Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky: Pioneer in Colour Photography

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky: Pioneer in Colour Photography

Today, colour photography is the default, it’s easy, and anyone can do it. But it is only in the last century that colour photography has even been possible.

Born in 1863, Prokudin-Gorsky was a Russian chemist and photographer who revolutionised photography with the three-colour principle.

The method had first been suggested in 1855 by James Clerk Maxwell, but the technology did not match the theory and the results were severely lacking.

The technique, that Prokudin-Gorsky managed to accomplish, required three black and white photographs to be taken of the subject, each with a differently coloured filter – Red, Green, and Blue. This is due to the way that our eyes perceive the spectrum of light (and is why computer and mobile device screens use a combination of RGB).


Photo of Alim Khan, emir of Bukhara, 1911 (c) Sergy Prokudin-Gorsky On the right are photographs taken using blue, green and red filters.

Once the 3 images were captured; they could be projected through filters of the same colour and laid over each other to create a colour image.


Samarkand (c) Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky as part of his work to document the Russian Empire between 1909 and 1915

The technique opened a new world of photographic options, allowing photographers to use a new dimension to tell their story; colour. But the process was not without its drawbacks.


Bashkir switchman, 1910 (c) Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky as part of the work to document Russian Empire

Early practitioners were forced to change the lens filter between each shot, meaning the subject needed to be still throughout the entire process, or the final image would be blurred. This was fine for static subjects, but proved troublesome when making portrait images.