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Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, and Other Imagery: Home

The Making of a Daguerreotype

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California focuses on the visual arts by "collecting, conserving, exhibiting and interpreting works of art of outstanding quality and historical importance." Below is a video created by the J. Paul Getty Museum explaining the detailed and complicated process for making daguerreotypes.

All About Image Archives

The Special Collections at the University of Florida houses many different kinds of photographs and photographic technology from the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries.

This guide briefly explains the history and manufacturing processes for several types of early photographic technology: daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. The guide shows distinguishing features, handling and storage issues, and the common types of damage seen with these images in the various collections at the University of Florida. The collections featured in this guide are the Noyes Family Papers and the John D. MacDonald Papers.

Other collections at the University of Florida featuring early photographic technology are the Stephens-Bryant Family Papers and the Hart Family Papers.

Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, and Tintypes

         Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre developed the first daguerreotype in Paris, France in 1839. By September, manufacture of daguerreotypes had already spread to New York City. The daguerreotype was a direct-positive process that created a highly detailed image on a sheet of copper plated with a thin coat of silver without the use of a negative. Since the images were produced onto polished silver, they are quite reflective. Additionally, when tipping the daguerreotype from side to side, the image changes appearance to look like a photographic negative. These features differentiate them from ambrotypes. Daguerreotypes were usually placed behind glass and sealed with paper tape to protect the image, but over time it is possible for air to seep in and tarnish the silver. Tarnish also distinguishes the image as a daguerreotype. Daguerreotypes were popular from 1840 until the 1850s, but the emulsion process took quite some time. The photographic subjects had to remain still for as long as ten minutes. Thus, when the faster technology of ambrotypes arose, the popularity of daguerreotypes waned.

         Ambrotypes developed in the mid-1850s. These images were much cheaper to produce than daguerreotypes. A thin film of collodion was poured onto glass and used as a base for the image. Frederick Scott Archer discovered this wet collodion process in 1851. While the daguerreotype exposure process took several mintutes, the wet collodion process for ambrotypes drastically reduced exposure time from a few seconds to a minute. The shortened exposure time and the low price helped increase the popularity of ambrotypes over daguerreotypes. The ambrotype image can be viewed from any angle, unlike the daguerreotype with its reflective surface, which from some angles reflects like a mirror.  Like dagerrotypes, ambrotypes were usually placed in protective casings.

         Tintypes developed around the mid-1850s and continued in popularity until the turn of the century. The photographic emulsion of tintypes were coated onto a black-painted tin and then exposed, which made them even quicker and less expensive to produce than ambrotypes. Unlike the daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, tintypes are not reflective and they are less fragile, so they are not usually found in hinged cases. Typically, tintypes are the size of a business card, but they can be much smaller or much larger. Because they were inexpensive and easily handled, many Civil War soldiers had tintype portraits made and sent home to families.

      All these processes required that subjects sit fairly still in front of the camera to get a clear and unblurred image; but tintypes only required an exposure time of a few seconds, ambrotypes a few seconds to a minute, and daguerrotypes several minutes.

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Sarah Calise, University of Florida, 2013

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