The History of Photography: Pinholes and Polaroids to Digital Images

Photographic equipment, cameras, slides, lenses, rolls of film
Ozgur Donmaz / Getty Images

Photography as a medium is less than 200 years old. But in that brief span of history, it has evolved from a crude process using caustic chemicals and cumbersome cameras to a simple yet sophisticated means of creating and sharing images instantly. Discover how photography has changed over time and what cameras look like today.

Before Photography

The first "cameras" were used not to create images but to study optics. The Arab scholar Ibn Al-Haytham (945–1040), also known as Alhazen, is generally credited as being the first person to study how we see. He invented the camera obscura, the precursor to the pinhole camera, to demonstrate how light can be used to project an image onto a flat surface. Earlier references to the camera obscura have been found in Chinese texts dating to about 400 B.C. and in the writings of Aristotle around 330 B.C.

By the mid-1600s, with the invention of finely crafted lenses, artists began using the camera obscura to help them draw and paint elaborate real-world images. Magic lanterns, the forerunner of the modern projector, also began to appear at this time. Using the same optical principles as the camera obscura, the magic lantern allowed people to project images, usually painted on glass slides, onto large surfaces. They soon became a popular form of mass entertainment.

German scientist Johann Heinrich Schulze conducted the first experiments with photo-sensitive chemicals in 1727, proving that silver salts were sensitive to light. But Schulze didn't experiment with producing a permanent image using his discovery. That would have to wait until the next century.

The world's first photograph
The world's first photograph, taken by Nicephone Niepce in 1826 from his window in France.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The First Photographers

On a summer day in 1827, French scientist Joseph Nicephore Niepce developed the first photographic image with a camera obscura. Niepce placed an engraving onto a metal plate coated in bitumen and then exposed it to light. The shadowy areas of the engraving blocked light, but the whiter areas permitted light to react with the chemicals on the plate.

When Niepce placed the metal plate in a solvent, gradually an image appeared. These heliographs, or sun prints as they were sometimes called, are considered the first photographic images. However, Niepce's process required eight hours of light exposure to create an image that would soon fade away. The ability to "fix" an image, or make it permanent, came along later.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris - Daguerreotype taken by Louis Daguerre.
Boulevard du Temple, Paris, is a daguerreotype taken by Louis Daguerre circa 1838/39.

Louis Daguerre

Fellow Frenchman Louis Daguerre was also experimenting with ways to capture an image, but it would take him another dozen years before he was able to reduce exposure time to less than 30 minutes and keep the image from disappearing afterward. Historians cite this innovation as the first practical process of photography. In 1829, he formed a partnership with Niepce to improve the process Niepce had developed. In 1839, following several years of experimentation and Niepce's death, Daguerre developed a more convenient and effective method of photography and named it after himself. 

Daguerre's daguerreotype process started by fixing the images onto a sheet of silver-plated copper. He then polished the silver and coated it in iodine, creating a surface that was sensitive to light. Then he put the plate in a camera and exposed it for a few minutes. After the image was painted by light, Daguerre bathed the plate in a solution of silver chloride. This process created a lasting image that would not change if exposed to light.

In 1839, Daguerre and Niepce's son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government and published a booklet describing the process. The daguerreotype gained popularity quickly in Europe and the U.S. By 1850, there were over 70 daguerreotype studios in New York City alone.

Negative to Positive Process

The drawback to daguerreotypes is that they cannot be reproduced; each one is a unique image. The ability to create multiple prints came about thanks to the work of Henry Fox Talbot, an English botanist, mathematician and a contemporary of Daguerre. Talbot sensitized paper to light using a silver-salt solution. He then exposed the paper to light.

The background became black, and the subject was rendered in gradations of gray. This was a negative image. From the paper negative, Talbot made contact prints, reversing the light and shadows to create a detailed picture. In 1841, he perfected this paper-negative process and called it a calotype, Greek for "beautiful picture."

Tintype collection of old family photographs
Tintype collection of old family photographs.

Kathryn Donohew Photography / Getty Images

Other Early Processes

By the mid-1800s, scientists and photographers were experimenting with new ways to take and process pictures that were more efficient. In 1851, Frederick Scoff Archer, an English sculptor, invented the wet-plate negative. Using a viscous solution of collodion (a volatile, alcohol-based chemical), he coated glass with light-sensitive silver salts. Because it was glass and not paper, this wet plate created a more stable and detailed negative.

Like the daguerreotype, tintypes employed thin metal plates coated with photosensitive chemicals. The process, patented in 1856 by the American scientist Hamilton Smith, used iron instead of copper to yield a positive image. But both processes had to be developed quickly before the emulsion dried. In the field, this meant carrying along a portable darkroom full of toxic chemicals in fragile glass bottles. Photography was not for the faint of heart or those who traveled lightly.

That changed in 1879 with the introduction of the dry plate. Like wet-plate photography, this process used a glass negative plate to capture an image. Unlike the wet-plate process, dry plates were coated with a dried gelatin emulsion, meaning they could be stored for a period of time. Photographers no longer needed portable darkrooms and could now hire technicians to develop their photographs, days or months after the images had been shot.

Unwound camera film, slides and camera

Sean Gladwell / Getty Images 

Flexible Roll Film

In 1889, photographer and industrialist George Eastman invented film with a base that was flexible, unbreakable, and could be rolled. Emulsions coated on a cellulose nitrate film base, such as Eastman's, made the mass-produced box camera a reality. The earliest cameras used a variety of medium-format film standards, including 120, 135, 127, and 220. All of these formats were about 6 cm wide and produced images that ranged from rectangular to square. 

The 35 mm film most people know today was invented by Kodak in 1913 for the early motion picture industry. In the mid-1920s, the German camera maker Leica used this technology to create the first still camera that used the 35 mm format. Other film formats also were refined during this period, including medium-format roll film with a paper backing that made it easy to handle in daylight. Sheet film in 4-by-5-inch and 8-by-10-inch sizes also became common, particularly for commercial photography, ending the need for fragile glass plates.

The drawback to nitrate-based film was that it was flammable and tended to decay over time. Kodak and other manufacturers began switching to a celluloid base, which was fireproof and more durable, in the 1920s. Triacetate film came later and was more stable and flexible, as well as fireproof. Most films produced up to the 1970s were based on this technology. Since the 1960s, polyester polymers have been used for gelatin-based films. The plastic film base is far more stable than cellulose and is not a fire hazard.

In the early 1940s, commercially viable color films were brought to the market by Kodak, Agfa, and other film companies. These films used the modern technology of dye-coupled colors in which a chemical process connects the three dye layers together to create an apparent color image.

Photographic Prints

Traditionally, linen rag papers were used as the base for making photographic prints. Prints on this fiber-based paper coated with a gelatin emulsion are quite stable when properly processed. Their stability is enhanced if the print is toned with either sepia (brown tone) or selenium (light, silvery tone).

The paper will dry out and crack under poor archival conditions. Loss of the image can also be due to high humidity, but the real enemy of paper is chemical residue left by the photographic fixer, a chemical solution cued to remove grain from films and prints during processing. In addition, contaminants in the water used for processing and washing can cause damage. If a print is not fully washed to remove all traces of fixer, the result will be discoloration and image loss.

The next innovation in photographic papers was resin-coating or water-resistant paper. The idea was to use normal linen fiber-base paper and coat it with a plastic (polyethylene) material, making the paper water-resistant. The emulsion is then placed on a plastic covered base paper. The problem with resin-coated papers was that the image rides on the plastic coating and was susceptible to fading.

At first, color prints were not stable because organic dyes were used to make the color image. The image would literally disappear from the film or paper base as the dyes deteriorated. Kodachrome, dating to the first third of the 20th century, was the first color film to produce prints that could last half a century. Now, new techniques are creating permanent color prints that last 200 years or more. New printing methods using computer-generated digital images and highly stable pigments offer permanency for color photographs.

Instant photos and camera from the 1970's
Instant photos and camera from the 1970's.

Urbanglimpses / Getty Images

Instant Photography

Instant photography was invented by Edwin Herbert Land, an American inventor and physicist. Land was already known for his pioneering use of light-sensitive polymers in eyeglasses to invent polarized lenses. In 1948, he unveiled his first instant-film camera, the Land Camera 95. Over the next several decades, Land's Polaroid Corporation would refine black-and-white film and cameras that were fast, cheap, and remarkably sophisticated. Polaroid introduced color film in 1963 and created the iconic SX-70 folding camera in 1972. 

Other film manufacturers, namely Kodak and Fuji, introduced their own versions of instant film in the 1970s and 1980s. Polaroid remained the dominant brand, but with the advent of digital photography in the 1990s, it began to decline. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and stopped making instant film in 2008. In 2010, the Impossible Project began manufacturing film using Polaroid's instant-film formats, and in 2017, the company rebranded itself as Polaroid Originals.

Early Cameras

By definition, a camera is a lightproof object with a lens that captures incoming light and directs the light and resulting image toward film (optical camera) or the imaging device (digital camera). The earliest cameras used in the daguerreotype process were made by opticians, instrument makers, or sometimes even by the photographers themselves.

The most popular cameras utilized a sliding-box design. The lens was placed in the front box. A second, slightly smaller box slid into the back of the larger box. The focus was controlled by sliding the rear box forward or backward. A laterally reversed image would be obtained unless the camera was fitted with a mirror or prism to correct this effect. When the sensitized plate was placed in the camera, the lens cap would be removed to start the exposure.

Kodak Brownie Flash IV - S
Brownie Flash IV.

Carlos Vivar

Modern Cameras

Having perfected roll film, George Eastman also invented the box-shaped camera—which came to be known as a "Brownie"—that was simple enough for consumers to use. For $22, an amateur could purchase a camera with enough film for 100 shots. Once the film was used up, the photographer mailed the camera with the film still in it to the Kodak factory, where the film was removed from the camera, processed, and printed. The camera was then reloaded with film and returned. As the Eastman Kodak Company promised in ads from that period, "You press the button, we'll do the rest."

Over the next several decades, major manufacturers such as Kodak in the U.S., Leica in Germany, and Canon and Nikon in Japan would all introduce or develop the major camera formats still in use today. Leica invented the first still camera to use 35 mm film in 1925, while another German company, Zeiss-Ikon, introduced the first single-lens reflex camera in 1949. Nikon and Canon would make the interchangeable lens popular and the built-in light meter commonplace.

Canon PowerShot SX530 Digital Camera


Digital and Smartphone Cameras

The roots of digital photography, which would revolutionize the industry, began with the development of the first charged-coupled device at Bell Labs in 1969. The CCD converts light to an electronic signal and remains the heart of digital devices today. In 1975, engineers at Kodak developed the very first camera creating a digital image. It used a cassette recorder to store data and took more than 20 seconds to capture a photo.

By the mid-1980s, several companies were at work on digital cameras. One of the first to show a viable prototype was Canon, which demonstrated a digital camera in 1984, although it was never manufactured and sold commercially. The first digital camera sold in the U.S., the Dycam Model 1, appeared in 1990 and sold for $600. The first digital SLR, a Nikon F3 body attached to a separate storage unit made by Kodak, appeared the following year. By 2004, digital cameras were outselling film cameras.

Today, most mobile devices—particularly smartphones—have cameras built into them. Samsung introduced the first smartphone camera—the SCH-V200—in 2000. According to the website DigitalTrends:

"(The SCH-V200) flipped open to reveal a 1.5-inch TFT-LCD, and the built-in digital camera was capable of taking 20 photos at 350,000-pixel resolution, which is 0.35-megapixels, but you had to hook it up to a computer to get your photos." 

Apple later introduced its smartphone camera with its first iPhone in 2007, and other companies followed, such as Google, which came out with its Google Pixel camera-capable smartphone in April 2014. By 2013, smartphones with camera capabilities were outselling digital cameras more than 10-to-1. In 2019, more than 1.5 billion smartphones (most of which have camera capabilities) were sold to consumers, compared with about 550,000 digital cameras over roughly the same period.

Flashlights and Flashbulbs

Photographers taking photos.


Fancy /Veer / Corbis / Getty Images

"Blitzlichtpulver" or flashlight powder was invented in Germany in 1887 by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke. Lycopodium powder (the waxy spores from club moss) was used in early flash powder. The first modern photoflash bulb or flashbulb was invented by Austrian Paul Vierkotter. Vierkotter used magnesium-coated wire in an evacuated glass globe. The magnesium-coated wire was soon replaced by aluminum foil in oxygen. In 1930, the first commercially available photoflash bulb, the Vacublitz, was patented by German Johannes Ostermeier. General Electric also developed a flashbulb called the Sashalite around the same time.

Photographic Filters

English inventor and manufacturer Frederick Wratten founded one of the first photographic supply businesses in 1878. The company, Wratten and Wainwright, manufactured and sold collodion glass plates and gelatin dry plates. In 1878, Wratten invented the "noodling process" of silver-bromide gelatin emulsions before washing. In 1906, Wratten, with the assistance of E.C.K. Mees, invented and produced the first panchromatic plates in England. Wratten is best known for the photographic filters that he invented and are still named after him, the Wratten Filters. Eastman Kodak purchased his company in 1912.

Additional Reference

View Article Sources
  1. Twins, The Design. “Camera Phone vs. Digital Camera: Pros & Cons - The Design Twins.” The Design Twins | DIY Home Decor Inspiration Blog, Publisher Name The Design Twins Publisher Logo, 24 Sept. 2020.

  2. Cell Phone Sales Worldwide 2007-2020.” Statista, 2 Sept. 2020.

  3. Burgett, Gannon. “CIPA's April Report Shows Digital Camera Production, Shipments Are down 56.4%, 63.7%, Respectively, YoY.” DPReview, DPReview, 2 June 2020.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Photography: Pinholes and Polaroids to Digital Images." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). The History of Photography: Pinholes and Polaroids to Digital Images. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Photography: Pinholes and Polaroids to Digital Images." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).