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Photography is an ever-evolving art form with surprisingly ancient roots. Modern photography requires photographers to use advanced technology and editing software, but cameras started as relatively simple projection devices. To embark on a career as a photographer, learn the history of cameras, photography, and the inventors who made the biggest breakthroughs. When was photography invented? When was the first camera invented? And who invented the first camera? Read on to find out all about the history of photography.
What Is Photography? A Photography Definition
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines photography as “the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor).” Therefore, a photograph is “a picture or likeness obtained by photography.” The photographer definition is “one who practices photography,
especially: one who makes a business of taking photographs.”
The word photography was first used according to this definition in 1839, despite the first known photograph being taken in 1826 or 1827. The mid-19th century is when photography, as we know it today, was invented and developed. However, related forms of transferring images onto surfaces through the use of light and lenses had been around for centuries at that point.
Camera obscuras were an early way to take primitive “photographs,” and were used as early as the fifth century B.C. A camera obscura is a darkened room with a small hole or lens at one side, through which an image is projected onto a wall. Before modern photography, the images were projected and traced, as this was the only way to preserve the images. Camera obscuras became particularly popular with European artists in the 16th century, when the projected images were used in the creation of more accurate drawing and paintings. This remained a popular way of recording images until the early 1800s.
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Who Invented Photography?
Who invented photography, and when was photography invented? Let’s dive in.
French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce is usually credited with having invented photography. He produced the first work of nature photography in 1826 or 1827, which took a full eight hours to take!
Another name you often hear in relation to early photography is Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre. In 1839, Daguerre created what became known as a daguerreotype, an early type of portrait photo that was taken in a private studio and printed on a silvered copper plate. Daguerreotypes were the first types of photography to be commercially successful.
John Herschel was another key figure in the development of modern photography. The Englishman was a mathematician, astronomer, chemist, inventor, and experimental photographer, who invented the cyanotype technique in 1842. These blue-and-white prints were like an early photocopy (or, a blueprint), and were used to reproduce documents.
Who Invented the First Camera?
There isn’t a clear-cut answer to “Who invented the first camera?”
As the so-called inventor of photography, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce could be credited with inventing the first camera. He used a sliding wooden box camera made by Charles and Vincent Chevalier in Paris. However, camera obscuras had been used for centuries at this point. And, Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham (circa 965–1040 C.E.) experimented with early pinhole photography and is also sometimes credited as the inventor of the first camera.
The first camera that was made for commercial photographs was a daguerreotype camera made by French art restorer Alphonse Girouz in 1839. It was a double-box design, with a lens affixed to the outer box and an image plate in the inner box.
Important Events in Photography: History Timeline
Important Events in Photography History: Timeline
- 500 B.C.: The first camera obscura was recorded in China.
- 11th century: Ibn al-Haytham experimented with pinhole photography using the camera obscura.
- 14th-17th century: European Renaissance artists popularized the use of camera obscuras for achieving a realistic image.
- 1826 or 1827: Nicéphore Niépce produced the first photograph, which took eight hours.
- 1839: Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process of portrait photography on copper plates. In the same year, Girouz developed the first daguerreotype camera for commercial use.
- 1841: British scientist, inventor, and photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot developed a process of printing photographs on paper rather than metal plates. These didn’t immediately take off, though, because the images weren’t very sharp.
- 1842: Herschel developed the cyanotype technique of taking “photocopies.”
- 1851: British artist Frederick Scott Archer developed the ambrotype, a form of photography on glass, which could be produced quickly and cheaply.
- 1871: Richard Leach Maddox developed the gelatin dry plate method of photography, which sped up the process of taking and developing photos.
- 1885-89: American entrepreneur George Eastman started manufacturing paper film in 1885 and celluloid film in 1889. He invented a simple box camera in 1888 and called it the Kodak.
- 1927: The first reliable flash bulbs for cameras were invented, expanding the environments and lighting conditions in which photos could be taken.
- 1935: Kodak produced the first color film. It was originally for video cameras but was introduced to still cameras the next year.
- 1947-48: Eye-level viewfinders were developed on cameras, replacing waist-level viewfinders.
- 1948: Polaroid invented the first instant camera. Users could take and develop their own photos within a few minutes.
- 1954: Kodak introduced the first high-speed film that could capture action shots.
- 1963: Kodak began selling the first point-and-shoot camera, the Instamatic, making photography more accessible.
- 1975: Kodak invented the first digital camera, although the technology wasn’t made available for common use until the late 1990s.
- 1999: The first commerical camera phone was invented by Kyocera, although it would be another decade before phones became an everyday way of taking photographs.
- 2007: iPhones first came on the market, introducing smartphone technology that enabled users to take and share digital photographs instantly.
- 2010: Image-focused social media platform Instagram was founded, changing the way people took, edited, and shared photos.
What’s Next? The Future of Photography
Technology develops so fast that it’s anyone’s guess what the future of photography holds. It will certainly be a digital future and one in which photographers—professionals and amateurs alike—are connected via social media. Anyone with a smartphone and basic editing software (or filters) has the potential to be a photographer. As Devin Coldewey writes for TechCrunch, “The future of photography is computational, not optical.”
Professional photographers predict that three-dimensional photography, portable battery packs for cameras (not just phones), and artificial intelligence for autofocusing and editing are all possible in the foreseeable future. The sensors on smartphone cameras will only get better and better, too.
There may also be a return to “vintage” photography, in the same way that many people like to collect antique furniture. Sure, you don’t have to use old-fashioned film cameras any longer, or non-digital SLRs, but that’s the very reason why the format is appealing.
While the process of working a camera and taking photos is similar across photography genres, the subject matter, composition, editing, and purpose of photographs differ. Here are a few of the most common photography genres:
Portrait photography is the art of taking photos of people for commercial, journalistic, or artistic purposes. Portrait photographers must be able to highlight something about the subject in the photograph through composition, lighting, and props.
Landscape photography focuses on natural or built landscapes—it may be of mountains and grasslands or of cityscapes and industrial scenes. The grander scale of landscape photography means that photographers must know how to best use the different lenses and angles at their disposal.
Nature photography includes animals, plants, flowers, and natural features like rivers, lakes, and mountains. When photographing animals or subjects that move, photographers must be familiar with fast shutter speeds and have patience. Close-up shots capture details such as raindrops on leaves or the feathers of a bird.
Every product markets visually uses product photography. Photographers specializing in this photography genre must be familiar with marketing photography best practices.
Athletes and teams—whether a track runner, a road cyclist, or a baseball team—move quickly, and sports photographers have to keep up with them (with their lens, that is). Some sports photographers may also be photojournalists.
Photojournalism is a genre of photography that’s closely connected with the news. Photojournalists may work in the local community or in a distant war zone, and their photos may accompany a written news report or tell a story by themselves.
Fashion photographers capture models and the clothes they wear in a variety of settings, including on the catwalk, out in the open, and in a studio setting. A fashion photographer is similar to a portrait photographer—you need to know how to get the best out of your model while presenting the clothing in a flattering light.
Traditionally, there are seven elements of photography: line, shape, form, texture, pattern, color, and space.
These seven elements refer to the way a photographer sets up their photo.
Lines are paths that viewers follow within the composition, or act as a boundary. They can be straight or wavy, clear or imaginary, but they must always be there in some way.
Shapes in your photos might be traditional shapes, such as a window frame or a ball, or they may be the shapes caused by shadows, silhouettes, backlighting, or other secondary techniques. Shapes draw the eye to certain parts of the photograph’s composition.
Form is how your two-dimensional photograph is set up to look three-dimensional—think of form as depth. An impression of depth can be created through the use of light and shadow.
Textured objects and surfaces add a point of interest to your photograph. Texture can affect the emotional impact of a photograph. Texture is usually a small element of a larger photo, but it can also be the main event. Think about the roughness or smoothness of fabric, the choppy surface of the sea, or bark of a tree.
Patterns can be found everywhere from a water surface to clouds in the sky, the windows of a building, or the skin of an elderly portrait subject. Patterns tie a photograph together.
Colors evoke mood in the viewer. Black and white photography is a powerful medium in its own right, but careful consideration of the color wheel in your photos can send a strong message.
Space gives depth to your photo. Photographers tend to compose their photos with a foreground, middle ground, and background. Both negative and positive space are also required.
A beginner class in photography will help you learn more about these seven essential elements of photography. Self-taught artists can use their intuition and creativity to get them quite far, but nothing replaces photography classes and learning from the experts.
Get Started in Your Photographer Career
So, you want to be a professional photographer? Being a good photographer requires artistic vision and creativity, as well as learning how to technically work different types of cameras in different environments and conditions. Once you’ve taken your raw photos, you’ll then need to edit them to bring out the best in your subject. Some of this can be learned, some is innate, and some can be honed and perfected through practice.
As a photographer, you are constantly learning and adapting as new technology and software shifts the landscape. But, that’s part of the fun! Take a beginner, intermediate, or advanced photography course, depending on your current skill level, and see where it takes you!
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