The Wonderful World of Early Photography.

If we take a look at the state of photography today, such as the advances of digital camera, artful image manipulation by photoshop, and even the role of paparazzi in media - and the pervasiveness of photographic images in our lives, it is easy to forget that the first photograph ever was taken just 180 years ago.

Photography was probably an inevitable invention - the surprise was that it took so long for it to develop, especially given that the scientific principles that are responsible for it - physical principles such as our understanding of lens and optics and chemical processes that are required to affix permanent images, have actually been known for long before the invention of the first photograph.

The development of photography was quite fast: since Niépce took the world's first photograph in 1826, it took only about 30 years for photograph became a product for mass consumption with the introduction of carte-de-visite. Before long, the world's first concealed cameras were introduced to help detectives document the dalliances of cheating spouses!

But enough small talk - let's take a look at some fun facts about the development of early photography, famous and "first" photos, weird cameras, and more:

Camera Obscura

Before we talk about the birth of modern photography, let's talk a little about an ancient technique that served as a precursor - say, "proto-photography" if you will.

This device is called a camera obscura (latin for dark chamber). It is literally a dark room or a box with a small hole in one wall. An inverted image from outside the hole would appear on the opposite wall. This device could thus be used to aid drawing (artist could trace the outline of the image on a canvas hung on the wall) and was considered quite significant in the development of proto-photography.

The invention of camera obscura (latin for dark chamber) was attributed to an islamic mathematician, astronomer, and physicist named Ibn al-Haitham [wiki] or better known as Alhazen, in the 11th century Egypt. However, the principle of camera obscura was probably known to thinkers as early as Aristotle (300 BC).

Camera obscura was widely known to early scientists: Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Kepler, and Athanasius Kircher [wiki] all wrote about this optical device.

Giphantie: Prediction of the Invention of Photography

In 1760, decades before the invention of photography, French author Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche predicted its invention.

In a story titled Giphantie (yes, an anagram of his name), Tiphaigne de la Roche wrote about a race of secret supermen in an imaginary wonderland who could fix a reflected image onto a canvas coated with a sticky substance!

Link [Google Translation]

World's First Photograph

The grainy picture above is the world's first photograph called "View from the Window at Le Gras" (circa 1826), taken and developed by French photographer pioneer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. He called this process "heliography" or sun drawing - it certainly was a long process: the exposure time was about 8 hours.

Link | Nicéphore Niépce [wiki] | Niepce

World's First Daguerreotype

Although daguerreotype [wiki] was not the first photographic process to be invented, it was the first commercially viable process (earlier techniques required hours and hours of successful exposure and therefore weren't suitable for taking people's photos).

This technique was developed by French chemist Louis Daguerre [wiki], with collaboration with Niépce (see above). The daguerreotype above, titled "L'Atelier de l'artiste" was probably the world's first daguerreotype, made in 1837.

In 1839, the French government acquired Daguerre's French patent and announced his invention "a gift free to the world" - but simultaneously, Daguerre had acquired patents abroad, where he stringently controlled the use of daguerreotype.

And just like with any technology, the first adopters turned out to be erotic photography [wiki, nsfw - obviously].

Posing for a daguerreotype wasn't trivial: because the exposure time is about 15 minutes, the subject's head had to be held still with a clamp!

World's First Human Portrait

In 1839, Robert Cornelius, a Dutch chemist who immigrated to Philadelphia, took a daguerreotype portrait of himself outside of his family's store and made history: he made the world's first human photograph!

Robert Cornelius [wiki]

You're looking at Dorothy Catherine Draper, sister of NYU professor John Draper and model for the first daguerreotype portrait of a woman in the United States in 1839. She was the first woman to be photographed with her eyes open!

The earliest American attempts in duplicating the photographic experiments of the Frenchman Louis Daguerre occurred at NYU in 1839. John W. Draper, professor of chemistry, built his own camera and made what may be the first human portrait taken in the United States, after a 65-second exposure. The sitter, his sister Dorothy Catherine Draper, had her face powdered with flour in an early attempt to accentuate contrasts.

The Man Who Coined "Photography"

Also in 1839, the term "photography" was coined by Sir John Frederick William Herschel [wiki], a british mathematician and astronomer (side note: his father, Sir Frederick William Herschel, also a famous astronomer, discovered the planet Uranus!)

Herschel also coined the terms "negative" and "positive" in the context of photography, and also of the vernacular "snapshot."


The principle of stereoscopy (or 3D photo) actually preceded that of photography - it was described in as early as the 1500s by Giambattista della Porta [wiki].

In traditional stereoscopy [wiki], a pair of 2-D images - each representing a slightly different perspective of the same object, creates a perception of depth and tricks the brain into seeing a 3-D image.

The invention of daguerreotype sparked interest in stereoscopy in the Victorian era.

World's First Photomontage

In 1858, Henry Peach Robinson [wiki] made the world's first photomontage by combining multiple negatives to form a single image.

Robinson's first and most famous composite photo, called "Fading Away", was a composition of five negatives. It depicted a girl dying of consumption (or tuberculosis), and quite controversial as some objected to the morbid subject of the photo.

World's Oldest Surviving Aerial Photo

The first aerial photo was taken by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar [wiki], in 1858, using a tethered balloon over the Bievre Valley, France.

Unfortunately, Nadar's aerial photos were lost - so the oldest surviving aerial photo, shown here, was that of Boston in 1860, taken by James Wallace Black [wiki], also using a balloon.


In the late-1850s in Europe, Andre Disdéri popularized photos-as-calling-cards called carte-de-visite.

Carte-de-visite became popular and Disdéri became famous when French ruler Emperor Napoleon III en route to Italy with his army, stopped by his studio to pose for a photograph! (Never mind that the story might be apocryphal, it was still a good story!)

Because it is cheap to produce, carte-de-visite was mass produced for the public and became a huge fad in the Victorian era.

This carte-de-visite is of an interesting character called Eugen Sandow, dubbed the first modern bodybuilder who gained fame in late 1800s.

Do All of a Galloping Horse's Hooves Leave the Ground?

In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge, a British-born photographer, was hired by Leland Stanford (who later founded the university), to settle a question (some people say a $25,000 bet) whether there was a point in a horse's full gallop where all four hooves were off the ground.

Muybridge arranged 12 cameras alongside a race track and attached a string to the camera switches across the track. When the horse ran through the string, it triggered the shot. The series of photographs showed that indeed, all four hooves leave the ground when the horse is in full gallop.

Muybridge went on to develop systems and techniques to photograph motion of people and animal.

Eadweard Muybridge [wiki]

World's First Color Photograph

The oldest known color photograph was taken by Louis Ducos du Hauron in 1872. The photo is of a view of Angouleme in Southern France.

The Birth of Photojournalism

Amongst many pioneering photographers of the era is John Thomson [wiki], a Scottish Victorian photographer and traveler, whose work documenting the street people in London laid the foundation of social documentary and photojournalism.

This photo is called The Crawlers (cir. 1876 - 1877), a part of Thomson's work called Street Life of London, which documents in earnest the hardship of life of the transients and the poor in that era.

Photographic Gun

In the 1880s, French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey wanted to learn how birds fly, so he invented a photographic gun, which uses a rotating glass plate to take 12 consecutive pictures per second!

The Pioneers: Étienne-Jules Marey | EJ Marey [wiki]

Vintage Concealed and Gun Cameras

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, we saw a boom in the design and production of cameras concealed in everyday objects. Many of these cameras were sold for detective works, whereas some (like the matchbox camera) were designed specifically for spying activities.

For a fantastic collection of vintage cameras, it's hard to beat George Eastman House's online archive:

World's First Underwater Photo

The first underwater camera system was developed by French scientist Louis Boutan in 1893.

The image on the left was the world's first underwater photography - the model was so excited that he held the identification plate upside down! | Another Link

Mammoth Camera

In 1900, George R. Lawrence built this mammoth 900 lb. camera, then the world's largest, for $5,000 (enough to purchase a large house at that time!) It took 15 men to move and operate the gigantic camera.

The photographer was commissioned by the Chicago & Alton Railway to make the largest photograph (the plate was 8 x 4.5 ft in size!) of its train for the company's pamphlet "The Largest Photograph in the World of the Handsomest Train in the World."


World's Most Expensive Photo

You're looking at Edward Steichen's photo of a pond in Long Island, New York, in 1904. Don't laugh: this rare print has set the world record for most expensive photograph, sold for $2.9 million in February 2006!

BBC Article | Edward Steichen [wiki]

Thousands Posed for Mole and Thomas' War Photos

In 1918, photographers Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas took a photograph of 30,000 military officers and men at Camp Custer, Michigan. A special 70-foot tower was built for this purpose.

Mole and Thomas actually specialized in taking these types of photographs - they took a total of 10 photos where thousands of soldiers were posed to form giant, living, symbols of the USA, including a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, the Marine Corps emblem, and more.


Watch the Birdie!

In the 1920s, a brass birdie was often used by photographers to grab the attention of children during a portrait session (hence the saying "Watch the birdie"):

The birdie would typically be held by an assistant or parent. A rubber hose and squeeze bulb were connected to the short length of open brass tubing. The brass base separates into two halves so the bottom of the base can be filled with water. Squeezing the rubber bulb causes the bird to make a whistling and warbling sound.



The list above is by no means complete: we skipped many important milestones in the days of early photography, including the contributions of Fox Talbot [wiki], the development of other photographic processes (collodion, gelatin emulsion, and so forth), the birth of cinematography, and so on.

For those who are interested in learning more about the birth of photography, there are many wonderful websites, such as Robert Leggat's History of Photography, and Photography [wiki].


I'm wondering why you didn't include Edgerton right off the bat. He was soo influential..if it wasn't for him we wouldn't even have high speed photography...
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takes me back to first time loading film in pitch black and then developing in the dark room, ah and the impossable task of colour photography, lol cant even use red light
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"Photography was probably an inevitable invention - the surprise was that it took so long for it to develop"

"The development of photography was quite fast"

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James Black made aerial photos of Providence some months before he did those in Boston; the emulsion did not survive well, but MOMA displayed a print a couple of years ago.
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Nice summary, but missing a very important step - the invention of teh negative, by William Henry Fox Talbot:
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A lovely site, I am fascinated by early photography. I thought the earliest photo of a human was a silouette of an unidentified person standing in the street, taken out of a early photographers studio window? I have been unable to find it again, read it in a book years ago. Learned all sorts of things I never knew on this page, great work.

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What a great collection of pictures and stories. We do wedding photography in digital format. This site makes me appreciate just "how far we have come" in photography. Thanks for the site and info. I love it.
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The FIRST colour photograph was made under the instruction of Scottish polymath James Clerk Maxwell by photographer Thomas Sutton, in 1861. It's a picture of a tartan ribbon.

The picture you credited with being first is undoubtedly prettier, but 11 years too late to claim primacy.

Another early colour photographer of note, though decades later, was Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii. The Library of Congress has an exquisite collection of his colour pictures of Czarist Russia at
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On a Swedish historical forum called there has been a dicussion about who's the earliest born person that's been photographed.

One person we are sure about is the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843)(

Another person we have found is Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). The pictures don't look like photos though, but are they based on photos? (Second picture on and some other picture, where she's slightly younger, which I don't find now.) She was by the way an aunt of Sir John Frederick William Herschel who's mentioned in the article above.

A third person is John Leland (1754-1841), but it's unclear to us whether this is a photo or not (

Does anyone know more about this? Are there photographed persons that are born much earlier than these?
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James Black photographed Providence, RI, from the air before he tried Boston. The plates didn't come out well, but at least one survived; MOMA had a print in their "Modern Starts" show a few years ago.
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Very nice collection of photos and historic data.

I did not see any mention of George Eastman (other than the matchbox camera) in your article. Eastman may not have been the "first" from an inventor's list but certainly used his philantropic vision to bring photography to the people. Some of his processes are still today, the benchmark even in the digital world. The Geoge Eastman House is a must see if one is ever in the Rochester, NY area.
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Great article on the histoy of photography. Wanted to let you know about the site The city of philadelphia is putting their whole archive online for people to see. The city of philadelphia had some great photographers who documented the city in an amazing way. Some of the images that we are publishing in the fine art collection would remain you of Atget. Check them out. Your site celebrates the work of so many great photographes.
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One overlooked part of this history of Photography is the Panoramic and Lenticular imaging done.
Cirkut, Panoram, Orbit, Alt-Vista for Panoramic. Vari-Vue amongst others for the Lenticular side of Popular/novelty imaging.

Also processes to make such early images.

Daguerreotype, Wet Collodion, Bromoil, Platnium, Gum Bichromate and Photogravure; color process: Autochrome ( Lumere Brothers), Kodachrome, Heliochrome.

There is some for ya!
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Anyone else notice the horse and rider have a shadow? It says it was taken on a race track, I don't think the race track would have such a wall for the shadow to cast on.
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Great article! I think the world's most expensive photograph is from Richard Prince for $3,401,000 in 2007
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Awesome article. It was funny that this was on digg today. I was just reading about the history of photography in Uncle John's Bathroom reader. Great books.
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Holy crap this is an awesome post. One second I'm excited about snapping picture with my iPhone, the next I'm kicked in the crotch by history.

Interwebnet ftw.
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The info on the horse and rider is incorrect, as Mark said above. They were taken on a treadmill, not on a racetrack. In fact, if you watch the clip, you can even see the treadmill come into view. There are enough records of this on the internet, in books, in documentaries, etc, etc. Carl, in denying this above, is wrong.
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The Wikipedia article you reference for Robert Cornelius only says he was the son of a Dutch immigrant which would imply he was born in Philadelphia. Do you have another source that says this was not the case? If Cornelius was the Philadelphia-born son of an immigrant why not just call him a Philadelphia photographer?
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Great job!! the photography is science and for the same reason an art, the techniques or the technology itself are an important part of the modern industrial history and fine must to o an second part about the 35mm history with fisrst Oskar Barnak camera or the SLR revolution, the german photo industry rise and decline, the japanesse assault to the market, the most legendary cameras and lenses as Leitz, Carl Zeiss, Pentacon, Nikon, Canon, Exacta, Praktica...too much on a short space of time...
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Been looking for this infomation on 100's of different websites and most of it is right here.

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hi there love the post... but on the first under water photography the guy holds the plate upside down is he at your left or at our right thats what i didnt understand compleatly apart from that every thing great greets from the other side of the mirror... of an SRL

click click!!!!
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World’s Oldest Surviving Aerial Photo

Nice Photograph!

I could not pin point the location via Google Earth, If someone especially from Boston, can save this particular location via google earth and paste here, it would be very interesting to observe the differences that One-and-a-Half Century left upon the roads & streets of that particular area of Boston.

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What a fascinating look back on this wonderful development ( pun intended.)
There is a wonderful camera obscura located in a camera-shaped building behind the Cliff House in San Francisco- last time I was there the admission was only $1. A periscope outside sweeps in a 360 degree view which shows the Pacific Ocean, the beach, the buildings and the ever changing sky. They play ethereal music, and even have a collection of holographic photography inside. Check it out on your next visit to THE City!
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I admire and apreciate your work

thanks alot and I hope that you provide

us with other elements of photography

such as :

the first camera (( IMAGE ))

the first colored photo

and finally the first stand camera
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Wow... Just what i needed for y science project! This i soo cool! Wow! I don't have to fail now. Not meaning that i do have a bad grade, my grade is ok but i guess my parents are expecting more from me. So... what can i do? I need to just study. This site is really helpful. Besides the part that i have to do my bibliography in MLA format... This project is quite fun. Wow...
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This is like a basket of goodies for someone who is starving! So much, so complete, grand photos ( but of course) and my 21st book in process will now actually sound like I know a thing or two about photography.
Bless one and all.
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It may be that the actual plates of Nadar's aerial photography were lost but two were published in La Nature (Paris)in 1886.
These can be seen on

They are illustrations Nos 120& 121, No.122 is a barometric record of the flight on 2nd July 1886
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I just decided to look up Arthur S Mole on ask jeeves this morning after seeing in our newspaper yesterday some of his great photo's taken way back in the 1800's and I came about this I only wanted to spend a couple of minutes....Ha! but I'v now been on here a little !!!! te he! bit longer.....I am leaving this site with a lot more knowledge than when I came on so with regards to whoever put this together I congratulate you and hope you continue to make people like me "Have a happier Day " Cheers Lynne.
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You know, its kinda ironic how I've noticed most people's names in the comment area have listed similar names to one another... "Are you all related, or did you all eat the same soup last night" ? LOL . No purpose for me to leave any comments on this blog. I do what I do, and I do similarly what History has shown , here in this Blog. I know the rest of the commentators here had fun, now lets leave it up to the pros. Baddboyfilms, Its about time ! 2010 Mike the Film Producer ,Company backed with a License / Taxpayer :~P
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Thanks for a great post about the history of early photography. I've written a piece on photography in daily life in history, with the example of the Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre, h

Thanks again!

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ass.wr.wb saya hanya manusia kerdil bodoh dibandingkan dengan kalian yang terucap dari mulut saya hanya bersyukur karena saya masih diberi sehat adalah harta yang tak ternilai dibandingkan apapun dan perkembangan photograph tanpa ada yang memulai mungkin tidak ada dunia camera kita bersyukur kalian hanya tinggal mengembangkan saja saya akui jaman sekarang memang orangnya pintar-pintar dibanding tempo dulu peralatannya sangat terbatas tapi orangnya pemikir semua demi masa depan tanpa dia mungkin tidak ada rumus yang tercipta atas lensa kita wajib bersyukur apa yang dilakukan orang dahulu demi kita juga sekian. wassallam
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ass.wr.wb semoga saja kalian sehat jasmani dan rohani dan tiada problem yang menghardik kalian apapun yang kamu lakukan senantiasa bermanfaat bagi orang lain terutama keluarga kalian kalau melihat foto orang terdahulu memang sangat antusias untuk melakukan riset kita hanya menuainya kamu seharusnya bersyukur karena ada yang memulai atas ilmu lensa atau optik maka dari itu kamu diberi akal fikiran pergunakan dengan hal yang positif bermanfaat bagi orang lain otomatis pahala yang menunggumu sekian akhirul kallam
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I have just found a picture that is supposed to be of my great-great-great grandparents Archibald & Hannah Lowe Whitt. Since Archibald Whitt died about December 1828 in Virginia I was a bit sceptical it was of them especially since it was so clear.
My question when were the 1st CLEAR pictures developed in Virginia?
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Great historical perspective. One other thing you see forming is how photography morphs into different uses:

vanity, pushing the portrait business.

technical photography, such as Muybridge's horse galloping.

but, the "World's first Daguerreotype" appears to be the first in the group to illicit an emotional response, which is what I would call the most important use of photography..
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this site had alot of info that contradicted the info in a book i got form the library. I am more inclined to believe the book and think this site is none to amazing.

~Kelly :-(
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