The Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niepce (1765-1833) is considered to be the first person who was able to capture images on a light-sensitive layer. He used a camera obscura, a long-known device with which images of the outside world could be projected onto surfaces. He succeeded in capturing these images on chlorine silver paper. However, they were not light-resistant and faded after a short time.
It was not until 1826 that Niepce managed to produce the first permanent picture: It shows the view from the window of his study. With exposure times of up to eight hours, however, it was impossible to photograph people or moving objects.
Louis Jaques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), a successful theatre painter, learned of Niepce's work and was so fascinated that he became his partner. The two feverishly tried to find a way to shorten exposure times.
Shorter exposure time and multiple prints
After years of experimentation, Daguerre discovered that even a short exposure of an iodine silver plate produced a latent (invisible) image that could be fixed by vapourising it with mercury. Louis Daguerre exposed a photographic plate, but then aborted the process because the weather did not cooperate. He stowed the plate away in his chemical cabinet. When he took it out again later, he was surprised to discover that there was an image on it. Something in his cupboard must have shortened the exposure time of the plate.
He removed all the chemicals from the cupboard one by one and put a fresh photo plate in again and again to find out which of the chemicals had caused this effect. In the end, only a few drops of accidentally spilled mercury remained.
That, Daguerre realised, was the solution to the mystery. Photographic plates treated with mercury vapours require shorter exposure times than untreated ones. After numerous attempts, he succeeded in reducing the exposure times to four minutes in summer and 15 minutes in winter.
In 1839, Daguerre and Isidore Niepce, the son of the now deceased pioneer, concluded a contract with the French government, which thereby obtained the right to present the so-called daguerreotype to the public. The government considered the discovery so important that it expected it to boost popularity. However, pictures made with the daguerreotype were unique.
William Henry Fox Talbot eliminated this problem with the so-called calotype, a paper-negative-positive process. Although the quality and brilliance could not be compared with the daguerreotype, it was possible to make several prints from one picture.
Talbot's process had a low resolution and was coarse-grained. The grain of the paper was also always clearly visible. Frederick Scott Archer overcame this shortcoming in 1851 with his wet collodion process. The name comes from the cotton (collodion) dissolved in ether that was used in the process. This was used to apply the light-sensitive material (silver halide) to glass plates. The resolution was much better, but the effort remained enormous. Collodion is a colourless, sticky mass that hardens quickly in air. Exposure and development therefore had to take place before the material had dried. The next breakthrough came in 1871 with Richard Leach Maddox. Using a layer of bromide silver gelatine, he succeeded in developing a dry plate that was in no way inferior to wet plates in terms of sensitivity.
The history of photography
The early history of photography is first and foremost a history of technology. Unlike other sciences or arts, however, there is no founder of photography in the true sense of the word. Rather, it is the work of many explorers and discoveries in different fields such as chemistry, optics and mechanics.
In the field of optics, the principle of the camera obscura was already mentioned by ARISTOTELES (384-322 B.C.): light falls through a small hole in a windowless room; the bundled light creates an upside-down, side-inverted image of the outside world on the opposite wall. Just like the Arab scholar ALHAZEN in the 10th century, LEONARDO DA VINCI also worked on the technical principle of the camera obscura around 1500, which is still the basis of all reflex cameras today. The most important discovery in the field of chemistry was made in 1727 by the German physician JOHANN HEINRICH SCHULZE, when he discovered that chlorine silver blackens when exposed to light.
The beginnings: heliography, daguerreotype and calotype
In 1816, the Frenchman JOSEPH NICÉPHORE NIEPCE (1765-1833) was the first to succeed in capturing a landscape motif on chloride silver paper in the camera obscura. The result, however, was not lightfast. The first permanently fixed photograph he produced was made around 1826, using asphalt as a light-sensitive layer, which he dissolved in oil and applied thinly to a tin or copper plate. The exposed asphalt was hardened, the unexposed asphalt removed with a solvent. Niépce called the plates thus produced, exposed for several hours, "heliographs" (helios = Greek for sun, graphein = Greek for drawing).
In 1829, NIEPCE joined forces with LOUIS JACQUES MANDÉ DAGUERRE (1787-1851), a Parisian theatre painter and owner of a diorama. Together they worked on the use of light-sensitive silver iodide plates to create images. NIEPCE did not live to see the final perfection of the new process. After NIEPCE's death in 1833, DAGUERRE continued to experiment on his own, mainly looking for ways to shorten the exposure time. For this purpose, he used silver plates or silver-plated copper plates, which he had made light-sensitive by iodine vapours. By chance he discovered that by exposing such a plate to light, a latent (invisible) image was created that could be developed with mercury vapour and thus made visible. This discovery enabled him to reduce the exposure time to four minutes. In 1839, DAGUERRE registered his new process as a patent, which went down in history under the name "Daguerreotype".
At the same time as the two Frenchmen, the Englishman WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT (1800-1877) also explored the possibility of creating permanent photographic images in the camera obscura. Unlike NIEPCE and DAGUERRE, however, he did not use a metal plate as the image carrier, but paper, which he made light-sensitive with chlorine silver, then exposed in the camera, thus obtaining a latent negative. This was then developed with the help of gallic acid and fixed with sodium thiosulphate. To make a positive print, the negative was placed on a sheet of light-sensitive paper using a copying frame, exposed to sunlight and then fixed and washed. However, since the result of this process, which was patented in 1841 under the name "calotype" or "talbotype", was relatively blurred compared to the daguerreotype, it did not gain popularity. The daguerreotype remained the predominant photographic method until the middle of the century.
Wet and dry plate process
The problem with the paper-negative-positive process was that the grain of the paper was clearly visible, i.e. the resolving power of the images was not particularly good. The remedy was the process of producing negatives on the basis of glass plates invented by FREDIRICK SCOTT ARCHER in 1851. ARCHER applied a light-sensitive layer of collodion (= cotton dissolved in ether) to a wet glass plate, which then had to be exposed while it was wet and developed immediately. After the image was developed, the layer was then allowed to dry, detached from the plate, placed in a water bath and fixed. The advantage of the collodion process was the significant improvement in image quality. The disadvantage was that the plates had to be used wet, otherwise the collodion hardened and silver crystals formed, making the plate insensitive. This meant that the photographer always had to carry a complete darkroom and all the appropriate chemicals.
In 1871, the English doctor RICHARD LEACH MADDOX succeeded in developing a dry plate with a bromide silver gelatine layer whose light sensitivity was equal to that of the wet plate. This finally displaced the wet plate process. The photographer could make as many dry plates as he wanted and no longer needed to carry his entire darkroom with him. The new technique led to the rise of travel photography.
Hand-held camera and roll film: photography for everyone
Towards the end of the 19th century, a series of discoveries took place that advanced the development of photography. The concern of the American GEORGE EASTMAN (1854-1932), a young bank clerk who was very interested in photography, was to replace the difficult-to-handle plate process. He developed a roll film that consisted of paper made sensitive with gelatin emulsion and fit into plate cameras common at the time. He also founded the Kodak company and constructed the first roll-film camera in 1888. It did not require a tripod, was easy to handle and light in weight. The Kodak camera contained a film with 100 exposures, which was sent back to the Kodak company for development after use. Subsequently, the roll film process was improved by replacing the paper roll film with a celluloid roll film. The latter was developed independently by HANNIBAL W. GOODWIN (1822-1900) and GEORGE EASTMAN in the late 1880s. The above inventions revolutionised photography. The age of amateur photography had begun.
Development of photography in the 20th century
In the 20th century, the development of photography was driven by further important inventions: Due to the improvement of the sensitivity of the film material, the recording formats became smaller and smaller. In 1923, the first 35 mm camera with the name "Leica" was created. It was even smaller and easier to handle than the previous cameras and also had a viewfinder. Another milestone in the history of photography was the development of colour photography. Two companies provided the decisive development work: the Kodak company brought the "Kodachrome reversal colour film" onto the market in 1935, and the German Agfa company introduced the "Agfacolor multilayer film" in 1936. In the early 1940s, the first colour negative-positive films were available. Colour photography was mainly used by professional photographers - and it took a good 20 years before it also became established in the amateur sector. Other significant inventions in the mid-20th century were the presentation of the first two-lens roll-film SLR camera (Rolleiflex, 1928) and the first zoom lens (1959), as well as the development of the Polaroid black-and-white process (1947) and the Polaroid colour process (1963).
Photography has hardly changed in its basic features since the introduction of the first Kodak cameras. Even today, the chemical processes have remained the same. But since the 1960s, electronics have become increasingly important. In 1963, the first camera with automatic focus (autofocus) was developed, in 1991 the first digital camera was created, and in 1995 the first digital amateur cameras came onto the market. Thanks to falling prices for digital cameras and constant improvements in digital image quality, digital photography is gaining ground in both the professional and amateur sectors and in many cases is replacing analogue photography. However, analogue photography still has a large following and will be able to hold its own in the digital age.