At one point or another, we have all asked the question: when was photography invented? We know it was sometime in the distant past, just not exactly when. That’s because photography has a long history, dating all the way back to the 5th century BCE. We’re going to look at the history of photography to better understand its processes and date of invention. Ditch your textbook and grab your camera obscura as we dive into the world and history of photography!

When Were Photographs Invented?

History of photographic techniques

Photography may have been “formally” invented in the 19th century. But it existed long, long before the days of telegraphs and typewriters. We can trace the philosophy of photographs back to the neolithic period with primitive camera obscura techniques. But what is a camera obscura?

Well, here's a hint: camera obscura literally translates to "dark room." In practice, it is an image projection system in which light enters a darkened area by passing through a small aperture, ultimately creating a rudimentary image. This next video from the George Eastman Museum shows us how we can turn any room into a camera obscura. 

When Did Photography Start?  •  How to Turn a Room into a Camera Obscura by the George Eastman Musuem

Some historians argue that hominids used camera obscuras to project images to trace with stone tools. In the fourth century BCE, Han Chinese philosopher Mozi wrote about the camera obscura (albeit under a different name), as a tool for collecting rays of light.

Greek philosopher Aristotle expanded on Mozi’s ideas in his Corpus Aristotelicum Problems – Book XV, saying “Why is it that an eclipse of the sun, if one looks at it through a sieve or through leaves, such as a plane-tree or other broadleaved tree, or if one joins the fingers of one hand over the fingers of the other, the rays are crescent-shaped where they reach the earth? Is it for the same reason as that when light shines through a rectangular peep-hole, it appears circular in the form of a cone?”

Nearly 2000 years after Aristotle’s Problems, Renaissance inventor Leonardo Da Vinci formally outlined the camera obscura in his 1502 Codex Atlanticus. He said, “If the facade of a building, or a place, or a landscape is illuminated by the sun and a small hole is drilled in the wall of a room in a building facing this, which is not directly lighted by the sun, then all objects illuminated by the sun will send their images through this aperture and will appear, upside down, on the wall facing the hole.” 

But although Mozi, Aristotle, Da Vinci, and others understood how camera obscuras worked, they didn’t know how to capture permanent images. That’s where Nicéphore Niépce comes into the equation. 


When was photography invented?

Photography was invented by Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce in 1822. Niépce developed a technique called heliography, which he used to create the world’s oldest surviving photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras (1827). Heliography was conceived in response to camera obscura theories dating back to ancient history.

World’s First Photo Explained

When was the first photograph taken?

Camera obscuras may have been useful tools for projecting images, but they weren’t capable of capturing images in a permanent sense. So, we’ve arrived back at the question: when was photography invented? Photography as we know it was invented in 1822 by French pioneer Nicéphore Niépce.

Niépce is regarded as the father of photography — and the inventor of the world’s first combustion engine (but that’s a story for another day). This next video retraces Niépce’s efforts to create the first photograph.

When Was the Photograph Invented?  •  The First Photographer – Joseph Nicéphore Niépce by Michael the Maven

Niépce’s early lithographs used silver plates in conjunction with bitumen of Judea and lavender oil to create a very primitive type of photograph. This process was called heliographing, derived from the greek helios meaning sun and graphein meaning write. The conjunction implied the process of sun-writing, which was debatably more akin to engraving than photographing.

But Niépce finally reached a breakthrough in 1826/27 with this picture, “View from the Window at Le Gras” – which many scholars suggest was the first photograph ever taken and developed.

When Was Still Photography Invented • Niepces View from the Window at Le Gras

When Was Still Photography Invented?  •  Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826/1827)

Very few people believed Niépce when he introduced his photograph to the world. Skeptics suggested forgery, illustrators suggested ludicrousness, and others simply weren’t interested. It took years for photography to offer any commercial appeal, which sadly amounted to the form’s “founder” reaping very little rewards for his efforts.

For more, check out our article on when was the camera invented.

Earliest Photographs

The advent of photography 

In 1829, Niépce formed a business partnership with French artist and inventor Louis Daguerre. In 1833, Niépce died of a stroke — but Daguerre continued to work on adjusting the heliographic method with his own process, aptly called the Daguerreotype process. Daguerreotype photographs were incredibly hard to make — but this next video from the Getty Museum shows us how we can still make Daguerreotype photographs today.

Beginning of Photography  •  Early Photography: Making Daguerreotypes by Getty Museum

Daguerreotype photographs weren’t just difficult to produce, they were dangerous as well. Part of the daguerreotype process called for the use of mercury, which was rarely ever approached with caution. Mercury complications were one reason why daguerreotype photographs eventually went out of style; there were plenty more. But there’s no denying Louis Daguerre had an enormous influence on the invention of photography.

When Was Photography Invented • Portrait of Louis Daguerre

When Was Photography Invented?  •  Portrait of Louis Daguerre

So when was photography invented? The most accurate answer is 1822 — some will say 1826, others will say 1833, and the boldest will say thousands of years before the common era. When we study the history of photography, we learn that the medium has been iterating for thousands of years — from carved tracing to camera obscuras to silver plate etching. 


When Was the Camera Invented?

There’s a lot more to photography than what we went over in this article. Up next, we continue on with photography research by looking at the inception of cameras. Cameras and photography go hand in hand so you shouldn't be surprised to see Niépce’s name mentioned again. But we’ll show you other camera builds too!

Up Next: Inventing the Camera →
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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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