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Freeze Frame Scott Polar Research Institute

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History of Photography in the Polar Regions

Origins of Photography

The word photograph was first used by Sir John Herschel in 1839 – it originates from the Greek words meaning light and writing. The Freeze Frame collection covers many of the key developments in photography, charting not only polar exploration but also the emergence of photography.

This information resource briefly outlines the scientific developments in photography before looking specifically at photography in the polar regions.

A number of scientific developments came together in the nineteenth century from which emerged the process of photography.

Heliograph Technique(top)

The first ever photograph (a view from an attic window) was taken in France in the 1820s by Nicephore Niépce, using a method known as the heliograph technique. This used a pewter plate covered with a dispersion of silver salts in bitumen. The silver salts would react on exposure to light causing the bitumen to harden. This technique required an extremely long exposure time – up to eight hours for the image to be taken – and so could not be used for the snapshot photography with which we are so familiar. Once the image had taken, any unhardened bitumen could be washed away and the plate polished to give a negative image of the subject. The plate was then coated with ink and pressed onto paper to give a positive ink print.


In 1829, Niépce joined forces with Louis Daguerre to further develop the technique. They inquired further into the use of silver salts in the photographic process. When Niépce died in 1833, Daguerre continued to work with silver and developed the photographic plate. He found that by exposing the silver to iodine vapour and then exposing it to light for between five and sixty minutes the silver would record an image. Placing the plate in a box filled with mercury fumes would then develop the image. Daguerre discovered that by immersing the plate in a salt solution the image would be fixed and made permanent. The key feature of the photographic plate was that it radically cut exposure times from the eight hours required by the heliograph technique to under an hour.

Daguerre named this photographic plate a Daguerreotype; the French government bought the patent so that the public could have access to the process.

The Daguerreotype process was an expensive one and it was not possible to reproduce the same image more than once. The only way to produce more than one copy of the same image was to have two or more cameras side by side as the photograph was taken. Whilst the daguerreotype was very popular during the nineteenth century, it is another form of photographic process (calotype) on which our modern day photographic methods are based.


In the 1830s William Henry Fox Talbot developed a new method to compete with the Daguerreotype, which he named the calotype. This used a fine piece of paper which had been sensitised to light and was then exposed in a camera for about a minute. The image would be immediately developed and fixed and then printed. What differentiated the calotype process from its precursors was that the negatives could produce more than one photograph. However, quality was poor when compared to the daguerreotype. Fox Talbot spent the next nine years further improving the process to produce a better quality of negative. His main problem was that he used paper coated in silver chloride to produce the negatives; this meant that any imperfections in the paper would form part of the image. Glass plates as a form of negative had been experimented with, but there was a problem making the solution of silver stay on the glass.

Albumen Process(top)

In 1848, a cousin of Nicephore Niépce, Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor developed a process which would overcome Fox Talbot’s problem and fix the silver solution to the glass plate. He discovered that by coating the glass plate with egg white (albumen), which had been sensitised to potassium iodide and washed with an acid solution of silver nitrate, the silver salts would be prevented from floating off during development. This process was called the albumen process and produced photographs which were high in quality and detail. However, as the process was very slow (taking between five and fifteen minutes exposure time) these photographs were mainly of landscapes.

Collodion or Wet Process(top)

Frederick Scott Archer developed the collodion process in 1851. This was much faster than previous techniques, further reducing exposure time to a couple of seconds. The process was a wet one; the coating, exposure and development of the photograph had to be done with a wet plate. As the plate had to be wet throughout the process and as the negatives could not be stored wet without losing sensitivity, the collodion technique meant that a lot of equipment was required; this obviously was problematic when out in the field. However, these photographs were far cheaper to produce than the previous processes and so made images more widely available.

Dry Process(top)

In 1871 Dr Richard Maddox further developed the photographic technique, using a gelatine bromide emulsion as a basis for a photographic plate. A glass plate would be coated with a gelatine solution that contained the light sensitive silver particles in suspension. This overcame Fox Talbot’s issue of getting the solution to stay on the glass plate and also meant that a dry plate process was possible instead of the cumbersome wet process. The dry plate process required less equipment than the wet plate process and no longer needed to be undertaken whilst the plate was wet. Furthermore, using the dry process it was much quicker to develop negatives.

Development of film and box cameras(top)

George Eastman is responsible for bringing photography to the masses. Not only did he develop a dry gel on paper, which resembles today’s familiar the photographic film, he also invented the box camera in 1888. In 1900 the Eastman Kodak Brownie camera was launched, costing only $1 (US). This was a camera which the ordinary public could use with little instruction. Numerous explorers, including Scott, would use Kodak cameras in the polar regions to take their own personal photographs.

Colour Photography(top)

Whilst the majority of images in the Freeze Frame collection are in black and white, the final expedition represented, the Transglobe Expedition (1979-82) used colour photography. Pioneers in photography found colour photography difficult to master, but had been experimenting since the very inception of photography. The first colour image was produced by James Maxwell in 1861, but entailed a very complex process which involved taking a black and white photograph three times through a red, green and blue filter. A usable colour plate was developed in France in 1907 by August and Louis Lumière. This was a glass plate coated with dyed dots of potato starch, which acted as primary colour filters, coated with a thin film of emulsion which gave a positive colour transparency. This was called the Autochrome process.

It was not until the 1930s that we see further developments in colour film. In 1935, the Kodak Research Laboratory developed Kodachrome film and a year later Agfa developed Agfacolour.
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