Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
Share this post with your friends:
Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on email
Email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

History of Photography: Early Stages of Color

Since the beginning, everyone wanted color photographs. Images being black and white only was a chief complaint about photography. Initially, there were a few “successes”; Sir John Herschel was able to record blue, green and red on paper coated with a silver chloride solution, but he was unable to “fix” (make it permanent) it. This is very interesting as it was the first suggestion that color could be recorded directly on a chemically sensitive material just by the light itself. Levi Hill claimed to have created a permanent process in 1851 but failed to provide the photography world with directions to the process that worked so he was ultimately written off as a liar. Eventually, Hill admitted that he had stumbled upon color as an accident, but couldn’t figure out what exactly that accident had been. He failed to ever replicate color consistently. More legitimately, Niépce de Saint-Victor and Edmond Becquerel between the 1840’s and 1860’s managed to record colors on daguerreotypes. But like Herschel, they too were unable to fix the color into permanence.

RGB additive color

Officially, the first color “photograph” was created in 1861 by James Clerk Maxwell. He utilized the additive theory of physics (developed by Thomas Young and Hermann Helmholtz.) It stated that all colors of light can be created by combining different proportions of red, green, and blue light. As he was Scottish, Maxwell tested this by using a photo of a tartan. He photographed the tartan through a red filter, then took another one through a green filter, then a final photo through a blue filter. The photos were on glass plates. When he lined them up sandwiched together, he projected light through them. A color image was projected. Unfortunately this was also not permanently fixable on paper. It was a huge step in deliberately replicating color.

What Maxwell’s color “photograph” (which was actually a projection) looked like.

The first color film

Flash forward nearly 40 years to 1904 when the Lumière brothers patented a new additive color theory process they called Autochrome. The system started with a glass plate that was dusted with extremely small pieces of potato starch. These pieces of potato starch had been dyed orange, green, and blue-violet. After the dyed potato starch was down on the plate, they filled in any gaps with a fine dusting of black carbon. By this time, a better panchromatic emulsion (sensitive to all colors of light) had been developed. This emulsion was put on top of the potato starch and carbon. The plate was then exposed from the back, so the potato starch and carbon acted as filters. After exposure, the plate was developed, then rexeposed to light, then redeveloped and resulted in a positive transparency. The potato starches formed tiny dots of primary colors that blended together to form a color tonality. This was the first process that was able to be viably produced, replicated, and used commercially. The technology was even being used by National Geographic by the end of the first World War to make their color reproductions.

An autochrome of a WWI plane circa 1917.
Share this post with your friends:
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

You might also like:

Thanks to our partners who make Photofocus possible:

Drobo – Drobo is the smartest storage solution in the world. Drobo is storage that protects data — photos, videos and everything else — from hard drive failure. Drobo is peace of mind for the working pro or serious amateur who have a lot of external drives cluttering up the desktop. Save 10% with the coupon code PHOTOFOCUS.

Lume Cube – Proudly known as the World’s Most Versatile Light™, Lume Cube represents the future of LED Lighting. Check out the new Lume Cube STROBE, offering anti-collison lighting for drones!

Backblaze – Get peace of mind knowing your files are backed up securely in the cloud. Back up your Mac or PC just $6/month.

B&H – B&H is a world renowned supplier of all the gear photographers, videographers, and cinematographers need and want to create their very best work.

Skylum – Your photos, more beautiful in minutes. Makers of Luminar, Aurora and Photolemur, Skylum adapts to your style and skill level. Check out the new Luminar 3, now available.

Perfectly Clear Complete – Built for precision. Made for beauty. Perfectly Clear has mastered the science of intelligent image correction – creating superior quality photos in record time, so you can get back to doing what you really love…in no time. Special Photofocus deal here.

Viewbug – Learn and improve your photography with over 500 videos. Trusted by millions around the world, join over 2 million photographers who already use Viewbug.