How was Photography invented? A cool ride to the beginnings

camera obscura

Nicéphore Niépce. Who is he?

There are countless of books which describe the entire history, but we’ll focus here only in the beginning. The main character in our little article here is Nicéphore Niépce.

Who is he? Long story short (though he deserves more than my couple of lines here) he was an amateur scientist and inventor from an old aristocratic family. He with his brother Claude, devised an early combustion engine called the Pyréolophore. Around 1816 Niépce began experimenting with printmaking techniques.

He invented what he called Heliography, which translates in “drawing with sun”. Nicéphore was obsessed with the idea of creating permanent prints of the images seen with the help of a camera obscura. Until then, the camera obscura was used mainly as a drawing aid. Basically someone was drawing what he saw in the back of a camera obscura. Neat, huh?

Well Nicéphore had absolutely no talent whatsoever when it came to drawing, so he embarked on a journey to create the possibility of capturing permanent images from the back of a camera obscura.

In 1816, Nicéphore produces his first image, using a paper coated with silver salts. Silver salts were known to darken with daylight. This was his first negative (darks become light, lights become dark) image. But unfortunately the image faded away because coated paper becomes black because of broad daylight. It was a sad moment for him. But he didn’t stop.

He wanted to obtain positive images instead of negative ones. So he focused on compounds that are bleached by light, rather than blackened. He tried some stuff, until eventually he used salts and iron oxide and manganese black oxide. Unfortunately, the problem of fixing the image without fading away, was still there.

He stopped for a while, then in 1817 he continued his research on compounds which could help him fix an image. He focused his attention on the resin of Gaïacum. Had some good results, but only when exposed to light. Not with the camera obscura. He didn’t know at that time that only UV rays were active on this resin and that the camera obscura filters it out through his lens. So he was kinda sad…and thinking…

Nicéphore Niépce thinking

That’s is him thinking…

After years of experimenting he discovered bitumen of Judea. This compound hardened upon exposure to light. Then the bitumen not affected by light was washed away using lavender oil. And this is how he got an image. Long story short, the process was like this:

The photography process

First he dipped the plate carrying the bitumen of Judea in an acid bath that bites the metal where it is not protected, meaning the places corresponding to the lines of the drawing. Because the bitumen varnish is acid resistant, the acid can penetrate down to the metal. Once the lines are etched in the plate, Niépce eliminated the bitumen varnish from the metal base to keep only the etched drawing on it. Now, another problem was multiplying the image. he succeded eventually, in 1823. He did this by acid etched engraving. In 1825, he etched his images on copper, from 1826 onwards on tin.

Ok, sounds complicated so here’s a shorter way: using his chemistry background from his earlier printing experiences, he discovered after years of searching the bitumen of Judea. This bitumen, dissolved in lavender oil and then put on a metallic plate, produced the right amount of exposure, once exposed in a camera obscura. And he created the first image ever which was taken at his window. The exposure however was very long, up to 8 hours. And this is how we got the first photo. Cool, isn’t it?

Here is the first photo ever taken

View From The Window At Le Gras

Sadly, though he is the one considered to invent photography, he is not the father of it.

That guy would be: Daguerre (1787–1851), a former partner of Nicéphore Niépce. Daguerre, building on Niépce’s work, had eventually created a practical picture-making process, which he named after himself — much to the surprise of Niépce’s son and heir, Isidore. But then a guy came along Arago, a member of Chambre des Députés. He persuaded the French government to buy the invention from Daguerre and Isidore Niépce, with the purpose of making it available to the world.

In the end..

Of course the battle between his invention and the invention of William Henry Fox Talbot went on. History eventually recorded all inventions. It was a long ride, involving governments and years of research, but we have photography widely available and no one gives 2 cents how it got to us. Except history…and me..because I wrote this :)

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