There are many strands in a photography timeline – the chemistry of film and processing, the physics of optics, the mechanical engineering of shutters, the electronics of metering and digital photography, and the iconic camera designs that bring everything together. At each end of the photography timeline, the science is bewilderingly complex – from the arcane chemical processes of early photography to the algorithms of computational photography, which enables cameras to go beyond capturing photons to compute pictures.
It’s not a linear journey; digital photography has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in all things analogue, characterised by toy cameras, digital filters and apps that produce or replicate the look of film.
I’ve reviewed, and borrowed from, many timelines and dozens of articles and books on the history of film, film processes, cameras, lenses, digital technology, phone camera development and computational photography to compile this photography timeline and in an attempt to combine these strands. The sections of the timeline are of my own devising.
I’ve tried to be diligent with my research and check the facts. The sources for the majority of entries are included as URLs. I have also referred to several excellent books: A History of Photography in 50 Cameras by Michael Pritchard; the Taschen books 20th Century Photography and A History of Photography; Photography A Concise History by Ian Jeffrey and Photography, the Definitive Visual History by Tom Ang, all of which I can recommend.
Photography Timeline 1826-2020
1826-1850 The Genesis of Photography
c. 1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce uses bitumen of Judea for photographs on metal and makes the first successful camera photograph, View From My Window at Gras
1827 Niépce addresses a memorandum on his invention to the Royal Society in London, but does not disclose details
Charles Chevalier creates a compound achromatic lens to cut down on chromatic aberration, a failure of a lens to focus all colours to the same plane, for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s photographic experiments
1832Robert Hunt’sResearches on Light records the first known description employing platinum to make a photographic print, but does not succeed in producing a permanent image
1835William Henry Fox Talbot makes his first successful camera photograph or “photogenic drawing” using paper sensitised with silver chloride,
1839 The public birthday of photography, from three inventors – Dagurerre, Fox Talbot and Bayard
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s Daguerreotype becomes the first photographic process to be adopted, creating a unique image on a silvered metal plate of remarkable sharpness.
Hearing of Daguerre’s invention, Fox Talbot announces a paper process to achieve images by action of light and presents his photogenic drawings at the Royal Society in London
Hippolyte Bayard produces direct-positive images (like Daguerre’s process) on sensitized paper (like Talbot’s).
Sir John Herschel suggests fixing images in sodium thiosulphate. He also coins the terms photography, negative and positive.
1854James Ambrose Cutting takes out several patents relating to the Ambrotype process, underexposed or bleached wet collodion negatives that appeared positive when placed against a dark coating or backing
Parisian portrait photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patents the Carte-de-visite (CdV), a new style of portrait utilizing albumen paper the size of a visiting card that will become commonly traded among friends and visitors
1855 The carbon process is patented by A. L. Poitevin, producing an image resistant to fading which becomes widely used in book illustration
1857 The folding camera with tapering bellows is invented by C.G.H. Kinnear, forming the basis for subsequent bellows designs
1858 John Waterhouse invents Waterhouse stops, a system using plates with different aperture diameters that could be inserted into a slot in the lens barrel which are the earliest selectable stops.
John Harrison Powell registers his design for a portable stereoscopic camera.
1871-1900 Instantaneous Photography without the Chemistry
1871 English physician Richard Leach Maddox invents the lightweight gelatin dry plate silver bromide process, assigning the complex and arduous chemistry work photographers had previously to undertake to a factory
1873Charles Harper Bennett improves the gelatin silver process by hardening the emulsion, making it more resistant to friction
The platinotype process, which produces platinum prints, is patented by William Willis.
1877 George Eastman learns to make his own gelatin dry plates, based on the writings of the British innovators, including Charles Harper Bennett
Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke produce Blitzlicht – the first ever widely used flash powder
1878 Heat ripening of gelatin emulsions is discovered by Charles Harper Bennett, making possible very short exposures and paving the way for the snapshot
1879 George Eastman applies for a patent for an emulsion-coating machine, which enables him to mass-produce photographic dry plates
1881 Thomas Bolas patents a hand-held, box form camera he calls a detective camera
1882Etienne Jules Marey perfects a chronophotographic gun, a device capable of taking 12 exposures a second.
1883 Ottomar Anschütz designs a camera with an internal roller blind shutter mechanism in front of the photographic plate – the first focal-plane shutter in recognisable form
William Schmid patents the first detective camera to be widely sold
1885 The first flexible photographic roll film was sold by George Eastman, though this original “film” was actually a coating on a paper base
1886 Frederick E. Ives develops the halftone engraving process, making it possible to reproduce photographic images in the same operation as printing text
The first single use camera, the Ready Fotografer, is introduced, using a dry plate, though it appears to have enjoyed very limited success
1887The Rev. Hannibal Goodwin files a patent application for camera film on celluloid rolls, though it will be not granted until 1898, by which time George Eastman has started production of roll-film using his own process
1888 The Kodak n°1 box camera, the first ready-loaded, easy-to-use camera is introduced with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.”
1889 George Eastman introduces the first transparent plastic roll film, made from highly flammable cellulose nitrate film
The Loman Reflex, the first commercially produced camera with a focal-plane shutter, is introduced
1890 The Zeiss Protar, the first successful anastigmat photographic lens, designed Dr Paul Rudolph, is introduced
The Graflex Speed Graphic press camera is introduced and will continue in production until 1973
1913 Kodak invents 35mm film for the early motion picture industry
Oskar Barnack, creates the Ur-Leica, the prototype of a small-format 35mm camera, doubling the width of 18x24mm cinema film and running it horizontally, rather than vertically as in cinema cameras of the time
Nikon releases the NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.2 S for the Nikon Z mount system
Canon launches the EOS R series next-generation full-frame mirrorless cameras featuring Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology that provides autofocus in low-light conditions previously too dark to focus in.
The Apple 12 ships, with a new 7-element design with an ƒ/1.6 aperture for the primary camera as well as advancements to Smart HDR and Deep Fusion.
Fujifilm launches the compact prime lens X100V. The fifth X100-series camera, it is described in Digital Photography Review as the most capable prime-lens compact camera, ever
2021 Sony introduces the A1, a 50.1MP, 8.6K camera capable of shooting bursts at up to 30fps blackout-free, with 15 stops of dynamic range, real-time animal eye AF and anti-distortion shutter technology.
I first came across Fan Ho’s work in a podcast from Ted Forbes’ The Art of Photography. Some photographer’s work gives me an immediate jolt the first time I see it. Fan Ho’s photography, like that of Brassaï and William Klein, to name just a couple of others, gave me that same instant reaction. His painterly use of smoke, mist, light and shadow combined with incredible, often geometric, composition is breathtaking. An blog post on Kept Light refers to some Ho’s photographs of boats on the water as being “reminiscent of Turner’s paintings with light emanating from the work.”
His mastery of street photography has led to him being referred to as the ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson of the East,’ but I much prefer his nickname ‘the Great Master’. The influence of the European composition tradition is clearly present, but his vision is unique. Transplanted to the East, his unique blend of light and geometry that somehow combines drama with serenity has made him one of the world’s greatest photographers. As Abigail Cain put it in an article on Artsy at the time of his time of his death in 2016:
The serene and contemplative nature of Ho’s work is particularly remarkable considering the tumultuous state of Hong Kong during his most prolific decades. The artist and his family were among the many hundreds of thousands of refugees that flowed into the city in the 1950s, fleeing the reignited Nationalist-Communist Civil War that was ravaging mainland China. Between 1945 and 1951, the city’s population more than doubled. However, Ho’s photographs reveal nothing of that chaotic historical context; instead, they present timeless scenes of life in Hong Kong. The marriage of old and new—a traditional Chinese sailing vessel bobbing alongside a battleship in the harbor, a wooden rickshaw being pulled across steel train tracks—was a consistent feature of his work, as was a fascination with the natural geometry of urban alleyways and markets. And now, when the city ranks among the most densely populated locations in the world, Ho’s reflective photographs offer an experience unattainable anywhere else—solitude on a Hong Kong street
In a similar vein, Laurence Miller, a Manhattan gallery owner, described Fan Ho’s photographs as “like direct descendants of the Bauhaus, yet they were made in Hong Kong. They were abstract and humanistic at the same time.”
Fan Ho was born in Shanghai in 1931, and emigrated with his family to Hong Kong in 1948.He took up photography at a very young age and adopted the Rolleiflex he would use for the rest of his career at the age of 14. Living in the Central neighbourhood of Hong Kong, he was in the perfect position to document street life, though at a time when studio photography was far more common than street photography. An article in The Red List describes what Fan Ho found and captured in the Hong Kong in the late 1940s and early 1950s:
The centre of a chaotic atmosphere, the city had received the thousands of refugees of Japan’s invasion and thus was marked by despair, poverty and tumult. Yet, the photographer managed to capture an almost empty city, concentrating on individual subjects and scenes whose theatricality were enhanced by his dramatic use of light, shadow and smoke within geometric compositions – no wonder one of his series was entitled Living Theatre. With his black and white images, Fan Ho illustrated a nostalgic and melancholic cinematic Hong Kong where traces of modern life and issues disappeared behind traditional lifestyles as if reality had been erased: ‘I liked to concentrate and simplify the world in black and white, it was more suitable to my nature. I could express my emotions more freely, they were more fully under my control, [and the results were] surreal and semi-abstract. I liked this distance: not too close, not too far away…’ With his reclusive photographs, Fan Ho offered a seductive fantasy to Hong Kong’s inhabitants, that of loneliness.
Fan Ho’s creative process required a great deal of patience, no least because Hong Kong was and remains one of the most densely populated places on earth, but also to get all the other elements he needed to be in place. He described how he worked to the Independent in 2014:
At the beginning you must find the ideal location. Then you must be patient to find the right subject that arouses your interest, even if it’s just a cat . You must have the precise moment to catch the spirit, the essence, the soul of the person… If you don’t have the exact moment, you have to wait for the right feeling. It’s real creative work because you have to have the feeling inside.
Ho was critically acclaimed: a fellow of the most prestigious photographic societies, he was named one of the “Top Ten Photographers of the World” by the Photographic Society of America between 1958 and 1965. He was also an Honorary Member of the Photographic Societies of many countries around the world. He simultaneously pursued a career in film, starting out with the Shaw Brothers and later becoming a film director. Ho died in 2016, in San Jose, California at the age of 84. His images of Hong Kong remain the most iconic images of the city and his photography continues to be on show in major museums around the world.