By Mason


When you think of a “camera” what image comes to mind? Most likely you are thinking of a big DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, or maybe your point and shoot, or maybe even your smartphone camera. 

What you probably don’t think of is a film camera, or the camera obscura which was invented nearly two thousand years ago. 

Even if you are knowledgeable about the older versions of cameras, you may not be aware of the lesser-known versions that were the stepping stones of camera development between the major advancements. It is incredibly interesting to learn about how photography became what it is today. The first photographic processes used dangerous chemicals contributing to the early deaths of many photographers at that time. Then, when the glass plate process was invented, photographers had to lug around big heavy glass plates as the medium for their pictures. Even the early digital cameras had slower shutter speeds making it hard for photographers to capture movement.

Now, with the click of a button or the touch of a screen, it is possible to capture a split second, in increasingly impressive quality. In this essay I won’t just examine the workings of the modern camera, I will also look at how photography began and many of the major advancements, improvements, and changes photography went through to become the digital photography we have today. In addition, I will describe many of the photographic processes that were involved in developing pictures taken with all different methods. 

Part 1

There were a couple of major inventions that led to the invention of the first camera. The first such breakthrough was the camera obscura. The camera obscura is a small room with a small hole cut out from the wall. This creates a projection of the image of the scene outside of the room on the wall opposite the hole, only upside down. This concept was most likely known over “two thousand years ago”(Rosenblum). Its name literally translates to “Dark Room.” The camera obscura was often used by artists. They would trace the image that showed up on the wall to replicate the scene on paper. However, soon scientists started searching for a way to create the pictures entirely mechanically. In 1727, Johann Heinrich, a German professor of anatomy, discovered that “the darkening of silver salts, a phenomenon known since the 16th century and possibly earlier, was caused by light and not heat”(Rosenblum). This discovery was significant because for a camera to work there must be some kind of light-sensitive material involved so the image will be saved. These were the first two steps toward the machine that could record events in a split second but it took until the 19th century for the first camera to be invented.

In 1826 or 1827 the first photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépc, an inexperienced inventor. He invented a process called heliography (sun drawing) where he used a pewter plate coated with a mixture of bitumen of Judea and water. He would then dry the plate over heat. Next, he would put the plate into a camera obscura, the room previously used by artists now downsized to a large box. It took eight hours to create this picture of a rooftop that was outside of his window. During the exposure time, the bitumen exposed to light would harden and turn a lighter shade. He would then develop the photograph by using lavender oils to wash off the bitumen that was not hardened by light. These parts were places in the image where the light was blocked out, for example by the buildings in the image. And the darker shades were represented by the metal. The result was this picture of a French rooftop taken outside of his house window.

Left: The unedited photograph of Niépc’s window view

Right: The retouched photograph of Niépc’s window view

Niépc was probably the biggest pioneer of photography because he figured out how to do it. But photography didn’t really become popular until Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who knew Niépc for part of his life, invented a new process: the Daguerreotype.

Daguerre’s method was quite similar to Niépc’s, except for a few key details. First, instead of using a pewter plate, Daguerre used a silver-coated copper plate that was shiny like a mirror after it was buffed and polished. After coating his plate with iodine and bromine, he would expose the plate in a camera obscura like Niépc. This process originally took fifteen minutes, but after some improvements to the chemicals involved, Daguerre’s process ended up taking less than a minute. This meant that people were able to get their pictures taken. Another difference was the post-production method. Daguerre used toxic chemicals like mercury to develop his pictures. Getting photographed became increasingly popular; so popular, in fact, that this period is sometimes referred to as “Daguerromania”! 

Above: One of Daguerre’s most famous images

During the early 1940s, scientists came up with many improvements for the Daguerreotype process. Some of the people who came up with such advancements were József Petzval who discovered how to make a lens that was 20 times faster than the one that Daguerre used. This meant that the time needed to take the picture was greatly reduced. Voigtländer improved the design of the camera itself making it much more portable and easy to travel with. Franz Kratochwila released and made publicly available a chemical sensitization process which increased the sensitivity by five times. Such improvements made the camera more accessible and convenient for everyone to use. The photograph above  is one of Daguerre’s most famous photographs taken with his Daguerreotype. It is regarded as one of the first still-life photographs ever taken.

While Joseph Nicéphore Niépc was the first to show that photography was possible, Daguerre was the one to make it popular. The camera has gone through many major improvements over the 192 years it has been in existence. The first photographers couldn’t even carry their cameras let alone snap a picture of a fast-moving object. The next advancements in photography include faster exposure times, pictures that are more easily reproducible, and eventually digital photography.

Part 2

Previously we examined how photography began, but between when it started and the digital photography we have today, it went through countless changes. This section will explain some of the notable advancements of photographic methods. These processes include the Calotype Process, the Wet-Collodion Process, Dry Plates, Autochrome, and Kodachrome. Each unique process uses different chemicals and materials to make many distinct kinds of photographs, and each process brought something new to photography.

In 1841, right as the Daguerreotype was becoming popular, William Henry Fox Talbot discovered a new photographic method. He figured out how to use gallic acid to create light-sensitive paper. After exposing his light-sensitive paper he could rinse the latent image with hyposulphite. The result was an image on paper, slightly fuzzier than Daguerre’s images. He patented this method and called it the “Calotype” meaning “beautiful picture” in Greek.

Although the images were slightly fuzzier than previous methods, this process became very popular for one reason in particular: the images could be easily reproduced. Using previous photographic methods it was only possible to create a one time image, but with Talbot’s Calotype method, it was possible to reproduce infinite copies from one negative. The concept of being able to reproduce an image has become a core concept of photography.

Ten years later, in 1851, Frederick Scott Archer discovered a new process involving not metal or paper, but glass plates. The Wet Collodion method involved preparing a glass plate with Collodion, a solution of nitrocellulose, in a solution of alcohol and ether. After exposing it for a few seconds, it was crucial to develop it immediately afterward. The end product is a glass negative that can produce infinite copies onto paper with very good quality.

Despite having to use a portable darkroom because the plates needed to be prepared immediately before being exposed, and developed immediately afterward, the Wet Collodion method became extremely popular. Its quality was unparalleled at the time, and it was reproducible, which made it the main method for photographers.

The next photographic process put all previous methods to shame: Dry Plates. “In 1871 Richard Leach Maddox, an English physician, suggested suspending silver bromide in a gelatin emulsion, an idea that led, in 1878, to the introduction of factory-produced dry (glass) plates coated with gelatin containing silver salts.”(Rosenblum) These plates were 60 times more sensitive than Wet Plates. This meant that it was possible to take pictures without a tripod. Furthermore, several inexpensive handheld cameras were introduced. Among these was the Kodak camera which traded the glass plates for what we know today as film. Once the one films’ hundred pictures had been taken, the whole camera was sent to a Kodak factory where it was developed and then sent back to the photographer.  Photographers didn’t have to travel with a portable darkroom, which made taking pictures much more convenient. Another benefit of the Dry Plate method is that unlike previous methods it did not require noxious chemicals. As you can imagine, this camera made photography easy for everyone.

As its name suggests Dry Plates can be exposed dry and developed after the exposure. This means that Dry Plates could be mass-produced so photographers did not have to prepare the plates themselves. The Dry Plate method also offered faster exposure times. In the 1880s Eadweard Muybridge, who became famous for his study, did research on the movement of animals and humans, using the Dry Plate method. He set up a series of cameras in a line and attached the shutters to strings so that when the strings were broken the cameras would take a picture. He would release different animals through the line of cameras so that when they walked through they would break each string in quick succession. Scientists learned a lot about how different animals move from these experiments. Another famous photographer who used Dry Plates was Mathew Brady who photographed the American Civil War. The Dry Plate method revolutionized photography by offering a way that amateur photographers could practice photography without having to worry about noxious chemicals or a portable darkroom.


The next major advancement in photography took place 36 years later in France. It may have been the most exciting breakthrough yet: color. Before 1907, many photographers commissioned painters to add color to their pictures. In 1907, two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, finally discovered how to create color photos. They figured out how to filter light through microscopic dyed potato starch to create a color image. First, the Lumière brothers would make the glass plate dye-sensitive by using a silver and gelatin emulsion. This would allow the color to stay on the plate once the photograph was taken. Then they used a filter with millions of microscopic dyed potato starch molecules spread throughout the plate. Each microscopic dot was a color: red, blue, or green. These colored dots would filter the light and create a color image. The exposure time for the autochrome process was slightly longer than previous processes, but as you can imagine, it was an immediate success. One other inevitable downside of color photography was that it was significantly more expensive than black and white.

In 1973, what is probably the world’s most famous kind of film was invented by George Eastman who founded Kodak. At the time it was made available, a roll of Kodachrome film cost about $3.50, which would be approximately $54 in today’s money. Kodachrome was a much more complicated and sophisticated process than Autochrome. The film is made up of many different layers of coatings. Essentially each layer is sensitive to one color. A blue sensitive emulsion is closest to the lens. After the blue sensitive emulsion, there is a yellow filter. Then a blue and green sensitive emulsion comes next, but because of the yellow filter, the blue and green emulsion only picks up green. The last layer is sensitive to red. Basically, the image is formed on three different layers: red, blue, and green. After the image was sent to a developing factory a very complicated process would begin. 

I will not go into detail about the post-production method of Kodachrome because it is much more complicated than previous processes. If you would like to learn about the process visit website. The first step was to use Phenidone hydroquinone, a black and white developer, to develop a monochromatic image on each layer. After this many different steps followed, and eventually each layer had a developed image in one of the primary colors and since they were overlaid, it created a full spectrum of color. 

A National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry, shot one of the world’s most famous photographs; “Afgan Girl” with Kodachrome. This picture ended up on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic Magazine. This picture has the amazing quality and incredibly vibrant colors, that Kodachrome exhibits.

If you look at how many little changes photography went through from Niépc’s method, to George Eastman’s Kodachrome it’s astonishing. In the span of 147 years, photography changed in many ways including reproducibility of photos, quality of photos, ease of use, convenience, and of course color. Next, we will examine the beginning of a new era, the digital era of photography. I will explain what digital photography is, how it works, how it’s changed, and its advantages and disadvantages.

Part 3

We have talked about many major advancements in photography, but in 1975 what is probably the biggest advancement in photography was invented: digital. It began a new era of photography. Photos no longer had to be developed, now pictures were immediately available after they were taken. Also, pictures could be easily edited without using any chemicals, filters, or other equipment. The current memory cards have significantly more memory than a roll of film and they are also conveniently more portable. It is not necessary to keep buying the film, you get a memory card and then you can use it forever. 

The digital format has revolutionized photography in many ways. As it continues to evolve, photography has achieved even quicker shutter speeds, even better quality, and even more advanced sensors, lenses, and cameras. This section will explain how digital photography works, the mechanics of it, as well as how it has evolved from the first digital camera to the cameras we have today. This section will then explore some of the instances in which digital has been useful for photography and some of the major advantages and disadvantages.

Digital is way more complicated than any of the film processes I have described so far. This is mainly because instead of an image being stored on a light-sensitive material like paper, glass, or metal, digital images are stored in the form of numbers on a memory card. There are many steps that happen between clicking a picture and the picture being stored on the memory card. Science writer and photography expert Chris Woodford explains this process succinctly:

If you’ve ever looked at a television screen close up, you will have noticed that the picture is made up of millions of tiny colored dots or squares called pixels. Laptop LCD computer screens also make up their images using pixels, although they are often much too small to see. In a television or computer screen, electronic equipment switches all these colored pixels on and off very quickly. Light from the screen travels out to your eyes and your brain is fooled into see a large, moving picture.

In a digital camera, exactly the opposite happens. Light from the thing you are photographing zooms into the camera lens. This incoming “picture” hits the image sensor chip, which breaks it up into millions of pixels. The sensor measures the color and brightness of each pixel and stores it as a number. Your digital photograph is effectively an enormously long string of numbers describing the exact details of each pixel it contains. (Woodford)

Before the light hits the sensor, the light enters the lens and passes through two filters inside your camera. For some cameras, you can buy separate external filters. First, it goes through an infrared reduction filter. Infrared light, if not filtered, can sometimes mess up a picture. Next, the light goes through a bare color filter which basically divides the sensor into tiny squares of red, green, and blue. When the light hits the sensor, it is then processed into analog electrical signals. The signals are sent to a digital-analog converter which converts the signals into numeric form: a long string of ones and zeros to be stored on the memory card.

When you edit a digital image to change the lighting, colors, size, or even elements of the image like changing the background, the editing software changes some of the numbers in some way which then manipulates the picture. For instance, imagine that you want to crop the picture. Your editing software might delete some of the numbers that the pictures are made up of to get rid of the unwanted parts of the photo. If you want to change the lighting of the photo (make it lighter or darker) the software might change all of the numbers by a certain amount.

When you look at a digital image close up, you see that it is made up of many little  single-colored squares called pixels. When you look at the whole picture, you usually can’t see the individual squares. When you buy a camera you can see how many megapixels it has. A megapixel is equal to a million pixels. The more megapixels a picture is, the less pixelated it will be. Digital photography has been around for 44 years. In those years the camera has gone from 0.01 megapixels (10,000 pixels) to the 50 megapixels (50,000,000 pixels) range. The newer iPhones even have around 12 megapixels (12,000,000 pixels).

Digital has overwhelmed the photographic community with advantages. But there are a few key disadvantages of digital too. First, you don’t have to put the same amount of work into each picture. This may seem like an advantage, but sometimes putting in a lot of work for one picture instead of being able to take as many as you want can make a picture feel more worthwhile. Also, film has a very unique look, especially if it’s black and white. Some people prefer the look of film to the look of digital. 

Very few people nowadays practice film photography. It has become harder and harder to find film at a reasonable price, and it’s even harder to find a place to develop it. It is almost as if film photography is a different art form from digital photography. While they have some things in common, the process of taking a picture is very different between the two. 

Now in 2019 digital photography has gone through many different changes. There are more kinds of cameras including point and shoot, DSLR, and Mirrorless. In addition, there are many different kinds of sensors, flashes, batteries, lenses and much more. Now almost everyone owns a camera whether it be their phone or a DSLR. This means that almost everyone has the power to document their experiences. With early cameras, a photographer needed a lot of equipment and skill with using chemicals this meant that there were not very many photographers. Now basically everyone is a photographer.


When I look back on the first cameras of 193 years ago, it’s incredible that taking a single picture took so much work. It involved leaving a camera out for around 8 hours to expose the photo and then processing it using dangerous chemicals. Even after it had been developed you would only get a black and white image, the quality of which was nothing like what we have now, and it wasn’t even reproducible. Now we can simply push a button or touch a screen and we will have an amazing colorful image that can be printed infinite times. 

Thinking about what photography once was prompted me to wonder what photography will be like in the future. I enjoy thinking about what photography will be like in 2212, 193 years from now. Will there be holographic imaging technology? Will it be possible to print photos stereoscopically? Will the camera be able to capture scents and sounds? Could the camera be connected to electric pulses in your brain to make you feel the emotions in a picture? Will there be no need for a camera at all? Could you take pictures only using technology attached to your eyes and your brain? Will the people who live in 2212 reflect in awe and pity on the photographers of 2019 and the seemingly limited camera technology available to us? Or will the human species not even exist by then so there is no point in speculating about any sort of technological advancements whatsoever? 


Calotype an early negative-positive photographic process, patented by William Henry Talbot in 1841, in which a paper negative is produced and then used to make a positive contact print in sunlight.

Camera Obscura a darkened boxlike device in which images of external objects, received through an aperture, as with a convex lens, are exhibited in their natural colors on a surface arranged to receive them: used for sketching, exhibition purposes, etc.

Daguerreotype an obsolete photographic process, invented in 1839, in which a picture made on a silver surface sensitized with iodine was developed by exposure to mercury vapor.

Develop to undergo developing, as a photographic film.

Digital representing or operating on data or information in numerical form. A digital clock uses a series of changing digits to represent time at discrete intervals, for example, every second. Modern computers rely on digital processing techniques, in which both data and the instructions for manipulating data are represented as binary numbers.

Dry Plates a glass photographic plate coated with a sensitive emulsion of silver bromide and silver iodide in gelatin.

Film a cellulose nitrate or cellulose acetate composition made in thin sheets or strips and coated with a sensitive emulsion for taking photographs.

Heliograph an early type of photoengraving made on a metal plate coated with sensitized asphalt.

Kodachrome a brand of positive color transparency.

Megapixel a unit equal to one million pixels, used to measure the resolution of a digital image.

Memory Card a very small, portable electronic device for flash-memory data storage, as in a digital camera, cell phone, or digital media player.


Pixel the smallest element of an image that can be individually processed in a video display system.

Silver Salts a light-sensitive chemical compound.

Stereoscopic noting or pertaining to three-dimensional vision or any of various processes and devices for giving the illusion of depth from two-dimensional images or reproductions, as of a photograph or motion picture.

Wet Plates the collodion photographic process



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Wendt, Karl. “What Is inside a Digital Camera? (1 of 2).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy,

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