When Was Color Photography Invented?

While you may know a hold-out or two who insist that monochrome photos taken on 35mm cameras are the best way to capture a memory, most people agree color photography was a technological revelation. But just how long have we enjoyed seeing our snapshots in their full glory? To answer that, we need to understand a few distinctions.

Methods

early color photo vintage photo
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First is the difference between a color photograph and a colorized photograph.

Since the advent of monochrome photography, people have doctored the images to add color for style and accuracy. As early as 1850, people took liberties with reproductions and tried to pass them off as true-color photos.

In 1861, James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton demonstrated Maxwell’s invention, color photography as we know it today. Taking the same photo three times with red, green, and blue filters, the duo assembled a final full-color image.

So while that’s an answer, it’s not totally satisfying when you recall that you’ve definitely seen black and white photos far later than the 1860s. So what gives?

Popularization

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It wasn’t an immediate ubiquitous switch from black and white to color. The everyday home photographer who used their camera primarily for occasions like birthdays and vacations likely didn’t switch to color photography until the 1960s to the 1970s. There were two main reasons for this. The first was that color photographs didn’t reliably turn out well in indoor lighting early on, and the second was a matter of affordability. The more complex color film simply costs more.

Artists with a dedication to the technical, like famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams, rarely shot in color besides on commission because there was far less control and fine-tuning than monochrome. He even once “likened working in color to playing an out-of-tune piano.”

A quick detour here for a note on a huge and frankly shameful blindspot on the part of Kodak— the biggest player in the home photography game—until the 1970s. If you’ve ever looked at the home photos of medium and dark-complexioned people from this period, you’ll probably notice they often look under-exposed. That is to say, it isn’t easy to make out things like facial details.

That’s because photo-developing technicians used standard images provided by Kodak to calibrate the machines. Well, wouldn’t you know it, they only provided samples with fair-complexioned models. So your well-meaning neighborhood 24-hour photo tech would adjust all the necessary settings until the Shirley cards, as they called them, looked good, and you got an envelope back with photos of grandma that made her look like she was a secret agent lurking in a shadow.

Movies and TV

wizard of oz color photos
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Contrary to popular conception, the vibrant rainbow of Oz that Dorothy sees when she steps out of her Tornado-flung house was not the first time any audience had seen a color movie. To answer the question of the first color movie, we have to go back to the color versus colorized discussion.

As far back as 1903, a French film titled Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ was hand-colored after filming to draw visual attention to important parts of each frame.

The first feature-length American movie that filmmakers captured in Technicolor was 1917’s The Gulf Between. It was a technical headache, and a commercial flop, hardly the proof-of-concept for a new world of color film its creators had hoped.

The first two processes that allowed a movie to be shown in color were Kinemacolor and Technicolor. The former, invented in 1906 and popular until 1915, was an additive color process, which is to say it was in black and white and colorized after. The latter was the real game-changer. Technicolor went through many iterative changes since its founding in 1915. In the early days of Technicolor’s popularity, filmmakers had to use special bulky cameras, extremely bright lighting and abide by company guidelines. However, by 1954, they had a reliable, more compact process. Combined with an urgency to compete with home entertainment on TVs, color became the industry norm.

black and white tv vintage tv
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While the vast majority of movies since the late 1950s have been in color, there have still been a few outliers, like 1974’s Young Frankenstein, 2011’s silent throw-back The Artist, and even a special monochrome re-release of 2019’s Best Picture winner Parasite (which Screenrant describes as a totally different movie-watching experience).

But if we’ve had reliable color film since blockbuster epics in the 1930s, how come TV shows like The Twilight Zone and What’s My Line were in good ol’ black and white until the late 1960s? That goes back to the matter of cost, just like with home photography. It simply wasn’t in the studios’ budgets to shell out for pricey color film for every program they produced.

And why should they when the vast majority of American homes with TVs had sets that could only produce a black and white image? It seems like a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem of which changed first, the stations or consumers. But the timeline clearly shows TV networks eventually sought to out-compete each other to be on the cutting edge with the most color programming, thus incentivizing the purchase of color TV sets.

Conclusion

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To bring it all together, there isn’t a single date in history when the switch was flipped, turning the photographed world from black and white to color. There are really several answers to the question of when we first saw color photography. If you’re wondering when the first time any human ever captured colored light coming into a camera, that’d be the year 1861. If you want to know when it came into common use for amateur home photographers, that’s the 1960s. If the question is when moving pictures abandoned black and white for good save for the occasional artistic outlier, you’re looking at the 1950s.

One last word to the grammar nerds out there. We chose to use “black and white” and “monochrome” interchangeably here because it breaks up the repetition, even though technically there is a slight distinction depending on who you ask.

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