Nadar was born in 1820 in Paris (although some sources state Lyon). He was a caricaturist for Le Charivari in 1848. In 1849 he created the Revue comique and the Petit journal pour rire. He took his first photographs in 1853 and in 1858 became the first person to take aerial photographs. He also pioneered the use of artifical lighting in photography, working in the catacombs of Paris.
Around 1863, Nadar built a huge (6000 m³) hot air balloon named Le Géant ("The Giant"), thereby inspiring Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon. The "Géant" project was unsuccessful and convinced him that the future belonged to heavier-than-air machines. Afterwards "The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines" was established, with Nadar as president and Verne as secretary. Nadar was also the inspiration for the character of Michael Ardan in From the Earth to the Moon.
On his visit to Brussels with the Géant, on September 26, 1864, Nadar erected mobile barriers to keep the crowd at a safe distance. Up to this day, mobile barriers are known in Belgium as Nadar barriers.
In April 1874, he lent his photo studio to a group of painters, thus making the first exhibition of the Impressionists possible. He photographed Victor Hugo on his death-bed in 1885. He is credited with having published (in 1886) the first photo-interview (of famous chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, then a centenarian), and also took erotic photographs.
From 1895 until his return to Paris in 1909 the Nadar photo studio was in Marseille.