The History of Macro Photography

A timeline overview.

Hello there, Macro photographer!

Welcome to The History of Macro Photography.

Join us and learn about the basic concepts, chemicals, and, of course, the early pioneers of photography, including those fascinated with worlds unseen to the naked eye.

It’s important to note that macro photography is a sub-product of Photomicrography, which by itself is a sub-product of photography. We will then start with the basics of the history of photography while gradually incorporating events related to micro and macro photography.

≈ 1000

Camera Obscura.

Ibn al-Haytham  (965 – 1040), one of the first polymaths, stood out for his contribution to the physics of light.

He wrote the Book of Optics, in which he proved that light travels in a straight line and explained how to recreate the dark chamber (translation from Albait Almuzlim), known today as Camera Obscura.

Over the following few centuries, the Camera Obscura proved extremely useful to scientists, especially when studying eclipses because looking at the sun was otherwise hard. Eventually, the Camera Obscura underwent structural improvements, and its applications expanded to the artistic world.

1300

Light Tracing.

During the renascence era, which began around 1300, multiple painters recurred to camera obscura as a visual aid or even to trace the images directly. However, most of them would not publicly admit the use of the technique.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was among the first to suggest using the Camera Obscura for artistic purposes.

Gerolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576) published De Subtilitate (1550). His book describes how a lens could improve the image formed within the Camera Obscura.

1665

Micrographs.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723) and Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703) were able to prove the existence of microorganisms.

In their book Micrographia (1665), multiple drawings illustrate the scientific need for high magnifications. Although highly detailed, the drawing process was time-consuming and eye-straining due to the use of simple handheld microscopes.

1777

Photochemical Reactions.

Johann Schulze (1687–1744) was one of the first to study the photographic process using silver salts. He was the first to demonstrate the possibility of a photo negative and to provide detailed steps on how to produce photochemical reactions.

Silver Nitrate was particularly useful to Schulze’s findings, as it was the most accessible and affordable of the silver salts.

1802

Photomicrography (Theorization).

Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805) conducted experiments that led to the first forms of non-permanent photography. He was also the first to experiment with silver nitrate in multiple place surfaces such as leather and white sheets which he called “Prepared Paper”.

With the help of Solar microscopes, Thomas Wedgwood managed to consistently (if temporarily) capture plant silhouettes often referred to as ” Solar Drawings” or “Solar Stamps”.

However, despite several efforts, Wedgwood and his team, including Sir Humphry Davy (1778 – 1829) could not achieve photochemical stabilization. Over time, resulting images would fade away.

1826

First Photograph.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833) a French inventor, used his knowledge of chemistry to develop a chemical solution, which he used to cover a tin plate. After 8 hours of exposure to sunlight, he created the first photograph known to mankind.

If you find it hard to understand the composition, here is a color approximation.

1839

Daguerreotype.

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787 – 1851) performed the first public demonstration of the Daguerreotype. The year was 1839. The daguerreotype is an ancient type of photoengraving that produces unique images on metal surfaces such as silver-coated copper plates.

Although expensive and not very practical, the Daguerreotype still ends up becoming the first form of conventional photography.

1834

Photomicrography (Practical)

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877) discovered the photo-negative, for which he becomes famous, but he was also the first person to take photographs of microscopic subjects.

Talbot’s photomicrographs were captured on a solar microscope using magnifications up to twenty times bigger than lifesize.

1856

Bellows Camera.

Francis Fowke  (1823 – 1865) created the first foldable camera for which he received the official patent in 1856.

His incorporation of bellows in photography was revolutionary, facilitating the construction of lighter portable cameras, allowing for increased artistic control.

Bellows were also the gateway to consistent control over magnification ratios and ended up playing a huge role in the history of macro photography.

1890

Macro Photography.

Frank Percy Smith (1880 – 1945) is generally recognized as the inventor of macro photography as we know it.

His fascination for small subjects was a big part of his life before and after World War I, where he served as an aerial battlefield photographer.

Unlike most before him, Percy revealed an interest in both the artistic and naturalistic aspects of plants and insects. Most of his imagery, such as The Birth of a Flower, portrays an artful celebration of nature combined with a scientific revelation. Occasionally a touch of comedy was thrown in the mix, as we can see in The balancing bluebottle.

Back then, macro photography tools were limited but, Percy built his amazing portfolio with Bellows, extension tubes, and motion capture equipment.

Regardless of how many photos he took between  1:1 and 1:10 magnification, his mindset made him one of the most influential personas in the history of macro photography.

1955

First Macro Lens.

Heinz Kilfitt (1898 – 1973) was the inventor of the first macro lens ever made, the Makro-Kilar 3.5/40mm. This lens was one of many models developed by his company, Kamerabau-Anstalt-Vaduz ( KAV).

Mass production for the Makro-Kilar 3.5/40mm started in 1955. Five years later, the lens was revised and updated to support f2.8 aperture while still maintaining the same focal length (40mm) and manual focusing system.  As for weight, both models were extremely light: 145g (F3.5 model) vs 170 g (f2.8 model).

It’s important to note that the Makro-Kilar was designed for Single-Lens-Reflex Camera bodies (SLR) providing a great advantage when compared to extension tubes allowing for simplified handling, increased viewable area, and significantly less photo distortion.

At this point, the ground was set for macro photography as we know it today, with Macro-specific technologies being developed by all the major photographic manufacturers.

Evolution of the Genre

The history of macro photography relates heavily to scientific research but over time evolved to an art form.

Long before the first macro lens was even invented, primitive microscopes allowed for detailed drawings, and extension tubes allowed cameras to focus at close range. Scientists were eager to embrace whatever form of technique or equipment as long as they could study small details in microorganisms.

The artistic approach to macro photography started at the eyes of Frank Percy Smith whose portfolio showcases technically impressive close-up imagery even by today’s standards.

Macro as photography has now evolved into a whole new, fascinating, art form. With the constant advancements of modern technology, a whole new range of macro lenses, accessories, and techniques have expanded the ways in which a photographer can capture and enjoy the wonders and mysteries of the little world all around us.

Thank you for visiting:

The History of Macro Photography.

See you in the field!

All the images in this article are in the Public Domain.