History of Photography: How We Came to These Colorful Digital Photos

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Photography has been around for many years. It has gone through many generations of inventors and theorists who have evolved photos with pigments or dyes into one-click digital cameras. I have been around photography for a few years now and have never lost interest in it. I always loved that with one photo it can tell a story and or memory that you can not recreate, but with that photo, you can reminisce about that moment. I have always wondered how they have evolved from the old film with no color into digital pixels with color and how it came to that. I started taking pictures with a real camera when I was a freshman in digital photo 1 with Ms.Lincoln. After that, I fell in love with editing and taking amazing photos and have always been curious about the history and processes on how everything has become what it is and what’s in store for the future. Therefore, I figured that I would learn the history of photography and how we came to these colorful digital photos that we have now.

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I started my search online after I got done with my college class of color photography and found many sources about how we have evolved from film to digital photos and how they have made digital camera photos costless now. You do not have to do anything but simply a few clicks of a mouse and it is erased with no cost. Storage was a big factor in the old days due to the number of rolls of film you will have to store somewhere physically. Now there are many ways to store digital photos you could store your photos in an online cloud where they will be forever stored, also a physical hard drive or a computer’s hard disk can keep your photos. 

With online storage prices drastically getting cheaper and cheaper it cost virtually nothing to store your photos. Film on the other hand does cost money. With a Film camera, you would have to purchase rolls of film for it, also it cost money to develop your negatives and printing for your photographs. With that in mind each time you have a film camera when you press the shutter button it will cost you money to get the results. Every roll of film is made for specific environments to get the best results with each photo. Each film has a certain light sensitivity so they are designed to be for indoor or outdoor conditions. If something changes in the environment you will have to make an important decision, for example, if you are taking pictures of a nice mountain with a lot of suns and suddenly clouds start forming and making your surroundings darker you will have to either shoot with the wrong kind of film or change the role of film and usually you will lose the photos that have not been used up in the roll so, therefore, lose money and potential of a special shot. Another option is to have another film camera with the different film on it to be ready, but of course, that might cost a bit more than just shooting with one camera. 

The result of using the wrong film on certain conditions is that the photos can have distorted colors and grain on them. However, with digital cameras, it is much different. With the sensors in the camera, they can be changed instantly to the conditions you are in so for each photo you take the camera will capture the light correctly. With a turn of a button or a click, the camera can be set to take photos in indoor or outdoor mode, night photography, and low light conditions. Also, some cameras have an automatic mode that automatically senses the scenery and adjusts the sensor of the camera accordingly. The main difference between a digital and film camera is the sensor that is used to take the photo. With film cameras, there is a film that is sensitive to certain light conditions that is being placed behind a lens. When there is a photo taken the shutter of the camera opens and there is a certain amount of time that light hits the film and captures a “photo” that is printed on the film. When you are deciding to take another photo you will have to roll the film and make sure that there is a clean film behind the lens ready to capture. 

With the new digital cameras, they have an electronic sensor that’s been made from tiny light-sensitive sensors that each tiny spec represents one pixel. When you take a photo with a digital camera the shutter opens and once light hits each pixel will read a certain value and with all pixels together they will make one photo. Also, you do not have to worry about rolling film because each photo is saved on a digital card and the sensor electronically empties the values once the photo is stored. When you get to editing your final pictures digital cameras can be correct using many photo editing software. Some cameras have the option to edit your pictures in the camera built-in automatically, but many more options are available for your phone and computer. With film cameras whatever capture you take is what you get. Once the film has been developed it is very difficult to make any corrections to the photo. If you need to make serious corrections on the photo you will need to scan it or use the negative and convert it into a digital photo to be corrected digitally. With printed film photos over time, the pictures start losing their color and fade. However, with digital photos never lose quality and be identical for as many years as you want.

My next search was online about finding the history of cameras and the discoveries that have happened and who created them. Ancestors of the camera have been both the camera obscura and the pinhole camera. These creations have been dated to the ancient Greeks and Chinese. It was a Chinese philosopher named Mozi who lived during the Han dynasty (circa 468 – circa 391 BC). He was the first-ever recorded person to write down the basics of a camera obscura. While early camera obscura devices took up entire rooms, by the 17th-century it has developed into leads to portable devices. French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce is now accepted as the creator of photography. With him using a homemade camera he had produced the first partially successful photograph in 1816. Though the photograph does not exist any more, letters to his sister have given successful evidence that he has created the first photograph. The first surviving photograph is also by Niepce it’s in the collection of the University of Texas-Austin it dates from 1826. It is a picture of a scene from his window in Burgundy. With all this evidence he is widely accepted as the inventor of the first functional camera. He used a technique that he called heliography, the French inventor was able to produce one-of-a-kind images that could not be replicated. Heliography is when a glass or metal surface is coated in the Bitumen of Judea. It’s a natural asphalt that only hardens in the brightest areas, while the rest of the bitumen is not hard and is washed away leaving a photographic imprint. This is still a long way from where we are now in the digital world but was a revolutionary step toward permanent photographs. 

Now we are looking at how photographic cameras came to the public and starter to modernize the cameras. It was a man named George Eastman who introduced the first Kodak Black camera in 1888. By this time there were gelatin plates which developed quicker compared to glass or metal ones. Which meant people did not need to shoot with a tripod and now can take photos handheld and this starting spreading everywhere and many people got their hands on this camera. As opposed to other cameras, Eastman’s Kodak was a genius for using flexible film instead of the glass plates that were very common during that time. He got rid of those bulky plates you would have to use and created the Kodak that was portable and easy to use. It helped move from only professionals with very good knowledge into a hobby that any average person could enjoy. The Kodak Black cameras had the film already inside and all you would have to do is mail your camera to the Kodak headquarters to have the pictures developed and mailed back. This was considered the first-ever “portable” camera. From the mid-19th century and onwards photo technology rapidly developed as many more investors were interested and pushed the envelope on how to still take images. In the early-20th century, things started reaching their peak with our developments from compact digital cameras to our current digital DSLRs. From glass plates to paper prints to digital images it is something that is revolutionary and something to be known. With this in mind, I have been curious about colors work and how it has been digitized.

Therefore, the next thing I started searching online was about the history of color photography and capturing the proper colors. Once we realized that it was possible to capture light with our cameras, we wanted to capture all the colors associated with these photographs. The first and original approach was to find a material that directly share the colors that came with that light captured. The ability to do that came in 1851 from a man named Levi hill who was a Baptist minister living in New York. He previously used the same methods as Niepce to capture photos but was not happy that it could not reproduce the colors. Many people were skeptical when Levi announced that he has found a photographic process to make it possible. He had refused to let his secret process out until 1856 when he published a book only available on pre-order. Once photographers found the recipes for the process, It was so complicated that it was regarded as useless. Hundreds of years later in 2007, researchers were able to analyze his work and verified that he did find a way to reproduce color. In 1886 inventor Gabriel Lippman used his knowledge of physics to create what is now considered the first color photograph without any dyes or pigments used. By 1906, Lippman has showed his process also with color images of a bowl of oranges, a parrot, a group of flags, and a stained glass window. 

This was the first official process but we are just getting started. The process itself was very complex and required high-resolution emulsions that needed longer exposure times. It had trouble with broader bands of wavelength colors that were created by reflections and a very toxic process using mercury. During the same time, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell was hard at work and defined a new color theory that has been the foundation for how we interpret colors to this day. Maxwell proposed a theory of taking photographs of a scene through red, green, and blue filters. Once the images were played back on projectors with matching color filters, they would overlap to create a complete color image. Maxwell introduced this principle that can be applied to photography in 1861 with his famous photograph of a tricolor ribbon. Maxwell’s method was not as important and pushed in the background during the time Lippmann was presenting his results. However, by the 1890s his theory started to be reexamined. A German scientist named Herman Wilhelm Vogel discovered that he could use the three-color theory and create these emulsions only sensitive to a particular color which he did by adding specific dyes. However, it took some time for these processes to figure themselves out. Until the 20th century when the emulsions started to be accurate and sensitive enough for the traditional photography during that time. You needed to take the same photo three different times with three different color filters which can cause a bit of a problem due to the camera being moved or the scene changes. 

The hero that revolutionized color photography was Kodak in 1935. Kodak introduced their first tri-pack film and labeled it Kodachrome. It was thanks to two musicians named Leopold Mannes and Leopold Gowdosky, Jr. The duo was eventually hired by Kodak Research Laboratories and created one of the most beloved films to this day. The process used three layers of emulsion on a single base that grabbed red, green and blue wavelengths. Eventually in 1936 Kodak’s development could process all three layers at one time. In the 1960s is established its presence in the market, but was still much more expensive than regular old black and white film. However, By the 1970s the prices decreased enough for it to be accessible to many masses of people. Finally by the 1980s black and white film was not dominant no more for those daily picture snapshots. Now in the current modern age Kodachrome had stopped being produced in 2010. However, the rest of us have changed over to shooting digital and have slowly closed that space of color film photography and moved into digital sensors. So next time you pick up your phone or camera thank Maxwell for his RGB color theory that has developed and followed to this day.      

29 April 2022

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