When was color photography invented? When there are innumerable filters, picture apps, and high-quality cameras on almost every mobile phone, talking about color photography might seem like a thing of the past. However, what if we told you that the real evolution of the medium in this sector began only a few decades ago?
Although it should be noted that the experiments began as early as the 1840s and continued through the 19th and 20th centuries, this might be a surprise given the 200-year history of photography. This also explains why most of the historical photographs we are familiar with are in black and white, or occasionally sepia.
In the same way, as their forebears did with film and analog cameras, modern photographers are still discovering ways to experiment with color photography and broaden their perspectives and working practices.
However, the path to this stage of color photography’s development was paved by some scientific breakthroughs, headed by several people responsible for the vivid, lifelike images we now take for granted.
How Was the First Photograph Taken?
The history of color photography began with the development of photographic cameras. It’s safe to suppose that this invention didn’t have an easy journey to the world. However, did you know that the first camera was created in the 17th century?
Johann Zahn created a tiny, portable camera in 1685 that could record still images. However, until the 1800s, his vision was restricted to papers.
The First Capture
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the first photographic image in history in 1816. He utilized a technique known as “heliography,” which calls for placing a piece of silver-coated paper behind the camera obscura to create the black-and-white image.
Following this innovation, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre produced the first photographic camera for sale in 1839 using his daguerreotype technique. The black and white photography genre was born around this time.
Early Color Photography Experiments
Although the basic notion may have been understood, a workable color photography technique remained elusive.
Professor of physics at Sorbonne Gabriel Lippmann created a color method in 1891 based on the phenomena of light interference, which is the collision of light waves that gives soap bubbles their vibrant colors. This procedure, which earned Lippmann the Nobel Prize in 1908, was briefly commercialized at the beginning of the 19th century.
A French physicist named Louis Ducos du Hauron announced a technique for making color photos by combining colored pigments instead of light not long after Maxwell’s 1861 demonstration. Three black-and-white negatives were created using red, green, and blue filters; these negatives were then merged to create a single colored image. The basis for today’s color procedures is this technique.
Although this work was crucial for science, it initially had little use in real life. Long exposure times were required, and no photographic materials could capture the whole gamut of color.
Additive Early Color’s Processes
The 1890s saw the development of the first color photography techniques. They produced color by combining red, green, and blue light, following the principle that James Clerk Maxwell had proven in the 1860s. These methods are referred to as “additive” color processes.
Frederic Ives, an American inventor and photographer created a method based on three color-separation negatives captured using colored filters. Positive transparencies were created from these negatives and then placed in a unique viewer known as a Kromskop. The images were placed on the three transparencies using mirrors in the Kromskop, and the colors were then restored using the second set of filters.
The generated images, known as kromograms, were useful but extremely expensive, and Ives’ technique was ultimately too complicated to be successful.
The Jolly Process
One exposure via a filter that included all three primary colors was more straightforward than taking three individual exposures using red, green, and blue filters.
Dr. John Joly of Dublin developed the first procedure that used this methodology in 1894. In order to make a three-color filter screen, Joly coated a glass plate with incredibly thin (less than 0.1mm wide) red, green, and blue lines.
This screen was positioned in front of the plate in the camera when taking a picture. The black-and-white positive image was carefully positioned in register with another filter screen following exposure and reverse processing. The outcome was color transparency visible with transmitted light (light that passes through an object).
The Joly method entered the market in 1895 and was used for a short period of time. Nevertheless, the results weren’t particularly good because of the plates’ poor color sensitivity.
The autochrome was created by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, at the beginning of the 20th century. It was the first genuinely usable and commercially viable screen process. They began experimenting with color photography in the 1890s, and in 1895—the same year they would go on to find permanent fame with the development of the cinématographe—they published their first paper on the subject.
They presented their method to the French Academy of Science for the first time in 1904, and by 1907 they were producing autochrome plates for sale.
The new plates were widely sought as soon as their finding circulated.
The Lumières integrated the filter screen and photographic emulsion on the same glass support after realizing there was no need to keep them apart.
Many photographic techniques that were commercially available at this time have since been forgotten. However, one method—the Dufaycolor technique developed by French inventor Louis Dufay—remained well-liked for years.
Dufaycolor made its debut in 1932 as a 16mm cine film, followed by a roll film version in 1935. It used a geometric screen with rows of green and blue rectangles and red lines. Although just a third as fast as the black-and-white film at the time, color reproduction was great and relatively quick.
Dufaycolor was targeted towards the mass market for “snapshots,” but autochromes were more popular with discerning photographers who enjoyed doing their own processing. A processing business providing finished transparencies that were mounted and ready for viewing allowed a new group of photographers to explore color photography.
The last screen process, Dufaycolor, was still available into the 1950s.
The Vivex Process
Commercial color photography grew in significance during the 1930s. Vivex was the standard procedure at the time for professional color printing.
In 1928, Dr. Douglas A. Spencer modified the Trichrome Carbro process to create Vivex, which used cellophane sheets as temporary supports for the pigment images. Dr. Spencer went on to become the managing director of Kodak. Any tiny image flaws might be fixed by physically stretching or compressing the cellophane to assure flawless superimposition.
A firm called Colour Photographs (British & Foreign) Ltd. was established with a factory in Willesden, north London, to take advantage of the Vivex process. This was the first lab to provide a color printmaking service to industry professionals.
Over 90% of all the color prints printed in Britain in the 1930s were reportedly created using the Vivex process due to its widespread use.
When Did Color Photography Become Popular?
Have you ever wondered why, before the 1970s, few photographers used color photography? Even though the groundwork for color photography had been laid, it wasn’t until 1907 that color photography became widely accessible.
Following Maxwell’s innovation, other researchers—among them Gabriel Lipmann, John Joly, and Louis Ducos Du Hauron—improved their own methods for taking color photos. However, each of them was quite expensive, sophisticated, and unable to reproduce visible colors accurately.
The Autochrome Lumière technique, developed in 1904 by the Lumière brothers Auguste and Louis, is the most useful and widely used method for taking colorful pictures.
The golden period of color photography peaked in 1907 due to the ground-breaking development of autochrome plates, and everyone was enthralled with the joy of taking color photographs.
You asked, “So, when was color photography invented?” Now that you know the answer let me just say that our journey there was equally exciting.
The fact that humanity has invested so many hours in research and development simply to capture reality and give it some color is incredibly inspiring. Therefore, take into account how much history went into capturing the one ideal moment the next time you take a picture.
FAQs on When was Color Photography Invented
When did colored photos become common?
Black-and-white photographs were still the norm in 1950. Even while color was significantly more prevalent by 1960, it was still typically only used for special occasions and travel shots.
Why photographers did not usually use color photography before the 1970s?
Black-and-white images were the only ones that were originally collected and displayed up until far into the 1970s. Since the pigmentation in early color images was extremely unstable, the hesitation to accept color photography was primarily motivated by conservation concerns.
Why do old color photos look different?
Contrary to popular belief, the nostalgic old images that appear brown did not develop that color with time. The photographs are exactly as they were when the photographer first noticed them. The darkroom’s chemical reaction gave the image that subtle brown hue.