Types of Photography: How to Identify Old Photography Methods

Prism Specialties

Antique photos provide us with a fascinating glimpse of history. Many families have shoeboxes or old albums full of aging sepia images. Your collection of snapshots is an irreplaceable record of your family’s history. It would be a shame to let it deteriorate in a dark corner of your home. Do you know which types […]

Antique photos provide us with a fascinating glimpse of history. Many families have shoeboxes or old albums full of aging sepia images. Your collection of snapshots is an irreplaceable record of your family’s history. It would be a shame to let it deteriorate in a dark corner of your home.

Do you know which types of photography you have in your family photo collection?

Below is a guide to the most common old photography methods. These notes will help you determine which types of photography you have in your collection and during what time periods they were probably taken.

Guide to Types of Antique Black-and-White Photography

  • Daguerreotypes (dah-gare-oh-types)From 1839 to 1860, daguerreotypes were the first publicly available photos. They were produced on silver-coated copper plates, so the back of these prints may look like copper. These images are shiny and look clearest when viewed straight on. When you look at a daguerreotype from a side angle, the subject disappears. Subjects were asked to hold still, since long exposure times lasting several seconds were involved in creating the image. Daguerreotypes were expensive and could not be reproduced. Because these images were so precious, they were placed in protective cases by their creators. Early cases were often leather-bound wooden boxes, and later ones were made of a sawdust-varnish composite called thermoplastic. The cases were usually lined with silk or velvet. Early daguerreotypes featured simple mat frames; later ones included sturdier preserver frames to better protect the fragile image. If you find a daguerreotype, it was likely taken before the Civil War.

The next four types of antique photos were popular during and after the Civil War era.

  • Ambrotypes Ambrotypes were one-of-a-kind images that were popular from 1853 through the 1880s. An ambrotype is a negative print produced on a glass plate mounted on a black background to produce the positive image. Ambrotypes have a milky, 3-D quality to them. Most of the photographs taken by famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and his associates were ambrotypes. Ambrotyping was a less expensive photography process than daguerreotypes. They were sometimes also stored in cases made of lesser materials than those used to encase ambrotypes. Like daguerreotypes, ambrotypes could not capture subjects in motion, so photographers focused on shooting landscapes or portraits where the subjects were asked to hold perfectly still for the picture.
  • Tintypes Contrary to their name, tintypes were actually produced on iron plates. Here’s an easy test: If your image is on a metal plate, see if a magnet will stick to the back of it. If the magnet sticks, you have a tintype (iron backing). If the magnet doesn’t stick, you have a daguerreotype (copper backing). Compared to daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, tintype images are typically darker and smaller – the average tintype picture was about 2 x 3 inches. One thing all three of these old photography methods have in common is that they could not be reproduced. Tintypes were most popular from 1856 to 1878, in great part because they could be developed on the spot and handed to the customer in minutes. but they were still being created by street photographers well into the 1950s. Some tintypes were attached to cheap cardboard frames, but many were not. Most of the portraits commissioned by Civil War soldiers to send back home to their families were shot by tintype photographers.
  • Cartes de Visite (cart de vih-zeet) Popular from 1859 to 1889, cartes de visite (CDVs) (“visiting card” in French) were the first photos that were reproduceable, thanks to a variety of new print-making processes. People could purchase many copies of one image to share with visitors or acquaintances, much like people use business cards today. These 3 x 4-inch images were created on very thin paper, which was then attached to card stock. If your CDV has an old stamp attached to the back of it, that’s a good indication that the photo is from the Civil War era. From 1864 to 1866, the United States government taxed photographs one to five cents to generate revenue for the war effort. You may find a tax stamp on other photos, but CDVs are the most common type of pictures to carry these Civil War-era stamps.
  • Stereograph CardsIf you have one card with two almost identical images side-by-side, you have a stereograph. From 1850 through the 1920s, people used stereoscope viewers to admire their stereographs, which lent a sense of depth (3-D) to the images. Collecting stereographs was a popular hobby for many Victorian-era middle- and upper-class families. During the years before television and film, stereographs illustrated how people lived in other parts of the world.

Antique photo type, post-Civil War:

  • Cabinet Cards Cabinet cards were produced using a process similar to CDVs but featured slightly bigger images (usually 4 x 6 inches) attached to sturdier card stock. They were often displayed in parlors and – you guessed it – in cabinets. Cabinet cards were popular from about 1866 to 1920 (Reconstruction through World War I), fully displacing carte de visite photographs by the 1880s, despite being very similar technically. Cabinet cards can often be identified by not only their dimensions, but also a greenish tint in the sepia tones

What About Color Photos?

Antique photos that have color in them were almost always hand-colored. One giveaway of the hand-coloring process is that only a few parts of the image are in color.

The first commercially successful color photography process, Autochrome Lumiére, was patented by the Lumiére brothers in France in 1903 and became commercially available in 1907. Millions of Autochrome plates were produced before film cameras took over the market in the 1930s. If you have an early color photo that seems to have even coloring throughout the image, you may have a rare original Autochrome print.

How to Store Old Photos

Antique photos should always be kept out of direct sunlight and away from humid areas. Old photos do best in a temperature-controlled environment, so don’t store them in attics, basements or garages. Individual photos should be stored on edge in non-acidic archival paper sleeves.

If you know the photo’s subject or year, you may want to record that information on the photo. The safest way to write on the back of a photo is with a graphite pencil, which will not react with the paper or image. Pens and markers can bleed through the paper and damage the photo.

How to Display Antique Photos

When framing antique photos, choose a frame that doesn’t press the photo directly up against the display glass; the image could stick to the glass and be destroyed when you try to remove it from the frame. Again, choose a display area that is dry and out of direct sunlight. Display on a sturdy shelf out of reach of children and pets, or wall mount to protect the photo from damage.

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