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The History of Negative Photography

By Christian Roemer

Do you know how cameras work? It’s actually incredibly interesting, complicated, and ingenious. For such a simple thing--capturing the outside world on film--the process is surprisingly weird. Even though digital cameras have upended the whole photo-making process, for the first 150 or so years of photography, images were captured by using negatives.

First, what are negatives?

When you take a picture, light passes through the camera lens and basically marks the film inside. Strangely enough, the areas that are supposed be light actually appear dark and dark areas appear light. That’s where the term, negative, comes from. More bizarre still, even colors are switched to their exact opposites on negatives.

Everything eventually works out, because when negatives are projected onto photo film, the original colors come back out, and you’re left with awesome, totally not strange looking images.

So how did this bonkers process come about? We’re glad you asked. 

Hit me with the history, Poindexter!

1357 - Shroud of Turin contains what appears to be a sepia negative. Nobody’s sure how it was made or with what technology, but this is technically the earliest example of negative photography in the world.

1816 - Almost 500 years later, a guy named Nicephore Niepce figured out that it was possible to use light sensitive materials that darken when exposed to light to make pictures. These are probably the first real example of negatives that we can actually say were definitely made on purpose. Light turned things dark. Negatives.

1839 - The process of creating photographs is formally announced, and it used negatives. These were blurry, primitive, black-and-white specimens, but they’re the first real basis for modern photography.

1936 - Kodachrome film makes waves as a three-in-one film that’s able to capture color one a single piece of film. In addition to light areas looking dark and dark areas looking light, red looks cyan, green looks magenta, and blue looks yellow. True color negative photography was born. Surprisingly, this same process is the way that traditional film and development still works today.

2009 - Legacybox opens its doors, popularizing a really cool process of using film negatives to turn them into digital photographs. They still do digitization today!

Because of the way that photography works, the general process hasn’t really changed since its invention. Different technologies just use the interaction of light exposure on some sort of light sensitive material differently. In the end, the result is usually the same: light shines on stuff (film), changes the color where the light hits it, then that film is sent into a developing room where the negatives are put back into their true color.

Simple, right?

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