Photography has been a medium of limitless possibilities since it was originally invented in the early 1800s. The use of cameras has allowed us to capture historical moments and reshape the way we see ourselves and the world around us. To celebrate the amazing history of photography and photographic science, we have assembled 32 photographic ‘firsts’ from over the past two centuries.
#1. The First Photograph
The world’s first photograph made in a camera was taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce using the first proper camera. The photograph was taken from the upstairs windows of Niépce’s estate in the Burgundy region of France. This image was captured via a process known as heliography, which used Bitumen of Judea (the naturally occurring Syrian asphalt) coated onto a piece of glass or metal; the Bitumen then hardened in proportion to the amount of light that hit it.
#2. The First Color Photograph
The first color photograph was taken by the mathematical physicist, James Clerk Maxwell. The piece above, which shows a colored ribbon, is considered the first durable color photograph and was unveiled by Maxwell at a lecture in 1861. The inventor of the SLR, Thomas Sutton, was the man who pressed the shutter button, but Maxwell is credited with the scientific process that made it possible. For those having trouble identifying the image, it is a three-color bow.
#3. The First Person Born Ever Photographed
Hannah Stilley Gorby was born in 1746, and she is considered to be the earliest born ever to be captured in a surviving photo. To put her birth date in perspective: she was born 10 years before Mozart and 23 years before Napoleon Bonaparte. Neither of those famous figures lived long enough to see the invention of photography, but Gorby posed for a portrait with the new technology at the age of 94 in 1840.
#4. The First Digital Photograph
The first digital photograph was taken all the way back in 1957; that is almost 20 years before Kodak’s engineer invented the first digital camera. The photo is a digital scan of a shot initially taken on film. The picture depicts Russell Kirsch’s son and has a resolution of 176×176 – a square photograph worthy of any Instagram profile.
#5. The First Photograph of a Person
The first photograph of a human appeared above in a snapshot captured by Louis Daguerre. The exposure lasted around seven minutes and was aimed at capturing the Boulevard du Temple, a thoroughfare in Paris, France. Due to the long exposure time, many individuals who walked the street were not in place long enough to make an impression. However, in the lower left of the photograph, we can see a man standing and getting his shoes polished. Further analysis of the picture later found a few other figures – can you find them?
#6. The First Portrait Photograph
Before ‘selfies’ were all the rage, Robert Cornelius set up a camera and took the world’s first portrait (and self-portrait) in the back of a business on Chestnut Street in Center City, Philadelphia. Cornelius sat in front of the lens for a little over a minute, before leaving the seat and covering the lens. The now-iconic photograph was captured 170+ years ago in 1839.
#7. The First Hoax Photograph
The first hoax photograph was taken in 1840 by Hippolyte Bayard. Both Bayard and Louis Daguerre fought to claim the title “Father of Photography.” Bayard had supposedly developed his photography process before Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype. However, the announcement of the invention was held off, and Daguerre claimed the moment. In a rebellious move, Bayard produced this photograph of a drowned man claiming that he killed himself because of the feud.
#8. The First Aerial Photograph
The first aerial photograph was not taken by drone, but instead by hot air balloon in 1860. This aerial photograph depicts the town of Boston from 2,000 feet. The photographer, James Wallace Black, titled his work “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It”.
#9. The First Sun Photograph
The first photograph of our sun was taken by French Physicists Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault on April 2nd, 1845. The snapshot was captured using the daguerreotype process (don’t tell Bayard) and resulted after 1/60 of a second. If you observe the photograph carefully, you can spot several sunspots.
#10. The First Space Photograph
The first photograph from space was taken by the V-2 #13 rocket, which was launched in October, 24th of 1946. The photo depicts the Earth in black-and-white from an altitude of 65 miles. The camera that captured the shot was a 35mm motion picture camera that snapped a frame every second and a half as the rocket climbed straight up into the atmosphere.
#11. The First News Photograph
While the photojournalist’s name may have slipped away, his work has not. This photograph taken in 1847 via the daguerreotype process is thought to be the first-ever photograph taken for the news; it depicts a man being arrested in France. The image was reportedly published in a historical account of the 1848 Revolution titled Journées illustrées de la révolution de 1848.
#12. The First Newspaper Photo
The first photo used to illustrate a story in a newspaper was captured on June 25, 1848. Titled ‘Barricades on rue Saint-Maur’ (1848), the daguerréotype shows barricades on the streets of Paris during the June Days uprisings. The image was published as an engraving in the weekly French newspaper L’Illustration on the week of July 1, 1848.
#13. The First President Photograph
John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, was the first president to have his photograph taken. The daguerreotype was shot in 1843, a good number of years after Adams left office in 1829. The first to have his picture taken in office was James Polk, the 11th President, who was photographed in 1849.
#14. The First Lightning Photograph
Lightning can be an exciting subject to capture and the first photographer to grab a snapshot did so in 1882. Photographer, William Jennings, used his findings to showcase that lightning was much more complicated than originally thought – notice how the lightning branches out in the above piece.
#15. The First Fatal Airplane Crash Photograph
Disaster photographs may not be the most pleasant of subjects, but we can learn from our past mistakes. This photo from 1908 showcases the death of Aviator Thomas Selfridge. The plane was an experimental design by the Aerial Experimental Association, which was part of the US Army. The plane was also carrying Orville Wright when it crashed; however, he survived.
#16. The First Moon Photograph
The first photograph of the moon was taken by John W. Draper on March 26, 1840. The photograph was a daguerreotype that Draper took from his rooftop observatory at New York University. The image has, since then, appeared to acquire a significant amount of physical damage.
#17. The First Colored Landscape Photograph
The first colored landscape to showcase the world in color was taken in 1877. Photographer, Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron, was a pioneer in color photography and was the mastermind behind the process that created this photo. The shot depicts southern France and is appropriately titled “Landscape of Southern France”.
#18. The First Photograph of Earth from Moon
The Earth was photographed from the Moon in all its glory on August 23rd, 1966. A Lunar Orbiter traveling in the vicinity of the Moon snapped the shot and was then received at Robledo De Chervil in Spain. This was the Lunar spacecraft’s 16th orbit around the Moon.
#19. The First Tornado Photograph
Nature can be a destructive force, and this image of a Tornado was taken in 1884. The photographer was captured by a local fruit farmer living in Anderson County, Kansas. The amateur photographer, A.A. Adams, assembled his box camera and took the photograph 14 miles from the cyclone.
#20. The First Photograph from Mars
The first image of the planet Mars was taken by Viking 1 shortly after it touched down on the red planet. The photograph was taken on July 20th, 1976, as NASA fulfilled its mission to obtain high-resolution images of the planet’s surface. The images were used to study the Martian landscape and its structure.
#21. The First 3D American President Portrait Photograph
Computer experts from the Smithsonian and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies teamed up to take the first 3D Presidential Portrait. The shot of Barack Obama utilized a custom-built 50 LED light array, eight ‘sports’ cameras, and six wide-angle cameras. The photograph was then 3D printed and is available for viewing at the Smithsonian.
#22. The First Photograph of a Black Hole
The first-ever photograph of a black hole was unveiled in April 2019 after years of collaboration between over 200 international astronomers. It was captured using an array of ultra-powerful telescopes located around the world, and the petabytes of combined data were crunched using supercomputers to create the resulting image.
#23. The First Photo of the Far Side of the Moon
China became the first country to soft-land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon in January 2019. Shortly after landing, the Chang’e-4 probe beamed back this first photo ever captured of the “dark side of the Moon.”
#24. The First Photo of New York City
The oldest surviving photograph ever captured of New York City is this daguerreotype created in 1848 that sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2009 for $62,500.
#25. The First Photo of Quantum Entanglement
In 2019, scientists revealed the first photo ever captured showing quantum entanglement, a physical phenomenon in which two particles are “entangled,” or connected through their quantum states, even across vast distances of space. The image was captured by shooting a crystal with a laser to create quantum-linked photons.
#26. The First Camera Phone Photo
On June 11th, 1997, entrepreneur Philippe Kahn created the world’s first camera phone by jury-rigging a digital camera, cell phone, and laptop in the maternity ward where his daughter was being born. He then used the “camera phone” to instantly share his first photos of his daughter with over 2,000 people around the world.
#27. The First Photo Shot Inside the Sun’s Corona
In November 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was traveling through the Sun’s corona — basically its atmosphere — when it captured this remarkable first photo ever shot within the corona. Captured from a distance of 16.9 million miles from the Sun’s surface, the photo shows coronal streamers, or solar material being ejected by our solar system’s star.
#28. The First Cape Canaveral Launch Photograph
NASA photographers snapped the first photograph of a Cape Canaveral launch in July of 1950. The rocket being launched was known as the ‘Bumper 2’; it was a two-stage rocket comprising a V-2 missile based and a WAC Corporal rocket. The shot also clearly showcases other photographers lined up and ready to get their images of the event.
#29. The First Portrait of a Woman
In 1839 or 1840, a woman named Dorothy Catherine Draper posed for a daguerreotype portrait captured by her brother Dr. John W. Draper at his photo studio at New York University’s Washington Square. The photo, shot within a year of the daguerreotype process being announced in Paris, is believed to be the first portrait photo made in the United States as well as the earliest surviving photograph of a woman.
#30. The First Photo of a Solar Eclipse
On July 28, 1851, a “nearly unknown” photographer named Johann Julius Berkowski captured the first properly exposed photograph of a solar eclipse. The image was created using the daguerreotype process with an 84-second exposure and a small refractor at the Royal Observatory in Königsberg, Prussia.
#31. The First Photo of a Tornado
The earliest known photo of a tornado was captured near Central City, Kansas, back on April 23, 1884, by a local fruit farmer and amateur photographer named A.A. Adams, according to the Kansas Historical Society.
#32. The First Photoshopped Photo
In August 1988, a man named John Knoll snapped a photo of his girlfriend, Jennifer, while the couple was vacationing in Bora Bora. Knoll later went on to both marry Jennifer as well as develop a pioneering photo-editing program called Photoshop. When he needed a sample photo to demonstrate the program’s capabilities, Knoll scanned the 4×6 vacation snapshot, titling it “Jennifer in Paradise,” and that image is now known as the first photo ever to be “Photoshopped.” It would subsequently often be used in demos of Photoshop and be bundled with early sample versions of the software as well.
Update on 12/16/21: Five additional entries and descriptions have been added.