Lumières Develop Color Photography Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Louis and Auguste Lumière introduced the autochrome plate, the first commercially successful process in which a single exposure in a regular camera produced a color image.

Summary of Event

In 1882, Antoine Lumière, painter, pioneer photographer, and father of Auguste and Louis, founded a factory to manufacture photographic gelatin dry plates. After the Lumière brothers took over the factory’s management, they expanded production to include roll film and printing papers in 1887 and also carried out joint research that led to fundamental discoveries and improvements in development and other aspects of photographic chemistry. Photography;color Inventions;color photography Autochrome plates [kw]Lumières Develop Color Photography (1907) [kw]Color Photography, Lumières Develop (1907) [kw]Photography, Lumières Develop Color (1907) Photography;color Inventions;color photography Autochrome plates [g]France;1907: Lumières Develop Color Photography[01810] [c]Science and technology;1907: Lumières Develop Color Photography[01810] [c]Inventions;1907: Lumières Develop Color Photography[01810] [c]Chemistry;1907: Lumières Develop Color Photography[01810] [c]Photography;1907: Lumières Develop Color Photography[01810] Lumière, Louis Lumière, Auguste Seyewetz, Alphonse

Although recording and reproducing the actual colors of a subject was not possible at the time of photography’s inception (about 1822), the first practical photographic process, the daguerreotype (silver halide process invented by Jacques Daguerre in 1837), was able to render both striking detail and good tonal quality. The desire to produce full-color images, or some approximation of realistic color, occupied the minds of many photographers and inventors—including Louis and Auguste Lumière—throughout the nineteenth century.

In the course of their research in the area of color photography, the Lumière brothers attempted to make the Lippmann interference process Lippmann interference process (a method of recording full-color images directly by means of interference between wavelengths, without the use of dyes or colorants, which was invented by Gabriel Lippmann in 1891) commercially possible as early as 1892. Although they became the most successful investigators and developers of the process, it never became a practical technique, because the emulsion was at least 100,000 times slower than that of ordinary films.

Reproducing the colors of nature by indirect means, however, was found to be possible; this was done either through the addition of colored lights or through the mixture of various pigments. Although both were proposed at the same time, the first process that met with any practical success was based on the theory, expounded by James Clerk Maxwell Maxwell, James Clerk in 1861, that any color can be created through the adding together of red, green, and blue light in definite proportions. This theory of additive color Additive color theory holds true only for colored light; the subtractive color process, Subtractive color process on the other hand, is based on the mechanical mixture of pigments. Whereas white light is produced by the reflection or adding of all the light rays that fall on it (namely, the additive primary colors: red, green, and blue), black absorbs or subtracts all the rays falling on it (namely, the subtractive primary colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow).

Maxwell, taking three negatives through screens or filters of these additive primary colors and projecting slides made from them through the same filters onto a screen so that their images were superimposed, found that it was possible to reproduce the exact colors as well as the form of nature. Unfortunately, because colors could not be recorded in their tonal relationships before the end of the nineteenth century, Maxwell’s experiment was unsuccessful. Although in 1892 Frederick E. Ives Ives, Frederick E. of Philadelphia optically united three transparencies so that they could be viewed in proper register (exact matching in position of the filter and the plate) through a peephole, viewing the transparencies was still not as simple as looking at a black-and-white photograph.

The first practical method of making a single color photograph that could be viewed without any apparatus was devised by John Joly Joly, John of Dublin in 1893. Instead of taking three separate pictures through three colored filters, he took one negative through one filter minutely checkered with microscopic areas colored red, green, and blue. The filter and the plate were exactly the same size and were placed in contact with each other in the camera. After the plate was developed, a transparency was made, and the filter was permanently attached to it. The white and black areas of the picture allowed more or less light to shine through the filters; if the picture was viewed from a proper distance, the colored lights blended to form the various colors of nature.

Thus, although the principles of additive and subtractive color and their potential applications in photography had been discovered and even experimentally demonstrated by 1880, a practical process of color photography utilizing these principles could not be produced until a truly panchromatic emulsion was available, because all methods depended on making a record of the primary color content of light from the subject. This necessary improvement in emulsion response was achieved from 1903 to 1906 and was immediately applied to color photography by the Lumière brothers.

Auguste (left) and Louis Lumière.

Louis and Auguste Lumière, along with their research associate Alphonse Seyewetz, succeeded in creating a single-plate color process in 1903. It was introduced commercially as the autochrome plate in 1907 and was soon in use throughout the world. Autochrome was a random-dot screen process that created its effect through the additive color synthesis. A glass plate was coated with a double layer of starch grains dyed to act as primary additive color filters; spaces between grains were filled with carbon dust so that no unfiltered light would degrade the image. After the filter layer was coated with a panchromatic emulsion, the plate was exposed through the base (glass) side so that the subject colors were analyzed by the filter layer before the emulsion was exposed. Reversal processing developed the emulsion to a black-and-white negative image and then converted it to a positive transparency. When viewed from the emulsion side (to correct for the left-right reversal caused by the camera lens), the filter layer colored the transmitted light, and the positive image modulated the intensities; the eye blended the additive color sensations thus received to produce a full-color image. Later versions of the plate used resin globules instead of the starch and carbon particles.

In order for details of the image to be analyzed in red, green, and blue, the filter elements of the screen needed to be extremely small. They were, in fact, dyed particles that averaged 0.015 millimeter (approximately 0.0006 inch) in size. Various particle materials were used at different times, including yeasts, dried ferments, bacilli, and powdered enamels; however, potato starch grains were the most successful in early versions of the process.

Separate batches of particles were dyed red, green, and blue and were blended to produce a mixture with a uniformly neutral (gray) appearance. A glass plate was covered with a thin layer of transparent varnish, and the particle mixture was dusted on. When dry, this layer was coated with varnish and a second layer was dusted on. Finally, carbon black (powdered charcoal) was dusted on to fill any remaining spaces between the colored particles of the second layer. The carbon particles blocked any light from passing completely through the screen in areas where spaces in both layers coincided, or through only the grains of the lower layer below spaces in the upper layer; either case would permit unwanted light to degrade the final image.

When the screen was completed, it was coated with a panchromatic emulsion. Exposure was through the base side of the plate so that the screen could analyze the light before it affected the emulsion. The processed image was viewed from the emulsion side to counteract the left-right reversal produced by the camera lens.

Although this method entails color separation through the three filters, each separation “negative” is the size of one tiny starch grain. Through special chemical treatment after development, the image is transformed from negative to positive, thus becoming a transparency of full photographic values, plus the colors supplied by the starch grains.

This process is one of the many that takes advantage of the limited resolving power of the human eye. Grains or dots too small to be recognized as separate units are accepted in their entirety and, to the sense of vision, appear as tones and continuous color. Every grain of filter color in the autochrome screen serves two purposes: First, it separates the colors of the subject for photographic purposes, and then it permits itself to be seen in its allotted space.

One drawback to the autochrome plate was that it required forty to sixty times more exposure than did the best black-and-white plates. In addition, although it was possible theoretically to contact print one plate onto another, or to copy it with a camera, in practice, the results generally were unacceptable. Sharpness suffered because the plates could not be placed emulsion-to-emulsion (if they were, light exposing the second plate would not be screened), the grain factors of the two screens multiplied to produce a grainier image, and colors changed because the transmission characteristics of the screens were not perfect and tended to differ from batch to batch. Therefore, each autochrome plate was unique.


The Lumières’ autochrome plate paved the way for the commercial success of color photography. Prior to their work, color photography involved the difficult process of producing three negatives to form one color image. By obtaining the three necessary color exposures on one plate, the Lumière brothers made color photography accessible to everyone with an ordinary camera.

The autochrome plate was rivaled eventually by other processes, especially Agfa, which has a granular screen quite similar to the autochrome; Dufaycolor, which is a flexible film, but one in which the color screen is a very fine mosaic instead of an unsymmetrical arrangement of grains; and the Finlaycolor process, Finlaycolor process in which the color screen is not integral with the color plate but is located on a separate glass. In this last process, the color screen is placed in contact with the sensitive plate in the plate holder, and the exposure made through it results in the usual minute color separations; however, the plate is developed and fixed as a negative after the color screen has been removed. The Finlay screen is also a symmetrical mosaic of color elements; when transparent positives are made from the negative, the mosaic image on the negative becomes symmetrically duplicated on the positive. Color is supplied through the use of a viewing screen, which has identical color arrangement and can be registered with the transparency. Because these viewing screens can be purchased in quantities and matched up with additional positives, duplicate color transparencies can be obtained from one negative. Aligning a Finlay screen over a transparency requires great care; misalignment causes either a moiré (wavy) pattern or inaccurate colors.

Although the autochrome plate remained one of the most popular color processes until the 1930’s, soon this process (as well as other additive color processes, including Agfa, Dufay, and Finlay) was superseded by subtractive color processes. Leopold Mannes Mannes, Leopold and Leopold Godowsky, Godowsky, Leopold both musicians and amateur photographic researchers who eventually joined forces with Eastman Kodak research scientists, did the most to perfect the Lumière brothers’ advances in making color photography practical. Their collaboration led to the introduction in 1935 of Kodachrome, Kodachrome a subtractive process in which a single sheet of film is coated with three layers of emulsion, each sensitive to one primary color. A single exposure produces a color image.

Color photography is now commonplace. The amateur market is enormous, and snapshots are nearly always taken in color. Commercial and publishing markets use color extensively. Even photography as an art form, which has been dominated by black-and-white images for most of its history, has turned increasingly to color. With the advent of digital cameras in the 1990’s, color photography was once again revolutionized as computer-generated images obviated the need for chemical processing to produce color photographs. Photography;color Inventions;color photography Autochrome plates

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eder, Josef Maria. History of Photography. Translated by Edward Epstean. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1972. In this lengthy and excellent work, the author discusses the Lumières’ autochrome process in the context of the historical development of color photography. Includes a brief biography of the author, extensive notes, and numerous reproductions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mees, C. E. Kenneth. From Dry Plates to Ektachrome Film: A Story of Photographic Research. New York: Ziff-Davis, 1961. Mees, a scientist at Kodak, discusses the Lumière brothers’ contribution to photographic science in a chapter devoted to color photography. Includes numerous illustrations and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present. 5th rev. ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982. This standard work on the historical development of photography offers a brief discussion of the development of the autochrome process. Presents the history of a medium rather than a technique. Contains many black-and-white illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ostroff, Eugene, ed. Pioneers of Photography. Springfield, Va.: SPSE, 1987. The Lumière brothers’ work is described in several essays in this excellent collection. The autochrome process is discussed in its historical context rather than in extensive technical detail. Bibliographic entries after each essay and numerous illustrations and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandler, Martin W. Photography: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Presents a chronological overview of the major figures in the history of photography and their artistic and technical contributions. Chapter 8, devoted to the innovation of color photography, discusses the work of the Lumière brothers. Includes many photographs as well as a chronology, a bibliography, and a list of photography museums around the world and Web sites devoted to photography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sipley, Louis Walton. Photography’s Great Inventors. Philadelphia: American Museum of Photography, 1965. This slim but informative volume devotes one section to the work of the Lumière brothers. Presents biographical information as well as a brief discussion of the autochrome process in the context of the brothers’ contribution to phototechnology. Short bibliography follows each entry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, John. The Art of the Autochrome: The Birth of Color Photography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993. Presents some of the work of early twentieth century photographers who used the autochrome process developed by the Lumières. Includes seventy-five color plates.

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