History of Photography & Cameras


When you studied U.S. history in school, you likely saw Civil War photos and may have thought they were the first photos ever taken. In actuality, the world’s first photograph was created about 35 years prior in 1826 or 1827 by Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The crude picture was taken from an upstairs window on his property using a process called heliography. Although the image on the metal plate is fuzzy, dark, and barely recognizable, this was an important milestone in the evolution of photography. In comparison, the photos taken during the Civil War were highly sophisticated.


Different Types of Photographic Processes

With the advent of smartphones, anyone including children can take digital photos! Looking back, it’s hard to believe how arduous the photographic process was throughout history. Here’s a quick guide to the most common types of photographic processes prior to digital photography. 


  • Daguerreotype: Developed by Louis Daguerre in 1839, this image was created on a mirrored metal plate. Many Civil War-era photos used this process, ambrotypes, or glass plate negatives.
  • Glass plate negatives: Used from the 19th century to the 1920s for wet plate and dry plate collodion processes, these negatives produced a high level of detail through numerous printings. Unfortunately, they were fragile, heavy, and difficult to use. 
  • Collodion positive (ambrotype): Introduced in 1853, this process reversed a negative image by bleaching silver salts onto a metal plate. The plate was mounted with a black backing so dark areas that were chemically bleached on the original negative appeared as highlights.
  • Tintypes: Invented in the 1850s, a highly underexposed negative image was created on a thin iron plate and blackened with paint, lacquer, or enamel, then coated with a collodion photographic emulsion. The dark background appeared like a positive and didn’t require a black backing.
  • Gelatin silver print: Introduced in the 1870s, this common photographic printing process uses gelatin-coated photographic paper with light-sensitive silver salts. The print is created in a dark room with an enlarger and chemical baths. Today, this process remains the gold standard for creating non-digital black and white prints.
  • Film negative: First introduced in the 1880s, film negatives were far lighter and more cost-effective than glass negatives, and as such, replaced them by the 1920s. 
  • Reversal film (slides): Kodachrome was introduced in 1935 as a 16mm motion picture film and the following year as a 35mm slide film for still cameras. 


History of Cameras – From Camera Obscura to iPhones

Camera obscura is a device shaped like a box or an entire room that allows light to enter the space through a small opening on one side while projecting it on the other. In a sense, this is the oldest type of camera. It was first mentioned in China in the 4th to 5th century BC. In the 11th century, the scientist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher Alhazen created a pinhole camera from this device. 

Of course, the early photographic processes mentioned above required some type of camera. Daguerreotype and calotype cameras, invented in 1839 and 1840, respectively, were big wooden boxes with high-quality lenses. In 1859, Thomas Sutton patented the first-ever panoramic camera using a wide-angle lens with a water-filled glass sphere.

The first digital camera was introduced in 1991 and the first basic camera phone followed suit in 2000. Today, many smartphones take far better photos than inexpensive digital cameras.


Kodak Camera History

The name Kodak is synonymous with photography, and rightly so. George Eastman introduced the “Kodak” in 1888 – the first one to use celluloid film rather than glass plates. Although groundbreaking for its time, it was just a wooden box with one shutter speed and a fixed-focus lens. The camera was preloaded with 100-exposure Kodak Advantix film that customers sent back to the factory to be developed. Eastman introduced the Brownie, the first mass-produced camera a mere 12 years later in 1900. This camera was so small and affordable, it remained popular until the 1960s. 

Of course, both negatives and slides are easily scratched and subject to deterioration. It’s important to digitize them to preserve your own personal history!