An Abridged History of Photography

Apr 07, 2006

Cameras are everywhere these days. Even if we don’t own what we traditionally think of as a camera, there is always one in our pocket, built right into the device we use all the time – our phone. They have become so ubiquitous that the only way to truly appreciate what we’ve been afforded by digital technology is to take a look back at the history of photography and see how far we’ve come.

The Pinhole

Around 2,500 years ago, both Chinese and Greek writers described how light shining through a pinhole into a dark room would form an upside-down image on the wall. It was not understood why the image was reproduced upside down, nor why light shining through a rectangular hole would take the shape of a cone. It would take another 1,600 years to answer that question.

Camera Obscura

Building off the observations of refracted light through a pinhole, Iraqi scientist Alhazen invented the camera obscura between 1011 and 1021. Unlike the pinhole ‘camera’ described by ancient Greeks and Chinese, the camera obscura was able to preserve color and perspective. Though the refracted image was not recorded in any way, by the 1500’s famous painters like Michelangelo were tracing the images produced by cameras obscura to create incredibly realistic paintings. By the 1800’s, cameras obscura used mirrors to flip the upside-down images back up-right.


The heliograph, invented in 1826 by Frenchman Nicephore Niepce, was a great leap forward—the true predecessor to the modern camera. It was able to create a permanent photograph—not just an image—by projecting light onto a pane of glass coated in bitumen, which hardens when exposed to light. When washed with oil of lavender, only the hardened areas would remain on the pane, thereby creating an accurate black and white reproduction. The first photograph made from nature was called View from the Window at Le Gras (1827).


The seminal development in photographic technology was the heliograph, though the daguerreotype, a simplified form of the heliograph, is the grandfather of the modern camera. It was a small, lightweight wooden box that used a brass-silver plate sensitized by iodine vapor. Camera exposure time was around 20 minutes, meaning anything not in frame for 20 minutes would appear as a blur or not appear at all. These techniques were being developed independently but simultaneously in both England and France where Fax Talbot was working though unbeknownst to Dagueerre on the same methodology.

Later Developments

After the daguerreotype, photographic technology progressed quickly, bringing down size and reducing shutter time. With the invention of celluloid film in 1884, photography entered the modern age. The first ready-to-use camera, the Kodak, was created in 1888 By George Eastman. By 1913, hand-held 35mm cameras that resemble our single lens reflect cameras were being produced in Germany. Between 1913 and 1975 when the first digital camera was invented, there were many developments in film photography:

• Zoom was introduced (1932)

• Camera size was reduced with roll film (1933)

• Roof pentaprism situated viewfinders above the lens (1948)

• Auto-exposure was developed by Canon in 1978

• Minolta implemented auto-focus in 1985.

A Holistic Experience from Steinberg Photography

As you well know, camera innovation didn’t end in 1985. To continue our educational series on the history of photography, keep an eye out for our upcoming blog on the Digital Age and its implications in the world of photography. Steinberg Photography runs workshops on landscape photography, post-production workflow and techniques, and guides travel adventures to capture stunning imagery. We also sell fine art prints, coffee table books, calendars, and notecards. Visit our homepage for complete information.