Are you ready for a journey through time — one that will take you back to the early days of photography, when capturing a moment on film was nothing short of magic and common folks still had to rely on paintings and drawings to depict the world around them? Buckle up, because we’re about to take you on a wild ride through the history of photography!
We’ve scoured the archives and dug up a series of photos that are not just pictures but genuine milestones in the evolution of photography. From the earliest daguerreotypes to the latest digital masterpieces, photography has evolved and grown in ways that the pioneers of the medium certainly could’ve never imagined.
Sure, they may be nothing special visually, compared to modern-day standards. Most of these are 1800s photos, so the quality is often barely decent and the subjects simple. But who needs crazy high definition when you know you’re making history? You’ll see the oldest photograph ever taken, the first photoshopped picture, the first digital representation of a president, the first solar eclipse on film, and even the first webcam!
When there’s a chance to share our passion for diving into the past with our fellow Pandas, we take it. Whether you’re a photography buff, a history connoisseur, or just someone who appreciates learning new things to pump up your brain with cool tidbits of knowledge, this is a list you won’t want to miss. There are many firsts in photography, so without further ado, let’s dive into this collection of authentic photography milestones!
The first photo ever taken in history was snapped by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, featuring the picturesque view from his window in Saône-et-Loire, Bourgogne, France. Though it may not seem like much, it took eight hours to capture this momentous image.
In 1835, Henry Fox Talbot improved upon Niépce’s concept by creating a more practical method. He was the first to take a photograph with a negative, which allowed him to make multiple copies instead of just one faint image on metal.
An enhanced version of Niépce’s photograph was realized in 1952 by Helmut Gersheim, who made the faint shadows clear and the shapes easier to make out.
Hannah Stilley Gorby, born in 1746, holds the title of the earliest-born person ever captured in a photo. To put it in perspective, she was born a decade before Mozart and 23 years before Napoleon Bonaparte, both of whom didn’t live long enough to experience the invention of photography. However, at the ripe age of 94, Gorby posed for a portrait using this new technology in 1840.
The very first portrait photograph was actually a selfie! In 1839, Robert Cornelius, a photographer from Philadelphia, had the patience and determination to sit still for 15 minutes, the time needed for a daguerreotype. This resulted in the first clear photograph of a person, the first portrait, and the first ever selfie, all at once.
Louis Daguerre made history by capturing the first photograph to feature a human being. The photo depicts a street scene in Paris, but if you take a closer look at the bottom left corner, you’ll see two people — one getting their shoes polished by the other. Since they were standing still during the long exposure time, they could be captured while the rest of the busy street was not.
John Draper made history by capturing the first-ever portrait that wasn’t a selfie. The person portrayed here is his sister, Dorothy, making this the first portrait of a woman in the history of photography.
In 1840, the first hoax photo was snapped by Hippolyte Bayard. Bayard and Louis Daguerre had some competition over the title of “Father of Photography.” Bayard claimed to have come up with the photography process before Daguerre, but the announcement was delayed, and Daguerre took his chance. So, in a bold move, Bayard created a hoax photograph of a drowned man, pretending to have killed himself over the feud with Daguerre.
John Quincy Adams was the first U.S. president to have his photograph taken, captured by Philip Haas in Washington, D.C.
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson established Scotland’s first photography studio and gained fame for capturing photographs of everyday life. This shot, taken in Edinburgh, is the first to depict a group of individuals enjoying a drink together.
On April 2nd, 1845, French scientists Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault snapped the first-ever picture of the sun using the daguerreotype process. It only took 1/60 of a second to capture this historic moment, and if you take a closer look, you can see some sunspots too.
The first photograph ever used to illustrate a news story? Nobody knows who took it, but it shows the Rue Saint-Maur-Popincourt in Paris shortly after a battle between government forces and demonstrating workers that left thousands dead.
James Clerk Maxwell, a mathematical physicist, is credited with taking the first color photograph. The photograph, which depicts a three-colored ribbon, was unveiled by Maxwell during a lecture in 1861 and is considered the first durable color photograph. While Thomas Sutton, the inventor of the SLR, pressed the shutter button, it was Maxwell’s scientific process that made the photograph possible.
In 1860, long before drones were even an idea in some tech genius’ mind, the first aerial photo was snapped from a hot air balloon. It shows the city of Boston from a bird’s-eye view, 2,000 feet up. The artist behind the lens, James Wallace Black, named it “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It.”
16 years passed after Maxwell and Sutton before a full-color photograph of a landscape was taken. Louis Ducos du Hauron was the person who successfully captured this image of Agen, France.
Eadweard Muybridge pioneered the art of capturing motion in photographs by using a set of cameras triggered one after another. These frame-by-frame photographs, taken in Palo Alto, California, were essential in advancing moving picture technology.
In 1899, Louis Boutan, a French biologist and photographer, made history by capturing the first underwater portrait. His brave subject, Emil Racovitza, had to pose and hold still for 30 minutes in the waters of Banyuls-Sur-Mer, France.
This photograph from 1908 shows the sad demise of aviator Thomas Selfridge. Orville Wright was on the plane too, but he survived the crash. The aircraft was a new prototype by the Aerial Experiment Association, part of the U.S. Army.
The first digital photo was snapped in 1957, a good while before Kodak engineers created the first digital camera. The image is a digital version of a picture originally taken on film and features Russell Kirsch’s son. It had a resolution of 176×176, making it a perfect square for any Instagram profile.
On October 24th, 1946, the V-2 #13 rocket blasted off and made history by capturing the first photograph from space. The picture shows our planet in black and white from an altitude of 65 miles. The operators used a 35mm motion picture camera that snapped a frame every 1.5 seconds as the rocket soared higher and higher.
On August 23, 1966, a space camera on a lunar orbiter took a picture of our planet Earth while moving near the moon. The snap was then sent back to Earth and received at Robledo De Chervil in Spain.
John Knoll from Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic made history by being the first to edit a photo using Photoshop. He digitized a beautiful picture of his wife, Jennifer, snapped in the tropical paradise of Bora Bora and used it as a demo for the editing software we all know.
In Santa Cruz, California, tech pioneer Phillipe Kahn made history by being the first to snap and share a photo with his cellphone. He ingeniously combined a digital camera with a phone to create a primitive camera phone. Then he used it to send real-time pictures of his baby daughter to loved ones.
Capturing lightning on camera can be a thrilling endeavor, and the first person to do it was William Jennings in 1882. He used his photos to prove that lightning is much more complex than people initially believed — just look at how it branches out!
The first snap ever shared on Instagram is of a dog at a Mexican taco stand, captured by one of the co-creators, Kevin Systrom. Systrom jokingly said, “Had I known it would have been the first photo posted on Instagram, I would have tried a little harder.”
In April 2019, history was made as the world got a glimpse of the first photograph of a black hole. This monumental achievement resulted from a team effort by over 200 international astronomers who worked tirelessly for years. They used an array of powerful telescopes and supercomputers around the globe to crunch the petabytes of data to produce the awe-inspiring image.
In November 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was on a journey through the sun’s atmosphere and snapped a never-before-seen photo from within the corona. The photo was taken from 16.9 million miles away from the sun and shows solar material being hurled out by the star.
The oldest known photograph of New York City, captured in 1848, is this daguerreotype that went for a whopping $62,500 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2009.
In 1926, Charles Martin, a photographer for National Geographic, and botanist William Longley traveled to the Florida Keys to capture the first-ever underwater photograph in color. The shot featured a hogfish and was made possible by protecting their cameras in special waterproof housing and using a magnesium-powered flash.
This black-and-white photograph depicts an animal lounging next to a carriage at a cattle market in Rome. It was snapped by the French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey during his Mediterranean journey, somewhere between April and July 1842. His work also includes many photographs from Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East.
This photo captures Abraham Lincoln shortly after being elected as congressman. The photographer, Nicholas H. Shepherd, was identified by Gibson W. Harris, a law student who worked in Lincoln’s office when the photo was taken. Little did anyone know that just a few years later, in 1861, Lincoln would become the 16th president of the United States and lead the country through the Civil War.
The Trojan Room coffee pot was the subject of the world’s first webcam. Located in the computer laboratory of the University of Cambridge, it was constantly filmed by a camera and transmitted on all desktop computers so that people could easily check if there was any coffee left without having to make the trip all the way to the room.
Viking 1 captured the first photo of Mars shortly after landing on the Red Planet. The snap was taken on July 20, 1976, and was part of NASA’s mission to get a closer look at the Martian surface and get precious information about this mysterious planet.
In July 1950, NASA’s photographers captured the first-ever picture of a launch from Cape Canaveral. The rocket, named “Bumper 2,” was a two-part machine made up of a V-2 missile and a WAC Corporal rocket. The photo also features other photographers lined up and ready to snap their own shots of the exciting event.
On a sunny day in 1851, Johann Julius Berkowski took the first spot-on photo of a solar eclipse. He used the daguerreotype process with an 84-second exposure at the Royal Observatory in Königsberg, Prussia.
Previously considered a copy of a calotype taken by Henry Collen, it actually turned out to be a daguerreotype. It’s credited as the earliest photograph of the Queen and the Princess Royal.
A group of tech experts from the Smithsonian and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies joined forces to make the first 3D portrait of a president, using Barack Obama as their subject. They used 50 special lights, 8 sports cameras, and 6 wide-angle cameras to capture the shot. The picture was then 3D printed, which you can see at the Smithsonian.
In 2019, researchers showed off the first photo of quantum entanglement, a phenomenon between two particles connected through their quantum states, and captured by shooting a crystal with a laser. Definitely complicated for us, so we won’t delve much into it — just know it’s a remarkable achievement.
In 2009, history was made when the first digital camera was used to take a photo of the president of the United States. The person behind the camera was none other than the official White House photographer at the time, Pete Souza, who captured a portrait of Barack Obama. Using a Canon 5D Mark II and no flash, Souza brought the advancement of photography to the White House.
There have been debates on which could be considered the real first Instagram post, but here’s the one many consider the actual winner. On July 16, 2010, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger took a picture of South Beach harbor and shared it on an app called Codename. Fast forward three months, Codename changed its name and became the beloved Instagram we all know and use today.