The Camera’s Journey Through Time: A Brief History of Photography | Evgeniya & Dominic Righini-Brand | Skillshare

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The Camera’s Journey Through Time: A Brief History of Photography

teacher avatar Evgeniya & Dominic Righini-Brand, Graphic Design & Photography

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

7 Lessons (36m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Photography: The Beginning

    • 3. Photography: The Pioneering Years

    • 4. Photography: The Golden Era

    • 5. Photography in the Post-Modernist Era

    • 6. Photography and the New World

    • 7. Conclusion

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About This Class

Explore how technological inventions & social changes affected the development of photography and the tricky issues—including censorship, propaganda and the staging of images—photography had to transcend.


I’m Dominic Righini-Brand, a professional photographer and photography teacher. I’ve always been fascinated by the photography’s history and all of the inventions and discoveries, which led to chemical photography and eventually digital photography’s development, and with this short class I invite your to explore the evolution of photographic techniques and photography as a medium.

This class is for anyone who is interested in photography and who wants to enhance their understanding of historic photographic techniques & processes by learning about photography’s origins and how it developed throughout the ages.

In this class I will cover some of the most important inventions and milestones in the technological history of photography:

  • starting with pinhole cameras and camera obscuras,
  • to the development of early chemical photographic processes, such as the Daguerreotype and Calotype,
  • to the development of cameras which were available to the general public and the rise of Kodak as one of photography’s great dynasties,
  • to experimental early colour photography and development of commercially-viable colour film stock;
  • to introduction of rangefinder and SLR cameras;
  • and finally to the development of digital photography.

And I will also touch upon how photography has been used and changed as a media from mid-19th century, through World War I and War War II, to the modern day with our smart phones and social media.

Originally I created this lecture when teaching photography students at the British High School of Art & Design (Moscow), and have now adapted it into a short Skillshare class specially for you!

I hope you'll enjoy learning about photography's journey though time and share my passion for old cameras and the photographs created using them!

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Evgeniya & Dominic Righini-Brand

Graphic Design & Photography

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NEW CLASS: The Camera’s Journey Through Time: A Brief Technological History of Photography

Enhance your understanding of historic photographic techniques & processes and explore how technological inventions & social changes affected the development of photography and the tricky issues—including censorship, propaganda and the staging of images—photography had to transcend.

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1. Introduction: Photography has a rich and diverse history spanning several millennia. There was not one single invention or discovery which led to photography's development, but rather a series of inventions and discoveries. Sometimes in parallel with each other, sometimes divergent, that allowed chemical photography and then digital photography to emerge as creative processes. I'm Dominic from Attitude Creative. In this class, I'm going to walk you through photography's rich history. From those early discoveries in the antiquity, for important inventions along the road, to the development of chemical and finally, digital photography. This class was inspired by an old Critical and Cultural Studies lecture I used to deliver at the British High School of Art and Design, and which I have now adapted into a short Skillshare class, especially for you. This class is for anyone who is interested in photography and who wants to find out more about photography's origins and how it developed through the ages. Although when photographing, we're often using the latest technology. Photography is a nostalgic media because it opens a window into our pasts and allows us to travel through time. Sit back and enjoy photography's amazing journey from past to present. 2. Photography: The Beginning: Photography story goes way back into the antiquity. It was the ancient Greeks and Chinese who laid much of the groundwork in both optics and mathematics that allowed photography to first exist as a concept. Both of these cultures were pioneers and we owe them greatly for our modern understanding of the world. This connection with the past is highlighted in photography's name, which is derived from Greek and means to write with light. The Greeks discovered the mechanics behind pinhole camera optics, whereby light passes through a hole or aperture into a chamber. That's the camera where it is projected on an image plane. As the hole gets smaller, the image gets sharper, but the projected image also becomes dimmer. If the pinhole is too small, image quality suffers due to diffraction. The same science is still used today in pinhole cameras, which are popular with students because they help build a rudimentary understanding of basic optics and camera technology. To successfully make a pinhole camera, you have to create an exactly sized pinhole calculated using the same mathematics the ancient Greeks discovered. If you're interested in building your own matchbox pinhole camera using materials and equipment typically found around the home, then our class, pinhole photography, from matchbox to working camera is for you. Although chemical photography would have to wait several 100 years more, humankind's understanding of camera optics and the pinhole camera effect were put to good use by Renaissance artist like Leonardo da Vinci, who use camera obscura type devices as aids for drawing and painting. Camera obscura devices allowed artists to trace projected images which were anatomically correct and with true proportions. Camera obscura simply means darkened chamber in Latin. Camera is really just a box with a hole in it. There are a number of camera obscura, which can be publicly accessed today, including the camera obscura at the Royal Observatory in London. Camera obscura type devices are really easy to create and can be fun to use for photographic purposes, illustration, and watching solar eclipses, where you cannot look at the Sun with your naked eyes. To observe a solar eclipse, you can build a rudimentary camera obscura using a cardboard box and tin foil. Technology continued to develop at an ever-increasing rate and as the European powers entered what would later be termed the Industrial Revolution, several advances in science and technology led to the discovery of chemical photography in 1825 by Nicephore Niepce, working in conjunction with Louis Daguerre. However, before their invention could be announced to the world, Niepce died of a stroke, and it was left to Daguerre to complete their work. Their process was announced on the 7th of January, 1839 by the French Academy of Science and became known as a daguerreotype. Claimed to be the earliest surviving photograph, it was taken by Niepce in 1823 and is a still life of a dinner table. This photograph depicting the view from the window in Le Gras and was taken by Niepce in 1825. Here is another example of early chemical photography. It is a photograph of Boulevard du Temple in Paris taken by Louis Daguerre. Note the person standing on the street corner, thought to be the first person captured on camera. The exposure time was over 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in Great Britain, William Henry Fox Talbot started to experiment with photographic processes in 1834, however, he kept his research a secret when Daguerre announced his discovery to the world and exhibited his photographs in 1839. Fox Talbot exhibited his four-year-old photographs at the Royal Institute on the 25th of January, 1839. The following year, Fox Talbot invented the calotype process, which produced negative images. Here is one of Fox Talbot's early photographs. It depicts the window in the South gallery of Lacock Abbey and is thought to be the oldest photographic negative in existence. Before we move on, it is important to note the difference between the daguerreotype and calotype processes. Daguerreotypes are produced on silver-plated sheets of copper and consequently were difficult to copy. However, because Daguerre gave his discovery to the world, daguerreotypes became highly popular in the mid 19th century. Fox Talbot's calotype process has more in common with today's photographic chemical processes in that it produces a negative image which has to later be developed and can easily be copied for contact printing. However, Fox Talbot tried to commercialize his invention, taking legal action against anyone who tried to use his discovery, which inhibited its widespread adoption until his patents expired. 3. Photography: The Pioneering Years: Photography steadily increased in popularity throughout the 19th century. The Victorians established many of the photographic genres we know today. Photography's commercialization was inevitable. With further advances in chemical printing processes, which allowed for photography's mass reproduction, and newsprint, and publications, photography soon established itself in all walks of life. Since chemical photography's inception, there has been an ongoing debate about what should and should not be photographed. The Victorians were very good at testing these boundaries and even invented photographic pornography. However, it was Roger Fenton's photograph of the aftermath of the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1855, which depicts a value strewn of cannon shot and trails of blood, and was aptly titled Shadow in the Valley of Death, which tested these limits and provided an early example of photographic censorship. Roger Fenton was not allowed to photograph the battle. It was considered by the military as too sensitive, considering Britain's involvement in the Crimean War was very unpopular of the British public. Even though photography proved popular throughout the 19th century, it required a lot of skill and investment. Photographers tended to be professionals or part of the landed gentry, and photographic equipment tended to be bulky, expensive, and complicated to use. Consequently, this limited photography's initial appeal. However, this was all about to change when in 1880, George Eastman established Eastman Kodak Company and in 1888 produced a kit camera aimed at the general public. The camera had a fixed focus and carried enough film for 100 exposures. Its introduction marked the advent of the amateur photographer. In 1900, Kodak introduced the popular brownie series of cameras. Priced at $1 and with simple controls, the camera was intended to be a camera that anyone could afford and use. George Eastman's products marked an important step in photography's wider commercialization and popular appeal. No longer could photography be considered the preserve of the rich. This is highlighted by the fact that the Kodak company went on to become one of photography's most prestigious dynasties. Producing commercial and professional cameras, photographic chemicals, and inventing processes until its eventual downfall over 100 years later. We all know about Kodak. Its name have become synonymous with photography. Whilst true color photography took a while to develop to the point whereby it could actually be considered a viable and useful photographic process. There were some notable early examples which now provide us with a colorful glimpse of a world, which we generally considered to be black and white. In 1861, James Maxwell produced the first color photograph. It was created by a process which used three cameras. Each camera being fitted with a different color filter, and then projecting the final photographs, which were actually black and white together with lights colored by filters. This process was perfected by photographers like Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who was commissioned by the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas the II, to document the Russian Empire. The photographic collection which Prokudin-Gorsky, produced provides us with valuable glimpse of pre-revolutionary Russia in color. Most of Prokudin-Gorsky's work has been restored and is now freely available online. However, it should be noted that these early color photographic processes were slow and involve numerous cameras and all photographs. Ergo, color photography, besides being a novelty, did not catch on until later. Whilst glass plate photographs produced very high-quality results. There was several obvious drawbacks namely: It was very difficult to produce copies of photographs. Storage solutions were bulky, and the use of glass plates ultimately slowed the development of camera technology. Something had to change. In 1892, William Kennedy Dickson, working with Thomas Edison, introduced 35-millimeter film based on gelatin film stock produced by the Eastman Kodak Company. Like many new technologies, these new formats uptake was slow, and it was not until 1909 that 35-millimeter was recognized as a standard film gauge. However, it was still another 20-30 years before the widespread usage of 35-millimeter film cameras became commonplace. It is testament to 35-millimeter films' versatility that over 100 years later, the film stock is still being produced and used by photographers around the world. Despite massive advances in digital technology, 35-millimeter has somehow bucks the trend. It would even be fair to say that 35-millimeter is going through something of a second renaissance. This is probably due to chemical photography's innate qualities, which creates a sense of nostalgia and belonging in the photographer and viewer. 4. Photography: The Golden Era: The battlefield and its aftermath were considered a sacred place. At the time photographing it, was perceived a taboo. Such graphic depictions could only be captured by war artists. Therefore, World War I was not just a battle between the central and allied powers, but a technological battleground between art and the camera. Throughout World War I, many poignant paintings by war artists like John Singer Sargent were produced depicting witnessed scenes like British soldiers blindly leading themselves away from the front, eyes bandaged after a mustard gas attack. However, as the war progressed, its noble depiction waned as people became desensitized to photography's often realistic and very graphic documentation. By the end of the war, photography was the accepted method with which to document even this one sensitive and taboo subject. The world and photography had traveled a long way since the days of Roger Fenton and that first example of photographic censorship. However, it was not always easy for the early war photographers. Cameras were still very bulky and not very portable, and often slow to use. It was very difficult to actually capture the fighting using photographic techniques, and consequently many photographs were staged or recreated after the fighting for the newsreels. At the time this was considered an unacceptable practice, and a somewhat blurry line between documentary photography and propaganda was established more on this later. The development of 35 millimeter, a medium format film gauges allowed smaller cameras to be developed. These were more versatile and could easily and quickly be used on location. Post World War I, rangefinder cameras began to become more popular and became the go-to camera for photojournalists and documentary photographers until the widespread introduction of single-lens reflex cameras after World War II. Small, lightweight, and easy-to-use rangefinder cameras allowed photographers to photograph the action and events which previously had to be staged. Photographers composing images with rangefinder cameras used a separate viewfinder to compose the image meaning these cameras typically suffered from errors in parallax. Early through the lens cameras had to be shot from the hip because they lacked a pentaprism and thus used a rudimentary mirror and viewport mounted on top of the camera which produced a reflected image. Rangefinder cameras had an early run-on through the lens cameras because they were quick and simpler to use. Although color photography had existed for over 50 years, it was not until the 1930s that an inexpensive color film was introduced. Early color films allowed photographers to shoot in color without having to result to complicated and slow processes which used multiple cameras and projecting images. Although there were many parallel processes invented in different countries like for example, France's Autochrome Lumiere, it was not until Agfa introduced Agfa Color Plate in 1932 that the widespread usage of color photography became commonplace. This was quickly followed in 1935 by the introduction of Kodachrome by Kodak, the world's first color transparency film. Not to be outdone, Agfa introduced Agfacolor Neu, a transparency film which was easier to process than the Kodak K41 process in 1936. Many photographs taken in World War II were in fact color negatives or slides. These however were printed in black and white because it was quicker and more economical. It's only nowadays that some of these negatives are being scanned and restored that we can finally see their color versions. For World War II, photography was the number one reportage media. Wire photo or telephotography networks meant a photo taken and processed could be sent around the world quickly. It was not only common for photos taken on the battlefields nearer to the stateside within hours. For example, Robert Capa's photos of the Normandy landings on D-Day were wired to America within hours and syndicated in the press. It's difficult to imagine now, but one has to remember that this early form of electronic communication predated the internet and modern digital communication. Developments in camera technology in the 1920s and '30s meant that it was much easier to photograph the action in World War II and photographers became less reliant on staging their photographs. However, there was still a blurry line between documentary photography and propaganda. With militaries came to control access to the battlefield, photographs taken were subject to censorship and access tightly controlled. Wherever the allied armies went in Europe, they were followed by a caravan of writers and photographers, including Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa. You can read Robert Capa's personal account of this era in his book, Slightly Out of Focus, which was a favorite of mine when I was a photography student. In truth, many photographs even if they were taken as documentary could easily be used as propaganda, sometimes even by both sides with competing aims. A good example of this is St. Paul's Survives, which depicts St. Paul's Cathedral shrouded in smoke after a German air raid. This picture was used by both sides. British publication was using the image to symbolize British resilience and courage. Whilst German publication was using the image as proof that their bombing campaign against the United Kingdom was working. There was also many questions regarding ethical practice of the photographers themselves, with many of the world's most iconic images still being staged or retouched. Examples include the American flag being raised for the second time over Iwo Jima, and the photograph of the Soviet flag being raised in the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. This was a debate which photography has subsequently had that many of the practices which are considered deeply unethical by today's standards were already commonplace and being used throughout. A notable example predating World War II is Robert Capa's famous photograph, the Falling Soldier captured in the Spanish Civil War and depicting a Republican soldier apparently at the moment of death. Nobody can know for certain whether the image is genuine or staged because the staging of images like this was commonplaced by Capa's contemporaries during the Spanish Civil War due to restrictions placed in photojournalists. The debate surrounding the falling soldiers authenticity is one which has ensued until today, with many questions remaining as to the soldier's identity and the location of the photograph. What is certain is Robert Capa and other war photographers conducted a very dangerous but important job. Well, but Capa who always said, "If the picture is not good enough, then you're not close enough. " was eventually killed in 1954 during the war in Indochina. Post World War II, the East German camera company Contax introduced the Contax-S, the first pentaprism, single-lens reflex camera for further lens eye-level viewing. However, the European camera companies early lead was quickly eroded by Japanese companies like Nikon and Canon. These Japanese companies started out by creating cheap copies of German-made bespoke cameras for American photographers and correspondents on leaving Tokyo from the war in Korea. Single-lens reflex cameras had notable advantages over rangefinder cameras. Note what you see through the camera is what you get in the photograph with no errors and parallax. The addition of a pentaprism made these cameras quick and easy to use unlike the previous generation of cameras with waist-level viewfinders. However, rangefinder cameras continued to be popular throughout the second half of the 20th century, because they are relatively cheap to produce. Many of these cameras, both rangefinder cameras and single-lens reflex cameras were built to last and are still used and loved by photography enthusiasts to this day. I've got several old cameras in my collection, including a Pentax Spotmatic from the early 1960s and the Nikon F2. My father has an old exact waist level 35 millimeter camera which he used in the 1960s. 5. Photography in the Post-Modernist Era: After World War II, television which was actually invented before the war began to make inroads into photography supremacy as a number one visual media. This change was a slow ebb until the 1970s, and the widespread introduction of colored television. Just as the American Civil War was the first widely photographed war, Vietnam was the world's first television wall. This gradual change is covered in the empirical television series Mad Men, which covers advertising an American society throughout the 1960s. At the beginning of the decade, advertising is predominantly print based. But as the series progresses, television begins to become more, and more prominent. Thus we have reached the beginning of the end of photography story as a disruptive new media, where things having come full circle. Now, photography needed to mature, and find a new place in society. A struggle which would continue until the ramifications of Internet were fully realized decades later. Just as with the development of chemical photography, digital photography did not suddenly appear, but was the product of humankind's slow, and inevitable move towards electronic, and digital processes which started with the development of computers during World War II. The development of digital photography really goes hand in hand with that of personal computers, one cannot exist without the other. In 1969, William Boyle, and George E. Smith of AT&T Bell Laboratories invented the CCD, or charged coupled device, which was developed into the first large image sensor by Fairchild Semiconductor in 1973. The Fairchild [inaudible] had what would now be considered a tiny resolution of 100 rows by 100 columns, but at the time was revolutionary. In 1975, Bryce Bayer working for Kodak developed the Bayer filter mosaic pattern for CCD color image sensors. CCD sensors record pixel values in grayscale, and the Bayer filter allows the transmission of light of different wavelengths meaning CCD can interpret which colors are where, and form a full color image. However, digital photographs still had a long way to go before they could actually be considered usable. In 1975, Steve Sasson, a Kodak Eastman engineer attempted to make the first digital camera. It used a new solid-state CCD developed by Fairchild Semiconductor, and had a resolution of 0.1 megapixels. The camera took 23 seconds to take a photograph, and it recorded its images in black, and white to cassette tapes. Following this first attempt at building a usable digital camera, digital photography continued to develop and was pioneered by companies like Kodak which is ironic, considering Kodak's eventual downfall was caused by its failure to embrace the digital revolution. In 1986, Kodak developed the world's first megapixel. That is an image which is formed by one million pixels. During this era, there were many other inventions and developments in the world of personal computers which helped and aided in the development of digital photography. File formats which are still used today, like JPEG or joint photographic experts group were developed. In 1988, Fujifilm introduced their Fuji DS-1P which recorded images in the new digital format rather than using analog formats, and cassette tapes. In 1991, Kodak created the first digital single lens reflex camera by marrying a Nikon F3 body with a 1.3 megapixel digital sensor. The new Kodak DCS 100 stored its images on a separate unit called a DSU or digital storage unit, and could capture about 600 JPEG images. I remember our first digital camera. My father bought a Fujifilm DX-7 in 1995. The camera was styled as a range finder camera, but you had a choice of using the range finder or the screen on the back of the camera. Images were recorded onto a compact SD card, and it had a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. I believe my father paid around 500 pounds for the camera. For the time, digital cameras was still relatively expensive. However, this began to change over the years, and consumer digital cameras became cheaper and cheaper. All the time, the number of megapixels, and the camera's functions and features improving. When I first got into photography as a college student in the early 2000s, you shot, and film all using these smallish digital cameras. High-quality, professional level digital cameras were still too expensive. In 1999, Nikon introduced the D1 and displaced Kodak in the professional digital camera market. The new camera was groundbreaking and proves the point that being first to a new market is not always best. Sometimes it is better to enter a new or emerging market later as Nikon did, and to give that new market a better perspective, often benefiting from the pioneering work of others. As a young photojournalist for a local newspaper, my first professional level digital camera was a Nikon D1. I remember being amazed at how it took photographs and how the controls functioned like a 35 millimeter camera. There were no fiddly menu's. With this camera all you had to do was control the focus, and the exposure. Whilst not particularly revolutionary, the camera was affordable, and highly usable ago while it changed the shape of the digital camera market, and marked a turn away from chemical photography in professional news media, and photojournalism. It marked a new era in an already bitter battle for supremacy between Nikon, and Canon, known to many colloquially as Canikon. This marked change in the professional digital camera market slowly started to spill over into the consumer camera markets. By 2004, both Canon, and Nikon had consumer digital single lens reflex cameras. As the quality of digital cameras improved, they started to replace 35 millimeter photography, although it was still several decades before full frame digital cameras could compete with their 35 millimeter brethren in terms of quality. What gave digital photography an important early advantage was the fact that most people did not need or understand the quality of images which 35 millimeter can produce. Furthermore, limitations in computer power, and Internet speeds meant that you did not necessarily want images with a very high resolution. 6. Photography and the New World: As with Nikon's eventual entry into the digital camera market, Apple, again proving that it is beneficial to enter new and emerging markets at the right time, introduced its iPhone and changed the way that we communicate and interact. Just like photography had been a disruptive technology several centuries before, ultimately, smartphones, as they were known, so we could tell them apart from normal or dumb phones, would mark a step change in how we consume media. The introduction of the iPhone and smartphones by other manufacturers, had profound consequences on the digital camera market because these new phones had cameras and could take photographs as well as most basic consumer digital cameras. This has squeezed the traditional camera makers and forced them to introduce more smart features on their cameras. Having a readily available camera at any given moment has also changed how we take photographs and videos. By essentially freeing people from their cameras, smartphones have ironically brought photography to the masses. Now everyone has a camera and can take and share photographs. This has enabled platforms like Instagram to flourish. But it is also posing important questions with regards to our densities, as filters and smart image manipulation processes have become commonplace. It feels like digital photography is in a very similar place ethically to those early war photographers who found themselves caught in a bind between censorship and propaganda. Nowadays, for example, it is becoming increasingly hard to tell someone's true age with faces and features being softened by software, and algorithmic processes. Photography is a gain at an interesting time as it develops and redevelops itself in the greater technological revolution, which is changing the shape and face of society. Often, when a new technology is introduced, it takes a few years to see how it will develop. Many of the things which we take for granted now, for example, online learning through platforms like Skillshare, we could not have predicted 15 or 20 years ago when academia was already discussing the profound implications and paradigm shift towards online learning. It'll be interesting to see how photography continues to develop, and if there will be any more technological processes which can provide a disruptive influence. 7. Conclusion: That's it for this class, and I hope that you've enjoyed our brief journey through time. For the class project, I've created the small questionnaire about the history of photography. Please feel free to share the results of your questionnaire in the class project section. If you've enjoyed this class, please leave a review so others can find this class on Skillshare. As usual, if you've got any questions or need to get in touch about something, please leave a comment in the Discussion tab for this class. If you're interested in photographic techniques and would like to learn some more, we have a class about building your own matchbox pinhole camera, where I take you through the science and show you how to build your very own working camera using a matchbox and other tools and materials commonly found around the house. We also have another photography class where I show you how to develop black and white, 35 millimeter film. In this class, I'd take you through all of the chemicals and techniques required to process film in the comfort of your own home. If you take film photographs or have access to your families collection of old photographs, don't hesitate to checkout our beginner's guide to retouching old photographs in Adobe Photoshop class, to revive and show some love to your old family albums. Thank you for joining me in this class, and I cannot wait to see you in our the other classes soon.