Photography — The Beginning

photography history


Without delving too deep, I wanted to take a few moments to give you a brief history of the start of the photograph. There are plenty of books available at the library or information on the web that goes into much greater detail about the beginnings of photography and the many people involved in its development. I am constantly amazed at how inventions are developed from a mistake or accident. 

Daguerre (pronounced Dagair) was probably the most famous of several people who invented photography. His work in stage designing and lighting effects led him to want a way to have a frozen image to help aid him in painting in perspective. 

In 1826 Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, a Frenchman learned of the work of Joseph-Nicephore Niepce, and on January 4, 1829, signed a partnership with him. 

The partnership was a short one, Nipce dying in 1833, but Daguerre continued to experiment. He made an important discovery by accident. In 1835, so the story goes, he put an exposed plate in his chemical cupboard, and some days later found, to his surprise, that the latent image had developed.

Daguerre eventually concluded that this was due to the presence of mercury vapor from a broken thermometer. This important discovery, that a latent image could be developed, made it possible to reduce the exposure time from some eight hours to thirty minutes.

Though he now knew how to produce an image, he was not able to discover a way to halt the developing process of the plates until 1837. 

Early in 1839, an announcement was made of the discovery, but details were not divulged publicly until later in the year after the French government purchased the processing rights and gave them to the world. 

From the beginning this process had some limiting factors:

  • It was very fragile.
  • The exposures for this process were excessively long making it impractical for portrait photography (most of the very early daguerreotypes were of landscapes, buildings and other immovable subjects).
  • The image was laterally reversed (as you would see yourself in a mirror). Not a tremendous factor considering a picture could be reflected from a mirror.
  • The most limiting of all, by the nature of the process, was the fact that copies of the photograph could not be made.

About ten years later when Jean Francois Antoine Claudet, who trained with Daguerre developed a new chemical process and with the use of a special ground glass camera lens, he was able to cut the image exposure time to less than one minute and helped usher at the beginning of portrait photography. 

Daguerreotypes were popular from 1839 to about 1860.


A tintype is a photograph made on a sheet of iron instead of a piece of paper (not actually tin). In 1856 Hamilton Smith patented the process for producing tintypes. Compared with other processes the tintype tones seem uninteresting.

They were often made by unskilled photographers, and their quality was variable. They do have some significance, however, in that they made photography available to working classes, not just to the more well-to-do. Whereas up till then the taking of a portrait had been more of a special “event” from the introduction of tintypes. Most tintypes were brownish in color. 

Tintypes were popular from1856 until the early 1900s. They were also known by the names, ferrotypes, and melainotypes. 

After processing, most tintypes were varnished to protect the surface from abrasions and atmospheric conditions. However, the image quality was not quite as good as other photographic methods. The focus was very soft. 

The most common sizes ranged from a full plate size of 8 1/2″ x 6 1/2″ down to what was called Gem tintypes (about postage stamp size) ” x 1″. Because of their relatively low cost and rapid development times tintypes were used mostly for portrait photography. 

Towards the end of the 19th century, as photography became more popular, families started using them for their own family albums or inserted the Gem tintypes into jewelry. Tintypes were produced in the millions in the United States and are very commonly found today. They were eventually superseded by gelatin emulsion dry plates in the last part of the century but continued throughout the world until the 1940s. 

Eventually George Eastman who started a business in the 1880s to supply film plates to photographers would eventually overtake the other film processes by developing, improving and expanding the film market through continuously improving the quality and versatility of his film. 

His introduction of a paper backing for the film and a camera that was inexpensive ($1.00 in 1900) and convenient enough for the amateur to use, further expanded the photographic field. 

Most of the film advances from the Eastman Kodak Company form the basis of most camera and film companies of the world today.

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