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Introduction to Photography: The Universal Language

This introduction to photography is written for beginners, with several tips and suggestions to take your skills as far as possible. However, writing an introduction to photography is like writing an introduction to words; as amazing and important as it is, photography can be almost limitlessly complex. What separates inspiring photographs from ordinary ones, and how can you improve the quality of your own work? This article lays a foundation to answer to those questions and more.

What Is Photography?

Photography is the art of capturing light with a camera, usually via a digital sensor or film, to create an image. With the right camera equipment, you can even photograph wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye, including UV, infrared, and radio.

The first permanent photograph was captured in 1826 (some sources say 1827) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in France. It shows the roof of a building lit by the sun

The purpose of this article is to introduce the past and present worlds of photography. You will also find some important tips to help you take better photos along the way.

A Brief History of Photography and the People Who Made It Succeed

Color photography started to become popular and accessible with the release of Eastman Kodak’s “Kodachrome” film in the 1930s. Before that, almost all photos were monochromatic – although a handful of photographers, toeing the line between chemists and alchemists, had been using specialized techniques to capture color imagesfor decades before. You’ll find some fascinating galleries of photos from the 1800s or early 1900s captured in full color, worth exploring if you have not seen them already.

These scientist-magicians, the first color photographers, are hardly alone in pushing the boundaries of one of the world’s newest art forms. The history of photography has always been a history of people – artists and inventors who steered the field into the modern era.

So, below, you’ll find a brief introduction to some of photography’s most important names. Their discoveries, creations, ideas, and photographs shape our own pictures to this day, subtly or not. Although this is just a brief bird’s-eye view, these nonetheless are people you should know before you step into the technical side of photography:

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

  • Invention : The first permanent photograph (“View from the Window at Le Gras,” shown earlier)
  • Where : France, 1826
  • Impact : Cameras had already existed for centuries before this, but they had one major flaw: You couldn’t record a photo with them! They simply projected light onto a separate surface – one which artists used to create realistic paintings, but not strictly photographs. Niépce solved this problem by coating a pewter plate with, essentially, asphalt, which grew harder when exposed to light. By washing the plate with lavender oil, he was able to fix the hardened substance permanently to the plate.
  • Quote : “The discovery I have made, and which I call Heliography, consists in reproducing spontaneously, by the action of light, with gradations of tints from black to white, the images received in the camera obscura.” Mic drop.

Louis Daguerre

  • Invention : The Daguerreotype (first commercial photographic material)
  • Where : France, 1839
  • Impact : Daguerreotypes are images fixed directly to a heavily polished sheet of silver-plated copper. This invention is what really made photography a practical reality – although it was still just an expensive curiosity to many people at this point. If you’ve never seen daguerreotypes in person, you might be surprised to know just how sharp they are.
  • Quote : “I have seized the light. I have its flight.”

Alfred Stieglitz

  • Genre : Portraiture and documentary
  • Where : United States, late 1800s through mid 1900s
  • Impact : Alfred Stieglitz was a photographer, but, more importantly, he was one of the first influential members of the art community to take photography seriously as a creative medium. He believed that photographs could express the artist’s vision just as well as paintings or music – in other words, that photographers could be artists. Today’s perception of photography as an art form owes a lot to Stieglitz.
  • Quote : “In photography, there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”

Dorothea Lange

  • Genre : Portrait photography
  • Where : United States, 1930s
  • Impact : One of the most prominent documentary photographers of all time, and the photographer behind one of the most influential images of all time (shown below), is Dorothea Lange. If you’ve ever seen photos from the Great Depression, you most likely have seen some of her work. Her photos shaped the field of documentary photography and showed the camera’s potential for power more than almost anyone else in history.
  • Quote : “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”