The earliest known surviving heliographic engraving, printed from a metal plate made in 1825 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce using his "heliographic process".[1] The plate was exposed under an ordinary engraving. Heliography was also used to capture a scene directly from nature with a camera.

Heliography (in French, héliographie) from helios (Greek: ἥλιος), meaning "sun", and graphein (γράφειν), "writing") is the photographic process invented by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce around 1822,[1] which he used to make the earliest known surviving photograph from nature, View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 1827), and the first realisation of photoresist[2] as means to reproduce artworks through inventions of photolithography and photogravure.


Comparison between the original engraving and the heliography of Joseph Nicephore Niepce. left: Engraving of Portrait of Georges d'Amboise, 1650 right: Heliography (Heliogravure) of the engraving, 1826

In the summers of 1826, a French inventor, Nicephore Niepce, shocked the entire world by capturing the first image through a process called heliography. Intrigued by the potency of this undeveloped market, business executives invested more of their resources into the untapped world of photography. As expected, the industrial revolution set the wheels in motion for the production and development of photography.[3] Niépce prepared a synopsis of his experiments in November 1829: On Heliography, or a method of automatically fixing by the action of light the image formed in the camera obscura[4][5] which outlines his intention to use his “Heliographic” method of photogravure or photolithography as a means of making lithographic, intaglio or relief master plates for multiple printed reproductions.[6]

He knew that the acid-resistant Bitumen of Judea used in etching hardened with exposure to light.[7] In experiments he coated it on plates of glass, zinc, copper and silver-surfaced copper, pewter and lithographic stone,[8] and found it resisted dissolution[9] in oil of lavender and petroleum, so that the uncoated shadow areas could be traditionally treated through acid etching and aquatint to print black ink.[10][11]

The exposed and solvent-treated plate itself, as in the case of View from the Window at Le Gras, presents a negative or positive image dependent upon ambient reflection, not unlike the daguerreotype which was based on Niépce's discoveries.


Bitumen has a complex and varied structure of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (linked benzene rings), containing a small proportion of nitrogen and sulphur; its hardening in proportion to its exposure to light is understood to be due to further cross-linking of the rings, as is the hardening of tree resins (colophony, or abietic acid) by light, first noted by Jean Senebier in 1782. The photochemistry of these processes, which has been studied by Jean-Louis Marignier of Université Paris-Sud since the 1990s,[12][13][14] is still to be fully understood.[15]

Alternative meanings

The word has also been used to refer to other phenomena: for description of the sun (cf. geography), for photography in general, for signalling by heliograph (a device less commonly called a heliotrope or helio-telegraph), and for photography of the sun.[16]

The abbreviations héliog. or héliogr., found on old reproductions, may stand for the French word héliogravure, and can then refer to any form of photogravure.


  1. ^ a b "The First Photograph — Heliography". Archived from the original on 2009-10-06. Retrieved 2009-09-29. from Helmut Gernsheim's article, "The 150th Anniversary of Photography," in History of Photography, Vol. I, No. 1, January 1977: ...In 1822, Niépce coated a glass plate... The sunlight passing through... This first permanent example... was destroyed... some years later.
  2. ^ Dyson, R. W. (Robert William), 1942- (1987), Specialty polymers, Blackie ; New York : Chapman and Hall, p. 102, ISBN 978-0-412-01551-9{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ "The History of Photograph Retouching".
  4. ^ Bonnet, M., & Marignier, J.-L. (2003). Niépce, correspondance et papiers. Saint-Loup-de-Varennes: Maison Nicéphore Niepce
  5. ^ "Niépce Correspondance et papiers, accessible en ligne". Musée Photo Maison Nicéphore Niépce (in fr-FR). 2012-01-09. Retrieved 2019-08-23.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)
  6. ^ Ostroff, E. (1969). 'Etching, Engraving & Photography: History of Photomechanical Reproduction.' In The Journal of Photographic Science, 17(3), 65-80.
  7. ^ Vogel, Hermann Wilhelm (1876). The chemistry of light and photography in their application to art, science, and industry (revised ed.). H. King. p. 12.
  8. ^ Michael Peres (2007), The Concise Focal Encyclopedia of Photography From the First Photo on Paper to the Digital RevolutionPaperback (1st ed.), Focal Press, p. 85, ISBN 978-0-240-80998-4
  9. ^ M. Hepher (Fellow) (1964) The Third Fishenden Memorial Lecture: The Photo-Resist Story—From NiéPce to the Modern Polymer Chemist, The Journal of Photographic Science, 12:4, 181-190, DOI: 10.1080/00223638.1964.11737246
  10. ^ Krongauz, V. V. (Vadim V.), 1953-; Trifunac, A. D. (Alexander D.), 1944- (1995), Processes in photoreactive polymers, Chapman & Hall, ISBN 978-0-412-98401-3{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Morrish, David; MacCallum, Marlene, (author.) (2015), Copper plate photogravure : demystifying the process, Focal Press, ISBN 978-1-138-13124-8 {{citation}}: |author2= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. ^ Marignier, Jean-Louis. "L'invention de la photographie." Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences-Series IIB-Mechanics-Physics-Chemistry-Astronomy 325.7 (1997): 415-420.
  13. ^ MARIGNIER, Jean-Louis (1998). "L'invention de la photographie par Nicéphore Niépce : apport de la voie expérimentale". www.openbibart.fr. Retrieved 2019-08-23.
  14. ^ Marignier, J. L. (2003). Niepce: l'invention de la photographie. Belin, Paris.
  15. ^ Hannavy, J. (2008). Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography. New York: Routledge.
  16. ^ Descriptions of the sun, photography in general, and signalling by heliotrope: Oxford English Dictionary 2nd ed. (1989) s.v. "Heliography". Photography of the sun: As used by and in discussion of Hiroshi Yamazaki.

Other Sources

  • Art & Architecture Thesaurus, s.v. "heliography". Accessed 10 December 2007.
  • Harry Ransom Center. The University of Texas at Austin. The First Photograph. Accessed 10 December 2007.
  • An Improved Method in the Art of Signalling for Military & Scientific Purposes (1887). Accessed 1 June 2008.