The ‘Firsts’ Of Photography: Here Are Some Of The World’s Oldest Surviving Photos

In the mid-1820s, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced the oldest surviving photograph of a real-life scene. Since then, photography spread across several countries, where other inventors improved upon the craft. Although pictures are commonplace today, photos of people, the moon, and planes were treasures back in the 1800s. Here are many “firsts” of photography, from the oldest aerial to the first self-portrait.

The First Photo Ever Taken

A copy of the first photo ever taken depicts a French estate.
Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty Images
Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty Images

The world’s oldest photograph is thought to have been taken in either 1826 or 1827. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce used a primitive camera to take a picture of his estate. The cloudy photo shows the Le Gras in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes estate in Bourgogne, France, from Niépce’s window.

Niépce used a method called heliography, which engraved the photograph onto a plate. Because of this, no duplicates exist. The one and only picture hangs in the University of Texas at Austin. If any older photos still exist, then historians have not discovered them yet.

The Oldest Photo Featuring A Person

The Boulevard du Temple, Paris, France, is photographed by Louis Daguerre, 1838.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The first known photograph of a human was taken in 1838. The photographer, Louis Daguerre, snapped a picture of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. If you do not see the person, look closely at the bottom left.

On the side, a man is getting his shoes shined. He remained still long enough for the long exposure to capture him. Daguerre did not know that a person was there; it was entirely an accident. In the early days of photography, capturing a visible person on camera was rare.

The First Self-Portrait

The self-portrait of Robert Cornelius is the first known self-portrait.
Robert Cornelius/Getty Images
Robert Cornelius/Getty Images

Although selfies are a modern phenomenon, self-portraits date back to 1839. This was taken by (and features) Robert Cornelius, an American photographer who pioneered the field. Between 1841 and 1843, he operated one of the earliest photography studios ever and aimed to decrease the camera’s exposure time.

Cornelius invented the “solar lamp,” a camera light that uses lard. It burned brighter and cost less than traditional whale oil lights. During this self-portrait, he was testing the light source. On the back of the photograph, Cornelius wrote, “The first light picture ever taken.”

The Oldest Known Photo Of The Moon

The oldest known photo of the moon dates back to 1840. It was taken by John W. Draper, a British physicist, chemist, and professor. He had learned about Louis Daguerre’s photography and aimed to advance his techniques.

Between 1839 and 1840, Draper used Daguerre’s photo technique–called daguerreotypes–to photograph the moon from the rooftop observatory at New York University. He tweaked the method to reduce exposure times and increase light sensitivity. Finally, in March 1840, he caught a detailed picture of the quarter moon. Draper continued to make lunar portraits as he advanced photography.

The First Plane And A Man’s First Photo

This photo shows the first plane flight, driven by Orville Wright.
John T. Daniels/Wikipedia Commons
John T. Daniels/Wikipedia Commons

On December 17, 1903, aerialists Orville and Wilbur Wright traveled to the Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. They were testing their new glider in a private spot away from reporters. However, they also brought along John Thomas Daniels Jr. from the Life-Saving Station (similar to a coast guard). Daniels was an amateur photographer–in fact, this was his first photo!

The Wright brothers brought their Gundlach Korona 5×7-inch glass plate view camera and a tripod. They then handed it to Daniels, who had never even seen a camera before. Fortunately, he managed to capture Orville flying the first plane.

The First Photo Of The Sun

The first picture of the sun shows a black-and-white orb with sun spots.
Vieux têtard/Wikipedia Commons
Vieux têtard/Wikipedia Commons

The oldest surviving photograph of the sun dates back to 1845. Two French physicists, Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault, took the picture during sunrise on April 2. The vintage photo is only five inches long and wide, with several sunspots throughout.

Fizeau and Foucault used a daguerreotype, but they altered the chemical treatment to make it more light-sensitive. They only exposed the camera for 1/60th of a second, and then they treated the picture on a metal disc with chemical fumes. Once they achieved the clarity they wanted, they “froze” the image with another chemical solution.

The Oldest Picture Featured In The News

The first photo taken for the news shows a man being arrested in France.
Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

Photojournalism is explaining or emphasizing news reports through pictures. The oldest photo taken for the news has little information. Historians still do not know who took the photo or who is depicted in it.

Here is what we know: the picture was taken in 1847 and shows a man being arrested in France. It is also the first photograph of an arrest. This illustration was not printed onto paper; it was engraved on the end grain of wood. In magazines and newspapers, that method became commonplace through the 1870s.

The First Color Photograph

The first color photo depicts a multi-colored ribbon tied in a knot.
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

Once photographers got the hang of cameras, they immediately started working on color pictures. In 1855, James Clerk Maxwell invented the three-color method. This technique can create any color through three primary colors, similar to how printers work today.

In 1861, photographer Thomas Sutton joined Maxwell to test the three-color method. They snapped a picture of a colorful ribbon that is tied in a knot. Although it was successful, photography’s full-color spectrum would not be invented until 1906. The original colored picture hands in Maxwell’s former home, which is now a museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Oldest Aerial Photograph

The first aerial picture of Boston dates back to 1860.
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although some people view aerial photographs as modern technology, they actually date back to 1860. Throughout the 1850s, French photographer Gaspar Felix Tournachon, known as “Nadar,” combined his two passions of ballooning and photography. He spent several years trying to take an aerial photograph of the French village of Petit-Becetre.

Sadly, Nadar was beaten by Boston photographer James Wallace Black. On October 13, 1860, Black flew 2,000 feet high on his hot air balloon. He snapped a picture of Boston, the earliest known aerial picture (seen here). Nadar’s oldest photo did not arise until 1866.

An Early Picture Of Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin is pictured in 1901 at age 23.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This is one of the oldest known pictures of Josef Stalin. In this 1901 portrait, he was 23 years old. But he was also at a crucial turning point in his life. In November of that year, he joined the Tiflis Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

This would eventually become known as the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party during the 1912 revolution. This committee formed strategies for the future communist Russia.

The First Photograph Of A U.S. President

John Quincy Adams sits for the first photograph of a U.S. president, 1843.
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1839, Louis Daguerre released the first commercially available camera, called the daguerreotype. The United States’ sixth president, John Quincy Adams, took advantage of this. His photographer was Philip Haas, a German-born, American citizen who traveled to Paris to learn about photography.

Daguerreotypes had to be colorized on silver-plated copper sheets, which required a long post-photo process. Adams also had to sit completely still for 60 to 90 seconds. But he did it, and his photo was taken in 1843, 14 years after he left office. The first president to be photographed while in office was William Henry Harrison in 1841.

The First Solar Eclipse Caught On Camera

The first photo of a solar eclipse is in black and white.

Eclipses are hard to photograph in the modern era, but they were even harder in the 1850s. Not long after French physicists photographed the sun, the Prussian photographer Julius Berkowski took a picture of the solar eclipse. While many people tried to capture eclipses beforehand, Berkowski’s was the clearest and earliest known successful photo.

On July 28, 1851, Berkowski snapped images at the Royal Observatory in Königsberg. His picture was the first to capture the sun’s corona, or the outermost atmosphere. This is the shiny outline of the eclipse that makes it visible.

The Oldest Colored Landscape In Existence

The first colored landscape photograph shows the southern French countryside.
Sishyo512/Wikipedia Commons
Sishyo512/Wikipedia Commons

In the late 19th century, photographers used the three-color theory to create colored images. Many had to take a photo three times and layer them on top of each other. But in 1877, photographer Louis Ducos du Hauron had a better idea.

He stacked three color recording emulsions on top of each other so that they could all be exposed at once. To test it, he took the first colored landscape photo. The image, called “Landscape of Southern France,” depicts a small French village. Hauron’s “tripacks” revolutionized the history of photography.

One Of The First Underwater Pictures

A diver is underwater in the oldest underwater photograph.

The world’s first underwater picture featuring a person and a camera was taken in 1899. Louis Marie Auguste Boutan, a pioneer of the photography industry, also happened to be a diver. He spent several years developing an underwater flash that would illuminate his subject well enough.

This is not a self-portrait. The subject is Emil Racovitza, a Romanian oceanographer and biologist. Although historians do not know how deep he is, they know that Racovitz is diving in the Banyuls-sur-Mer along the South of France. To get enough light, Bouton tied an alcohol lamp to an oxygen-filled barrel.

Photographing The Eiffel Tower Throughout Its Construction

Gustave Eiffel stands at the base of the Eiffel Tower while it is under construction.
Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

The oldest photos of the Eiffel Tower were taken during its construction. Construction began in 1887, as the tower was designed to be the entrance for the 1889 World’s Fair. From the beginning, photographer Hippolyte Blancard documented the building’s construction.

From July 1887 to April 1889, Blancard captured several pictures of the Eiffel Tower. The elevator was built first, and engineers formed the base around it. Blancard’s most famous photo from this era was printed in August 1888. The tower’s architect, Gustave Eiffel, stands beneath it.

The Earliest-Known Picture Of Abraham Lincoln

This is the oldest known photo of Abraham Lincoln at 37 years old.
Nicholas Shepherd/Getty Images
Nicholas Shepherd/Getty Images

The earliest photo of Abraham Lincoln was taken in 1846 or 1847, decades before he became president. At the time, Lincoln was a frontier lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and he had recently been elected to the House of Representatives. He was 37 or 38 years old, and daguerreotypes were still in their infancy.

The photographer, Nicholas H. Shepherd, took several photographs of American government officials. According to Lincoln’s son, Robert, this picture was taken in either St. Louis or Washington, although historians cannot confirm which.

The Oldest Digital Photograph

The first digital photograph ever made shows Russell Kirsch's three-month-old son, Walden.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Digital photography began developing in the 1950s. In 1951, American engineers led by Russell Kirsch found a way to send digital signals to a magnetic tape, resulting in the first tape recorder. But they could not translate images until 1957.

That year, Kirsch took a picture of his three-month-old son, Walden. He scanned an analog photograph onto a tiny file using a primitive computer. But digital photography still had a long way to go. It wasn’t until 1975 that Steven Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak, constructed the first digital camera.

The Oldest Picture Of The United States, Ever

The first photo taken in the United States depicts Central High School in Philadelphia.
N-gio/Wikipedia Commons
N-gio/Wikipedia Commons

Although the first cameras were developed in France, the technology quickly traveled to other countries, including the United States. America’s earliest known photo was taken by inventor Joseph Saxton. He snapped a picture of Central High School in Philadelphia, his hometown.

Using a daguerreotype, Saxton sat on the corner of Juniper and Walnut streets for a full ten minutes to capture this building. He worked at U.S. Mint, and this high school was across the street. Saxton fiddled with the new technology for years after he photographed this school

The Earliest Underwater Color Photo

The first ever underwater color photo looks like a lower-quality version of nature photos taken today. In 1926, National Geographic photographer Charles Martin teamed up with botanist William Longley. They dove with cameras in waterproof cases and several pounds of explosive magnesium, which lit the space for the photo.

The two ventured into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida Keys. The picture shows a hogfish swimming by a reef. Afterward, these men continued to work on underwater photography until the first underwater photoshoot occurred in 1940.

Panoramic Pictures Have Been Around For Over A Century

An 1893 panoramic photo shows the Phoenix Temple in Japan.
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty Images
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty Images

Shortly after the invention of the camera, photographers worked to make panoramic pictures. In the 1850s, they created photos of cityscapes by attaching multiple daguerreotype plates together. In the 1890s, inventors came up with the first panoramic camera.

These cameras–which were commercialized as the Al-Vista in 1898–could rotate both the camera and the film 360 degrees. They used “swing lenses” and “roll film,” which could rotate without a tripod. Oddly enough, the first panoramic camera was patented in Austria in the 1940s; but no pictures from this era survived.

Proving The Curvature Of The Earth

On December 30, 1930, a photograph proved that the earth is round. Captain Albert Stevens of the U.S. Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force) flew up in the Explorer II. This balloon set a world record at the time, flying up to 72,395 feet!

Stevens snapped the photo above South Dakota, showing over 300 miles of prairie. Not only was it the first visual proof that the earth is round, but it also showed the moon’s shadow on the planet. Shortly after he took the photo, Stevens’s balloon exploded, and he parachuted to safety.

The Oldest Picture Of Lightning

Because lightning flashes so quickly, it is notoriously difficult to photograph. But in 1882, photographer William Nicholson Jennings managed to capture the phenomenon. Early photographic plates were not sensitive enough to capture lightning, so Jennings had to wait two years for technology to catch up.

On September 2, 1882, Jennings sat on the roof of his Philadelphia home. He caught the first clear picture of lighting, which was then published in Scientific American. Jennings continued to photograph lightning strikes until 1896, and the Franklin Institute awarded him the Wetherill Medal for his efforts.

The Only Known Photo Of Vincent Van Gogh

This photo of Vincent Van Gogh shows the artist at age 19.
P. S. Burton/Wikipedia Commons
P. S. Burton/Wikipedia Commons

In 1873, artist Vincent Van Gogh was 19 years old. He lived during the infancy of photography, but not many images of him exist. This is the only surviving photo of the artist; historians often mistook images of him for his brother, Theo.

That January, Van Gogh prepared for his first job as an art dealer in London. Before he left, he and his brother took photos of themselves to give to their father. Historians do not know who took the photograph, but Van Gogh told his sister that the experience had not been pleasant.

The First Time Many People Saw A Tornado

The first picture of a tornado was taken in Garnett, Kansas, 1884.

Photographers could not capture a tornado for decades after the camera was invented. On April 26, 1884, photographer A.A. Adams captured a tornado in Kansas. The United States Signal Corps, (a precursor to the National Weather Service) had been tracking the tornado.

The tornado slowly moved through Anderson County for around 30 minutes, which allowed Adams to capture it. He stood next to the United Presbyterian Church in Garnett, Kansas, around 14 miles away from the twister. His picture quickly became famous because most Americans had never seen a tornado.

Mecca, One Of The Earliest Religious Photos

The oldest photo of Mecca shows the Grand Mosque, 1881.
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Today, photographs of churches and spiritual cites are common. But one of the first religious photographs in the world shows Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Taken in 1881, this photo shows the Great Mosque and Kaaba, the shrine at its center.

The photographer, Muhammad Sadiq Bey, was a surveyor and engineer for the Egyptian Army. Because photographers outside of Europe and America were not well-studied, not much is known about Bey. But he captured some important photographs throughout history, including the oldest known picture of Islam’s holiest city.

The First Photo Of The Earth Taken From Space

The first photo taken from space was on October 24, 1946. American scientists at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico launched a V-2 missile. The missile carried a 35-millimeter motion picture camera to capture photos from space.

Around 65 miles up, the missile was at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere. Here, the camera took this photo of the earth. It then survived the missile’s crash because it was packed in a steel cassette. Clyde Holliday designed the camera, which has since evolved to take many more photos of space.

Mark Twain Was Photographed When He Was 15

A portrait shows Samuel Clemens at age 15.
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Mark Twain was photographed thousands of times before his death. But when he was young, photographs were rare. The earliest known picture of Twain shows him as a 15-year-old boy.

In 1850, photographer G.H. Jones took a daguerreotype of Twain. He is wearing a printer’s cap and carries a composing stick with his birth name on it (Samuel Clemens), which he had to spell backward for it to appear on the camera. This is one of the oldest surviving photos of a celebrity taken well before he became famous.

The First Picture Taken On Mars

The first photo of Mars shows the ground beneath Viking 1.
Sallyanne Rice/Pinterest
Sallyanne Rice/Pinterest

On August 20, 1975, NASA launched the Viking 1. This spacecraft would perform the first successful Mars landing in earth’s history. Viking 1 was equipped with several cameras to send back photographs of Mars’s surface.

On July 20, 1976, Viking 1 landed on Mars. Viking’s Camera 1 sent back this panoramic image showing the surface of the planet. During this time, it was high noon on Mars, with enough light to illuminate the ground. Today, we have dozens of Mars photos to expand upon this one.

One Of The Most Famous Early War Images

A field of war is shown, called The Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

The Crimean War, fought between Russia and an alliance of England, France, and the Ottoman Empire, was the first widely-photographed war. Although the most well-known photographer was the Romanian Carol Popp de Szathmari, he did not snap the most famous picture. That was the result of British photographer Roger Fenton.

Fenton was sent to document the Crimean War by Thomas Agnew of Agnew & Sons. In 1855, he snapped a photo of a battlefield that British soldiers nicknamed “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” for its constant shelling. The Valley of the Shadow of Death photo became one of the most recognizable images of war.

The Oldest War Photos Are Anonymous

The first war photos show American soldiers on horseback.

Carol Popp de Szathmari is credited as the world’s first war photographer. But decades before he photographed the Crimean War, an unknown American photographer captured the Mexican-American War. The conflict continued for two years after the annexation of Texas.

In 1847, the anonymous photographer captured many scenes of American soldiers from this war. His pictures ranged from soldiers riding horses to private tents to the burial site of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay, Jr. Most of them hang in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, where historians struggle to discover who the photographer was.