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Photography originates from the Greek words photos, which means light, and graphos, which means drawing. It is an art, science, and practice that involves using light to create images. The photographic process starts when light-sensitive chemicals, known as silver halides, are exposed to light. The halides are developed onto a piece of film to create a negative image, which is then exposed to light to create the positive, and final, photograph.

The idea for photography dates back to the time of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, when the principle of camera obscura was first recorded. This is when light passes through a small hole in a darkened room or chamber and produces an image on an opposite wall. Scientists experimented with film development processes and chemicals in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1827, Joseph Niépce created the first photograph, and in 1839, Louis Daguerre, introduced his daguerreotype process, which reduced the exposure time from eight hours to 30 minutes. Motion-picture photography was introduced in the late 1800s and by the early 1900s movie theaters were attracting paying audiences. The American Civil War gave rise to photojournalism, with Matthew Brady and other photographers capturing images of the horrors of war. 

Instant photography came about in 1948, when the Polaroid camera was introduced. Since the late 1980s, the growth and development of computer technology has further changed the photography industry. Digital photography was introduced to the market in the late 1990s and cell phones have since evolved to feature digital and video photography. Some professional photographers, especially those who have worked in the business for decades, have deep knowledge of film photography and the development process, and may choose to shoot either only film or film and digital. For many commercial photographers, however, digital cameras offer convenience and speedier delivery of images to clients. The downfall of this increased efficiency has meant that consumers also have the ability to create and share their own images quickly and with large audiences. Many photographers who work solo or who operate small studios offer a range of services to stay competitive in the field. They include image retouching and services such as online proofs, prints, CDs, and framing as part of the package for their customers.

The U.S. commercial photography industry has an annual growth rate of about 1 percent and generates about $1.8 billion in revenue, according to the 2020 Commercial Photography Market Research Report by Kentley Insights. The types of jobs in the business include photojournalist, news photographer, portrait photographer, wedding photographer, sports photographer, and advertising and commercial photographer, who may specialize in food, product, fashion, or industrial photography. Other specialties include industrial photography, architectural photography, nature photography, and scientific photography. Jobs that have faded since the rise of digital cameras are film lab technicians, photo processing workers, and photography equipment repairers. Social media and crowdsourcing have also affected the photography business, particularly news photography, as many companies now solicit ideas and contributions from crowds of people as opposed to assigning the work to professionals in the field.