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A Quick History of Color Photography (for Photographers)

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The Birth of Color Photography

When photography was invented in 1839, it was a black-and-white medium, and it remained that way for almost one hundred years. Photography then was a fragile, cumbersome, and expensive process. In order to practice, photographers needed a lot of extra money and time, or a sponsor. 

In that early period, the people advancing photographic technology tended to focus not on achieving color photographs but on making improvements in the optical, chemical, and practical aspects of photography. For many, the goal was to make photography more suitable for portraiture—its most desired application. For that, photographic technology needed to be more stable, portable, and affordable, not more colorful.

But people wanted color photos. (Portraits before photography were paintings—in full, glorious color.) By 1880, once the early technical hurdles had been overcome, portrait photographers began experimenting with color. They employed artists to tint photographers' daguerreotypes and calotypes by hand. 

British photographers introduced hand coloring photographs to Japan, where the practice became widespread and Japanese artists further perfected the technique. The refined, delicate hand coloring became a defining characteristic of Japanese tourist photography, the results of which were carried back to the West, influencing the art of hand coloring there.

This wildly popular technique persisted in Europe and the Americas until twenty years later when Autochrome plates arrived. In Japan, hand coloring lasted yet another twenty years beyond. 

Hand colored photograph of a Japanese boat on the waterHand colored photograph of a Japanese boat on the waterHand colored photograph of a Japanese boat on the water
Fishermen on a boat. Hand colored albumin print by Felice Beato, Kusakabe Kimbei, or Raimund baron von Stillfried, Japan, ca. 1870-1890. Image courtesy of Spaarnestad Photo, Nationaal Archief, The Netherlands.


Debuted in France in 1907 by Auguste and Louis Lumière, Autochrome was the first generally practical color photographic process. Autochromes were beautiful, but the process was tricky. Autochromes required longer exposure times than their contemporary black-and-white processes. The process was also additive: the result was a positive color transparency that could only be viewed against a backlight or as a projected image. Color photography had become a possible alternative, but better color technologies were needed.

Autochrome of a man and woman sitting on a bench in a gardenAutochrome of a man and woman sitting on a bench in a gardenAutochrome of a man and woman sitting on a bench in a garden
Alfred Stieglitz, founder of the Photo-Secession, and his daughter Emmy. Autochrome by Frank Eugene, 1907. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

Color Positive, Color Negative Films

Enter Kodachrome film. In 1935, while working at the Kodak Research Laboratories, Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes ushered in the modern era of color photography by inventing Kodachrome, a color positive (or "slide") film produced with a subtractive color photography process. The dye couplers were added during processing, requiring that the film be processed by specially equipped labs, but the absence of dye couplers in the emulsion meant that the film captured fine details. Kodachrome became well known for its rich warm tones and sharpness, making it a popular and preferred film for over 70 years, despite its need for complicated processing.

In 1936, only one year after the invention of Kodachrome, the Agfa Company in Germany created the Agfacolor negative-positive process. However, World War II prevented release of the process until 1949. In the meantime, in 1942, Kodak released their negative-positive color film, Kodacolor. Within twenty years, after improvements in quality, speed, and price, Kodacolor became the most popular film among amateur photographers. 

1950s woman dressed in skirt sweater and jewellery sitting on a cot in a prison cell playing cards 1950s woman dressed in skirt sweater and jewellery sitting on a cot in a prison cell playing cards 1950s woman dressed in skirt sweater and jewellery sitting on a cot in a prison cell playing cards
Woman in cell, playing solitaire. Kodachrome image by Nickolas Muray, ca. 1950. Image courtesy of George Eastman Museum.

Color Photography Inspires New Creative Opportunities

With the advent of color film, the creative possibilities of photography blossomed. American photographer Eliot Porter made photographs of birds and nature with unprecedented color nuance; his pictures were championed for both their scientific and aesthetic achievement. Austrian photographer Ernst Haas was the first to bring color photography to photojournalism: published by Life magazine, his series, New York, portrayed everyday life with unrivaled vibrancy. Yet, despite these exciting developments, it would be decades before color photography prevailed and daily newspapers incorporated it.

Color Photography Gains Acceptance

After the war, color film photography hit a cultural, technological, and commercial sweet spot, and there it flourished for several decades. Color film had improved and became a mature medium: photographic emulsions were more stable and accurate, a reliable worldwide network of labs and sellers was established, and international standards were successful. For professionals, very high-quality results were possible with modern color film.

Color film, especially color negative film, was also a forgiving medium for amateurs and casual photographers (a new category of photographers). Color images became not just something for scientists, technicians, artists, and advertisers, but, increasingly, something easy and affordable enough for many people to pursue. Every kind of camera, from drug store disposables to those with the most high-performance specialty optics and bodies, were available. People in this period found all kinds of uses for color film, recording everything from hazy beach vacations to the first color images of Earth taken from space.

Astronaut on the moon beside the American flag and space vehiclesAstronaut on the moon beside the American flag and space vehiclesAstronaut on the moon beside the American flag and space vehicles
Astronaut James Irwin gives salute beside U.S. flag during lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA). Ektacolor image by NASA ,1971. Image courtesy of George Eastman Museum.

Color Photography as Fine Art

As a fine art medium, color photography was slowly brought into the fold. Notable advances were made by Ernst Haas, who was bridging the gap between pure photojournalism and photography by using color photography as a creative, expressive medium. As mentioned, Life (and Vogue) had already published Haas's color photojournalism, and in 1962, the Museum of Modern Art profiled Haas in its first single-artist exhibition of color photography. 

It was more than a decade later when the Museum of Modern Art exhibited William Eggleston's color photographs. Eggleston had been introduced to color photography by American photographer, painter, and sculptor William Christenberry—yet another photographer deliberately using color photography as an expressive medium. Eggleston's particular interest was in using dye-transfer printing, a method widely used for advertising materials. Eggleston was drawn to the rich, deep colors he could create with the dye-transfer technique. Although the Eggleston exhibit wasn't the museum's first color photography show, it did signal color photography's arrival and is credited with legitimizing color photography in the fine art world.

Other significant bodies of fine art color photography followed soon after: German photographer Candida Höfer’s pictures of interiors and Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos, both begun in 1979; Mary Ellen Mark’s Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay (1981); Brazilian photographer Miguel Rio Branco’s Dulce Sudor Amargo and Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (both in 1985); Bruce Davidson’s Subway and Alex Webb’s Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds: Photographs from the Tropics (both in 1986); and the works of Barbara Norfleet, Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, Barbara Kasten, and Franco Fontana, all of whom also used color photography with extraordinary expression during this period.

From then on, aesthetic appreciation for color photography was solidified in the fine art community, opening the door to an unforeseeable number of fine art photographers preferring to work in color.

Photographer Candida Hfer stands beside one of her winning color photographsPhotographer Candida Hfer stands beside one of her winning color photographsPhotographer Candida Hfer stands beside one of her winning color photographs
Candida Höfer was an early entrant in the field of color fine art photography and a symbol of success in that genre. Photograph courtesy of Koelnmesse via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Newspapers Embrace Color

Newspapers had a similarly slow but eventual acquiescence to color photography. 

Technically speaking, the Illustrated London News was the first to introduce color in a newspaper when it printed color pictures in its Christmas Day edition in 1855. American readers were introduced to color in newspapers in 1891, when the Milwaukee Journal commemorated a new governor’s inauguration with a blue-and-red bar on its front page. 

Magazines began using color photography for advertising in the 1890s, but the printing was expensive and unreliable. By the 1920s, the techniques had improved and color advertising became standard in magazines. 

But it wasn’t until 1954 that the first newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, began using full color on its news pages; four years later, another Florida newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, followed. By 1979, 12 percent of American newspapers incorporated color, and by 1990, all but a few included color at least partially in their publication.

For some newspapers, reticence to embrace color photography was largely a financial issue. To print an entire newspaper in color, new equipment was necessary and costly. For others, reluctance was about retaining the integrity of news telling. Traditionalists were of the mindset that color detracted from the news, infusing it with emotion and subjectivity, and depicting content in a way that was considered frivolous or not serious.

Tradition slowed the adoption of color in newspapers in Britain where a classist divide existed between high-minded newspapers and the populist tabloids. Color advertising appeared in 1936 and the Sunday Times broke rank in 1962 by publishing the first color supplement. It took another twenty years or so for color to creep into daily news—led not by a newspaper but by the tabloid Today. Newspapers eventually had to follow suit.

There was a backlash against USA Today’s color palette (considered garish to some) when it launched as a full-color newspaper in 1982, but any shock its color instigated eventually subsided or was overlooked when the advertising results rolled in. One study showed that color advertisements produced 43 percent more sales than black-and-white ads. At the same time, readership began to demand color (especially the younger set): in 1986, about 75 percent of all newspaper readers wanted their news in color.

In time, newspaper editors realized that using the full spectrum of color improved the quality of information they could communicate, offering “a wonderful new set of journalistic tools,” remarked Terry Schwadron, former deputy manager of the Los Angeles Times in 1993. Full color also allowed newspapers to better compete with magazines and television, both of which portrayed the world in all its colorful glory.

Newsagent shop with racks of newspaper and magazinesNewsagent shop with racks of newspaper and magazinesNewsagent shop with racks of newspaper and magazines
Color is now an accepted and expected presence in all news publications. Newsagent shop in Paris. Photograph by Florian Plag, Bretten Daily News, 2011, CC BY 2.0.

Color Photography Today

Today, of course, no one debates the legitimacy of portraying the news or making fine art in color.

When digital photography arrived, it, too, presented technical hurdles that stopped wider adoption. And as with color photography, solving those problems created new opportunities for photographers and publishers. Notably, digital photography advanced color photography. 

Although we've had color images almost from the start of photography via hand tinting, for the majority of people, black-and-white was the default, and color was an aesthetic choice. But that changed with digital. Black-and-white digital images are shot in color first, meaning that with digital, it's color by default, and black-and-white by choice.

Digital photography also made it easier to work in color by eliminating the need to deal with multiple color films for each lighting situation. Instead, the white balance is set in camera rather than by film choice. Not having to purchase color film or pay for processing has, as well, lowered the cost of color photography. The result is that color photography is now more accessible and more widely used than ever, a nearly universal human cultural experience in ways that film never was. 

Interestingly, most digital cameras, even many expensive ones, produce inferior color quality. While digital color is much improved recently (especially in high-end devices), it's far from perfect for most people. For example, digital cameras initially assign a pallid gray-salmon color to many people's skin tones. We're still riding the edge of the transition to digital photography, so it's very likely that people photographing with their smartphones will continue to get better and better color.

Black-and-White or Color?

Color photography has come a long way. What's not always apparent, though, is how to apply color in your own photography.

Especially for burgeoning photographers, the question is when and why to choose color or black-and-white. How does color affect our perception as a viewer? What does monochromatic imagery offer that color photography cannot? Black-and-white technology has improved over the years, too. Has that changed things? What about digital black-and-white?

For answers to these and other questions about photography's divergent processes, continue by reading “Color vs. Black-and-White Photography: How Palette Affects What We See—and Feel”.

If you're ready to test black-and-white versus color photography yourself, have a look through the tutorials found in the Black and White Photography learning guide and in Everything Color.

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