The History of Color In Photography

The History of Color In Photography


Color in photography has come a long way since the first permanent color photo was taking in 1861. Now nearly 150 years later we thought we would take a look and see where and how color developed in photography. Starting with the black and white beginnings.

Monochrome Photography

Monochrome photography implies the act of recording light in a single color or wavelength and includes such types of photographs as black and white, sepia, infrared photography, and X-ray photography.


Oldest surviving photo created in 1826 by inventor Nicéphore Niépce

Black and White
Black and white photography uses neutral tones of gray ranging from near white to near black, or using a grayscale.


Photo by whappen

Photography began with the discovery that silver is a light sensitive chemical. Silver halides, or silver salt compounds, break down when exposed to light and form black metallic silver2. The darker areas of a negative that received more light during exposure block the light that would reach photographic paper during printing, thus allowing the paper to remain whiter in relation to the local negative density. The lighter areas of the negative that received less light during exposure allow more light to pass during printing, darkening those areas of the print.
- wikipedia:Monochrome_Photography

Sepia Tone History
Unlike black and white photography, which uses a grayscale, sepia toned photos appear on a brown scale.


Photo by whappen

Originally made from the Sepia cuttlefish, sepia pigment was used to treat printed photos to make them more durable. Consequently, many of the old photographs around today, such as portraits from the 1700s, appear in brown scales due to the sepia toning that has preserved them for so long.

Sepia toning preserves pictures because of a chemical process that turns any silver in the developing photograph into a sulfide. This sulfide is more resistant to aging than silver. Of a black and white photo developed at the same time as one treated with sepia toning (stored in identical conditions), the sepia tone photo would last longer than the black and white.
- Photography.com: Sepia Toning

The Development of Color Photography

The first permanent color photograph was taking in 1861 by physicist James Clerk Maxwell who used what is known as the 'color separation' method, shooting three separate black and white photos using three filters: red, green, and blue. He then projected the three images registered with their corresponding filters overlapping them to create a color image. The photo below is the famous tartan ribbon photo, the first permanent color photograph.

All forms of photography have evolved from monochrome photography. Color film is black and white film with three layers of emulsion. Each layer has a colored coupler that makes the resulting black metallic silver deposits in the negative respond to colors in the visible spectrum; red, green and blue. Digital photography employs a silicon sensor that records focused light falling onto it in much the same way that light rays reaching the film expose that portion of the film. So all photography has evolved from the original techniques created to record light rays onto silver halides.

Processes of Color Photography

One of the early methods of taking color photos was to use three cameras. Each camera would have a color filter in front of the lens. This technique provides the photographer with the three basic channels required to recreate a color image in a darkroom or processing plant. Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii developed another technique, with three color plates taken in quick succession.
- wikipedia: Photography

Color Negative Film

Color negative film forms a negative (color-reversed) image when exposed, which is permanently fixed during developing. This is then exposed onto photographic paper to form a positive image.

Color Reversal Film

Photo by dcassaa

Color reversal film, also known as slide film, forms a negative image when exposed, which is reversed to a positive image during developing. The film can then be projected onto a screen.

Important Events and Photos


Levi Hill

1850: Levi Hill claims to invent color photography, though his claims were highly contested

1861: Scottish physicist James Clerk-Maxwell demonstrates a color photography system involving three black and white photographs, each taken through a red, green, or blue filter. The photos were turned into lantern slides and projected in registration with the same color filters. This is the "color separation" method.

1868: Ducas de Hauron publishes a book proposing a variety of methods for color photography.


Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron

1877: Louis Ducos du Hauron experiments with subtractive color

1906: Availability of panchromatic black and white film and therefore high quality color separation color photography. J.P. Morgan finances Edward Curtis to document the traditional culture of the North American Indian.

1907: First commercial color film, the Autochrome plates, manufactured by Lumiere brothers in France


Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

1909–1915: Prokudin-Gorskii's color documentary photography in Russia

1932: Inception of Technicolor for movies, where three black and white negatives were made in the same camera under different filters;

World War II: Development of multi-layer color negative films

1963: First color instant film developed by Polaroid;

1976: First solo show of color photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, William Eggleston's Guide
- compiled from wikipedia:Color Photography & Photo.net

All images from wikipedia unless specified otherwise.


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5 Comments
Showing 1 - 5 of 5 Comments
informative and entertaining!
So cool! I've done some study of photography, but I never learned about the history of colour photography. So thanks for that!!
I did this palette a while ago, based on Edward Steichen's early color photo The Pond Moonlight. If you want to check out the photo, a small image, as well as the link to the Wikipedia pages are in the information section. The photo is stunning.

The Pond Moonlight
this was interesting! now I know what the channels thing is in photoshop. channels of color- the whole RGB thing is making more sense now~ -is shot-

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