Color Photography


James Maxwell
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Scottish physicist James Maxwell laid the groundwork for color photography.

Eventually, Russian Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky perfected the technique using three exposures through a red, green, and blue filter. Recombining each exposure into one print accurately portrays color. This method, combining red, green, and blue, remains the foundation of how color is reproduced to this day.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s first color photograph is of the novelist Lev “Leo” Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

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Prokudin-Gorsky traveled Tsarist Russia on a specialty train car taking thousands of color photographs, many of which still exist.

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His trip was commissioned personally by Tsar Nicholas II, who also granted him access to protected areas throughout the Russian empire.

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Later, in 1909, the Lumiere brothers created the “Autochrome” plate. The Lumiere brothers are the same who perfected projected movie images, creating the first film festival in Paris. Under the advice of their father, they abandoned movies to return the family’s already successful photography business.

Eventually, the Luminere brothers single color photography plates, called Autochrome, became the first widely available. These relatively easy-to-use mass-market color photography process.

Autochrome plates contained about four million grains of photosensitive particles, one-third each to red, green, and blue. However, since the grains were spread by hand, there was some amount of clumping giving Autochrome color photos a certain look sometimes compared to impressionist painting.

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Autochrome photo, 1907

Louis Ducos du Hauron proposed an alternate color photography method, subtractive color negatives. Rather than adding red, green, and blue subtractive color worked as filters that removed the primary colors. Subtractive negatives were cyan, magenta, and yellow.

The benefit of subtractive color is it requires vastly less light. This enabled far lower exposure times leading to more modern cameras.

Skipping ahead, DA Spencer created the first mass-market subtractive color plates in 1928, branding them Vivex. Eventually, Vivex went to work for Kodak. At the same time, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky were working on a fast, inexpensive, accurate color film in Rochester, New York. Their film was eventually branded Kodakchrome and brought color photography to the mainstream.

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