By SnapSquad - March 24, 2019

If you are interested in photography you will probably know that Joseph Nicéphore Niépce is the man who is still credited with the world’s first photograph ever taken. The picture was shot from an upstairs window at Niépce’s Burgundy estate in France in 1826. See the image by clicking here.

What would you think if I told you that Niépce had in fact brought improvements to a very ancient scientific technique, making use of the more modern up-to-date knowledge that was available to him? Studies reckon the science is so ancient that it dates back to 400BC in China! But let’s not get too deep into history, no offence to my Chinese friends, the 16th century AD is an impressive enough period for historical reference of the early beginnings of this amazing scientific discovery: the Camera Obscura, in Latin “dark room”.

In those days of the mid-1500s, glass lenses and mirrors were already used to direct images into a large box and the Camera Obscura was used as a drawing aid by artists and by astronomers to view solar eclipses without hurting their eyes. 

How did it work?

You would first need a bright day to go and stand inside a dark room, a large box really, where the only opening would be a pinhole through which light would penetrate inside, thus reflecting the outside world upside down on the opposite flat wall surface. The secret to this amazing feat is found in the law of optic and it goes like this: the image is flipped because light travels in a straight line and all the points of the outside scene emit light. They do that all at the same time, sending it through the pinhole straight onto the back wall, creating new points of light on the flat surface and making the top image come through the bottom and the bottom image through the top.

Once the pinhole had been replaced by lenses around 1150, the increase in the size of the aperture meant that the picture reflected on the flat surface inside the Camera Obscura was much brighter. Further experiments lead to moving and adjusting lenses in order to obtain the right focus.
All this time, the Camera Obscura was a very large and rather permanent set-up, that is until 1604 when Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer came up with the convenient idea of a portable one, a tent really that hosted a plain poster to receive the projection. Doesn’t it remind you of what the Wild, Wild West photographers were using?

Fast forward to 1816 and to Nicéphore Niépce. It was his passion for printing that led the French inventor to develop a Camera Obscura, this time exposing to light paper covered in silver chloride. One can only imagine how awesome he must have felt when a familiar although rather blur picture of his neighbourhood revealed itself after an exposure of 8 hours! The result is the first known camera photograph which is still preserved today printed as it was by Niépce on a sheet of bitumen-coated pewter.

The technique to develop positive images directly on paper was discovered in 1839 by another French inventor named Hippolyte Bayard. Paper was later replaced with glass, in 1847. From then on, science just kept on progressing, with new chemicals and refined lenses, followed with the invention of shutter plates and of course the advent of colour photography. 

The photographic camera as we know it was developed from the Camera Obscura (see image here); I find it absolutely mind-blowing to think that the idea was born in the human mind some 2500 years ago and probably much earlier. What amazes me too is that it took almost all this time for the science to develop and give us what we knew until recently as photo cameras then to suddenly shift into a flash-speed time travel race to deliver digital cameras and smartphone cameras. Now I hold my breath to see what’s coming!


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