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A Brief History of Photographic Processes

The term ‘Photography’ was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and literally means, drawing with light, but there have been many processes which have evolved to become photography.

 

Camera Obscura

The camera obscura is a device and a natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole in that screen as a reversed and inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening. The earliest known writings about the phenomenon camera obscura were found in Chinese writings known as the Mozi in 470 BCE. The first use of the term Camera Obscura was in Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena by Johannes Kepler in 1604. Used for everything from science and entertainment to being a portable drawing aid. This device and its applications would pave the way for the photographic process.

 First published picture of camera obscura in Gemma Frisius' 1545 book  De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica

First published picture of camera obscura in Gemma Frisius' 1545 book De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica

 

Nièpce and Heliography

Invented in 1822 by Joseph Nicephore Nièpce, Heliography was a photographic process which produced the earliest surviving photograph of a real world scene, View from the window at Le Gras (Circa 1826). Nièpce managed this by using a camera obscura focused onto a pewter plate thinly coated with Bitumen of Judea(a naturally occurring asphalt which hardened in proportion to its exposure to light) and when the plate was washed with oil of lavender, only the hardened areas remained. A very long exposure was required and by analysing the original pewter plate, experts have estimated that it would need at least an 8 hour exposure. With an exposure that long, Nièpce’s Heliography process was not sensitive enough to be practical for real world scenes or portraits.

  View from the Window at Le Gras , (enhanced) 1826 or 1827, the earliest surviving camera photograph.

View from the Window at Le Gras, (enhanced) 1826 or 1827, the earliest surviving camera photograph.

 

Daguerre and the Daguerreotype

In 1829 Nièpce entered into a partnership with Louis Daguerre and they collaborated on a more sensitive and improved photographic process. Nièpce died of a stroke on 5th July 1833 and after his death, Daguerre concentrated on silver halide alternatives. He would expose a silver plated copper sheet to iodine vapour, which created a layer of light sensitive silver iodide. After being exposed in the camera for a few minutes, the latent image was developed with mercury fumes and then the plate was bathed in hot salt solution to remove any remaining silver dioxide. He named the first practical process for making photos with a camera the Daguerreotype. This was the first publicly available photographic process and other inventors soon made improvements that would reduce the exposure time to seconds, making portrait photography extremely popular.

 Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot

Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot

 

Ambrotype, Tintype and the Collodion Process

By the end of the 1850s, the daguerreotype had been superseded by the less expensive Ambrotype and Tintype. These processes were based on the new Collodion Process invented in 1851 by both Frederick Scott Archer and Gustave Le Gray. This process required the photographic material to be coated, sensitised, exposed and developed within fifteen minutes, the printing was typically done on albumen paper and was the first commercial method of producing a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. By the mid 1860, the Ambrotype was being replaced by the Tintype, producing a similar image on a sturdy black lacquered thin iron sheet.

 "A Veteran with his Wife", taken by an anonymous photographer, shows a British veteran of the Napoleonic era Peninsular War .  It is a hand-tinted ambrotype using the set collodion positive process, made circa 1860.

"A Veteran with his Wife", taken by an anonymous photographer, shows a British veteran of the Napoleonic era Peninsular War. It is a hand-tinted ambrotype using the set collodion positive process, made circa 1860.

 

Gelatin Silver Process

The gelatin process was introduced by Richard Maddox in 1871. It involved a suspension of silver salts in gelatin that is then coated onto glass, flexible plastic or film. This allowed for the materials to be exposed and processed even after many years of their manufacture, unlike the collodion process which would had to be exposed and developed immediately after coating. Widespread adoption of the process did not occur until the 1890s as the collodion process was still very popular amongst photographers, even though the gelatin process was more convenient. In the 1890s baryta coating became available which played an important part in creating smooth glossy prints and baryta coating was taken up by Kodak in 1900. Refinements to this process have remained the primary process black and white film process to this day.

 
 

Colour Photography

Colour photography has been around as early as black and white photography but only became widespread with the introduction of autochrome plates in 1907, which were very expensive and not suitable for casual photography. The 1930s saw the introduction of Kodachrome, which was a non-substantive colour reversal film. Which means its would produce transparencies for use in slide projectors and after the introduction of chromogenic colour print paper in the 1940s, colour photography became an extremely popular way to take pictures.

 
 A 1917 Autochrome colour photograph of a French Army lookout at his observation post during World War I

A 1917 Autochrome colour photograph of a French Army lookout at his observation post during World War I

 

Digital Photography

Digital Photography uses cameras containing arrays of electronic photodetectors to capture images focused by a lens, as opposed to an exposure on photographic film. The captured images are digitised and stored as a computer file ready for further digital processing. The first digital photograph was produced in 1957 by Russell Kirsch who created a rotating drum scanner and programming that allowed images to be fed into it. The first image scanned was a head-and-shoulders shot of Kirsch's three-month-old son Walden. The black-and-white photo measured 176 pixels on its side and was grainy, however this photo led the way to satellite imaging, CAT scans, barcodes, desktop publishing and digital photography.

 The first digital image made on a computer in 1957 showing researcher Russell Kirsch's baby son

The first digital image made on a computer in 1957 showing researcher Russell Kirsch's baby son

 

So what is next for photography?

Black and white, glass plates, digital sensors, since the Heliograph 196 years ago, the processes have changed drastically. But where do we go from here? What lies ahead in another 196 years?

We are almost at a point where smart phone cameras are replacing digital SLRs and this is to do with hardware, software and processing power. Photos can be stitched together automatically to create panoramas, depth of field can be added digitally and light is increased with multiple lenses. Combine this with convenience and eventually we will start seeing more and more professionals using an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy for their professional work. We are not there at the moment, but with the  rise in mirror-less cameras, a stepping stone to something new is being created.

 The Light L16 Camera with its many lenses.

The Light L16 Camera with its many lenses.

For example, the most intriguing camera I have seen is the Light L16 Camera. According to their website description the L16 "Captures the details of your scene at multiple focal lengths, then uses sophisticated algorithms to combine 10+ images into a single, high-resolution photo." The high resolution mentioned is 52 megapixels and it has more than 10 lenses built into the body. It seems insane, but at the same time makes sense, especially with the FOMO generation, everything must be recorded but will we ever see the death of SLR cameras?