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Camera technology has progressed leaps and bounds in the last 20 years from the dinky digital cameras of the 90s and early 2000s; now we are watching the wave of mirrorless cameras progress to incredible heights (looking at you Canon R5.) However, the development of camera and film technology didn’t happen that long ago and with the exception of the invention of color photography, progressed rapidly in 200 years.

Heliographs and the First Photo

There is no one person responsible for the invention of photography, and the idea of creating a fixed image on paper was coveted and pursued by several individuals. Tom Wedgwood and Humphry Davy were two of the men who began research into this process.  They worked together on the discovery that silver chloride was light sensitive and if paper or leather were soaked in the chemical, it would blacken with exposure to the sun. However, neither man was able to find a way to fix the image permanently, and eventually the paper turned solid black. In France, a man named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented a process called Heliographs in 1813. This process used pewter plates, Bitumen of Judea, and oil of lavender. When the plates were exposed to light for eight hours, the Bitumen of Judea would harden where light reached, and the excess washed away with oil of lavender. This was considered to be the first complete photographic process since the images were fixed on the plate and didn’t disappear over time. Niépce is known to have created the world’s first photograph, and it can still be seen today at the University of Texas Ransom Center.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce / Public domain

The Daguerreotype

In 1829, Niépce partnered up with the well known Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, and eventually gave Daguerre license to further develop his heliographic process. Niépce died before he saw his process completed. It was not until several years after Niépce died that Daguerre discovered a way to decrease exposure time from 8 hours to 30 minutes. By coating a copper plate with silver and then floating it in iodide, he was able to make it light sensitive. He then used heated mercury to develop the image onto the plate. The smooth plates made for extremely crisp images that displayed stunning details for this time period. Daguerre did not discover a way to fix the image onto the plates until 1837, with the discovery of sodium thiosulfate by John Herschel. Daguerre coined his new process the daguerreotype and sold the patent to the French government in 1839. In one of his initial prospectus, he describes the process as “…not a tool for drawing nature; it is a chemical and physical process that gives nature the facility to reproduce herself.” Daguerre’s book detailing the process, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerreotype and the Diorama, became an instant success and was translated into 29 different languages before the end of the year.

“…not a tool for drawing nature; it is a chemical and physical process that gives nature the facility to reproduce herself.”

-Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, 1839

Since the daguerreotype process was released “free to the world” by the French government in 1839, people began to rapidly experiment with the method and improve on the technique. In 1840, several inventors out of Vienna were working to improve the speed and clarity of the daguerreotype process. Jozsef Petzval and Friedrich Voigtlander worked to create a more sophisticated camera and a faster lens, and Franz Kratochvila created an accelerant of bromine and chlorine to make the plates more sensitive. By the end of 1840, a British chemist, John Frederick Goddard, had improved the accelerant enough to reduce the exposure time from 30 minutes to 3 minutes. This finally made it possible to use daguerreotypes for portraits.

The Calotype

While Daguerre was inventing his methods, another man by the name of Henry Fox Talbot was creating his own process, the Calotype. Completely unaware of his French competition, he compounded on the ideas of Wedgewood and Davy by soaking paper in a sodium chloride solution and then brushing the dried salt paper with silver nitrate to make it light-sensitive. However, these images weren’t nearly as crisp as those made on the copper plates of the daguerreotypes, so they weren’t as well received. To combat this, he began waxing his salted paper to create a much clearer image. Talbot then discovered that by creating the initial image on oiled paper, it would produce a negative image. From that negative, multiple positives could be created through contact prints on the photo paper. This negative-based process is the basis of film photography today and because of this, Talbot is known as the Father of Modern Photography.

Wet Plate Collodion

In 1851, the photography world was turned upside down by the invention of wet plate collodion. Frederick Scott Archer, an English sculptor, fathered this much faster technique. It had the speed and duplicity of the calotype, the crisp detail of a daguerreotype, and it had no patents to hold Archer back. This process uses guncotton, ether, alcohol, and iodide to coat a glass plate. The solution creates a saran wrap-like film over the top of the plate and when silver nitrate was added on top, the chemical reaction created silver iodide, thus making the plate light sensitive. These plates were then loaded into the camera while still wet, exposed to light and then developed in a harsh chemical compound to remove the unexposed silver halides. Many photographers who adopted this process had issues with explosions in their portable darkrooms because these chemicals were so volatile. Though this process had the downfall of dangerous chemicals and the need for a portable darkroom, it had unprecedented clarity in the photos and created a boom in popularity for photography.

Dry Plates

Though ‘wet-plate’ dominated the photography world for almost 30 years, a desire to have a safer and simpler method was still out there. In 1871, physician Richard Leach Maddox invented ‘dry plates.’ An emulsion of bromine, gelatin and silver nitrate was used to coat the glass plates. This emulsion was allowed to dry and could be used at any time afterward. Not only was it more convenient, it was also significantly more sensitive than the wet-plate method. Because this method was so much faster, cameras were no longer chained to a tripod and handheld cameras made their way onto the scene. This sparked the revolution of amateur photography.

The First Kodak

George Eastman, known for the invention of the Kodak camera, got his start in the dry-plate production business. However, because the plates were relatively expensive to make and didn’t make enough profit, he began looking for a cheaper solution. Eastman partnered with William Hall Walker, who was experienced in creating his own dry-plate camera and printing kits. They successfully created and patented the roll film system that would fit onto plate cameras and, after a year of trial and error, created a film that functioned well and could be developed with consistent results. The prints that were made from this new film weren’t as sharp as the glass negatives, and much to the chagrin of Eastman, professional photographers didn’t switch to the new system. Considering the roll film a professional failure, Eastman decided to market towards the amateur photographer and created the first Kodak camera in 1887. This all-in-one camera was sold to the general public with the film already inside. When the film was used up, the customer simply brought back the whole camera to Eastman to develop and print the images for a fee. In 1888, the Kodak camera was awarded the invention of the year medal at the annual photographers’ convention in Minneapolis. The invention of the Kodak camera exponentially increased the number of amateur photographers in America by simplifying the previously tedious and complex process enough for the average person.


In September 1907, a press conference was held in New York City to announce the invention of color photography by the Lumiere brothers. Photographers flocked to this new method. Many seminars were held around the world; countless journal and newspaper articles were written. For the first time in photography’s history, photographers worked together to overcome the technical problems posed by autochromes. Older forms of color photography relied on using red, blue, and yellow glass plates layered together to create a projection of a color image on a screen; the autochrome process, ultimately, was an improvement on this method. After fourteen years of work, the Lumiere brothers found that instead of three separate glass plates, they could use microscopic grains of potato starch treated with chemicals sensitive to the red, blue, or yellow light to create a color screen. These grains were mixed together randomly, varnished onto a glass plate, and then topped with the photographic emulsion. Because of the layering of the plate, the emulsion of starch faced away from the subject when placed in a camera so that the light would pass through the color screen before hitting the light-sensitive emulsion. When developed, these created a transparent color image on the glass, viewable through a handheld viewer or projected onto a screen. This process still was unable to produce prints because of the lack of a color photo paper available. Since the color process was so technical, photographers were unable to do the post-production editing in the darkroom, which they had previously used to express creativity in their black and white photos. Instead, they now had to stage the image perfectly before the shutter was pressed. The glass plate process already had very long exposure times, but the autochrome process took fifty times longer than black and white. Despite these limitations, photographers still preferred to shoot in color.

An autochrome viewer
Arnold Genthe / Public domain

Cameras Will Continue to Develop

Since the 1800s, photography has developed and changed immensely. As technology takes over the artistic process in multiple ways, there has been a revived interest in these older processes. Film photography and alternative processes are becoming more common with modern photographers, and artistic expression is not limited to the most current technology. While the demand for film photography in today’s world is very low outside of artistic expression, I actually still work in this medium. I am a bit of a camera hoarder and half of my collection is made up of different film cameras. My hobby eventually became obsessive enough that I built a darkroom in one of my spare bedroom closets. Several months have been spent researching and working in alternative processes: such as recreating the original salt prints. That adventure was exciting and involved enough that it deserves its own blog post or demo video (or both!)

Salt Prints by Hailey West


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