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Top 10 Incredible Early Firsts In Photography

Jamie Frater . . . Comments

I love photography, and while I am not a particularly talented artist behind the lens, I get many hours of enjoyment out of it. Combine that with my love of history and we were bound to eventually have a list of incredibly historical firsts in the realms of photography. This list works in reverse chronological order and focuses mainly on the earliest years and most significant breakthroughs in photography.


First Digitally Scanned Photograph


Technically, this is the very first digital photograph – all these years later, digital cameras are only just beginning to have the full capabilities of film cameras. Russell Kirsch was a computer pioneer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the USA when he developed the system by which a camera could be fed into a computer. The photo is of Kirsch’s three month old son Walden and it measured a mere 176×176 pixels. Baby Walden now works in communications for Intel.


Modern 35mm Film Invented


All those years after the first experiments in photography, Kodak in 1934 invented 35mm film which quickly became the most popular film type and continues to be so to this day. This film was pre-loaded into rolls with perforated edges and it made it possible to load the films into cameras in broad daylight. The film size was already in use in movie films, but it was not until Kodak made the still version in 1934 and Leica the first cameras to use it, that is moved into the world of still photography. The first 33mm still camera cost $175 (equal to around $3,000 today).


First Motion Picture

Historic films are very popular and they all attempt to recreate the period in which they are set. This film is the first celluloid film created and it gives us a true look at how people looked and, more importantly, carried themselves (in the case of the women in full corseted gowns). The film only lasts for two seconds but it is enough time to see the characters walking. It was recorded at 12 frames per second by French inventor Louis Le Prince. It was filmed at the home of Joseph and Sarah Whitley, in Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England on October 14 and the people who appear are Adophe Le Prince (Louis’s son), Sarah Whitley, Joseph Whitley, and Harriet Hartley. Ten days after filming, Sarah Whitley (Le Prince’s mother-in-law) died. Two years later Le Prince vanished mysteriously from a train traveling between Dijon and Paris. Another two years later, Alphonse was found shot dead in New York after testifying at a patent trial against Edison by the American Mutoscope Company.


First High Speed Series

Muybridge Horse Gallop Animated 2

Using a series of trip wires, Eadweard Muybridge created the first high speed photo series which can be run together to give the effect of motion pictures. Muybridge is best known for his method of using multiple cameras to record motion and he also invented a device called a zoopraxiscope which was a forerunner of the modern motion picture projector. Another extraordinary photo-series created by Muybridge can be seen here.


First Color Landscape


This photograph was taken by Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron who invented the subtractive (cyan, magenta, and yellow) color method of taking photographs. Louis was a French pioneer in color photography and he worked in both subtractive and additive (red, green, and blue) color. This particularly photograph is called “Landscape of Southern France”.


First Color Photograph

733Px-Tartan Ribbon

This is a photograph of a tartan ribbon. It was taken by James Clerk Maxwell by photographing the ribbon three times – each time with a different color filter over the lens. The three images were then developed and projected onto a screen with three projectors using the same color filters as the initial cameras. When the three images aligned, a full color photo appeared. The three original plates are now kept in Edinburgh, where Maxwell was born.


First Human Subject

Talbot - The Footman

This is the very first photograph that intentionally has a human as its main subject. What is most striking to me about this photograph is that it shows a part of history which is now long gone (except in some royal households): a regular footman and a carriage – the common means of transport at the time as automated vehicles would not become common for another 40 years. The year this photograph was taken was the year that New Zealand became a British colony, that Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, and the year that the world’s first postage stamp was created. The photograph was taken by William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the negative / positive photographic process.


First Human In A Photograph

800Px-Boulevard Du Temple By Daguerre

This is the first photograph ever taken that captures the image of a man. The man is not clear and is slightly blurred (no doubt due to the long exposure required). The man can be seen in the foreground – fortunately he stood still long enough (getting his shoes polished) for the 10 minute exposure to include him. The image was taken by Louis Daguerre who invented the Daguerreotype – one of the earliest methods of photography. The French government purchased the rights to the daguerreotype and released it free to the world.


Second Photograph

800Px-View From The Window At Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce-1

Incredibly, this same year Beethoven was still writing music, the Inquisition held the last public procession of penitent heretics (auto de fe) in Spain, and America’s second president, John Adams, died. Like the first photograph ever taken, this was taken by Nicéphore Niépce and it is the first photograph of a real scene (the first photograph was of a painting). It was taken with a camera obscura (an ancient optical device used for entertainment and drawing) and took eight hours to expose – hence the sunlight falling on both sides of the building. The photograph is called “View from the Window at Le Gras”. This is included not just because it was the first photo of a real scene, but also because it was believed to be the very first photo ever until 2002 when an earlier photograph was found – which leads us to item one…


First Photograph


This photograph was only discovered in 2002 and is now known to be the very first permanent photograph ever taken by Nicéphore Niépce – the father of photography. It is an image of an engraving of a man walking a horse and it was made using a technique known as heliogravure. The method involves a piece of copper covered with light sensitive bitumen. This metal plate is exposed to light and creates an image which is then transferred to paper. The image has been declared a national treasure by the French government and it sold for $392,000 at auction to the French National Library.

Contributor: JFrater

Jamie Frater

Jamie is the owner and chief-editor of Listverse. He spends his time working on the site, doing research for new lists, and collecting oddities. He is fascinated with all things historic, creepy, and bizarre.

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  • Ganja God

    Cool. Interesting pictures.

  • astraya

    Fascinating, as we expect from a jf photography list.
    Are these the first ever in each category, or the first surviving in each category?
    BTW if you click on a photo, a larger, higher-res version opens.

  • Ingi

    If number 1 is the first photo ever, and it has a human in it, how is number 3 the first photo to freature a human?

  • Ingi: the photo in number 1 is a photo of a painting not a photo of a human (at least not a living one that ever existed).

  • Sugen

    interesting firsts…

  • SweetViolet

    Wow! and I thought my Brownie Box Camera was old!

  • Carlos

    Ha, I just have to quote this great little section from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I’m sure it’s totally apocryphal, but it’s appropriate nevertheless:

    Weary… …had a dirty picture of a woman attempting sexual intercourse with a Shetland pony. He had made Billy Pilgrim admire that picture several times.
    The woman and the pony were posed before velvet draperies which were fringed with deedlee-balls. They were flanked by Doric columns. In front of one column was a potted palm. The Picture that Weary had was a print of the first dirty photograph in history. The word photography was first used in 1839, and it was in that year, too, that Louis J. M. Daguerre revealed to the French Academy that an image formed on a silvered metal plate covered with a thin film of silver iodide could be developed in the presence of mercury vapor.
    In 1841, only two years later, an assistant to Daguerre, AndrÈ Le FËvre, was arrested in the Tuileries Gardens for attempting to sell a gentleman a picture of the woman and the pony. That was where Weary bought his picture,, too-in the Tuileries. Le FËvre argued that the picture was fine art, and that his intention was to make Greek mythology come alive. He said that columns and the potted palm proved that.
    When asked which myth he meant to represent, Le FËvre, replied that there were thousands of myths like that, with the woman a mortal and the pony a god.
    He was sentenced to six months in prison. He died there of pneumonia. So it goes.

  • foohy

    Maybe I’m just blind but I can’t for the life of me see anything coherent in #2! Is that a chimney on the right?

  • foohy: I think it is a chimney – it is a photo taken out his window over the rooftops so it would make sense :)

  • Eve

    I love this list, it is a piece of history.:)
    I am fascinated by the old photos from my grandmother’s childhood in the beginning of the 20th century. The world seems so pure and unspoilt.
    Just a small correction, JF-it is ‘auto da fe’ (no.2) :)

  • asjdua

    What is the difference again in #3 and #4?

  • lily_89

    Wasnt there a similar list to this one? I got deja vu when i saw the title anyho loved the list.

  • jajdude

    Digital guns on the list, g – never really got into photography, but if I did I would choose film over digital fo sho yo.

    I’d like to make/see a list of the top ten delicious and authentic Chinese foods that one must try before perishing; problem is here in China there are hundreds and hundreds of different dishes, so hard to choose when one hasn’t even sampled an inkling of them.

  • Copaface

    Cool list :)

    asjdua: In number 4 the human is the main subject
    In number 3 presumably the man just happens to be there in the background…

  • B

    Very interesting list. I really like #7, it’s really nostalgic to see anything like that.

  • MT

    Interesting list. #4 is the real piece of history to me. But I don’t see how a photo of a picture(#1)could be so valuable. The purpose of photography is to capture a moment in time that can’t be repeated. You can always just go look at the picture on the wall. Those foolish Frenchmen.

  • thewebpromoter

    Hard to find photographic items

  • GTT

    Awesome list… It´s like getting to peek into this completely different world. Fascinating.

    I once saw a list that had (I think) Recession era pictures that had been restored with color. They were SOO amazing.

  • ringtailroxy

    are the pictures for #2 & #3 switched? because i see no human in #3, and the buildings seem to have the light source o both sides…

    very interesting list, similar to another one before… I think the other list had a picture of a horse having surgery!

    hey-JFray-r u thinking of taking that awesome Aussie job on the barrier island?


  • foohy


    Yes I think so…i’ll try to find it.

  • astraya

    ringtailroxy; The human figure(s) in #3 are very small. There’s a row of trees (or poles) lining the footpath from the centre-slightly-left towards the lower left. Just as the footpath meets the curve of the road, there are two tiny figures: a man is standing with his foot propped up on the shoeshine’s box. He is (just) clear enough. The shoeshine obviously moved during the exposure.

  • charlimara

    really nice list

  • nicole

    I love listverse! Great list:)

  • jlsti

    Nice list! I also got deja vu and I’m pretty sure its because number 8 was copied and pasted from a list about first in film. Not that I mind still interesting and heck I couldn’t pump list after list out of my brain.

  • As a photographer, I love this list, just as I loved the color list from WWI.
    As a BTW, the high speed film, in #6, was taken to square a bet; do all four of a horses hooves leave the ground at any time while at a gallop?
    Well, yeah!
    I learned on 35mm, and developed and printed my own for decades. I’m sure that “stop-bath” has caused some sort of permanent brain damage (nothing can smell that bad, and be good for you!), but have now switched to digital.
    Photography is an art, as much as painting or writing. You just use a different medium.
    Thanks, these are great!

  • Beasjt

    I miss the first nude.


    No first POLAROID? With the way things are going, there will soon be a LAST Polaroid.

  • Chickensoup

    Awesome stuff! I love the film/photography lists.

  • psychosurfer

    10. Eve, Actually it´s “auto de fé” in Spanish and “auto da fé” in the original Portuguese, since Jfrater is talking about the Spanish inquisition I guess “auto de fé” is correct.

    There´s a mistake in the text of #9 instead of 33 mm is 35 mm?

    Great list

  • psychosurfer

    More recent firsts:
    First photograph of internet:
    First planet beyond our solar system:

  • Cubone


  • Will

    Great List! I am actually a direct descendant of Louis LePrince and its great to know that he is getting the recognition he rightfully deserves.

  • AE51

    I’ve seen the original copy of #2 and unfortunately it has faded a lot over the years. :( But if anyone is still interested in seeing it, it is located at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. (They also have an original Gutenberg Bible)

  • TashaD

    That was a really great list. Is there any particular reason that the first photograph was a photo of a painting or was it just a random choice?

  • H3000

    Not to be a hater but how is “the second photograph” a first?

  • TEX

    Very interesting images – I recommend everyone go back and click to enlarge #3. Look very closely at 170 years ago.


    Well researched list!
    It always bothered me to think about the beautiful and photographs of historical importance locked up in cellars or stuffed into suitcases.To think that the oldest photograph were only discovered in 2002!
    I recently purchased a beautiful photo album
    (rescued from the rain)at a car boot sale
    It comprises of a collection of photographs,memoirs,orders,hotel invoice’s etc. collected by a Wing Commander W.L.Shaw M.B.E
    during World War II. An order signed by the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force Dwight Eisenhower on 6th June 1944 should be so important to this man’s family but it end up for sale in a foreign country! I wish I could return this to his family!
    Great site.
    W.L.Shaw lived in Dayton, Ohio during the war

  • KDRockstar

    Nice… I like learning something new.

    Carlos… you made me laugh. Throw Vonnegut into *anything* and it works for me.

  • oouchan

    Great list. I loved the 2 second film clip. That was really neat!

  • Metalwrath

    @MT (comment 16): well the french still seem to have pioneered photography so as a “foolish frenchman” myself I suggest you go on and fuck yourself.

  • itsmejld

    Very interesting list. Photography is one of my hobbies. I have a crappy digital camera for everyday crap pictures – never got into digital. My baby is my 35mm Nikon. I love film and for some reason see things differently when there is film involved. There is something very magical about being in a darkroom watching a photo develope.

  • copperdragon

    need to add these:

    first nude photo
    first action photo
    first photo of Sun, Moon, other planet
    first photo of Earth from orbit
    first photo proving Earth is round (maybe of an eclipse, or from an airplane)
    first underwater photo
    first polaroid (self-developing photo)
    first photo of an internal organ (while still inside the body)
    first photo using a flash

  • copperdragonL thanks for the suggestion – maybe those can be on a followup list :)

  • copperdragon

    here’s a couple more:

    first x-ray photo
    first ultrasound photo
    first photo of a microscopic object

  • STL Mo

    Photo #3 – “The French government purchased the rights to the daguerreotype and released it free to the world.”

    NICE! How often does that happen with an invention that benefits all humanity?

  • STL Mo: as far as I am aware that is the only case I know of! Such a shame really. Think how more advanced some technologies might be if other governments were as kind.

  • AllDayDre

    copperdragon: im looking forward to the first photo of coitus!

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  • Kiwi

    As a photographer, this is very interesting to learn some more history of the photograph. THANKS :)

  • knight_forked

    I was expecting #2 to be at #1, and was surprised to see it at #2…I was off by roughly an year about the history of photography :( Nice compilation JFrater!

  • Blogball

    Great list. I also love photography and like segue I used to develop my own b& w photos. Obviously a digital camera is more convenient and practical not to mention the things you can do with software compared to what you could do in the darkroom. However I do miss those days with the red light, the smell of the chemicals and watching a picture you had high hopes for appear and come to life before your eyes in the development tray. I even miss yelling at people when they didn’t read the do not enter sign on the door. Blow Up which starred Sarah Miles and David Hemmings was one of my favorite movies.
    Segue remember leaving the enlarger light on for too many seconds and have to quick throw it in the stop bath when it was developing?
    Oh well I guess the anticipation and the romance is gone now with the instant gratification world we live in today.

  • 50. Blogball:…Segue remember leaving the enlarger light on for too many seconds and have to quick throw it in the stop bath when it was developing?
    Oh yes! When I was still in Uni, before I had my own home darkroom, I remember the sheer joy of being a senior, with senior rights to check out a darkroom for as long as you needed…once, for 18 hours straight!
    For all the ease and all the fun tricks of digital, I wouldn’t trade a moment of the years with film and it’s attendant chemicals and smells; and yeah, Blow-Up was a great film for me, too!

  • Juliet

    Wonderful examples, makes my head spin to think of all the work and sweat involved to come up with these beauties.

    For some reason I can’t see number one though…

  • Precision

    Another great list jfrater! It’s almost spooky to see very old images and movies of time periods long past. It would be amazing if we were able to see actual images or movies from even further back in history, such as the middle ages, ancient rome, or the ancient egyptians.

    But alas, my imagination will have to suffice….for now :)

  • Precision: I think that is what draws me to the images. Just imagine if we had had cameras way back when – how amazing that would be! Future generations are lucky that we document so much of our lives now.

  • RandomPrecision

    We were just talking about number 7 in my film studies class today. Stanford (the college founder) and another guy were in an argument about the way horses run. They wagered $100,000 on who was right, and paid Muybridge to figure it out.

  • davo

    3. Ingi that’s a really dumb question. excellent list jfrater

  • timmy the dying boy

    First porn clip?

    Forget it, it probably has Ron Jeremy in it anyway.

  • MT

    .40 Metalwrath
    I’m sure everyone else got the sarcasm but since the French actually idolized Jerry Lewis it would be too much to expect you to know what real humor is. Hey, take a photo of me eating the first Freedom Fries.

  • astraya

    Since I have been in Korea (2 years, 4 months) I have taken something like 25,000 photos (on a digital camera, plus perhaps a couple of hundred on film before and immediately after I bought the digital). I can’t imagine clocking up 25,000 film photos, or either paying to have them developed, or developing them myself.

    Looking around youtube (I generally don’t go to Facebook or similar) I am not sure that I totally agree with jf’s statement “Future generations are lucky that we document so much of our lives now.” They’ll have to wade through a lot of dross.

  • Vera Lynn

    What’s porn? ;)

  • astraya

    If you’ve got a few spare minutes, type the word into google. I’m sure you’ll find a couple of references. (maybe four or five … billion)

  • Vera Lynn

    I was kidding, Astraya. Not my cup of tea. If I want to see a nude woman, I’ll just stand in front of a mirror!

  • NicoNicoNico

    My family have a few daguerreotype photos. They’re printed on tin, which makes them all the more interesting.

  • Jrodickens

    google 1 guy 1 cup……..thats what porn is…..

  • astraya

    Vera Lynn: I thought so! Last night my wife spent several hours surrounded by naked women (at a Korean (segregated) sauna). Last night I spent several hours at home searching for a job in Australia for when we move. Sometimes life is not fair.

  • WF1

    great list .. but shouldnt number 3 be the first human(s), the shoe shine ( boy ?) is surley as much a subject as the man.

  • lifeschool

    Nit-pickers! Great list!

  • Al

    “Interesting list. #4 is the real piece of history to me. But I don’t see how a photo of a picture(#1)could be so valuable. The purpose of photography is to capture a moment in time that can’t be repeated. You can always just go look at the picture on the wall. Those foolish Frenchmen.”

    Imagine the slow (low) ASA, er ISO on that first exposure; certainly many minutes, mabye even an hour. Tough to shoot much of anything but still image.

  • astraya

    wiki’s “On this day” includes Wilson Bentley, who was the first photographer to photograph snow flakes:

  • k1w1taxi

    MT (16) might I suggest that as it was the first photo part of the reasoning for the subject is that it would need to be something that will not change so that after the photo has been developed the photo can be compared to the subject to prove that the photo has faithfully produced exactly what was there (barring of course the colour). Hence a painting is a perfect choice.


  • Shadow

    I don’t know if anyone noticed this or said anything about it yet… but there seems to be a virus or something redirecting people to another site as soon as the list pages finish loading.

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  • Luisa

    #1 looks like a drawing…
    I was thinking that #2 was the ‘official’ first photograph.

  • bdbd

    Interesting, ht to Sully. Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President, also died in 1826. Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826. Adams’ last words are said to have been “Jefferson survives..”

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  • Arun

    Love the list. The “first color” photograph of the tartan ribbon looked to me at first glance like a disco-era Playboy logo, yikes!

    There’s an excellent book about Le Prince, “The Missing Reel”, that practically becomes a real-life murder mystery. Edison and his syndicate were ruthless. One reason the film industry moved to Hollywood was to escape the reach of his (armed) patent agents. Fascinating stuff.

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  • jim

    #45. STL Mo: “The French government purchased the rights to the daguerreotype and released it free to the world. NICE! How often does that happen with an invention that benefits all humanity?

    #46. jfrater: “as far as I am aware that is the only case I know of! Such a shame really. Think how more advanced some technologies might be if other governments were as kind.”

    How about the internet? Invented under US government grant as ARPANET, published as a series of open standards, now intellectual property open to us all?

  • montresor

    Uh-oh. Number 9 is not exactly accurate.

    35mm film in cassettes was already in use in the United States in a Bakelite “brick” of a camera made by the De Vry company of Chicago, called the Q.R.S. Kamra, first sold around 1928. Like the later Kodak film, the cassettes for the Kamra could be loaded in daylight. De Vry provided the re-usable cassettes (quaintly lined with red velvet!), which were loaded from bulk rolls of 35mm film, a practice that is still widely used by professionals today, when they’re not shooting digital. It appears De Vry also could provide pre-loaded cassettes. The Kamra that I own has a Wollensak f5 lens; other examples featured a slower lens.

    Also — “…it was not until Kodak made the still version in 1934 and Leica the first cameras to use it that it moved into the world of still photography.”

    Considering that the 35mm Leica I — the commercial successor to the prototype know as the “Ur-Leica” (developed in 1913!) — was introduced and sold at the 1925 Leipzig fair, this is inverting chronology a bit.

    1934 was the year that Kodak entered the 35mm field, with its Retina camera and its mass-marketed, pre-loaded 35mm film cassettes. The film, known as 135 in its “still” application, had already been in use for nine years at least.

    For a good summary of the Kamra, with examples of photos taken with it (at the 1933 Chicago World Exposition, no less), go here:

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  • Lonn

    See this marker. Oldest surving american photo. You can find the original image in one of my photo alblums.

  • Nicosia

    Baby Walden was stinkin’ adorable!

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  • woundedduck

    Too bad the first photograph is of an engraving.

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  • sad muso

    I totally love this list – old photographs facinate me. We need one with historical views of towns/cities, that’d be ace.

  • Joy

    I loved this!

  • nicoleredz3

    Excellent list! Great to learn about the very first photo!

  • meggers7

    This is super cool! I’m not even a fan of photography but this is just really interesting.

  • The Broom Master

    A good list but one major exclusion would be the works of T. Enami and his early work with 3D photographs in early 20th century Japan.

  • asdf

    Is it me, or does #1 look like a drawing?

  • #9: "The first 33mm still camera …"
    Change to "35 mm"

  • #4: "automated vehicles would not become common for another 40 years."
    What automated vehicles were there in 1880? Only bicycles. Change "automated" to "self-propelled"?

  • She

    #8 do you mean that the guy was murdered by the American Mutoscope Company?

  • René

    I love this list. But please help me… in #2, I see the image of a man standing slightly off-center to the left with his head facing right and downwards. I cannot unsee it now. Does anyone else see it? Please confirm because it is driving me crazy.

  • Ven9999

    What about the portrait of Cornelious in 1838?

  • Mark Pettinelli

    I modified the oldest color photograph and made a website where you can see it –

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  • JA

    Your statement about 35mm film should include a caveat that this was for still camera use. 35mm film had been around for a much longer time. The 1939 ‘invention’ was an ‘application’ of existing technology. After WWII, I’d take ‘ends’ [unshot segments] of motion picture rolls and load them for still use. Many studio shots of the filming were also done with these ‘ends’.

  • Do you know when this photo is taken:

    One of the people there, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab was live from 1701 to 1793 M. So if it’s true, then the photo above is the oldest photo that ever exist….

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  • Mark Bousquet

    #4 however, Robert Cornelius took a self-portrait daguerreotype of himself in October/November 1839.

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