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Color Photography: A Quick Dive into its Evolution

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In this era of smartphones offering countless filters and high definition cameras, everyone claims to be a photographer. Be it clicking pictures of our food or that cute dog napping, taking photographs come naturally to us. Thanks to the highly potent narcotic – the smartphones, photography today is one of the most common artistic forms of expression. But have you ever wondered the science behind this simple click and see affair? Of course, you might have found an old picture of your granny from her younger days- in monochrome! Have you ever contemplated about the journey of photography from monochromes to color films? If not, then this article is for you. Take a quick ride through the evolution of color photography to know its history and understand the science behind it.

Evolution of Color Photography

Attitudes are dynamic for they evolve. And through this evolution, new ideas form and lend themselves to further innovation. The combination of fresh ideas and innovation brings the change we witness in the world, and the sphere of art is no stranger to this constant fluidity.

Photography is a form of art that uses scientific applications to create durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiations. This artistic expression has evolved the most before arriving at its high-definition, colored stage.

first color photograph

In the early period, great minds focussed on improving the optical, chemical, and practical aspects of photography. After achieving the desired improvement in the quality of the images through Daguerreotype and Tintype methods, the winds of change blew and people yearn for more- colored photographs to be precise. The most desired application of photography was portraiture, and portraits before photography were paintings in vibrant colors. I mean who wouldn’t want to see their mesmerizing blue-colored suit or that green Victorian gown?

Science and History of Color Photography

The evolution of colored photography began with the basic question- What is color? For ages, the human mind had been baffled by the phenomenon of color. The first man to understand color was Sir Issac Newton when he began experimenting with optics around 1666. His observations revealed that color is a function of light. It is our psychological reaction to a very narrow band of electromagnetic spectrum called light. Visible light is divided into seven hues of energy- from red, on the low end of the spectrum, through orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet on the high end. Through his experiments, Newton found out that when all the colors of light are combined together, a white light is produced.

Later in 1802, British Physician, Thomas Young postulated that it only needs three primary colors- red, yellow, and blue to create white or any perceivable color. Young’s trichromatic theory was refined by German Physician Hermann von Helmholtz in 1850s.

first color photograph
Levi Hill Color Photography

However, the Yong Helmholtz’s trichromatic theory wasn’t widely accepted by their peers as it was based on scientific reasoning and not experiments. In 1851, Levi Hill, a Baptist minister from upstate New York, tried capturing color in his photos that were produced using the Daguerreotype process.

Hills’s efforts turned out to be futile as the photos struggled to reproduce color while the method was also regarded to be ridiculously complex. Around the same time in France, a Physicist managed to capture color in his photos. In 1848, Edmond Becquerel invented a technique that would create a colored photograph. The only problem was that the colors in the photos faded when exposed to light.

Then came James Clark Maxwell, one of the greatest scientists, who is famously credited with structuring the electromagnetic field of study. But apart from physical phenomena like electricity, magnetism, and light, Maxwell was also fascinated with color.

first color photography
World’s First Color Photography by Maxwell

He demonstrated the validity of the Yong Helmholtz’s theory in his 1855 paper, Experiments of Color where he changed the primary color, yellow to green and refined the trichromatic colors to red, green, and blue. And in 1861, the foundation of colored photography was laid.

With the help of Thomas Sutton, the inventor of Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, Maxwell applied his color theory to photography and made the first colored photography. He shot a ribbon using Sutton’s black and white camera three times- using red, green, and blue filters respectively. Then he combined the all the three photographs together to create the first durable colored photograph. And that became the basis of colored photography.

color photography
Hand dye Photograph

About twenty years later, after all the technical hurdles in photography had been overcome, portrait photographers started playing with colors. They employed artists to hand-dye their daguerreotypes and calotypes photos. This technique became widely popular in Japan, Europe, and America.

As the evolution of color photography forged with a steady march of time, German physicist, Gabriel Lippmann developed the first colored photograph without using any pigments or dyes.

Gabriel Lippmann color photography
Gabriel Lippmann Color Photography Source

Lippmann devised a technique using the interference phenomenon of waves propagation. He succeeded in obtaining the colored image of the spectrum on a photographic plate where the image remained fixed and can be exposed to daylight without the risk of color deterioration. Later in 1906, Lippman won the Nobel Prize in Physics for this breakthrough discovery.


It seems like the French are the bellwethers of all the innovations in art and they did not miss out on making a contribution to the evolution of color photography.

color photography
Alfred Stieglitz and his daughter Emmy

Introduced in France in 1907, pioneer filmmakers, Auguste and Louis Lumière offered a relatively practical color photography process called Autochrome. This technique generated beautiful pictures but the process was additive, as in it produced positive color transparency which can be viewed as a projected image or against a backlight.

Along with color photography enlighten yourself with Photography Basics: What is White Balance in Photography?

Era of Modern Color Photography: 20th Century and the Kodak Revolution

If France nurtures art then America caters to technological advancement. In 1935, the American company, Eastman Kodak enters the world of photography to give it a new direction. They released the tri pack color film called Kodachrome. It was a color positive film had three layers of emulsion in red, green, and blue colors coated on a single base. The dye couplers were absent in the emulsion and were added during the processing of the film in the well-equipped labs.

Kodak revolution

As a result, the film captured fine details. Kodachrome became very popular for its rich warm tones and sharpness, making it a sought-after film by the photographers for over 70 years.

color photography
Agfa color

A year later, in 1936, the German company, Agfa created the Agfacolor negative-positive process. The German company developed a new integral tri-pack film called Agfacolor Neu which incorporated the dye couplers into the emulsion layers during the manufacture. This development offered an advantage- it allowed to develop all the three layers at the same time and thereby simplifying the processing tremendously. But sadly enough, they couldn’t release it due to the outbreak of World War II.

Thus, the world came to know about the negative-positive color film only when Kodak released their negative-positive color film, Kodacolor in 1942. With improvements in quality, speed, and price over a span of twenty years since its release, Kodacolor enjoyed wide popularity among amateur as well as professional photographers.

Evolution of Color Photography Post World War II

Post-WWII, color photography gained wider acceptance. Owning a camera and capturing precious moments caught on. Technology made color films affordable. With Kodak and Agfa bringing in color photography to the masses, the art of (colored) photography flourished. With the evolution of color photography, different kinds of color cameras like disposable camera and polaroids to “high-performance specialty optics and bodies” became available.

Evolution of Color Photography: A Quick Dive into its History & Science
First Digital Camera

And then came photography entered the digital era. In 1975, the first digital camera was launched. Steven Sasson used a CCD digital image sensor as the backbone a device that captured black and white images to a cassette tape in about 23 seconds of exposure.

Bayer Color Filter Array.
Bayer Color Filter Array

Simultaneously, Bryce Bayer also invented the Bayer Color Filter Array. This enabled a single CCD or CMOS image sensor to capture colorful images. Bayer’s invention eliminated the use of three separate sensors attached to a beam splitter. Thus, cutting down on the manufacturing cost and the size of the device.

From the birth of photography, images in black-and-white were the default and color was a choice. But in digital photography the reverse is true, meaning the images are shot in color by default and the black-and-white aspect is a choice.

It also erased the cost of purchasing film and the hassle of developing it in laboratories. Technological advancement in photography also made enhancement in image quality. Editing software, with frequent upgrades, can now improve the picture quality to a point that all physical photographic prints can be excluded completely! In a way, digital photography advanced color photography. Albeit the second editing software, Adobe’s Photoshop 1.0 is one of the earliest photo editing software.

Color Photography as Fine Art

The successful advent of color film ushered in creative possibilities for the photographers. Color photography inspired the creative minds and soon it came into the fold of fine art medium. Notable advances were made by famous photojournalist, Ernst Haas who pioneered the use of color photography in photojournalism.

Color photography as fine art
William Eggleston Photography

And almost a decade later, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited the works William Eggleston’s as the first ever exhibition of color photography. During the 80s, color photography gained immense popularity as a medium of expression. Some significant color photography artist of the period are Candida Höfer, Richard Misrach, Mary Ellen Mark, Miguel Rio Branco, and more.

Consequently, color photography won aesthetic appreciation and was established as a legitimate fine art; it opened doors to artists who would explore the realm of color photography as a fine art medium.

Color Photography as Fine Art
Color Photography as Fine Art

From heliographs to vibrant selfies, color photography, today, has come a long way. Social media onset has made photography rampant and much in vogue. We have arrived at a stage where film rolls have become obsolete and have been replaced by digital sensors. Unless you want to speak in “ aperture ,” “burst mode, and “aspect ratio,” one doesn’t require any special course to understand the basics or the light effects of photography.

So, next time when you open the front camera of your cell phone or adjust the focus of the brand new digital camera, take a moment to appreciate this long, much-persisted invention- maybe thank Maxwell!

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