As history stands proof, one of the greatest inventions in the world was unplanned. And so was the story behind the invention of color photography.
In a world where we perceive colors as nothing extraordinary or unusual, we fail to appreciate the tedious processes that led to the birth of color photography.
It took the scientists and photographers centuries to arrive at a point in time to see the photographs in color.
Here’s a journey through the history of color photography. Let’s take a look at the brilliant stories of the people who took photography from black and white and made the color photo a reality.
Table of Contents
Famous Contributors Throughout The 19th Century
To answer the question, when was color photography invented? The quest to revolutionize photography clicked in the mid 19th century, spearheaded by Levi Hill. Residing in the New York Mountains, he was a Baptist minister.
He administered daguerreotype procedures to capture photos. However, he was unsatisfied with its inability to produce colors. As a result, the majority of the scientists were skeptical when Hill declared his ability to make colored photos to the public.
Till 1856, Hill was not confident to release his secret. Later when his secret was spilled in a book, A Treatise on Heliochromy, the scientists and photographers were indeed surprised.
They surprisingly admitted that the process would indeed fructify and revolutionize the field of color photography. However, considering the complex nature of the process, it was scraped and subsequently ignored.
Following the developments by Levi Hill in 1886, Gabriel Lippmann miraculously produced a color photograph without using any pigments or dyes. Lippmann was a physicist and had intricate knowledge of the principle of interference.
He leveraged the principle of interference along with the propagation of waves. In 1906, this complex phenomenon led Lippmann to metamorphose his process into color images of a bowl of oranges, a band of flags, a parrot, and a stained glass window.
The production of a color photograph through the principle of interference bagged Lippmann the Nobel Prize in Physics.
James Clerk Maxwell
A great lover of British poetry, James Clerk Maxwell was never interested in color photography.
Considering Lippmann’s principle being complex in nature, mandating high-resolution emulsions, wavelengths, and longer exposure times, Maxwell’s developments and contributions in the field of color photography turned out to be practical even today.
Maxwell was deeply fascinated by the wavelength of different colors. He had theorized that every shade of a rainbow could be achieved through various combinations of three colors, namely- red, blue, and green.
Being a professor at King’s College, he continued his experiments and research in vision and perception.
To demonstrate his theory, he set up an eight-foot-long, wooden “color-box”, which permitted intricate and accurate mixing of the three primary light colors to create other shades.
“When experimenting at the window,” notes on a biography of Maxwell, “he excited the wonder of his neighbors, who thought him mad to spend so many hours staring into a coffin.”
On administering the black-and-white photographs through green, blue-violet, and red filters, closely arranged in the “color box” one could project three separate images simultaneously onto a screen and achieve the entire spectrum of colors overlapping.
(Glass plates coated with light-sensitive emulsion were administered to make these photographs, which served as the primary photographic medium before the film.)
Hence, Maxwell placed the idea of processing photographs of a scene through green, red, and blue filters. Once the images were reflected back on projectors with the same filters, they would overlap to create a complete color image.
In 1861, he presented the same principle, which could then be applied to photography at the Royal Institution with his famous photograph of a tri-color ribbon.
Louis Ducos Du Hauron
Louis Ducos du Hauron agreed with Maxwell. However, he believed to have had a better process. To get the exposure in one go in any camera system, he laid three distinct color absorbing emulsions overlapping each other.
Blue was given priority in the three distinct emulsions with a blue-blocking filter behind it because blue light has the property to affect silver halide emulsions. Right next to the blue filter blocker, he aligned the green and red-sensitive layers.
Hauron’s idea led to the further development of three color principles and served as an essential step in the color photography industry.
However, one drawback was that each layer reduced and softened the light as it passed through the distinct emulsions.
20th Century Innovations and the Digital Age of Photography
As it goes without saying, in color photography, the trump card was played by Kodak.
The “tripack” suggested by Louis Ducos du Hauron eventually found its purpose when the American company, Eastman Kodak, released the first modern “integral tripack” color film under the now famous name of Kodachrome.
In 1935, Kodak introduced their first tri-pack film and branded it as Kodachrome. But, as mentioned earlier, the most remarkable inventions were unplanned.
Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky Jr., two musicians who strangely acted as a catalyst in helping Kodak play the trump card.
They were eventually hired by Kodak Research Laboratories when they were trying their hands on the wavelength of three distinct colors – blue, green, and red.
This step by Kodak further strengthened its innovation in the field of color photography. However, we no longer use tri-pack in color photography as the world has moved towards digital sensors.
Impact Of the Digital World
With the launch of digital cameras in 1975, it was evident that the digital version of photographs would be more refined and enhanced.
The introduction of Bryce Bayer’s Bayer Color Filter Array (BCFA) enabled the cameras to capture all the colors in one click.
After that, there was no need for three different splitters to capture different colors and wavelengths, which revolutionized photography. Soon came the advent of camera companies like Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Pentax.
Then came the era of photography software, spearheaded by Adobe with ‘Digital Darkroom’, which further enhanced the quality of photos to the extent of erasing physical photographic prints.
Rarely do amateurs, and professional photographers sit and wonder when color photography was invented. However, to excel in any field, it is vital to dive into its history to gauge an in-depth understanding.
All in all, the color photographs we see today result from relentless research work, complex phenomena, and innovative Kickstarter centuries ago.
The passion of photographers and scientists to tap different wavelengths and produce them for the human eyes paved the way for the color era.
Amanda has a deep interest in the history of photography which drove her to incorporate historical articles on the website. According to her, we cannot speak of photography in the present without acknowledging photographers’ works in the 19th and 20th centuries.