Exploring the Daguerreotype Process


November 21, 2016

We all know the story of the oldest photograph in the world, taken in 1826, but it wasn’t until 13 years later and the daguerreotype process than photography officially became a reliable medium accessible to everyone. This new method enabled the obtaining of permanent images using a camera, finally satisfying artists and inventors who had been searching for a mechanical way of capturing visual scenes since the Renaissance era. Moreover, it was the first publicly announced photographic process, and for some twenty years after it was introduced in 1839 it was the most commonly used one, among both amateurs and those who strived to become professional photographers.

Before it was surpassed by new, quicker and less expensive productions, the daguerreotypy celebrated the name of its inventor, Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre and his dedicated research into the chemical and mechanical side of photography, one that will give life to a new art form and shake the core of the arts themselves.

Intérieur d'un cabinet de curiosité (Interior of a cabinet of curiosities), made by Daguerre in 1837, the earliest reliably dated daguerreotype. The collection of the Société française de photographie

Louis Daguerre and the Groundbreaking Invention

The coming-to-life of the daguerreotype process was, of course, preceded by numerous inventions in the history of photography prior to the first half of the 18th century. Starting with camera obscura in the Renaissance era, which usually provided optical imagery as a basis for a future painting, to the discovery and commercial availability of the halides iodine, bromine and chlorine in the 17th century, and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s bitumen-based heliography works in 1822, the method finally resulted in successful imagery by Daguerre. In fact, Daguerre collaborated closely with Niépce after he used heliography, or “sun drawing”, to capture his image[1], and after Niépce’s death in 1833, Daguerre continued their work on his own, with Niépce’s experiments as the backbone of his own. By 1839, Daguerre sought patent for his work from the French Government and on August 19th of that year, his process was presented at a joint meeting of the French Academy of Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Many describe this event as “the birth of photography” even today, and what’s interesting that William Fox Talbot announced his very similar silver chloride “sensitive paper” method just a couple of months later. Had he done that a bit earlier, he would have likely replaced Daguerre as the inventor of photography.

Daguerreotype camera built by La Maison Susse Frères in 1839, with a lens by Charles Chevalier

The Daguerreotype Process in Steps

In his heliography, Niépce secured a picture of the view from his window by using a camera obscura and a pewter plate coated with bitumen, after as many as eight hours of exposure time. He later abandoned pewter plates and replaced them with silver-plated sheets of copper, discovering that the vapor from iodine reacted with the silver coating to produce silver iodide, a light sensitive compound[2]. Daguerre continued to experiment with the copper plates coated with silver iodide to produce direct positive pictures. He discovered that the latent image on an exposed plate could be "developed" with the fumes from warmed mercury. The use of mercury vapour meant that photographic images could be produced in 20 to 30 minutes, rather than hours like before. In 1837, Daguerre found a way of "fixing" the photographic images with a solution of common salt. Two years later, he followed the suggestion of Sir John Herschel and adopted hyposulphate of soda (now thiosulphate of soda) as the fixing agent.

Susanna Celeste Castelli, The Daguerreotype Process, illustrated. DensityDesign Research Lab, image via Wikimedia

Polishing and Sensitizating the Silver Surface

The daguerrotype image is formed on a highly polished silver surface, or rather the silver side of the plate. By obtaining as nearly perfect a mirror finish as possible, photographers do the polishing to optimize the image quality. Although the silver is a thin layer on a copper substrate, other metals such as sterling and brass can be used as substitutes respectively. The silver has to be completely clean of tarnish or other contaminating substances; this was done with a buff covered with hide or velvet in the 19th century. Before sensitization, the surface is swabbed with nitric acid, to burn off any residual organic matter. The sensitization involves halogen fumes, to which the silver surface is exposed in darkness or under safelight: first to iodine fumes, that produce a coating of silver iodide, and then to bromine fumes, resulting in silver halide coating. Sometimes, the plates would also be exposed to chlorine fumes as well.

The process of polishing with modern buffing wheel. Image via cdags.org

Exposure, Development and Fixing

Through a light-tight holder, the plate is transferred to the camera. By removing the camera cover, the light hits the plate creating an invisible latent image, while the photographer is timing the exposure with a watch. Depending on the sensitization, the brightness of the lighting and the lens, the exposure time ranged from a few seconds to many minutes[3]. If the exposure time is reached, the lens is capped again and the holder is made light-tight again and removed from the camera.

For the development, the plate is then carried to a developing box, where it is exposed to the fumes of heated mercury. Although the mercury fumes are toxic, photographers rarely took precaution measures, and there is still the risk of release of those chemicals into the environment. Another development process was the Becquerel one, by French physicist Edmond Becquerel, in which the plate, sensitized by iodine fumes alone, was developed by overall exposure to sunlight passing through yellow or red glass[4]. This color-filtered "sunbath" intensified the image to full visibility, as if the plate had been exposed in the camera for hours or days to produce a visible picture without development.

The plate is then “fixed” or “arrested” by removing the remaining silver halide with a mild solution of sodium thiosulfate, which derived from Daguerre’s use of hot saturated solution of common salt. In 1840, an addition to the daguerreotype process was introduced by Hippolyte Fizeau, called gilding or gold toning. A gold chrolide solution is poured over the surface and the plate is briefly heated over a fame, to give the scenery a slightly warmer tone. The photographic plate with the daguerreotype image is then drained and rinsed in distilled water, and then dried. This process is quite similar to the one undertaken inside the darkroom, when we talk about analog photography.

Modern-day 1/6th plate Becquerel daguerreotype with no gold chloride gilding, by Anton Orlov

The Unusual Aesthetics

In recent years, a small group of artists turned to the daguerreotype process to try and recreate the spirit and the aesthetics of this type of vintage photography. But aside from the retro style, photographers and enthusiasts alike are fascinated by the simple experience of viewing a daguerreotype, because it is so unique and inimitable by any other type of photo. The picture seems to be floating above the plate, in the manner of a mirage that arises once the eyes are properly focused. The apparition of three-dimensional space is obtained with original daguerreotypes, and it could be compared to today’s holograms on credit cards or Lippmann plates, for instance. While looking at them, at times we can also notice that these images are normally laterally reversed, or better yet - mirrored. This is particularly noticeable if there is a right-reading text present in the picture. Although daguerreotypes are unique images, they could be copied by re-daguerreotyping the original, and copies were also produced by lithography or engraving.

Dan Carillo - The Daguerreotype Process Today

Daguerreotypes - Is Anyone Using Them Today?

Shortly after it was presented, the daguerreotype process spread across the planet, with prominent daguerreotypists working across Europe, in the UK and the US. It was a revelation: these mirror-like plates recorded things just like they were in reality. People’s idea of time changed completely, and for the first time in history they would know what their predecessors looked like, or they would be able to obtain an exact likeness of themselves and their loved ones for a modest cost. In the 1870s, it was even used in astronomy, as the collodion wet plate process were used for the transit of Venus, for instance. Although many photographers turned to more progressive types of photographs such as ambrotypes and tintypes, a number of them still worked with daguerreotypy, evolving its process and keeping the aesthetics as part of their practice for the next 150 years as well.

In the late 20th century, a group of enthusiastic devotees brought the method back to life through selected works. Artists like Adam Fuss, Jerry Spagnoli, Patrick Bailly-Maître-Grand, Alyssa C. Salomon and Chuck Close all used it in their art, reintroducing it to the general public once again. What further accelerated the process is the use of electronic flash, which solved many of the problems connected with the use of daylight. It is quite interesting to see the traces of contemporary scenery underneath the unique retro spirit of the daguerreotype process; particularly in Jerry Spagnoli’s cityscapes or Chuck Close’s portraits of celebrities that actually appear as though they were taken some two centuries ago - except we recognize the familiar faces as our contemporaries. Perhaps we can expect a trend in the revival of the method, after the success of exhibitions in Bry Sur Marne in France in 2009, and the 2013 ImageObject show in New York City. After all, the appeal of daguerreotypes surely is ever-lasting, and its evolution can only progress while retaining their beloved originality.

 make early daguerreotypes with equipment like a box of polished plates Editors’ Tip: The Early American Daguerreotype: Cross-Currents in Art and Technology

The daguerreotype, invented in France, came to America in 1839. By 1851, this early photographic method had been improved by American daguerreotypists to such a degree that it was often referred to as "the American process." The daguerreotype -- now perhaps mostly associated with stiffly posed portraits of serious-visaged nineteenth-century personages -- was an extremely detailed photographic image, produced though a complicated process involving a copper plate, light-sensitive chemicals, and mercury fumes. It was, as Sarah Kate Gillespie shows in this generously illustrated history, something wholly and remarkably new: a product of science and innovative technology that resulted in a visual object. It was a hybrid, with roots in both fine art and science, and it interacted in reciprocally formative ways with fine art, science, and technology.


  1. Anonymous, Niépce and the Invention of Photography, photo-museum.org [November 20th, 2016]
  2. Richter, S., The Art of the Daguerreotype, Viking London, 1989
  3. Anonymous, Facts About Daguerreotypes, daguerre.org [November 20th, 2016]
  4. Becquerel, E., L'image photographique colorée du spectre solaire, Comptes Rendus, 1848

Featured images in slider: Daguerreotypes of unknown subjects from the Eastman House’s study collection. Image via rochester.edu; Examples of daguerreotypes. Image via George Eastman House; Daguerreotypes of Louis Daguerre in 1844, left by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot and right by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, 1846; Imagery of Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe. Images via Wikipedia; ImageObject exhibition, New York City 2013. Image via cdags.org; Jerry Spagnoli daguerreotype; Daguerreotypes of Brad Pit and Roy Lichtenstein by Chuck Close. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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