When Was Color Photography Invented?

when was color photography invented

Color photography seems like the default option nowadays, but it’s wild to think that at some point all photos were black and white. Not only that, they were much fuzzier, harder to take, and required a lot more care when developing. Today we’re not touching on digital cameras, but we’re looking at the switch from monochrome to color photography, and the people and companies involved in this. 

The very first color photography was made in 1861, by James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton. Theirs was the very early version of an RGB series of filters, which allowed a monochrome camera to capture color as well. 

The first commercially available colored photography camera was the Autochrome Lumiere, patented in 1903 by the Lumiere brothers. It was then first marketed in 1907. This camera improved upon the idea behind Maxwell and Sutton’s first photo, and was widely used in the early 1900s, even up until the 1950s. 

Color photography became available to the public in the late 1930s

Despite color cameras evolving over time, they did not become available to the general public until the late 1930. This was partly due to artists claiming that monochrome photos are a far better method of offering value to the viewer, that the color would distract from what is going on in the photographs themselves. 

When color cameras became more common, it was through Kodachrome by Kodak, introduced in 1935. Soon after, Agfa introduced Agfacolor in 1936. In 1963 Polaroid introduces their colored instant color film. Let’s take a look at these key contributors and competitors, since competition breeds innovation and all of them contributed to the color photography we know today. 

Kodachrome (1935)

Kodachrome was the first colored photography camera that was widely available to the general public, and this is because it was a simplified process based on the Autochrome. Actually, Kodachrome used a subtractive color method, so CMY as opposed to RGB. The colors were actually made up of a three-layer emulsion that was applied to the film. Each layer would be sensitive to cyan, magenta, and yellow. 

However, developing the film and obtaining actual photos was not easy since the process was very complex. This was because the color couplers had to be added in one by one during processing, which required a lot of care.

The film could only be bought from Kodak, and only be processed by Kodak, and you paid a fee when buying. The fee was for processing, and once you were done taking photos you mailed the film to Kodak. Later they would mail you the developed pictures back without any additional cost. 

Agfacolor (1936)

The Agfacolor Neu was introduced by German company Agfa, and it was an improvement on their own version of the Autochrome. This new Agfacolor worked very similarly to the Kodachrome, with a multi-layer emulsion that was color sensitive. But the color couplers were built into the multi-layer emulsion, which made processing the film much easier and faster. 

Polaroid instant color film (1963)

Polaroid already had cameras that could offer photographs in a minute or two (instant film), but they weren’t color. However in 1963 Polaroid came out with a version of instant film that could also show color. The amount and quality of color were similar to Agfacolor and Kodachrome, but not equal. 

However instant color film was very convenient. You did not have to wait for the film to be developed and the photos sent to you later. You could have the photo in your hand in a minute, since the instant film was developing and exposing as it exited the camera. 

This is what eventually drove consumers to opt for Polaroid over other colored photography cameras. You could have instant mementos, and in cases where you simply couldn’t wait for the film to develop (like testing a shoot, crime scene investigations, color testing) the Polaroid was the superior option. 

Who invented color photography ?

The very first colored photo is credited to Thomas Sutton and James Clerk Maxwell, who worked together to make the first colored photo in 1861. Maxwell suggested the method of adding color, and Sutton was the one taking the photo. This was the beginning of a foray into colored photography that would include many more innovations from different inventors and companies, as time went on. 

Due to technological limitations at the time, the very early color photography in the early 1900s wasn’t nearly as colorful and sharp as it is today. This is because camera at the time tended to take grainier pictures than the ones we have today, but progresses have been made since. 

Here are the key methods involved in early color photography.

Three color method (early RGB and CMY)

According to color mixing theory, different colors produce another color when mixed together. And the amount of each ingredient-color affects the resulting final color. So to get colored photography from monochrome, you would need to fiddle with the colors. The most common and perhaps easiest is to simply add color. Here are the two main ways this happened. 

RGB – the addition of a red, green, and blue overlay to monochrome pictures to obtain a colored photo. This was also what Maxwell proposed to Sutton. They took three monochrome photos of the same object – a ribbon – and each photo had a red, a blue, and a green overlay.

Then, the photos were made transparent and projected from three different projectors. One projector has the green overlay photo, one had the blue overlay photo, and one had the red overlay. The result was that when the three projections met on the wall, a full color photograph was seen. 

However this method was a bit flawed as it didn’t pick up nearly enough color. Even so, it became one of the main ways to add color to photographs as you took them.

CMY – the subtraction of color from the light landing on the photo media (paper). Instead of adding color to a grey image, CMY filters substract some color, resulting in an already colored photograph. Despite being similar to RGB, CMY colored photographs weren’t widely adopted until much later (in the mid-1930s). 

The Joly screen method and Autochrome Lumiere

This is a process of adding color, but in a much simpler way than taking three separate photos. The Joly screen method involves a single filter applied to the camera, and that filter contains hair-thin lines of RGB colors. With the colors so thin and close together, they worked together so well there wasn’t need for more than one filter. 

The Joly screen was in fact an improvement (made by John Joly) upon the Autochrome method, developed by the Lumiere brothers. The Autochrome Lumiere was patented in 1903 and first marketed in 1907. And like the Joly screen, it used a single RGB filter. But this filter contained microscopic grains of colored potato starch, colored in an RGB derivate set (red-orange, green, and blue-violet). 

The potato starch grains were arranged randomly throughout the filter, while the Joly screen uses the exact same color pattern in a repeating row. This improved upon the colors the photo could showcase.

Overall, the Joly screen method was more reliable than Autochrome, though Autochrome had a lot of success at the time. 

However the initial idea behind both the Autochrome and the Joly screen was far, far older. Louis Ducos du Hauron patented this method in 1868, but the patent had long since expired when the Lumiere brothers came out with Autochrome, and later John Joly with his screen. 

Read Also: When Was Touch Screen Invented (Why & How?)

The foundation for color photography involved a much older theory

When you stop to think about it, color photography is really about adding or subtracting color. The idea of color theory is very old, and the jump to adding or subtracting colors also has an old theory, older than the idea that inspired the Autochrome. 

The idea actually stems from the color cones in eyes. Humans, like most animals have three color receptors (called cone cells) in our retina, that observe light. Put very plainly, our eyes use three colors wavelengths to see the entire world through a colored lens. The interaction between the cone cells and also the light entering the eye is what leads to us noticing different colors in our surroundings. 

The first proponent of this theory was Thomas Young, a British genius who also first described astigmatism, how the eye adjusts its vision depending on the distance to the subject, and also established the wave theory of light, among many other things. 

Young’s theory, proposed in the very early days of the 1800s (possibly 1801), was then expanded and improved upon in the 1850s by Hermann von Helmholtz, a German physicist and physician. He did several experiments where it was made clear that humans need three color wavelengths to see in full color.