The traveling photography studio of William Barton Micklethwaite, in Ireland, circa 1850–60s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Camera obscura” literally means “dark chamber” in Latin and it describes the first known imaging device, which can be traced back to antiquity. The camera obscura, which is the most basic manifestation of a modern-day camera—a device with a hole and a surface on which to reflect and capture an image—holds to the same technical principle as the pinhole camera, but on a much larger scale. An inverted image passes through a small hole and is projected onto a surface inside a darkroom or tent.
The camera obscura gained popularity in the 16th century when the darkroom evolved into a portable box that included a lens and a mirror so that the image could be visibly reflected within it. Artists such as da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Vermeer are believed to have used the device to aid in an accurate depiction of light and shadow; scientists used the technology to observe the cosmos; and it led to the development of the variations on the camera that we know today.
Below, we capture 9 analog photography techniques used to create images with these early cameras.
Nicéphore Niépce, Point de vue du Gras, 1825 or 1827. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In the early 1800s, French inventor Nicéphore Niépce experimented with chemically treated metal plates, which he placed on the back of the camera obscura’s box-projected surface, ultimately recording the oldest permanent image: View from the window at Le Gras (1826-1827). Taken from a window overlooking the French countryside—and across some grainy rooftops—the analog image required several days of exposure, a naturally occurring asphalt known as Bitumen of Judea (which can be traced back to ancient Egypt), lavender oil, and a pewter plate.
The rarity and cost of the chemicals—and the incredibly long exposure time required—rendered Niépce’s photography technique impractical. The Royal Society, a scientific academy that supports technological innovation, rejected Niépce’s pewter plate on the grounds that they refused to publicize discoveries that involved undisclosed secrets (and Niépce kept his methods under wraps). By the end of the 19th century, his technique had fallen into obscurity. In 1952, his work was rediscovered and View from the window at Le Gras was authenticated as the first photograph. Although Niépce’s legacy only crystallized some 60 years ago, his work would influence his collaborator Louis Daguerre’s time-efficient photographic method known as the daguerreotype.
How It Works
Drawings of U.S. Signal Service Heliograph, 1888. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Naturally occurring asphalt is used to coat glass or metal. The asphalt hardens over the areas hit by light, and the substance is washed away from the dark areas with lavender oil.
Left: Boulevard du Temple Paris. The oldest surviving picture of a living person, 1838; Right: Portrait of Dorothy Catherine Draper. The earliest surviving photograph of a woman, 1839 or 1840.
Niépce’s sudden death in 1833 prompted Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre to continue their collaborative experiments on his own and, by 1839, the French Académie des Sciences announced the daguerreotype as the first photographic technique freely available to the public. Within months, the method essentially went viral, introducing the one-of-a-kind positive image to the world as a new mode of communication.
Reducing exposure time from days to minutes, and then finally down to seconds, Daguerre’s analog technique was employed to produce millions of photographs in just one year alone. Used to capture everything from a boulevard scene to portraiture to studies of outer space, the daguerreotype granted photographers control over the exposure and developing processes. Daguerreotype images may appear perfectly silver in some parts, or naturally tarnished in others, resulting in a truly one-of-a-kind photograph.
How it works
The daguerreotype process. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Silver-plated copper is polished to a mirror finish, sensitized with iodine, and exposed in a dark box for a few seconds to 15 minutes, then developed in mercury vapor and fixed with a solution of salt water. Finally, due to the plate’s delicate nature, it is sealed behind glass.
The first photographic process to produce multiple images from paper negatives was patented by Henry Fox Talbot in 1841. Iterating on processes he developed in the early 1830s, Talbot concocted a photography technique he coined the “calotype” (meaning “beautiful” from the Greek kalos), in which photosensitive paper is exposed to light for about an hour inside of a camera. These produced the earliest examples of translucent negative contact sheets, which are still used today as film negatives. Talbot’s calotype breakthrough included a higher sensitivity of paper and the application of gallic acid onto the paper before and after exposure, creating a latent image or negative.
Appearing in varying tones of brown and silver, the calotype image is characterized by a softness achieved through iodide. Despite the exposure time lasting only a few seconds, the calotype lacked sharpness in print quality. Furthermore, it was not made available in the public domain. The calotype influenced Hippolyte Bayard, who used it before developing his own analog process, and Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, who adopted the technique to develop albumen paper prints in 1850. Once the glass negative of the collodion process was introduced later in the 19th century, the calotype lost its popularity in the U.K. and other European countries outside of France.
How It Works
William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype photography equipment, c. 1840. © National Museums Scotland.
Iodized-silver-chloride-coated paper is placed into a camera, then light is exposed to areas that become proportionally dark in tone, creating a negative image. Once the paper is removed and developed into a visible image with gallic acid, it can be used to print onto photosensitive paper as an image.
Wet Collodion Process
Left: Photograph from the 1860s, photographer unknown. Image via Wikimedia Commons; Right: Charles Nègree, Asile Impérial de Vincennes: le 15 Août, le Salut à l’Empereur, 1859. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
This process of coating, sensitizing, exposing, and developing within 15 minutes is respected for its intricacy and revered for the tremendous detail and clarity it achieves in the image. Introduced in the early 1850s by Frederick Scott Archer and Gustave Le Gray separately yet nearly simultaneously, the photography technique combined the sharp clarity of the daguerreotype and the calotype’s ability to print unlimited photographs from one negative. It dominated the photo market for about 30 years.
In contemporary photography, this analog method has seen a resurgence with artists such as Sally Mann, who is known for romantic imagery of her children. Mann famously employed the process, as did Rob Gibson, Rowan Renee, and Michael Shindler, among others. “It was an amazing moment when I held up a glass plate—and damn, it was a picture of the same cliffs that I’ve looked at my whole life, exactly as they are now, even the little vines hanging down,” Mann once said, recalling the instant that sparked her interest in the collodion process. “Those same vines are still here. And these ancient arborvitae trees, which obviously had fallen over 100 years ago—there they were, in the glass plate.”
How it works
From Gaston Tissandier, A History and Handbook of Photography, edited by John Thomson, 1878.
A glass plate is coated with soluble iodine and collodion. In the darkroom (these can be portable), the plate is soaked in silver iodide; still wet, the plate is then exposed to a camera. Finally, the plate must be developed and fixed within 15 minutes or less.
Color Separation Process
Early color photo of Agen, France, by Louis Ducos du Hauron, 1877. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Thomas Sutton, inventor of the single lens reflex camera, took the first color photograph of an object in 1861. He based his invention on a color theory espoused by physicist James Clerk Maxwell. A green and red bow with striped ribbons, Tartan Ribbon employed a color separation methodology that would eventually pave the way for modern color processes in chemical and digital types of photography used today.
Maxwell was disappointed with the results, however, pointing to the need for photographic emulsions with higher sensitivity to red and green light. It wasn’t until 100 years later that Ralph M. Evans from the Kodak Eastman Company recreated Maxwell’s original experiment and proved that the ultraviolet light from Tartan Ribbon was a result of the ultraviolet light reflected in the color red.
How it works
Diagram from the New International Encyclopedia, 1902. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Before digital imaging emerged, color separation was achieved with black-and-white analog photographs taken through three primary color filters (red, green, and blue), converted into lantern slides, and projected with the same colored filters. Negatives from the wet collodion process created glass positives.
Although the photogravure was first developed in the 1820s by Nicéphore Niépce, then improved by Hippolyte-Louis Fizeau in the early 1840s and Henry Fox Talbot by the late 1850s, the photography technique was significantly improved when Czech artist Karel Klíc transferred an image to a copper plate from a gelatin-coated carbon pigment sheet of paper in 1879.
The photogravure is most commonly attributed to the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. Stieglitz employed the method for his first photographic portfolio, which documented snowy street scenes of New York at the end of the 1800s. Strand captured moody images of people, places, and objects with long shadows and bold contrasts. Alvin Langdon Coburn used the analog technique to create his own books and catalogues, and Peter Henry Emerson, a relative of the great Ralph Waldo Emerson, also printed his books by way of photogravure. Contemporary photographer Barbara Mensch uses the method today to “reach back into history, mirror the time period,” as she says.
How it works
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Using an intaglio press, an image is produced from a negative sheet, transferred to a metal plate, and etched in.
Silver Gelatin Process
The silver gelatin process is over a century old and remains the primary photography technique used in black-and-white film photography today. It was introduced in 1871 by British photographer Richard Leach Maddox and improved by Charles Harper Bennett less than a decade later. Silver gelatin differs from the collodion process in that it doesn’t need to be processed immediately after exposure.
Coating machines were introduced in the late 1800s to develop the analog process commercially and, by the 1920s, glossy and semi-gloss paper were developed to enhance the characteristics of images produced this way. This type of film process is often noted for having a quality unmatched by digital methods. As contemporary photographer Mensch says, “I continue to shoot with black-and-white film as I have yet to be convinced that digital images yield the richest and most detailed images, particularly when creating black-and-white archival prints.”
How it works
Photo by Eddy Pula, via Flickr.
A suspension of silver salts in gelatin is coated onto a light-sensitive material such as glass, flexible plastic, film, or paper.
Panchromatic Black-and-White Celluloid Film
Left: Edward Curtis, Blanket Weaver—Navajo, c. 1904; Right: Edward Curtis, The old-time warrior—Nez Percé, c. 1910. Images via Wikimedia Commons.
By the late 1880s, orthochromatic and panchromatic black-and-white films expanded the spectrum of tones represented in the silver gelatin process and introduced light sensitivity to all colors. After the first Kodak camera went on the market in 1906, J.P. Morgan gave photographer Edward Curtis $75,000 to document Native Americans of the West. He went on to produce 40,000 images, which he compiled in his opus, The North American Indian.
How it works
An 1889 Kodak advertisement. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
A transparent plastic film base is coated on one side with a gelatin emulsion that subsumes light-sensitive silver halide crystals invisible to the naked eye. The crystal’s unique size and shape dictates the contrast, sensitivity, and resolution of the film.
Left: Arnold Genthe, Nude study, between 1911 and 1942; Right: Helen Messinger Murdoch, The Taj Mahal at Agra, India, in the early morning light, 1921. Images via Wikimedia Commons.
Patented near the turn of the 20th century by the Lumière brothers of France, the autochrome technique dominated the color photography market until color film was developed in the 1930s. Technically an additive color, “mosaic screen plate” process, autochrome required a longer exposure time than that of early black-and-white plates and film. When the autochrome plate is in the camera, the glass side faces the lens as the light shines through the mosaic filter before developing, thus attaining a dream-like painterly quality to the image. The analog method was discontinued in 1955.
German photographer Arnold Genthe was an early pioneer of the process, documenting his travels, people, and female nudes in America. As of 1955, the U.S. Library of Congress houses some 500 of his autochrome plates. Today, artists from France and the U.S. have attempted to recreate this photography technique, but with mostly unsatisfactory results. Photographer Jade Doskow notes that many contemporary artists are retaliating against the digital age and “are returning to many of these old processes for a variety of reasons: the uniqueness of the resulting photo-object, the unpredictable, often beautiful nature of the chemicals in different circumstances, the delicacy of how light is rendered on a metal or glass plate.”
How it works
Mirror view in diascope of an autochrome of Percy MacKaye, 1913. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Autochrome consists of a glass plate coated on one side with a random mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red-orange, green, and blue-violet, which act as color filters.
Cover image via Wikimedia Commons.