Daguerreotype: An early photographic process using a silvered copper plate.


Definition and Overview

The daguerreotype, a fascinating early photographic process, was invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in the 1830s. This technique involves creating a unique image on a silvered copper plate that captures intricate details and produces stunning, one-of-a-kind photographs.

The resulting images have a captivating quality, with exquisite clarity and depth that make them truly special. To create a daguerreotype, the first step is to prepare a silvered copper plate by polishing it to a mirror-like finish.

This polished plate is then sensitized with iodine vapors to make it light-sensitive. Once the plate is exposed in a camera for several minutes or even longer depending on lighting conditions, it is developed using mercury fumes and fixed with a salt solution.

The final image appears as if by magic on the plated surface, revealing rich tones and fine details that are characteristic of daguerreotypes. The meticulous process involved in creating these images highlights the craftsmanship and artistry of early photography techniques like the daguerreotype.

daguerreotype of a child


A History of the Technique

The history of the daguerreotype technique dates back to the 19th century, when French artist and inventor Louis Daguerre introduced it to the world. In 1839, Daguerre announced his groundbreaking photographic process that used a silvered copper plate to capture images. This innovative method revolutionized the world of photography, offering a novel way to create detailed and permanent images.

Daguerreotypes quickly gained popularity due to their remarkable clarity and precision. The process involved sensitizing a polished silver-coated copper plate with iodine vapors, exposing it in a camera for an extended period, then developing the latent image with heated mercury vapor.

The final image was fixed with a solution of common salt, resulting in a unique and stunning one-of-a-kind photograph. The daguerreotype process marked a significant milestone in the history of photography, paving the way for future advancements and inspiring generations of photographers and artists.

Materials Needed

To create a daguerreotype, you'll need specific materials to ensure the process goes smoothly. First and foremost, you'll require a silvered copper plate, which serves as the base for the image to be developed. These plates are meticulously prepared to receive the photographic image through a series of chemical treatments.

In addition to the plate, you will need a box of chemicals tailored for daguerreotype development. This typically includes iodine and bromine fumes for sensitizing the plate, as well as mercury vapor for developing the final image.

These chemicals must be handled with care and used in a well-ventilated space to ensure safety throughout the process. Furthermore, specialized tools such as polishing cloths, buffing brushes, and sensitizing solutions are essential for preparing the plate before exposure.

Each component plays a crucial role in achieving sharp details and rich tones in your final daguerreotype. Additionally, having a dedicated workspace with ample lighting is key to maintaining precision and control over each step of this intricate photographic technique.

Step by Step Guide

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1. Polishing and Refining the Photographic Plate:

  • Begin by cleaning and meticulously polishing a silver-coated copper plate using a soft cloth, pumice powder, and oil. Continue the polishing process until the silvered surface attains a mirror-like brilliance.

2. Sensitizing the Photographic Plate:

  • Sensitize the polished plate by exposing it to iodine and bromine fumes. Initially, suspend the plate in an airtight compartment with chloride of iodine until the silvered surface turns yellow. Then, suspend the iodized plate face down over chloride of bromine fumes. The combination of these chemicals with the silver coating forms a light-sensitive surface.

3. Loading the Camera:

  • Insert the sensitized plate into a light-proof holder equipped with a protective slide, and place it securely inside the camera.

4. Capturing the Likeness:

  • Position the subject in front of the camera, utilizing adjustable headrests, clamps, and posing stands if necessary. After removing the protective slide, the photographer exposes the plate to capture the image based on the pose and expression of the sitter.

5. Developing the Image:

  • "Bring out" the image by suspending the photographic plate over a dish of heated mercury inside a fuming box. The fumes from the heated mercury combine with the silver salts, resulting in a clear image on the plate.

6. Fixing the Image:

  • Permanently fix the photographic image by immersing the plate in hyposulphate of soda (or sodium thiosulphite).

7. Optional Gold Toning or Gilding:

  • Optionally enhance the image by treating the photographic plate with gold chloride, offering toning and strengthening effects.

8. Washing the Photographic Plate:

  • Conclude the process by thoroughly washing the photographic plate in distilled water and allowing it to dry.

9. Optional Coloring:

  • Hand-coloring the portrait is an option. Coat the plate's surface with a thin film of gum arabic, allow it to dry, and then breathe on the treated plate. Apply dry powdered pigment to the image using a fine paintbrush.

10. Mounting and Presentation of the Completed Daguerreotype Portrait:

  • Surround the finished daguerreotype portrait with a gilt or brass mat, cover it with protective glass, and secure it within a metal frame. Present the daguerreotype portrait in a velvet or plush-lined leather case or mount it in a decorative frame.

Finishing Touches and Preservation

After you've completed the daguerreotype process and your image has been exposed and developed, it's time to add those finishing touches to make your creation shine. One crucial aspect of preserving your daguerreotype is protecting it from tarnishing over time.

Due to its sensitivity to environmental factors, proper preservation techniques are essential. To prevent tarnishing, consider placing your finished plate in a protective case or frame with glass to shield it from dust, moisture, and contaminants that could harm the delicate surface.

When handling a finished daguerreotype, always wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on the surface that can be difficult to remove without damaging the image. If you notice any signs of tarnishing or discoloration on your plate, do not attempt to clean it yourself using harsh chemicals or abrasive materials as this can cause irreparable damage.

Instead, seek out a professional conservator with experience in daguerreotype restoration to ensure the longevity of your precious artwork. By taking these precautions and investing in proper preservation techniques, you can enjoy your daguerreotype for years to come while maintaining its original beauty.undefined

Tips and Tricks for Success

When embarking on the journey of creating stunning daguerreotypes, there are some tips and tricks that can greatly enhance your success with this intricate process. Firstly, ensuring a clean and dust-free environment is crucial when working with the sensitive silvered copper plates. You can use Film reloading supplies, such as lint-free cloths and air blowers, to keep your workspace pristine and free from any particles that could mar the final image.

Additionally, mastering the art of proper plate preparation is key to achieving crisp and detailed daguerreotypes. Utilizing high-quality Film reloading accessories like fine polishing pads and silver cleaning solutions will help you achieve a flawless surface on your plates.

You can also invest in Film reloading tools like precision brushes and applicators to ensure even coating of chemicals for an impeccable final result. Taking the time to perfect these foundational steps will set you up for success in capturing exquisite images through the daguerreotype process.

Creative Applications

When it comes to creative applications of the Daguerreotype process using a silvered copper plate, the possibilities are as vast as your imagination. Many artists and photographers have embraced this antique technique and incorporated it into their contemporary work, blending the old with the new in captivating ways. One exciting way to experiment with Daguerreotype is by combining it with modern digital technology.

By scanning or digitizing your finished plate, you can further manipulate and enhance the image using editing software. This fusion of past and present yields unique results that showcase the timeless beauty of Daguerreotype while embracing the conveniences of digital editing tools.

Another avenue for creative exploration is through alternative processes that can be used in conjunction with Daguerreotype. For example, you could try incorporating hand coloring techniques to add a pop of color to your monochromatic images, creating a striking contrast between tradition and innovation.

Additionally, experimenting with different toning methods can produce stunning effects on your finished plates, giving them a distinct aesthetic quality that sets them apart from traditional Daguerreotypes. By pushing the boundaries of what is typically done with this historic process, you can breathe new life into your work and create truly unique pieces that captivate viewers with their blend of old-world charm and contemporary flair.

Popular Artists Known for Their Work

When exploring the world of Daguerreotype and its artists, it's fascinating to delve into the works of some renowned practitioners who have left an indelible mark on this unique medium. One such artist is Mathew Brady, often hailed as the father of photojournalism.

Brady's work during the American Civil War captured the raw essence of that tumultuous period with haunting clarity. His Daguerreotypes not only documented history but also displayed a deep emotional resonance that continues to captivate viewers to this day.

Mathew Brady Daguerreotype

Another notable figure in the Daguerreotype realm is Southworth & Hawes, a duo who revolutionized portrait photography in the mid-19th century. Their meticulous attention to detail and innovative use of lighting brought a new level of sophistication to the art form.

Through their portraits, they captured not just physical likeness but also inner emotions, creating intimate and revealing portrayals of their subjects. Southworth & Hawes' work exemplifies the power of Daguerreotype as a medium for deeply personal expression and connection between artist and subject.


The art of Daguerreotype offers a glimpse into a fascinating chapter in the history of photography. This early photographic process using a silvered copper plate has captured moments and memories with stunning clarity and detail. Through its intricate materials and meticulous steps, Daguerreotype demonstrates the marriage of science and art that continues to inspire photographers and artists today.

As we reflect on the history and techniques of Daguerreotype, we are reminded of the ingenuity and creativity that have shaped the world of photography. The preservation of this method serves as a testament to human innovation and our enduring quest to capture life's beauty in all its forms.

So, whether you are an aspiring photographer eager to delve into historical processes or simply curious about the evolution of photography, exploring Daguerreotype can be a rewarding journey that deepens your appreciation for the art form. Let the magic of Daguerreotype spark your curiosity and ignite your passion for capturing moments that transcend time.

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