Color Photo

The world’s first color photograph is a tartan ribbon, taken in 1861 by Thomas Sutton under the guidance of James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell created the first durable color photograph using a process that involved taking photographs through red, green, and blue filters and then overlapping them to create a complete color image. This breakthrough in color photography laid the foundation for future advancements in the field. The original plates used to make this photograph are now housed in a small museum at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, the house where Maxwell was born. While there were multiple inventors working on various methods of color photography in the 1800s, Maxwell’s achievement is considered the first durable color photograph.

Unveiling History: The World’s First Color Photograph

The history of photography is a journey through time, filled with groundbreaking innovations and creative minds that have shaped the way we capture the world around us. One such milestone is the world’s first color photograph, a testament to human ingenuity and an achievement that forever changed the way we perceive the visual world. In this article, we delve into the fascinating story of the first color photograph, tracing its origins, the pioneering spirit behind it, and its profound impact on the world of photography.

History of color photography

The first experiments with color photography began in the early 1800s. In 1839, Louis Daguerre invented a process for creating color photographs using three separate black-and-white images taken through red, green, and blue filters. However, the process was very complex and produced inaccurate results.

In 1855, James Clerk Maxwell proposed a new method for color photography that was based on the principle that all colors can be created by combining red, green, and blue light. Maxwell’s method involved taking three separate black-and-white photographs through red, green, and blue filters, and then projecting the three images onto a single surface, one on top of the other.

The Birth of a Visionary

James Clerk Maxwell, renowned for his contributions to electromagnetism and his influence on Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, was the mastermind behind the world’s first color photograph. In 1855, Maxwell proposed the theory that any color could be produced through combinations of red, green, and blue light. Fueled by this idea, he set up a color box in his London attic to experiment with the blending of these primary colors.

James Clerk Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell

The Collaboration

To bring his visionary theory to life, Maxwell enlisted the assistance of Thomas Sutton, the second professor of photography at King’s College London. Under Maxwell’s guidance, Sutton captured three separate exposures of the same object, each through a different colored filter – red, green, and blue-violet. This method aimed to replicate the natural blending of colors that occurs when light interacts with objects in the real world.

The Three-Color Method

Maxwell’s method for creating the first color photograph was known as the “three-color method”. This groundbreaking technique involved the capture of three separate black-and-white photographs of the same subject, each taken through a different color filter: red, green, and blue. These three monochrome images were then recombined to produce a full-color image. Maxwell’s process was the first to demonstrate that it was possible to reproduce the colors of the real world through the medium of photography.

The Iconic Image: The Tartan Ribbon

The subject of Maxwell’s iconic color photograph was a tartan ribbon, a type of plaid pattern commonly associated with Scottish culture. This choice of subject was both symbolic and practical, as the intricate and colorful patterns of the tartan ribbon provided an ideal test subject for Maxwell’s color photography experiments.

Tartan Ribbon - World's First Color Photograph
Tartan Ribbon – World’s First Color Photograph

The Creation of the First Color Photograph

Combining the three individual exposures, Maxwell and Sutton projected them onto a screen, resulting in a stunning full-color image. This breakthrough marked the birth of the world’s first durable color photograph, forever changing the course of photography. Maxwell unveiled his remarkable creation during a lecture but did not further pursue the development of color photography.

The Legacy

Maxwell’s pioneering work set the stage for future advancements in color photography. However, it would be several decades before others continued his research and brought color photography to fruition on a commercial scale. In 1906, the world witnessed the introduction of the first commercially available color photographic process.

Preserving History

Today, the original glass plates used to capture the world’s first color photograph are proudly displayed in a museum in Maxwell’s birthplace of Edinburgh. These plates serve as a reminder of the remarkable ingenuity and foresight of James Clerk Maxwell, forever immortalizing his name in the annals of photographic history.

Maxwell’s Red, Green and Blue Colour Filters and Black-and-White Glass Plate Negatives, James Clerk Maxwell Foundation
Maxwell’s Red, Green and Blue Colour Filters and Black-and-White Glass Plate Negatives, James Clerk Maxwell Foundation


The world’s first color photograph, brought to life by the brilliance of James Clerk Maxwell and the skilled lens of Thomas Sutton, remains a testament to the power of human innovation and scientific inquiry. Their collaboration and groundbreaking techniques paved the way for modern color photography, forever transforming the art form. As we marvel at the vibrant array of colors captured by today’s cameras, let us not forget the visionary minds that laid the foundation for this extraordinary achievement.

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