Illuminating photography: From camera obscura to camera phone – Eva Timothy


Translator: Andrea McDonough
Reviewer: Bedirhan Cinar Let me guess, you’ve got Facebook albums full of photos. You have photos on your computer desktop, on your mobile phone, on your bedroom wall. You see photos in magazines and newspapers, on the side of buses, and of course, in your family albums. We take photos for granted in a major way. But, creating a picture that looked exactly like the person or thing that you were photographing wasn’t always obvious. In fact, in the past, it was a big mystery. How could you, in essence, take your reflection in the mirror and freeze it in there? In the 9th century, the Arab scientist Alhazen had come up with the idea of using the camera obscura, which was literally a dark room, or box, with a single, small hole in one side that let light through. This would project the image outside into the wall inside. During the Renaissance, artists like Leonardo DaVinci used this method to introduce 3-D scenes onto a flat plane so that they could copy things, like perspective, more easily. In 1724, Johann Heinrich Schultz discovered that exposing certain silver compounds to light altered their appearance and left marks wherever the light touched. Essentially, Schultz found a way to record the images that Alhazen was able to project, but only for a little while. Schultz’s images disappeared soon after he had made them. It wasn’t until 1839 that people figured out how to project images onto light-sensitive surfaces that would retain the image after exposure, and thus, photography was born. At that point, it was mostly two inventors who fought for the best way to make photos. One was British scientist Henry Fox Talbot, whose calotype process used paper and allowed many copies to be made from a single negative. The other inventor, Louis Daguerre, was an artist and chemist in France. He developed something called a daguerreotype, which used a silvered plate and which produced a sharper image. But the daguerreotype could only make positive images so copies had to be made by taking another photo. In the end, the daguerreotype won out as the first commercially successful photographic process mostly because the government made it freely available to the public. So now that photography was available, getting a picture of yourself would be a snap, right? Well, not exactly! This process still required a whole dark room at the location of the photograph, which was a big hassle. Picture the early photographers lugging enormous trailers with all their equipment wherever they wanted to take a picture. Not only that, but the early processes had extremely long exposure times. To get a good photo, you would have to stand perfectly still for up to two minutes! This led to development of inventions like the head holder, a wire frame that would hide behind you while supporting your head. It’s also why you don’t see people smiling in early photographs. It’s not that life was that bad, it was just hard to keep a steady grin for more than a few seconds, so people opted for a straight-faced look. And then George Eastman came along. Eastman believed that everyone should have access to photography, and he spent many late nights mixing chemicals in his mother’s kitchen to try to achieve a dry plate photographic process. This would allow exposed negatives to be stored and developed later at a more convenient place instead of carting those dark rooms, necessary for wet plates, around. After starting a business, which initially made dry plates, Eastman eventually discovered plastic roll film that would fit in hand-held, inexpensive cameras. These cameras sold by the millions under the tag line, “You push the button, we do the rest.” While Eastman was largely responsible for making photography a universal pastime, even he could not have dreamed of the ways photography had since shaped the world. It’s now estimated that over 380 billion photographs are taken each year. That’s more photographs each day than were taken in the first hundred years after photography was invented. Say cheese!

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59 thoughts on “Illuminating photography: From camera obscura to camera phone – Eva Timothy

  1. Wow, so interesting. Kinda weird that I've never really understood just how a camera takes light and actually puts it on paper.

  2. No mention of Mozi, the chinese philosopher, strategist and inventor that lived 2400 years ago? I'm pretty sure he was the first to explain the principles of the camera obscura. I understand the desire for people to inform others that while Europe was feuding during the 'Dark Ages' that the rest of the world was rife with scientific advancement, but give the Chinese more credit, will ya? Not even half this planet is populated by the Christians, Muslims, and Jews combined. Mozi was a great human.

  3. Amazing invention. They should do one on videos, and then on sound! 🙂
    You know so people can see how films became real.

  4. Incorrect. Movies made on film are a series of photos but not videos. Image sensors essentially create a magnetic field that is used to arrange magnetic particles on the tape to line up according to the frequencies coming from the sensors. This is a linear process. It's more complicated than this but there's not enough room for details…just research it online.

  5. Dear TEDEducation-Team,
    you forgot to mention Joseph Nicéphore Niépce!!! He is one of the inventors of photography as well.

  6. Opino lo mismo, falta nombrar a Niépce. Agradecería subtitulos. La animación es muy simpática

  7. Love this narrator, straight forward, no force humor and over exatratted emotion yet still entertaining.

  8. Not wanting to sound partisan here, but Daguerre´s method was only successful in the decades inmediately after the invention but by the 1860 it was a dead end (except, funny enough in some parts of the US). The wet plate method has actually more to do with Talbot´s process.

  9. I´m missing a lot of people here. What about Niepce or Wedgewood? But even more important, you completely left out John Hershel, the guy who suggested using hypo to fix the images, as well as introducing the words "positive" and "negative" and inventing his own process, the cyanotype.

  10. Excellent piece. Here's more of a question than a criticism, though: what about Nicéphore Niépce with his View from the Window from 1826? Doesn't he predate Daguerre?

  11. Yes, Daguerre was actually Niepce's assistant and Niepce was the true inventor of photography. A lot of people give credit to Herschel, Talbot, and Daguerre. I have trouble finding videos with the correct information.

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