While the term photography was coined in the early 19th-century, Greek mathematicians had been making pinhole cameras since the 4th century BCE. The history of photography has always been filled with innovation, as imagery has continued to develop along with the technology photographers have on hand. With such a long history, it’s no surprise that photography is full of important firsts, from the world’s oldest photograph to the first photo uploaded to Instagram.
Most early photos used the daguerreotype process invented by Louis Daguerre, but technical inventions have created endless possibilities for photographers. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to learn about some of the famous first photographs that have changed how we view the world.
First Photograph Ever
The world’s first photograph—or at least the oldest surviving photo—was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827. Captured using a technique known as heliography, the shot was taken from an upstairs window at Niépce’s estate in Burgundy. As heliography produces one-of-a-kind images, there are no duplicates of the piece, which is now part of the permanent collection at the University of Texas-Austin.
World’s First Self-Portrait
We may be used to selfies now, but it’s Robert Cornelius’s 1839 image that lays claim to the first self-portrait. Taken in Philadelphia, Cornelius sat for a little over one minute before covering the lens.
Oldest Photo of New York
This 1848 daguerreotype of Manhattan’s Upper West side is the oldest surviving photo of New York. In 2009, it was sold at Sotheby’s for $62,500. Unfortunately, the first photo of New York, which shows the Unitarian Church, is now lost.
First Photograph of the Moon
This daguerreotype by John W. Draper from 1840 is the first photo of the moon. Taken from his rooftop observatory at New York University, the image has since sustained extensive damage.
First Photo with People
Louis Daguerre—the inventor of daguerreotype—shot what is not only the world’s oldest photograph of Paris, but also the first photo with humans. The 10-minute long exposure was taken in 1839 in Place de la République and it’s just possible to make out two blurry figures in the left-hand corner.
First Photo of War
Carol Popp de Szathmari is the first known war photographer, capturing hundreds of images of the Crimean War. But it’s this image from 1870 that is thought to be the first photograph of an actual battle. Showing a line of Prussian troops as they advance, the photographer shot the image as he stood with French defenders.
First Photo of a President
John Quincy Adams holds the distinction of being the first U.S. president photographed, though he wasn’t in office at the time. Captured at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1843, fourteen years after he left office, the daguerreotype was shot by Philip Haas. The first photograph of a sitting president was taken in 1841, but has now been lost. It depicted short-lived president William Henry Harrison before he passed away from pneumonia just 31 days after taking office.
Oldest Photograph of the Sun
Just five years after the first photo of the moon, in 1845, French physicists Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault took the first photograph of the sun. Even with just a 1/60th exposure, it’s possible to see sunspots.
First Photo of a Tornado
It only seems fitting that the first known photograph of a tornado was taken in Kansas. On April 26, 1884, a tornado moved slowly across Anderson county, which allowed amateur photographer A.A. Adams to set up his box camera. A pioneering image in meteorology, Adams’ image is a pre-cursor to the storm chasers we still see today.
Oldest Aerial Photo
In the age of drones, aerial photography is often taken for granted, but this 1860 image actually pioneered the technique. Showing Boston from over 2,000 feet in the air, this aerial photograph was taken by James Wallace Black and Samuel Archer King. Unfortunately, the first aerial image, which was taken by French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, has been lost.
First Photograph of Earth from the Moon
On August 23, 1966, a lunar orbiter snapped this image of Earth from the Moon. The incredible image was captured during the orbiter’s 16th lap around the Moon.
Oldest Color Photograph
Physicist James Clerk Maxwell is responsible for taking the world’s first color photograph. In 1855, Maxwell developed a three-color method, with the actual shutter being pressed by Thomas Sutton in 1861. The subject of the image? A colored ribbon, also known as a tartan ribbon.
First Color Underwater Photo
In 1926 National Geographic photographer Charles Martin and botanist William Longley took the first underwater photograph in color. Taken off the Florida Keys, it shows a hogfish. The duo took this pioneering shot by encasing cameras in waterproof housing and using a magnesium-powered flash.
First Digital Photo
The first digital photo was taken earlier than you may have thought. Almost 20 years before the original Kodak digital camera, in 1957, this square image of Russell Kirsch’s son was taken. The photo is a digital scan of a film image, resulting in a square photograph that makes it Instagram ready.
First Digital Photo of a President
It was only in 2009 that a digital camera was used to photograph POTUS. Official photographer Pete Souza holds the honor with his portrait of Barack Obama. Taken with a Canon 5D Mark II and no flash, the image shows the shifting gears of technology that have reached the White House.
First Photo on Instagram
On July 16, 2010, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom uploaded the first post on Instagram. Actually, it was uploaded using an app called Codename, which three months later became the app we all know and love. It’s only fitting—given how many pets have become famous from the app—that the first photo on Instagram shows Systrom’s cute pup sitting at a taco stand in Mexico.
First Photo Inside the Sun’s Corona
On November 8, 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe took a groundbreaking photograph at 16.9 million miles from the Sun. That’s incredibly close when one considers that Earth is located 91 million miles from the Sun. This first-ever photo from inside the Sun’s corona is a breakthrough in the field of heliophysics and researchers are hopeful it will help us learn more about this giant star.
First Photo of a Black Hole
In April 2019, NASA released the first known image of a black hole. This mysterious entity sits in the center of the Messier 87 galaxy—55 million light years from Earth—and was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope. The luminous disk we see is actually the black hole’s accretion disk, where hot gases swirl around the vacuous space.