The EPIC History of Photography (in a Fun 9 Mins!)

The EPIC History of Photography (in a Fun 9 Mins!)

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The history of photography has witnessed incredible progress in the relatively brief time since its invention.

From a basic box with a tiny hole in it that produced blurry photos to today’s high-tech DSLRs and smartphones.

The story of photography is fascinating and it’s possible to go into great detail – but we’ll keep it brief! This article condenses hundreds of years of photography down into the best bits. So buckle up as we take a whistle-stop tour of this snappy art form.

Pre 1839 – Camera Obscuras (the birth of Photography)

The history of photography starts with the camera obscura.

An open sketchbook featuring a drawing demonstrating the workings of a camera obscura
The image projected through the hole of a camera obscura appears upside down

The camera obscura is simply a dark room or box with a small hole in one side that allows light in. The image projected through the hole appears upside down

Camera obscuras had been used for hundreds of years and was popularly used by artists to trace their subject matter onto a canvas or paper (sounds like cheating to me…)

However, the camera obscura couldn’t record images, only project them

It wasn’t until 1839 that a clever Frenchman called Louis Daguerre developed the first camera to actually capture photographs. He invented this new technique by projecting the light on to a copper plate covered with silver iodide, which had been treated with chemicals causing it to darken in the presence of light. With a long enough exposure, an image was captured. 

“Et voila!” cried Monsieur Daguerre (probably). Photography is born!

The world’s first photograph

Whilst Daguerre is credited as the guy who invented the first feasible photographic process (known as Daguerreotype (de-gair-o-type) photography), the history of photography should technically start with the first recorded photograph, which was made by his partner Nicéphore Niépce over 10 years earlier in 1826 (or 1827, no ones quite sure…) 

The photograph was of a view from Niépce’s window and it took an astonishing eight hours to produce! Niépce died in 1833, so Daguerre continued his work.

A black and white old photo in very low resolution featuring a view from a window at Le Gras
View from the Window at Le Gras by Niépce (1926-27)

Fun Fact: Niépce used a different photographic process which he called ‘heliography’. ‘Helios’ comes from the Greek for ‘sun’, so heliography literally translates to ‘sun drawing’.

Photography starts to speed up

In the early days of photography, the process was very slow and cumbersome. Subjects would have to sit for 30 minutes or more while the camera captured their image. (This partly explains why people didn’t smile in old photographs – because they took so long to take!)

But, as photography developed and became more widespread, techniques were refined and speeds increased. By the late 1800s cameras could take pictures in less than a second!

Photography for the masses

While taking pictures became much easier, it was still expensive. Photography was largely the province of professional studios since plates and chemicals were costly.

That changed in 1888 when George Eastman, a camera manufacturer from Rochester, New York, released the Kodak camera – the first to use roll film

People were able to snap photos simply by winding on more film after each shot. They then sent it to the Kodak photo business, where the films were processed and printed.

Box shaped old camera called the 'Brownie Flash B' produced by Kodak. An iconic camera in the history of photography
Kodak ‘Brownie’ Flash B

The original Kodak cameras retailed at $25 dollars – about $500 in todays money – but eventually came down in price. This made photography much more accessible. Ordinary people could now capture moments from their lives and share them with others. 

Fun Fact: The Kodak Brownie camera, introduced in 1900, cost just $1 (about $30 today) and became one of the best-selling cameras of all time!

This is a hugely significant point in the history of photography. Beyond the probable boom in the photo album business, the impact of this went far beyond portraiture and sharing a few holiday snaps with your neighbours. It fundamentally changed the way we see the world

Photography shines a light on the world

Magazines and publications could now use photography in their articles, depicting both the world around us and important figures. 

In particular, photojournalism became an integral part of war-time reporting, especially with the development of smaller and more portable 35mm film. Photo journalists could now capture the horrors of war as they happened and relay them back to a horrified public.

Old black and white photo showing damaged city of Lille in World War 1 with soldiers wandering around destroyed buildings
Destruction in Lille during German Occupation, World War I, 1916

Beyond war, photography had significant effects on social change bringing attention to political issues around the world like slavery, poverty, corruption and racism. For example, the abolitionist movement was bolstered by photography, putting a face to the people who were being abused.

The invention of photography also changed history due to its role in shaping international relations between countries. It had a significant impact on both sides during World War II as well as throughout the Cold War that followed after WWII when photography played a major role in spying. For example, photographing new technology development sites like nuclear weapons plants or rocket test ranges. 

Later in the 20th century, think of Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ or Kevin Carter’s ‘The Vulture and the Little Girl’. These are photographs that shook the world and brought attention to important global issues. 

Pretty impressive for something that started as a little box with a hole in it!

It wasn’t all business, though. In the middle of the twentieth century, the history of photography acquires a lighter side as well. Enter the iconic Polaroid camera.

Polaroids – A 20th Century Icon

Front facing old polaroid camera sat against an aquamarine blue background
Polaroid Supercolo 1000

The Polaroid camera was first developed in the 1940s by Edwin Land. It was a popular instant photography camera that produced physical prints of photos directly from the camera without the need for any film to be sent off for developing. 

The camera became well-known for its unique and instantaneous printing process, which made it a favourite among amateur photographers and hobbyists. 

In later years, the popularity of digital photography caused sales of the Polaroid camera to decline, but the camera remains an iconic symbol of 20th century photography

Today, vintage Polaroid cameras are often sought after by collectors and enthusiasts.

Photographs go to the movies!

Before we get too far ahead in to the 20th century, it’s worth mentioning another enormous industry today that started with the humble photograph: the movies.

An iconic image in the History of Photography showing a moon with a face and a rocket in one eye from the 1902 film 'A Trip to the Moon'
Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), 1902

In the early part of the 20th century, artists began experimenting with how to use photographs as a means for static pictures to become moving pictures. It was through this that the persistence of vision was discovered, which was fundamental to the success of motion pictures.

Persistence of vision is the phenomenon where an afterimage, physically seen by our own eyes, appears to persist on our retina for approximately one thirtieth of a second after we have stopped looking at it. This allows us to see motion between two or more different images that have been displayed consecutively.

This discovery lead to the invention of movies, or moving pictures. And it wasn’t just movies that emerged from this. The animation industry was born too, the big pioneer of course being Walt Disney. 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves storyboard animation sequence featuring Dock and Dopey hammering
It took 100,000’s of sequential images to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!

He used animated photography as a way to create moving pictures. In order for the images to move, at least 24 photographs had to be taken per second and then presented to an audience in sequence which is called animation or flip book photography. 

Just think: to make a feature length animated film, this is a vast amount of imagery!

Did you know? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first animated feature film released in 1937. It had a run time of 83 minutes and contained more than 250,000 individual pictures!

Cameras get clever

With the advancement of technology in the 20th century, cameras became more and more intelligent. Cameras were built with interchangeable lenses and other accessories and came with automatic adjustment of shutter-speed, aperture, exposure and more.

These became known as ‘point-and-shoot’ cameras and they soon took the photography world by storm. 

But even these smart cameras had their limits. They were still bulky and not very portable. They couldn’t take pictures in low light and you needed to be a photography enthusiast to get the most out of them.

Enter the digital camera revolution

Variety of camera lenses and accessories laid out on a wooden table
Cameras became smaller and clever(er) and feature a wide varieties of lenses and accessories

The arrival of digital photography in the late 1990s changed all that. Suddenly, anyone could take great photos without any prior photography knowledge or experience. Cameras became smaller, lighter and more user-friendly. And because they stored images digitally, there was no need to develop film or prints – you could just view your photos on the camera’s LCD screen or upload them to your computer.

This technological advance made photography even more popular than it already was and ushered in a whole new era of photography. 

Today, digital photography is the norm and most people take all of their photos with a digital camera or phone. 

Rise of the selfie

Love them of hate them, the history of photography wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the selfie.

The popularity of selfies really took off with the invention of the camera phone. The first camera phone was released by Kyocera Visual Phone VP-210, released in Japan in May 1999.

Since then, photography has become an increasingly important part of how we communicate and share our lives with others. We now take billions of photos a year, creating visual diaries of our lives. 

A famous selfie taken at the 2014 Oscars featuring many A-list celebrities
Taken at the 2014 Oscars, this is one of the most famous selfies of all time!

There are concerns about the psychological effects of social media and selfies, with some people worrying that they can lead to anxiety and low self-esteem. But for the most part, photography is seen as a positive thing, providing us with memories of our past and helping us to document our lives.

Some might say that taking selfies has gotten out of hand – though maybe that’s just because they can’t get their own selfie to look good! – but there’s no doubt that photography has had a profound impact on the way we see and share the world.

What does the future hold for photography?

To round off our brief history of photography, let’s talk about quantum photography or Holography.

The principle behind Holography is that it wouldn’t just record intensity of light (like in a regular 2D photo) but it would photograph the lightwave itself. This means that you could later reconstruct the image exactly as it was – in all it’s 3Dimensional glory.

This technology is still in the early stages but they could eventually replace traditional photography altogether. So who knows – maybe one day we’ll all be carrying quantum cameras or holographic smartphones!


The photography world has certainly come a long way since the days of pinhole cameras and old-fashioned film. 

With each new technological step forward, photography became more accessible to people all around the world – amateurs as well as professional photographers. 

Today, photography is an important part of our everyday lives. We can snap, edit and share stunning photos anytime, anywhere simply with the incredible camera phones we carry around in our pockets. This has lead to the rise of social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram where we chronicle every part of our lives (and has perhaps made us all a bit more vain!)

As technology advances further into the future, it’s hard to predict what the next chapter in the history of photography will be. Maybe we’ll all be taking holographic photos on quantum cameras someday! More importantly though is how it will affect society and the way we view ourselves and the world we live in.

Only time will tell but one thing is for sure: photography has had a long and exciting history and its future looks just as dazzling!