first colour photograph

The world’s first colour photograph

Today photography for most of us means… Instagram? Filters? Selfies? Most of us capture gorgeous, richly coloured, flattering images of ourselves, our friends and our surroundings countless times each week. In an age where every phone is a highly sophisticated camera we don’t think twice about snapping something and – thanks to the technology in our hands – it looking great first time. However the history of colour photography evolved slowly, with far more basic origins. We’ve been having a look at the world’s first colour photograph to find out how far we’ve come.

first colour photograph

Maxwell’s colour photograph of tartan ribbon

The first ever known photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, but it took until 1861 for someone to develop the technology to incorporate very basic colour. It was Scottish physicist and poet James Clerk Maxwell who produced the first true colour photograph – one that didn’t fade immediately or need colour adding afterwards by hand. The image today looks foggy, mysterious, perhaps even a little sinister. Can you make out what it is?

First colour photograph

The red, green and blue filters used for Maxwell’s photograph

The image is of tartan ribbon and it was photographed three times using different coloured filters – red, blue and yellow. The three images where then overlaid to create a single composite. The technique was developed according to theories about how the eye processes colour, and it was this, rather than any real desire to advance the art of photography, that Maxwell wished to demonstrate with his picture.

Sarah Angelina Acland

Colour photography by English pioneer Sarah Angelina Acland, 1900

It would take decades until colour photography developed sufficiently to be recognisable in its scope to our modern eyes. In the very early 20th century advances in equipment allowed first for landscapes and still lives to be photographed, as the exposure time necessary for the image to be taken made still subjects preferable. English pioneer Sarah Angelina Acland however took a number of artful, subtle portraits using the Sanger Shepherd process. This process used the same basis of colour filters, but it was a technically demanding and time consuming process. At the time it was theorised that women were  particularly well-suited to this form of photography due to their superior patience and tidiness! Acland was lecturing on her photographic process at The Royal Photographic Society in 1905 – two years before the Lumière brothers wowed Paris with their Autochrome colour process in 1907.

Sarah Angelina Acland

Portrait of Margaret Hope, September 1907, Sarah Angelina Acland

Perhaps most vivid and recognisable to our modern eyes are the photographs of Russian Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky. The scientist and photographic pioneer not only photographed Tolstoy in colour in 1908, but in 1909 began a tour of Russia with a specially equipped railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II, documenting the Russian Empire in around 3,500 negatives.


Colour composite of Alim Khan, emir of Bukhara, 1911, by Prokudin-Gorsky



Young Russian peasant women in a rural area along the Sheksna River near the small town of Kirillov, Prokudin-Gorsky


Ros Anderson


Ros Anderson is an interiors journalist and blogger who has worked for The Guardian, Elle Decoration, Ideal Home and many more. In 2009 she co-founded cult interiors blog My Friend's House with Jill Macnair, as a place to write about design in a more honest, spontaneous and humorous way.

The Chromologist 2019 | Farrow & Ball

The Chromologist