Paper photography is a relatively new development. In the early days of photography, people used to print their photographs on sheets of metal or glass. Called tintypes, daguerreotypes, and ambrotypes, they were a mainstay in people’s homes until the early 20th century.
While they may be obsolete today, tintypes, daguerreotypes, and ambrotypes are still valued among collectors. If you’re a photography history buff or looking to collect these photographic relics, you should know how to tell them apart.
For most of the 1800s, people used metal or glass to record their photos. There were three types of photographic mediums used at the time, each with its unique characteristics.
This method was invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839 and became the first commercially successful photographic process. The picture on a daguerreotype was printed on a silver-coated copper plate, although some photographers would use a brass mat instead of a silver plate. Since the daguerreotype image was directly recorded on the metal plate, each photo is unique and cannot be reprinted.
Daguerreotype plates are mirror-like – if you view the photograph head-on, you’ll just see your reflection. To view a daguerreotype’s positive image, you need to tilt it at a 45-degree angle.
These silvered copper plates were also fragile, so they aren’t usually placed in frames. People used to store their pictures in folding cases called union cases to protect them from the elements. Protecting these images was very important, considering that photographs were a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Introduced in the early 1850s, ambrotypes used glass that was treated with light-sensitive chemicals to record their image. The development process resulted in a negative image that can then be placed on a black background to be displayed properly. Some ambrotype photos were placed in cases with a black backing, while others had black paint applied directly to the glass plate.
Tintypes (or ferrotypes) were the last major photography development before paper photos. Popularized in the 1860s, tintypes were printed on a thin iron plate coated with lacquer or enamel.
The tintype process was considerably shorter than its predecessors – images were developed in a few minutes and didn’t require a dedicated photo studio. This made them popular at fairs and even among sidewalk photographers.
While some people still kept early tintypes in cases, most of them were placed in paper envelopes and book-like photo albums. Some images were also made on very small plates and called gem tintypes.
The tintype started losing ground to paper photos like cartes de visite and cabinet cards in the late 19th century. However, it managed to survive into the 1900s before falling entirely out of fashion.
Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes work with similar principles, namely, printing images on a solid plate. However, there are two key things you can look at to tell these image types apart:
Sometimes, the only way you can tell the type of an early photograph is its age or the date it’s taken. This may be because you’re looking at an image of it or can’t take a closer look at the material.
Since not all photographers dated their pictures, determining a photo’s age isn’t always straightforward. Sometimes, you need to take clues from the photograph itself, such as what the subjects are wearing or where it was taken. If you know enough about past trends in fashion, hairstyling, architecture, and the like, you can get a good estimate of when the image was taken.
Generally, any photo dated before the 1850s is likely a daguerreotype. Meanwhile, the ambrotype was popular in the 1850s and the tintype had its heyday in the 1860s. However, determining the photograph type by age might be slightly challenging between tintypes and ambrotypes since they were in the market at roughly the same time.
Ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, and tintypes were all made using unique materials. Some of these materials were very fragile and required special storage methods. Checking the material can be a good way to identify which process created your old photos.
All three early photography methods brought the art to the public, but each of them had its advantages and disadvantages. Here, we break down their pros and cons as well as find out which one was the most popular.
Daguerreotypes were the most expensive and known to be very fragile but had the best picture quality. This fragility also contributed to their popularity – a daguerreotype case can be very ornate and add to its beauty or value.
A tintype can be produced within minutes and was incredibly affordable but provided the lowest-quality images. However, their low price and durability made them popular with the general public at the time.
Ambrotypes were relatively cheap to create, but the images were dull compared to a properly-made daguerreotype. Overall, ambrotypes fall somewhere between daguerreotypes and tintypes in both quality and price.
In the 19th century, tintype photos were favored by most people because of their accessibility. Today, daguerreotypes are the most prized items by collectors because of their high image quality.
The picture recorded on an early photo is one-of-a-kind. If a daguerreotype’s image fades away, then it’s gone forever. Fortunately, modern digitization technologies can help you immortalize these old photos and protect them from Father Time.
Image Restoration is here to help you turn back the clock. Our team of Photoshop wizards and historical advisors will make sure your old photographs look like they were taken yesterday again.
Better yet, our services are very affordable – restorations start at $35 per photo, with free revisions! If you’re not 100% satisfied with our work, we’ll gladly provide a money-back guarantee.
While their heyday has long since passed, daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes are still valued by collectors. If you’re looking to collect these early photographs, you need to know how to tell them apart.
If you have a collection of old photographs you want to restore, Image Restoration Center should be your first choice.