Who Invented the First Camera?

Cameras are now integrated into our daily lives, but do you know who invented the very first camera, that could preserve photographs on paper?

May 16, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
who invented the first camera niepce daguerre talbot
Left to right: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre, Henry Fox Talbot


The small, handy cameras we have at the tip of our fingers today are part of a long and varied history that goes back more than 100 years. It is tricky to say when, exactly, the very first camera was invented, because early prototypes of cameras, or camera-like tools existed long before anything practical, portable and usable by people in everyday life was widely available (such as the pinhole camera and the camera obscura). Having said that, there are several pioneers throughout history who made significant breakthroughs in camera technology, and their names are the ones we now associate with the invention of the first camera. Let’s take a look through these pioneering figures who made the ingenious camera technology of today possible. 


Nicéphore Niépce

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Point de Vue du Gras (View from the Window at Le Gras), by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1827, via Harry Ransom Center, Texas.


The French inventor Nicéphore Niépce is credited with creating the first camera for making photographic images in 1825. In his early experiments, he toyed with how a negative image could be created on paper coated with silver chloride, but these resulting images were temporary. However, following several later chemical explorations, he discovered that a film made from Bitumen of Judea mixed with pewter could produce permanent photographic images (with a blurred quality) when exposed inside a camera obscura. Niépce called this process ‘heliography’. Meanwhile, Niépce’s younger colleague, Louis Daguerre, a former apprentice in architecture and theatre design, carried on Niépce’s work into the mid and late 19th century. 


Louis Daguerre

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Hand-coloured daguerreotype of Prince Albert, c. 1848, via the Royal Collection Trust, London


Following Niépce’s death in 1833, Louise Daguerre took his colleague’s pioneering developments further, eventually producing the first ever portable camera in 1839. Daguerre produced a type of box camera which he called the Daguerreotype, in which a plate coated with a thin film of silver iodide was exposed to light, often for several minutes or even hours. Daguerre treated the image with mercury vapor and hot saltwater to remove the silver iodide, thus revealing a permanent image left behind. Daguerreotypes produced images in reverse, or mirror image.


The Daguerreotype Process
The Daguerreotype Process


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Exposure times for early Daguerreotypes were long, but as the concept of the camera continued to evolve, shorter exposure times meant the cameras could be used to take portrait photographs for the first time ever. Such was the popularity of the Daguerreotype the French Government were proud to show off the design as a “gift to the world.” However, the Daguerreotype was not without its drawbacks – it was an expensive process, and could create only one, single photographic image. 


William Henry Fox Talbot

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The Great Exhibition in London, 1851 by Henry Fox Talbot via The Talbot Catalogue Raisonne


At the same time that Daguerre made his breakthrough discoveries, an Englishman called William Henry Fox Talbot was also working on a type of camera which he called a Calotype. Talbot unveiled his camera in 1839 to the Royal Institute in London. In contrast with the Daguerreotype, Talbot’s camera worked with a different series of chemical processes – he began with a sheet of writing paper, treated with silver nitrate and coated in potassium iodide. Just before being used to capture an image, the Talbot coated the paper in gallo-nitrate of silver to produce a film ready for exposure. The paper was exposed to the image through a box camera for just a few minutes, before being washed with a new layer of gallo-nitrate of silver to fix the image in place.


calotype camera william henry fox talbot
The Calotype camera invented by William Henry Fox Talbot


While Talbot’s camera had a far slower exposure time than the Daguerreotype, it produced negative images with a blurred quality. In order to make a positive print from the negative, Talbot soaked a new sheet of paper in salt solution, and brushed it on one side to make it light sensitive. After placing the Calotype negative over this sheet of paper, Talbot covered the two sheets with a glass plate and shone light onto them, allowing light to pass through from the upper sheet of paper and translate the negative into a positive image on the sheet below – and voila! The first print from a negative film was created.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.