Etymology of Photography

Photography is the art or process of taking photographs. Photography works through radiant energy and has existed since the 11th century when an Iraqi scientist invented the camera obscura. This camera didn’t actually record images; it just projected the images onto a surface.

It was only in the 1830s that a man named Joseph Niépce invented modern photography. The oldest photography in existence is the View from the Window at Le Gras, which is a simple black-and-white photograph of buildings and nature.

This is an important piece of information if you want to understand this word’s etymology, because the actual word photography has only existed since 1839—after Joseph Niépce actually invented photography.


Photography is a combination of the words photo and graphy and was named so by John Herschel in 1839. Let’s take a look at these two words:

Photo (φωτω-) was an Ancient Greek word. It means to shine, a reference to light.

Graphia (γράφω) was also an Ancient Greek word. It means, roughly, something that is written, or perhaps a better word for it would be recorded.

Thus, photography is light recording.

Photography in Other Languages

Albanian: fotografi

Basque: argazkilaritza

Bosnian: fotografija

Catalan: fotografia

Croatian: fotografija

Czech: fotografování

Danish: fotografering

Dutch: fotografie

Estonian: fotograafia

French: photographie

Galician: fotografía

German: Fotografie

Italian: fotografia

Maltese: fotografija

Polish: fotografia

Portuguese: fotografia

Romanian: fotografie

Slovenian: fotografija

Spanish: fotografía

Swedish: fotografi

Welsh: ffotograffiaeth


Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.

Lewis, Charlton T., Elementary Latin Dictionary, Oxford, 1890.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott, eds., Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford Univ. Press, 1883.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, 1989.