Photography, could it be the best and most useful invention ever!

© Copyright By A.H. Wheeler, photographer, Berlin, Wis. — This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3a20638.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain,

What is photography?

The word “photography” literally means “drawing with light”. The word was supposedly first coined by the British scientist Sir John Herschel in 1839 from the Greek words phos, (genitive: phōtós) meaning “light”, and graphê meaning “drawing or writing”. The technology which led to the invention of photography essentially combines two distinct sciences: optics, the convergence of light rays to form an image inside a camera and chemistry, to enable that image to be captured and recorded permanently onto a photosensitive (light-sensitive) surface.

What was the first known camera?

Already during the Renaissance (several centuries earlier) than the 1800’s, artists had begun to use a sort of primitive “camera” called a Camera Obscura (a latin term meaning literally “dark room” from which is derived our modern word “camera”) to more accurately copy nature by means of drawing. This naturally-occurring optical phenomenon had already been observed for hundreds (even thousands) of years: If a brightly lit scene or object is placed opposite a hole cut into the side of a darkened space (room or container), the rays of light reflected off that object, passing through the hole, converge into an upside-down image which can be seen to be “projected” onto the surface inside the container. But the camera obscura only allowed for the viewing of that image in real time. In order to record it permanently, artists still had to trace the image by hand inside the camera.

Nowadays and for some time as cameras have evolved, since the very first, prisms, reflex mirrors, film and now digital sensors have been implemented to flip the projected image of light entering the camera in making a permanent record to film emulsive and digital media. Even progressing to mirrorless cameras with light passing through the lens directly to the digital sensor, which then displays an image on the camera’s LCD screen with both mirrored and mirrorless digital cameras implementing live view, which enables the photographer to view the scene without having to constantly look through the viewfinder, to compose an image and adjust settings accordingly.

An early illustration of the Camera Obscura

What were the first ever photographs?

Around 1800, in England, Thomas Wedgwood (son of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter) managed to produce inside a camera obscura a black and white negative image on paper or white leather treated with silver nitrate, a white chemical which was known to darken when exposed to light. However, he was not able to fix the image permanently because the lighter parts of the image also became dark when looked at in the light for more than a few minutes. His discovery was reported in a scholarly journal in 1802 by a chemist Humphry Davy and translated into French.

Then, in 1816 a Frenchman, Nicéphore Nièpce, succeeded in capturing small camera images on paper treated with silver chloride (another chemical sensitive to light). However, like Wedgwood, he was not yet able to fix and preserve these images. So, he began experimenting with other light-sensitive substances, and in 1822, Nièpce invented a process he named “heliography” (again, using Greek words, this time meaning “sun drawing”, from helios and graphê). And in 1826/7, Nièpce succeeded in making the earliest surviving camera photograph. It represented a view from a window at Le Gras (his hometown in Burgundy, France), captured on a pewter plate coated in bitumen diluted in lavender oil. The exposure time was probably several days!

© Copyright By Joseph Nicéphore Niépce — Rebecca A. Moss, Coordinator of Visual Resources and Digital Content Library, via email. College of Liberal Arts Office of Information Technology, University of Minnesota., Public Domain,

A few years later, Nièpce went into partnership with Louis Daguerre, and together they improved the heliograph process, substituting a more light-sensitive resin and improving post-exposure treatment. After Nièpce died in 1833, Daguerre developed a technique in which a silver-coated copper plate fumed with iodine vapour formed silver iodide when exposed to light in the camera. He made a major breakthrough when he found that a “latent” (almost invisible) image obtained from a brief exposure could be further developed and made visible by exposing it to mercury fumes: in this way exposure times (which previously were several hours) could be reduced to a few minutes. On 7 January 1839, Daguerre’s discovery was presented at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, and due to the importance of the discovery, the French government decided to give Daguerre a life-time stipend (salary) in exchange for making the method freely available to whoever wanted to use it, instead of patenting it.

The daguerreotype, as Daguerre’s invention was named, was an immediate success, providing a relatively inexpensive and accurate way of representing scenes and faces which previously had to be drawn or painted by hand. Within a few years, photographic studios had popped up all over Paris and indeed across the world, as the up-and-coming middle classes all wanted to have their portraits taken. It is said that photographic apparatus was taken to St Helena to photograph Napoleon I’s body when it was exhumed in 1840.

© Copyright Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot

William Henry Fox Talbot

At the same time that Daguerre was perfecting his process, an Englishman, William Fox Talbot, had in 1835 succeeded in producing negative photographic images using a technique similar to Nièpce’s early experiments, and which required a long exposure time (at least an hour). After reading about Daguerre’s discovery, Talbot perfected a method whereby a paper negative could be exposed for only a minute or two, producing a “latent” image which could then be chemically “developed out” and made visible. The resulting translucent negative, despite being less detailed than the daguerreotype, had the advantage that it could be used to make multiple positive copies. Talbot published his results, which became known as a “talbotype” or more usually “calotype” (from the Greek kalos, meaning “beautiful” and tupos meaning “impression”) in 1841, and this became the prototype for the negative-positive printing process which would remain the basis of analog photographic reproduction throughout the 19th and 20th centuries until the invention of digital photography.

© Copyright The Mansell Collection/Art Resource, New York

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10.12.2021 Paul Hamilton Artistic Advisor Focus Market. The All Photography NFT Marketplace



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