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Last Updated on 12th December 2016 by Sophie Nadeau

φωτός +γραφή = drawing with light …

Have you ever deleted a photograph by accident, only to realise that you don’t have a copy? Well, can you imagine taking painstaking hours to take just one landscape photograph, only for the materials to disintegrate? No? Well this is what the early pioneers of photograph had to contend with! The word photography comes from the Greek words φωτός (light) and γραφή (drawing). This quite literally means ‘drawing with light’.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved learning about the etymology of words. Plus, if you’ve been reading this blog or following me on Instagram for all of 2 seconds, you’ll know that I’m a little bit more than obsessed with photography! So it makes sense that the time has come for me to combine my two loves into one short and handy blog post.

But where and how did Photography start?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact start of photography as it depends on what your definiton of ‘photography is’. And that’s because the first photography did not capture an image but simply projected it into a ‘camera obsucra’ (dark room).

A Camera Obscura is basically where a beam of light is projected through a pin point hole into a darkened space (this can be anything from a professional room to a tent- the only requirement is that the space be dark). Estimates suggest that mankind has been using this form of light projection from as early as 30,000 BCE. This means that perhaps photography is 32,000 + years old!

It’s believed that a lot of artists used a camera obscura in order to aid them in drawing. Using the projection, they would just need to sketch over the projection in order to create an accuratre representation of the suject. Obviously most artists denied doing this!

Photo below: a camera obscura etching dating from 1544!

drawing with light

Believe it or not, photography as we know it, with a printed image, has been around for almost 200 years (woah)! The first ever photograph is believed to have been taken in 1826; thus at the time this post is written, photography is at least 190 years old.

Although the photo is supposedly taken from a window, it looks like it may has well have taken a picture of the floor. However, whatever the subject, the photo is still impressive. I mean, it’s the first photo to have ever survived! The photo was taken by French inventor Joseph Niepce and the exposure time was eight hours! Drawing with light indeed!

first ever photo drawing with light

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Commercial Photography

Photography as a hobby/ photography on a commercial level did not start for another 13 years in 1839. It’s therefore often said that the ‘real‘ birth of photography was in 1839. The very same year, the very first ‘selfie’ was created! Robert Cornelius, chemist and photographer lover, took a self-portrait in what is believed to be the world’s first portrait.

Considering that photographs would have to be exposed for up to 10-15 minutes just to get enough light into the camera, I’m surprised that the photo is so sharp and in focus! Oh, and that the photograph has survived 170 years is always a plus!

robert cornelius first ever selfie

Surprisingly, the first colour photograph (that actually lasted) was taken as early as 1861 by a physicist and mathematician… It’s a photo of a tartan ribbon tied in a knot! I personally think it looks a little bit like ‘the golden snitch’!

first colour photograph

But how were the first photographs made?

Before digital technology, photographs were made through compex chemical reactions. This is why so many of the photography pioneers were also Chemistry enthusiasts. It also happens to be why so many of the first photographs no longer survive to this day; they were made using volatile materials that easily disintegrated.

The first successful photograph was made by shining light projected using a camera obscura onto a pewter plate. A cocktail of chemicals, including the naturally occuring tar, bitumen, was used to process the light in such a way that it left an impression on the pewter plate. The process was then refined; silver replaced the bitumen and the exposure time was lowered.

Since that very first photograph was taken in the early 1800s, technological advances have charged forwards at an astounding rate. Today, photography is one of the most popular hobbies in the world, an industry that is worth billions annually. In fact, if you’ve not picked up a camera yet, I highly recommend it!

drawing with light

Sources: WikipediaPeta Pixel

About Author

Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, Paris, pizza, and history, though not necessarily in that order. A fan of all things France related, she runs when she's not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming her weight in sweet food. Currently based in Paris after studies in London, she's spent most of her life living in the beautiful Devonian countryside in South West England!


  • Deepa
    6th December 2016 at 6:52 am

    Informative blog! It’s good to know about the history of photography as I am quite interested in photography and I found this blog gives me the knowledge of photography. Thanks for sharing and keep posting such type of information.

  • Albert Nesmith
    26th November 2016 at 7:31 am

    Photography, amazing shots and subjects! I wonder what it takes to be a professional one?


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