Photography: History, Types, Cameras

Photography is a way of capturing fleeting moments and turning them into art. These days, everyone with a smartphone can be a photographer, taking pictures with the click of a button. But the first photographs took more work to compose and create.

In the early 1800s, artist Thomas Wedgwood coated paper with silver nitrate to create light-sensitive images. He placed items on the paper to block light, which darkened exposed sections. After removing the items, you could still see their shapes because it was lighter than the silver nitrate area.

The earliest camera was the camera obscura, which used an approach similar to the above method. Joseph Niepce took that general idea and made it more commonplace in 1816 by using silver chloride, which darkens in the light. The camera obscura made negative images, which Niepce then reflected into photographs.

Camera technology improved over the years. In 1975, Kodak created a digital camera. It’s very different from the digital cameras we use today. The resolution was just 1.3 megapixels, but it eliminated the need for film, and photographers loved the possibility. Since it was the size of a printer, it wasn’t easy to transport, but the basic technology was there.

The broad types of photography include:

  • Digital Photography
  • Film Photography
  • Landscape Photography
  • Portrait Photography
  • Action Photography
  • Wildlife Photography
  • Astrophotography

There are various types of cameras to use for these styles. You can use a film camera or DSLR. There are also action cameras, point-and-shoot cameras, 360 cameras, mirrorless cameras, and smartphone cameras. Some of the biggest photography brands include Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Fujifilm, and Olympus.

What Is Photography?

The word “photography” means “drawing with light.” Sir John Herschel, a British scientist, coined the term from the Greek words “phos,” meaning light, and “graphe,” meaning drawing or writing. When you put it together, the term perfectly explains how photography works.

The first photographs used light to expose certain areas of paper, while objects blocked the light from other sections. The complete image would show the shape and vague details of the objects that blocked the light.

Photography is a way of creating images by exposing sensitive surfaces to light. Early photographs used paper treated with silver nitrate. The coating darkened with light exposure. Over time, technological advances led photographers to use film, which exposed light on the sensitive surface to create a photo negative.

Cameras still use light to create photographs, even if they’re digital files. The light hits the optical sensor in a way that transmits the image to the memory card. Therefore, light remains the key to photography through the years.

History of Photography

There have been many landmark events and inventions in the history of photography. Throughout the years, people have used photographs to remember occasions or document important cultural events. It’s used for fine art expression just as much as journalistic purposes.

The first photographs were vague because the artists were experimenting. They used trial and error to discover how light could react with certain substances on paper. As these experiments led to positive results, the artists were able to continue elevating the quality of photographs.

Where it once took over 20 minutes to sit for a photograph, you can now snap a photo in a second. Photographers didn’t jump from one extreme to the other, though. There were many progressions throughout the history of photography.

Earliest Photography History – Camera Obscura

In 1490, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a description of camera obscura. He collected drawings and ideas in the “Atlantic Codex” with over 1,200 pages. The camera obscura idea shows a dark box with a hole cut in one end. At the other end, place a piece of light-sensitive material at an angle so light filters through the hole and leaves a mark on the paper.

This documentation is one of the earliest proofs of camera obscura, but da Vinci wasn’t the true inventor. There’s evidence that the Chinese scientist Mozi described the idea of camera obscura as early as 500 BCE. Aristotle also referenced this idea in his work, but neither man used the technology to create an image, or if they did, it didn’t survive the test of time.

In 1604, Johannes Kepler used the phrase “drawing with light” to explain how astronomers used paper to trace a projection for their records. In these instances, the astronomer worked as the camera, drawing what he saw, instead of later scientists using chemicals to translate what the light projected.

History of Photography 1700 – 1800

In 1717, Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that silver nitrate darkened with light exposure. As scientists had been looking for a way to eliminate the need to trace projections, he tried this solution. After coating paper with silver nitrate, Schulze used it to capture light through a pinhole projection.

Unfortunately, there was no way to stop the exposure once it began. The silver nitrate continued to react in light, so no images were permanent.

History of Photography 1800 – 1900

The earliest known permanent photograph is from 1827. Joseph Niepce took the idea of the camera obscura but added a step to create a more permanent image. With the general technology of the camera obscura, you get light presenting an image on the substrate. Niepce chose a metal plate treated with a light-reactive chemical.

After letting the light shine through the hole, Niepce treated the metal plate with a reactive chemical to make the image permanent. Everything that didn’t get light exposure dissolved, leaving a vague image.

It took a lot of time to create this first image. Niepce left the plate in the sun for at least eight hours. People couldn’t sit still that long, so it was only possible to use this method to take photographs of immobile items and landscapes. Still, the ability to stop the chemical reaction was enough to inspire scientists to approach photography in a new way.

Daguerreotypes were the most common image between 1840 and 1860, accessible to artists instead of limited to scientists. The artist used a sheet of copper coated with silver to make this type of photograph. The silver had iodine vapor to allow light exposure to change the look of the sheet. 

After completing the photograph, the artist used a mercury vapor treatment to strengthen the image quality. A salt coating set the daguerreotypes so they could become a more permanent image.

The chemicals used for daguerreotypes were toxic, preventing regular people from creating images. They have to travel to a photography studio in a major city, where a trained professional could safely handle the chemicals.

Cameras used for daguerreotypes were large and cumbersome. They vaguely resemble accordions, with black billows to stretch the lens on one end away from the plates at the other end.

The early large cameras had slow shutter speeds. The lens needed to stay open for a long time to let in light, so the subjects needed to sit for about 20 minutes to transfer the image to the copper plate. By 1840, you could complete a daguerreotype in about 20 seconds, but everyone needed to remain perfectly still. Any movement would blur the final image.

Carl Zeiss made microscopes in the 1840s. The company started making glass lenses in the 1860s, which helped vary the type of images cameras could create. The collodion process became more accessible during this time. It required a portable darkroom, as the paper needed coating, exposure, and development within 15 minutes.

The Civil War started in the United States in 1861, and Mathew Brady photographed much of it. This war was the first major event documented by photographs. Brady studied daguerreotypes with Samuel Morse and opened a photography studio in 1844. He took photos of many public figures before creating a mobile studio to take to the battlefields.

Many people think the first photographs were black and white, but that’s not entirely true. They were monochromatic, which means there were only dark and light values of the base substrate. If someone took a photograph with a copper plate, the image would have a hint of the copper color. Even white paper took on a bit of color from the chemical fixer.

Kodak created its first camera in 1888. It was the earliest still camera to use a roll of film instead of glass plates as negatives. The film rolls could take 100 photos before you need to mail them to Kodak for development. The photographs were round images, just under three inches in diameter.

History Photography 1900 – Present Day

Kodak stayed at the forefront of accessible photography for years after its first camera. The company produced cameras, lenses, film, developing chemicals, and projectors. As technology advanced, they made point-and-shoot cameras and digital cameras, too.

By the 1920s, shutter speeds were much faster. There wasn’t the need to remain perfectly still like when using daguerreotypes. Since taking a photo was quicker, people began smiling during the process because they didn’t have to hold the pose long.

In 1923, Leica cameras were the first to use changeable lenses for a 35mm camera. Contax was the next company to make this type of camera, followed by Canon in 1937, Minolta in 1947, Nikon in 1948, and Pentax in 1952.

Long after the first permanent photograph, everyday people now had opportunities to capture a moment in time and keep it for life. The technology had greatly improved since the 1400s, but the overall concept of camera obscura still reflected light onto treated paper.

As more brands developed their own cameras, the technology became more affordable and accessible for common people. It became a popular hobby by the 1950s, helped by the invention of the Polaroid camera. This instant camera took a photo and released it so viewers could watch the image develop.

The idea of instant photos grew when Kodak created the first digital camera in 1975. The camera was the size of a printer, so it wasn’t easy to carry around. But it didn’t use film, so scientists kept working with the technology until they could make smaller and smaller models.

In 1991, Kodak released the first handheld digital camera. It used AA batteries and had a hard drive to store images. By 1996, Kodak used memory cards to hold the photo data. 

Japan created the first camera phone in 1999. Looking at those few short years between digital cameras and camera photos is a huge difference compared to the progression of photography from camera obscura to film. Since then, cameras continually get smaller while producing higher-quality images.

The most current iPhone cameras have 12 megapixels, compared to the first digital camera’s 1.3 megapixels in 1975. Apple plans to release a new phone with a 48-megapixel camera in the future. Photography is truly more accessible than it’s ever been.

Types of Photography

There are many different types of photography. You can use various cameras for several of these niches, though digital and film photography have restrictions to their method. Amateur photographers should try their hands at each style before settling on a specific genre to explore the boundaries of photography and push their creativity.

Fine Art Photography

Photography is widely used as a creative medium that supports the expression of a concept, message, or feeling. Fine art photography became popular as a hobby and career almost right after the invention of the daguerreotype. Using photography as a vehicle for creative expression led to the development of many sub-genres within fine art photography, including abstract photography, documentary photography, fashion photography, street photography, portrait photography, landscape photography and more.

Nudes, portraits and landscapes are among some of the most popular subjects in fine art photography, made especially popular in the twentieth century by monumental photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Walker Evans. In fact, Alfred Stieglitz was a champion of fine art photography, having gifted many photos to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1928 and beyond.

Many modern art movements made use of photography, especially Dada and Surrealism. Photographers like Man Ray experimented with existing photography techniques, even formalizing their own techniques. Man Ray, for example, called his photographs “rayographs” which was his artistic spin on a photogram.

Photography was a new medium that allowed artists to explore an idea through a unique perspective. As digital photography gained popularity among artists, knowledge of editing techniques also changed. Once limited to complicated combinations of timed exposures, photographers could now use photo editing tools, like Photoshop, which allowed them to edit aspects of photos with ease. Even with its digital competitors, film photography remains popular among many contemporary fine art photographers.

Digital Photography

Digital photography is best for amateur photographers because it’s relatively low cost. You can get a quality digital camera without breaking the bank. All you need is a memory card, and you can take photos of anything. It allows you to experiment with controls and modes without wasting film. Simply delete photos or upload them to your computer and start fresh.

Film Photography

Shooting with film, also called analog photography, is a way to get hands-on with your craft. You not only have the option to set every mode on your film camera manually, but you can also play with the image as you develop it. Since you’re paying for film and developing, you don’t want to use analog photography to shoot random or silly photos—save that fun for your digital camera.

Landscape Photography

Landscape photography is a way to capture nature and cityscapes in an artful way. They often have wide viewpoints to show the expansive qualities of nature, such as the ocean lapping against sand or a highway stretching off in the distance. This type of photography isn’t only beautiful but also pulls the viewer into the scene and makes them feel connected to nature.

Portrait Photography

Portrait photography features a person as the subject of the image. You’re showing the person’s personality and identity in an image, even if it’s a face with a neutral background. However, many portrait photographers like to capture the subject in their natural setting to help them feel at ease in front of the camera. This approach helps their soul shine through the image.

Action Photography

Action photography focuses on subjects in motion. You can capture action photos during sporting events or concerts. You can also capture candid moments of action. It can be a tough field to break into because you have one second to take the picture before it’s gone. You have to get the settings right so these photos have no motion blur or lag.

Wildlife Photography

You can create stunning images with wildlife photography. In some ways, it’s closely related to action photography. You never know what an animal’s going to do, so you have to be ready to capture an image in a split second, or you’ve lost it. You also must be aware of your surroundings so you’re safe and never miss a natural photo.

Astrophotography

Astrophotography is shooting the night sky. You need patience and the right equipment for this niche. Most astrophotographers use tripods to hold the camera steady. This method results in startlingly clear photos of the night sky, peppered with stars. Long exposures allow more light to enter the camera so you can see details in the night sky that you miss with your own eyes.

Types of Cameras

Even though most people carry a quality camera in their pocket, you can still use film cameras, mirrorless cameras, and novelty cameras to create drastically different types of images. The sensors, lenses, and apertures vary across camera bodies. When choosing the camera, you should consider the type of photography you’re shooting.

Mirrorless Cameras

A mirrorless camera is a compact DSLR that doesn’t use an internal mirror. Fast shutter speeds eliminate the need to reflect light to capture an image. They’re ideal for action photography because of the shutter speed, and they can also take video. There’s not much to manage in terms of controls, so you can easily pick up a mirrorless camera and capture amazing shots.

However, there are downsides to a mirrorless camera. They’re slow to focus automatically, so it’s best to use manual focus. These cameras also have a short battery life compared to other digital cameras. There aren’t currently as many lenses to use on mirrorless cameras, either.

The first mirrorless camera was commercially available in 2008. Panasonic released the Lumix DMC-G1, and Ricoh released the GXR the next year. There are now dozens of mirrorless cameras available from the major camera brands. Beginners love how affordable these cameras are because it gives them a chance to explore digital photography.

DSLR Camera

A DSLR camera is a digital single-lens reflex camera. They’re the closest version of a traditional film camera upgraded for digital photography. The camera creates images by allowing light to enter through the lens, hit a mirror, then send the data to the image sensor. These cameras create photographs that most closely resemble what you actually see in the viewfinder.

Single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) are the film version that helped make photography so accessible in the late 1900s. However, DSLRs outsold film SLRs as of the early 2000s. Mirrorless cameras are close to outpacing DSLRs as of the 2010s, though.

Still, many amateur and professional photographers prefer complete control of a DSLR camera. The mode dial lets you choose between methods such as:

  • Aperture-priority
  • Shutter-priority
  • Full manual
  • Program

Scene are camera settings on many DSLRs, which enhance images according to modes like:

  • Landscape
  • Portrait
  • Action
  • Macro
  • Low light

Many lenses are made for DSLR cameras, giving photographers even more control over the images they create. Fixed lenses allow for quick shutter speeds, producing sharp images. You can’t zoom these lenses in or out, but you still have full manual control over the camera settings.

Traditional lenses include a focus ring and the ability to zoom in or out to frame the scene according to your preference. Because more factors are at play with these lenses, the shutter speed might be slower than with fixed lenses. However, they still capture images quickly.

Traditional Film Cameras

Traditional film cameras have been commonplace since the 1940s, but numerous varieties exist. You can choose 35mm film cameras, 110mm film options, and novelty film cameras that take split photos or superimpose images over each other.

Within the realm of film cameras are SLRs, point-and-shoot, and instant cameras. You can control the settings of SLR cameras just as you can with DSLRs. Point-and-shoot cameras are for quick, candid photographs because the camera controls all settings. Instant cameras might only have settings for you to choose lighting, so many images are hazy instead of focused.

As film is less common these days, many people who shoot with traditional film cameras develop the negatives themselves. This process gives photographers even more control over the final image because they can use a developer to lighten or darken the image beyond what the camera allows.

Film cameras never went out of favor with many professional photographers. Some people note that film cameras are coming back in style like vinyl records. The images have a style that you can’t recreate with digital cameras unless you spend time with filters and photo editing programs.

Camera Settings

Cameras capture light, let it enter the lens, and reflect on the image sensor or film. The photographer can control the aperture, shutter speed, and focus of the lens, which impacts how the final image looks.

Aperture

Aperture refers to how much light the camera lets in. You can control the aperture on the lens by adjusting the dial/s f-stops. If you use a small f-stop, you’re letting more light into the lens, brightening the image’s exposure. F-stops range from 1.4 to 32.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is how quickly the camera shutter closes. Fast shutter speeds mean short exposure, so the lens lets in less light. If you use a slow shutter speed, you get a longer exposure. This method is ideal for night photography because you can get a clear image in low-light settings. But slow shutter speeds also show movement in the frame, leading to blurs.

ISO

ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. A low ISO will create a darker image, while a high ISO makes everything brighter. However, high ISO photos also show more noise, so the image will look lower quality. High ISO is ideal for action photography in low light settings because you can capture an active subject with minimal motion blur.

Camera Mode

Camera mode is the shooting method, most commonly auto, scene, and PSAM. Auto lets the camera take control by assessing the circumstances and choosing the best option. Scene modes let you choose if you’re shooting landscape, portrait, macro, or action. PSAM refers to the DSLR modes as defined above.

Metering Mode

Metering mode is how the camera chooses exposure. It will measure the scene based on a specific area and set the mode accordingly. You can change the metering section so the camera samples the scene’s center or edges. You can also switch to manual mode and set the exposure yourself.

Focus Mode

Focus mode allows your camera to autofocus the image. You can press the shutter button halfway to set the lens’s focus. You can turn it off and manually focus the lens with the ring.

Drive Mode

Drive mode refers to how many images your camera takes at once. It may take a single image each time you press the shutter button. You can select continuous mode, so it keeps taking photos while holding down the button. You can also set the drive mode to a timer or remote option.

Focus Area

The focus area refers to the portion of the frame the camera auto-focuses on. You can see the points in the viewfinder when you gently press the shutter button.

White Balance

White balance impacts how colors appear in your image. Your camera matches colors to a light source, which reads as white. This balance is why some photos taken in incandescent lighting have a yellow tint. You can manually set the white balance to prevent that.

File Format

File format refers to how you save images on your camera. You can shoot in RAW mode, which gives you high-resolution photographs. You can also save photos as JPEGs or TIFFs.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction

This function cuts down on noise in the photo when you’re taking a long-exposure image. As the camera takes a photo, it starts to warm up, which adds noise to the image. Turning on this option gives you a clearer photo, even after long exposure.

High ISO Noise Reduction

As previously mentioned, taking photos with a high ISO creates noise in your photos. This setting eliminates noise, but it might also decrease the photo’s sharpness.

Color Space

Color space is the range of colors you can use with your camera. RGB and sRGB are the most common, meaning your camera will capture any color created by any combination of red, green, and blue.

Image Stabilization

Image stabilization is ideal for shooting in low-light situations where you need a slower shutter speed. You know it’ll stay steady if you put the camera on a tripod. But if you’re holding it, your hands might shake slightly. Image stabilization ensures this slight movement won’t impact the photo.

HDR/DRO

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, and DRO, or Dynamic Range Optimization, elevate the look of your photography by combining three images. Each image has a different exposure, so, when combined, you get the ideal image. You can do this with the camera or with photo editing software.

How to Learn Photography

There are many ways to learn photography. Beginners who want to learn the technical side of things will appreciate photography classes, which start with the basic parts of a camera and explain what each setting controls. You can take photography classes online or in person. Some courses also teach lessons on developing film, if that suits your interests.

Some quality online photography courses include:

You can look for in-person classes at local community colleges, universities, and art centers. If you can travel for a class, you might consider taking them from professionals such as:

You can also find free resources online to learn the basics, including:

If you have a digital camera, nothing is stopping you from trying any and all photography techniques. You’re not spending money on each frame as you are with a film camera, so you can explore without consequence. You can use your digital camera for landscapes, low-light photography, portraits, and more.

Sometimes finding the right camera settings is all it takes. As you understand how each setting can change the image’s outcome, you’ll have a greater grasp of the photos you can create. Play around with your camera as much as possible. Offer to take portraits of friends and family. Take it with you to events and concerts. Drive to new locations and take landscape photos.

Notable Photographs throughout History

Photography has a long and rich history, take a look at some notable photographs through the history of photography:

Joseph Nicephore Niepce, View from the Window at Gras, 1826

Joseph Nicephore Niepce, View from the Window at Gras, 1826, private collection.
Joseph Nicephore Niepce, View from the Window at Gras, 1826, private collection.

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement, 1838

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement, 1838, private collection.
Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement, 1838, private collection.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, 1835

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, 1835, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/282004
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, 1835, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/282004

Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat, Landscape with Cottage, 184

Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat, Landscape with Cottage, 1844, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267087
Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat, Landscape with Cottage, 1844, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267087

Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sète, 1857

Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sète, 1857, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/261941
Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sète, 1857, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/261941

Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), Self-Portrait with Camera, 1931

Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), Self-Portrait with Camera, 1931, Museum of Modern Art, New York. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/46309
Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), Self-Portrait with Camera, 1931, Museum of Modern Art, New York. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/46309

Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936

Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/265556
Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/265556

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin Walking on the Surface of the Moon Near a Leg of the Lunar Module, 1969

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin Walking on the Surface of the Moon Near a Leg of the Lunar Module, 1969, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/786297 
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin Walking on the Surface of the Moon Near a Leg of the Lunar Module, 1969, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/786297

Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, 1984

Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, 1984, Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton.  https://bocamuseum.org/art/collection-highlights/photography/afghan-girl 
Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, 1984, Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton.  https://bocamuseum.org/art/collection-highlights/photography/afghan-girl

 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978, Museum of Modern Art, New York. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/56618 
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978, Museum of Modern Art, New York. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/56618

Final Notes

Photography is one of the most fun and exciting methods of artistic expression. You can use photographs to tell a journalistic story or inspire the viewer to feel an emotion. Have fun with your camera, and you’ll learn all it has to offer.