Chemistry of Photography

While it is easy to make comparisons between the pupil of the eye and the f-stop of a camera or between the retina of the eye and photographic film, once we get past the basic similarities of the optics of the two systems, comparisons begin to rapidly break down. The eye is not only much more complex than a camera and its film, but the two imaging devices function by different chemical mechanisms.

The photographer (or the automatic exposure system of the camera) regulates the f-stop opening and time of exposure of her camera to match the sensitivity of film, while the iris and retina sensitivity of the eye adjust to correspond to the light level of the scene.


While science is slowly putting together the pieces to explain the functioning of our vision system, the basic nuts and bolts of classical photography have been known for years, although certain details remain the subject of some discussion. Just as in the human eye, classical photographic systems are composed of two separate, but interrelated processes – the basic black and white image structure and the finer points of color reproduction.

This first installment on the chemistry of photography is intended to introduce, in a simplified way, the basic concepts of silver halide photography. It will not delve into the physics of optics, the functioning of cameras and lenses, photographic techniques, non-silver processes, or the artistic aspects of photography. Nor will it go beyond a cursory mention of color photographic processes, which will be left for the future. Anyone interested in more detail is referred to the selected bibliographic material cited at the end.

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