How Did the First Photograph Work?
How Did the First Photograph Work?
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How Did the First Photograph Work?

By Dillon Wallace

Today, photography is as commonly known as the sky being blue. But there was a time when photography was a totally revolutionary term.

Long before we ever knew what a Kodak moment was.
The term photography actually means “to draw light.” It was coined by British scientist Sir John Herschel in 1839 by combining the Greek words phos (meaning light) and graphe (drawing). And the technology behind the invention was also a combination – of sciences. Optics were used to converge light rays to form images inside a device (i.e. a camera), along with chemistry, which enabled that captured image from the light rays to be permanently recorded onto a light sensitive surface.


The Camera Obscura

Although the renaissance period’s camera obscura didn’t produce an actual photograph, the idea behind it would go on to help pioneer the first actual photographic camera. The idea was simple. If a brightly lit scene or object is placed opposite a hot cut in the side of a darkened space, the beams of light reflected from that object will project an upside-down image inside the container. Pretty cool gimmick, but it had one major flaw – the image could only be viewed in real time as it wasn’t permanently recorded. In order to preserve the image, artists had to trace them by hand inside the camera/container. 

The First photograph

In 1816, some of the first images captured (without having to trace them by hand) used a camera that recorded on paper treated with silver chloride. While that sounds like something used to kill werewolves rather than capture photos, these experiments were carried out by a brilliant Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce. After trial and error for several years, Niépce finally invented a process in 1822 called heliography … yes, that’s more Greek translating to “sun drawing.” And by the end of the 1820s (nearly 200 mind-boggling years ago), Niépce had succeeded in creating the earliest surviving photograph – a view from his window in Le Gras (Burgundy, France). He achieved the unfathomable by capturing the image on a pewter plate coated in bitumen diluted in lavender oil. How he came to the conclusion that those ingredients would work is beyond the lay person today and certainly beyond the lay person back then. However, what’s even crazier is that the exposure time for the “photograph” probably took several days to develop. 

A Commercial Success

Just a few years after Niépce’s revolutionary invention, he formed a partnership with Louis Daguerre in an effort to improve and commercialize the heliograph process. With a few improvements, the duo were able to develop a camera technique in which a silver-coated copper plate fumed with iodine vapor would form silver iodide when exposed to light. By 1839, six years after Niépce’s untimely death, the French government granted Daguerre a life-time stipend rather than a patent in exchange for making his photograph method, known as the daguerreotype, freely available. 

The rest is a snapshot of history.

Digitizing Your Old Photos

We know you’re not sitting on a photo as old as Niépce’s Le Gras window view, but if you’ve got a collection of old negatives, polaroids or black and whites, then consider digitizing them today. It’s the only sure way to preserve your personal history now and for another two hundred years.

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