The daguerreotype process was revolutionary, however it had its limitations despite all of the fame. It could only be exposed on metal, it was expensive, and you could not do portraits due to long exposure times.

12 years later, Frederick Archer, an English sculptor introduced the wet collodion process to the world in 1851. It used glass plates coated in collodion; a mixture of dissolved nitrocellulose (guncotton) in alcohol and ether. You coat the collodion onto the glass right before you take an exposure, and then get the negative processed in a darkroom immediately after before the coating dried.

Despite the immediate exposure and processing that had to be done, it quickly became more popular than the daguerreotype process because it was 20 times faster. This allowed portrait photography to flourish, and it became the standard in photography for the next 30 years.

The Drier the Better

In 1878, the modern era of photography came to life. The invention and production of dry plates began taking photography by storm. It was a dry glass plate that came precoated with a gelatin emulsion of silver bromide. These plates were 60 times more sensitive to light that their wet-plate counterparts, which allowed for the first handheld cameras to be manufactured. Dry plates eventually led to flexible film in 1885 by George Eastman (the founder of Kodak), which helped in portability and ease of use.


1888 was the beginning of the amateur photographer era. It was the year The Kodak Camera was introduced by Eastman. It was the most popular handheld cameras at the time. The camera came with a roll of film that could take 100, 6cm exposures. After you filled up the roll, you sent your entire camera back to Kodak to have your film developed. It was a genius strategy that sold. Kodak became the world's top producer of film because of their genius marketing strategies and quality products.

The Evolution of Film

Saftey Film

Early film was created using nitrocellulose, a flammable compund. Since the popularity of handheld cameras were skyrocketing, there was a call to make film safer. Film manufactures quickly released cellulose acetate film, a safer type of film. A decade later however, it was found out that this type of film was degrading at a fast rate due to cellulose degradation. This chemical reaction became known as the vinegar syndrome.


35mm originated from cinema thanks to William Dickson (an employee of Thomas Edison) cut Kodak 70mm in half and spliced them together. Inventors and engineers tried to adapt its use-case to photography. Many small manufactures produced the first 35mm cameras, however the most popular came from Leica with the Leica I. 35mm became the new standard for professionals looking to have the best image quality.

Colour Film

The earliest colour plates began production in 1907 by the Lumière Brothers and Kodak's Kodachrome was introduced in 1936. However, there wasn't a demand for color film. Critics and professionals in the field thought colour photography as vulgar, amateurish. It wasn't until a new generation of photographers in the 1970s where colour started becoming more popular and was finally accepted as a form of art.

The Single Lens Reflex

SLR cameras were revolutionary new designs for cameras, however they are incredibly complex. It uses a mirror and prism system to allow the photographer view directly through the lens. It granted the ability to see what is in focus and exactly the framing of the picture.

When looking through a viewfinder on an SLR, the light you see is reflected up from a mirror blocking the medium of capture, which then either bounces off another set of mirrors or a pentaprism. When you press the shutter button, the first mirror flips up, allowing the medium of capture to expose an image, then it flips back down. These moving parts need to be throughouly tested and fine-tuned to make sure the mirrors do not misalign.

The first SLR camera was invented in 1861 by Thomas Sutton, however few were ever produced. SLR cameras did not become popular until the development of 35mm film. The first SLR to use the new film standard was the Ihagee Kine Exakta, and other companies followed their lead in manufacturing 35mm SLRs due to their rise in popularity. 

The Present Day


Beginning in the early 2000s, Digital SLRs began replacing SLRs. DSLRs had many features that SLRs did not have, and if they did, outperformed SLRs almost every way. Better autofocus, video capabilities, screens that sumarrize your settings, more customizability to capture settings, timelapses, and much more. And most importantly, the ease of use with electronic file formats.


A new contender to DSLRs, mirrorless cameras first came to the market in 2008 thanks to Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G1. Mirrorless cameras don't have mirrors (obviously) and instead projects what the sensor sees in real time through the electronic viewfinder or the main screen. Mirroless cameras are more portable, less mechanically dependant, and allow them to operate silently due to electronic shutters.


Photography has changed over the course of its lifetime. From the early camera obscura days to the inception of the daguerreotype process, the innovation in film to todays cameras, photography has innovated to suit todays world. Grudges have been lifted on colour photography and higher quality products are allowing more feats of creativity everyday.

This story has been a b!tch to write, but I learnt a lot along the way. I hope you take something away from this story about our ancestors' history. Please contact me if you find any mistakes, misinformation, or if you just want to give some constructive criticism. I always appreciate it!


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