A Short History of Photograph Identifying Photographic Processes Dating 19th Century Card Mounted Photos Photography and Genealogists Photogrpahic Gallery Dating Postcards Join PhotoID Group

NEW! Check Out Our Public Domain Photos and Photographers Database


Types of Photographs

by Andrew J. Morris, Copyright 1996, All Rights Reserved

Listed here are the main types of historic photographs one is likely to encounter. Probably 80% of the 19th century portrait photos the genealogist or local historian finds will be card mounted, particularly CDV's and Cabinet Cards; and another 10 to 15% will be tintypes. Scenic photos from that period are mostly found as Stereo Cards, though there are many in the large sized card mounted formats as well.


The Ambrotype is essentially a glass negative with a black background that makes the image appear positive. It is a cased photo. Invented about 1854, the form lost popularity in the early 1860's when tintypes and CDV's replaced them. SAMPLE. There are some wonderful ambrotype portraits still in existence, yet the process is much neglected by authors. The only book I know on the process is out of print, but worth searching for if you can find a used copy: Ambrotype, Old and New by Thomas P. Feldvebel.


The Calotype, sometimes called the Talbotype after its inventor, William H. F. Talbot, is a paper print made from a paper negative. Never widely popular in the U.S., this format was more common in England in the 1840's. The image produced lacks sharp detail, the soft focus being due to use of a paper negative. If you would like to learn more about the process, or even try it yourself, see the book Primitive Photography: A Guide to Making Cameras, Lenses, and Calotypes by Alan Greene.


Cabinet Cards are a card mounted photograph introduced in 1866, and tremendously popular, especially in the U.S., from its introduction until just after the turn of the century. The Cabinet Card is easily distinguished from other card mounted photos by its size, typically 4.25 x 6.5 inches (108 x 164 mm). Like the CDV, the vast majority are portraits, and most of them are not identified with the subjects name. Many do have a photographers imprint. SAMPLE


In addition to the Carte-de-Visite, Cabinet Card, and Stereotype, which are described individually, there were a variety of other card mounted photos, in more-or-less standardized sizes, some of the most common being called Victoria, Imperial, Prominade, Panel, and Boudoir. Panoramic photos were also often card mounted, though the size was not standardized. None of these other sizes are as common as the CDV, Cabinet Card and Stereotype.SAMPLE


Carte-de-Visite's, or CDV's, are a type of card mounted photograph introduced in the mid 1850's and tremendously popular especially in America and Europe from 1860 until almost the turn of the century. The CDV is easily distinguished from other card mounted photos by its size, typically 2.5 x 4 inches (63 x 100 mm) or slightly less. The various characteristics of card mount, image and photographer's imprint often allows these images to be correctly dated to within a few years of their origin. The vast majority are portraits; unfortunately most of them are not identified with the subject's name. Even this is not always an insurmountable problem however, if a collection of photos from one photographer are compared to images in county histories or previously identified images from the same area, it is sometimes possible to match them up. SAMPLE


Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes, and occasionally the earliest tintypes, were sold in cases, usually made of leather over a wood and cardboard framwork. In 1854 the "Union" case was introduced, sometimes described as being made of gutta-percha, this hard black material can be viewed as one of the first commercial uses of plastic. The Union case was molded with various designs, and have unfortunately become so popular with collectors that the photographs are often removed, leaving them susceptible to damage. SAMPLE of outside of Union Case and SAMPLE of inside of Union case. If you want to learn more about Union cases see the book Union Cases : A Collector's Guide to the Art of America's First Plastics by Clifford Krainik and Carl Walvoord.


The idea of sending photographs with a holiday theme started in the United Kingdom around 1843. Nativity scenes were featured on the very earliest Christmas cards. In the late Victorian times additions of snow scenes and birds were added to the mix and become more popular. The late 1840's saw Christmas cards come to the United States but because of the expensive costs, not many could afford them. However it wasn't until a printer named Louis Prang, who mass produced more affordable Christmas cards, that the tradition really took off. For samples and more www.mixbook.com


Many believe the daguerreotype to be the most beautiful of photographic processes. Introduced in 1839, it was the first widely used means of photography. The daguerreotype uses a polished, silver plated sheet of metal, and once seen is easily recognized by its mirror-like surface. The plate has to be held at the correct angle to the light for the image to be visible. That image is extremely sharp and detailed. Daguerreotypes fell out of favour after 1860 as less expensive techniques supplanted it. SAMPLE For a detailed look at this process with an emphasis on the science and chemistry, see the book The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science by M. Susan Barger and William B. White.


In the late 1800's, gelatin, and later plastic films gradually began to replace glass plate negatives. Gelatin sheet film was introduced in 1884, roll film in 1889. Geletin was found to be too fragile, and was supplanted by Nitrate based films, which are highly flammable. In 1939 "Safety" film was introduced, a non- flammable plastic based material.


Most 19th century photographs were made on glass plate negatives, excepting of course the Calotype, which used a paper negative, and the Daguerreotype and Tintype, neither of which required negatives. Early glass plate negatives used a process that required them to be coated just before use, and hence were known as "wet-plate" negatives. Although dry plate negatives were introduced as early as 1864, they were not very sensitive, and it was not until after improvements were made that dry plates began to be widely used in the early 1880's. Both wet and dry plates may be further classified according to the emulsions used, usually albument, gelatin or Collodian. SAMPLE


The Hyalotype was a positive image on a glass plate. Used in "Magic Lanterns" the image was projected onto a screen, the precursor of modern slides. Invented in the 1850's, this format did not become popular until after 1875 when they began to be widely used. SAMPLE


Various means of mechanically printing photographic images on paper were developed, such as halftone, photogravure, photolithography, and others. The first American Biographical Dictionary to be illustrated with photos was published in Chicago in 1869. Since these techniques were developed for the publishing trade, they were produced in vast quantities, usually published in books and magazines, but sometimes produced as individual sheets that may be found framed.


The earliest paper prints were Calotypes, which also used a paper negative. Paper photographs are often classified according the emulsion used to coat the paper. Albumen prints were introduced about 1850, and was widely used from 1860 to 1890. This emulsion was usually placed on very thin paper, and the drying emulsion tended to cause the paper to curl, hence the practice of pasting these papers to cardboard backings. Other papers may be called Salted, Carbon, Platinum, Bromide, etc. Modern "paper" prints are often not paper at all, but plastic.


The common picture postcard can be a source of historical documentation. In the period from about 1910 to 1925 cameras were sold that took a postcard-sized image, and photographers provided prints on postcard stock, so there are many personal snapshot images from that period. Mass produced postcards were often photomechanical prints, usually lithographs -SAMPLE. One type of postcard, wishing Christmas cheer, eventually evolved into the more specialized Christmas card. Today, Christmas cards are often given alongside Christmas gifts for loved ones.


Also called stereo cards when mounted on cardboard (as the vast majority are) these images are easily recognized by having two nearly identical images mounted side by side. When looked at through a stereo viewer they give a three-dimensional image. Most popular from 1854 to 1938, they were produced in vast quantities, and many are of historical interest. SAMPLE


The tintype was introduced in 1856, and enjoyed widespread popularity until about 1900. The tintype gets its name from the fact that the image is produced on a thin metal plate. Like the Daguerreotyp and Ambrotype, the emulsion was directly exposed in the camera, without any need for a negative, so the images are often unique. (In later years, cameras with multiple lenses were developed so that as many as a dozen tintypes could be exposed at once.) During the 1860's and 70's small tintypes were often placed in CDV sized cardboard mounts. SAMPLE

For More Information

The classic reference work for these processes is The Keepers of Light : A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes by William Crawford. There is also an excellent book on the modern revival of antique photographic methods (sparked in large part by Crawford's book): Photography's Antiquarian Avant Garde : The New Wave in Old Processes by Lyle Rexer. Rich in examples of modern works done with the technologies of the 19th century, it also provides some further information on the processes involved. But if you want more detailed information on the chemistry, hardware and technique involved in antique picture taking, see The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes by Christopher James. This book gives you the kind of detailed instructions you need to reproduce the various processes, which also gives us some idea of the difficulties encountered by early photographers.

Photohistory Home | Contact | Privacy and Policies | Feedback

© 2003 by Andrew J. Morris -- www.ajmorris.com -- All Rights Reserved