These 77 Images Are Some Of The World’s First Color Photos

Published March 25, 2024

From the very first color photo taken in 1861 to the streets of Paris during World War I, these incredible early color photographs offer a window into the past.

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Cloister Normandy France
These 77 Images Are Some Of The World’s First Color Photos
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Although it's difficult to imagine life before the first color photographs, the first time people saw any photo at all was nearly two centuries ago — in 1839.

The Daguerreotype, invented that year by Louis Daguerre — and built on previous inventions made by inventors like Joseph Nicéphore Niépce — was one of the main monochrome photo processes. Popular worldwide, it required iodine-sensitive, silver-plated sheets of copper and only a few seconds of exposure.

However, the public became easily bored with black-and-white photography — even just a few years after its invention. Where was the vibrant color that existed in reality?

The race to take the first color photo was on. Labeled the holy grail of the photography world, scientists and experimenters alike tinkered with different processing methods for over 20 years before finally discovering a reliable color photography method.

The Famous Tartan Ribbon Color Photo

Tartan Ribbon

Wikimedia CommonsTartan Ribbon, photograph taken by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861.

Sir Isaac Newton used a prism to split sunlight in 1666, so long before the first color photos, we knew that light was a combination of seven colors. The difficulties facing the pioneers of color photography had to do with impracticality, long exposure times, unwanted dye spread, and expense.

In 1861 a Scottish physicist and polymath named James Clerk Maxwell discovered that by mixing red, green, and blue light, any color can be made. This is now referred to as the three-color process.

Using this as a strategy for coloring photos, Maxwell asked photographer Thomas Sutton to take three snapshots of a tartan-colored ribbon. He used filters in these colors and took the photos in bright sunlight.

The three photographs were developed, printed on glass, then projected onto a screen with three different projectors, each with an additional filter with the same color used in each original photo. Although Maxwell wasn't aware of it at the time, the emulsions he used were insensitive to red light. Fortunately, the red cloth used in the ribbon reflected ultraviolet light — so it registered in the final emulsion.

Even though Maxwell was not a photographer and he did this for a physics presentation, he again proved Isaac Newton's color theory and this three-color process unlocked the first key in creating the first color photos.

THe result of this experiment is widely regarded as the world's first color photograph, and it's located in the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Still, despite this early success, it would take a few more decades until color photography became more commonplace.

Failed Experiments In Color Photography

Alim Khan Color Process

Wikimedia CommonsA picture of Mohammed Alim Khan (1880-1944), Emir of Bukhara, taken in 1911. Three black-and-white photographs were taken through red, green and blue filters. The three resulting images were projected through similar filters. Combined on the projection screen, they created a full-color image.

Many times experimenters produced a color photo, however, the color would fade almost immediately when exposed to light. Solving the emulsion sensitivity problem remained elusive.

Dr. John Joly of Dublin created the Joly process in 1894. It involved a filter that combined a plate with all three key colors, exposure, reversal processing, and finished with another filter screen. This process was not very reliable, and it definitely lacked practicality.

Frederick Ives created the Kromogram in 1897. These were transparencies that needed a special viewer called a Kromskop. The complexity and the need for a separate viewer meant this process never caught fire the way Ives hoped. The rush to create the first color photos continued.

In the meantime, professional photographers grew impatient with waiting, as their customers clamored for color. They took to hand-painting their photos. This was fairly simple and cheap to do. So much so, that even after the invention of practical color photography, hand-painting remained popular.

The Color Photography Explosion

The Lumiere Brothers

Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty ImagesThe Lumière brothers invented Autochrome, the easiest early color photography process.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, several color processes existed; although none of them practical. However, things were about to escalate very quickly.

The Photochrom was the earliest color photo process that a few professional photography companies used. They produced photochroms of famous places — mostly for tourism and catalog purposes.

However, this process used the hand-coloring of negatives — and is actually a hybrid of photography and printing. Photochroms continued to gain popularity through the 1890s.

Finally, the Lumière brothers burst on the scene. Auguste and Louis invented the Cinematograph in 1895 — the motion picture film camera. They too had a color photo process, and they called it Autochrome when they patented it in 1903. The trick they had up their sleeve was combining the emulsion and filter on the same glass. Dyed potato starch was used to make their filter plate.

The Autochrome process was easy to use, and it worked with existing cameras. The longest exposure time was just 30 seconds in the worst of conditions — unlike some earlier processes that needed hours.

One of the hallmarks of images made using microscopic potato starch are the visible clumps of dye that often formed. Many believe this adds a subtle artistic element to the photographs.

The Autochrome was released commercially in 1907 and it was the holy grail of color until 1936 when Kodachrome introduced their practical multi-layer color film.

These very first color photos are part of the evolving history of photography — and mesmerizing to look at.

Next, Check out these rarely seen color photos from World War II. Then, experience these 21 stunning colorized portraits of what's likely the oldest generation ever photographed.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.