4 Techniques of 19th-Century Photography You Should Know

During the nineteenth century photography was invented. Here’s everything you need to know about the techniques used in 19th-century photography.

Nov 14, 2023By Isabel Droge, MSc Arts and Culture, BA Art History

19th century photography techniques


Before the invention of the photo camera, around 2000 years ago, a forerunner called the camera obscura was used by ancient Greeks and the Chinese. The camera obscura consisted of a dark room with a hole in one of its walls. Through this hole, images of the outside world were projected onto the opposite wall. When in 1727, German anatomy professor Johann Heinrich Schulze confirmed that the darkening of silver salts was caused by light, he further contributed to the invention of the first camera. The first-ever camera was made in 1826, after this many camera techniques emerged. Read on to learn more about nineteenth-century photography techniques.


1. Best-Known 19th-Century Photography Technique: Daguerreotype 

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A daguerreotype photograph of Louis-Jaqcues-Mandé Daguerre, 1844, via Wikipedia


In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833), managed to take the first developed photograph using a technique called the heliography. The heliograph method involved holding a portable camera obscura next to a window, as to expose a pewter plate coated with bitumen or asphalt, to sunlight. After this successful experiment, Niépce began collaborating with French artist and chemist Louis-Jaqcues-Mandé Daguerre (1787 – 1851). Daguerre worked as a professional stage painter for the theatre, using the camera obscura technique for drawing. The fact that he was interested in capturing reflections, brought him and Niépce together.


After Niepcé’s death in 1833, Daguerre continued their work, using Niépce’s early experiments as a foundation. In 1839, Daguerre experienced a breakthrough and developed a pioneering technique. The Daguerreotype was born and so was the first commercially successful photographic process. Daguerre went on to introduce the technique to the French Academy and the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This event was later referred to as the birth of photography.


19th century photography daguerreotype photography process
A visual explanation of the Daguerreotype photographic technique, invented by Louis-Jaqcues-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. via My Modern Met


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The Daguerreotype technique consisted of a silver-plated copper sheet that would first be polished until its surface was mirrorlike. After the polishing was done, the copper plate was kept in a dark room, where it was exposed to iodine, bromine, and chlorine vapor to form a light-sensitive layer of silver iodine. The plate would then be placed in the camera, after which it would be exposed to light for a short or long period, depending on how light the photograph was supposed to be. The longer it was exposed, the lighter the result.


Following the exposure, the plate was removed from the camera to let the image develop by exposing it to mercury vapor. After development, the plate would be bathed in a salt solution, which removed the developing compound. To protect the image, the plate was then coated with gold chlorine, before it was covered by a glass sheet and placed into a frame.


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The Letter by Albert Southworth, daguerreotype photograph, circa 1850, via National Gallery of Art, Washington


There was a downside to the Daguerreotype technique. It could only produce a single copy of an image. Making additional copies wasn’t possible. In addition, the single copy that was made represented a mirrored image of the person portrayed. A daguerreotypist could attach a mirror or reflective prism in front of the lens to obtain the right reading result. Yet, in practice, this was not often done.


Moreover, to ensure that the result of a Daguerreotype photograph was sharp at the end of a long exposure time, it was important for the posing individual to sit very still. Because of this, some Daguerreotypists made use of a head support tool, which ensured that the person’s head was kept in the same position. However, seeing that the Daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic technique, these aspects of its process were only minor disadvantages.


samuel bemis view in new hampshire daggeureotype
View in New Hampshire by Samuel Bemis, Daguerreotype photograph, 1840-41, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


Apart from Daguerre himself, a good number of Daguerreotypists arose during the 1840s and 1950s. Among these were the French André-Adolphe-Eugène Disderí and Jules Itier, the Swiss Johann Baptist Isenring, the British Richard Beard, Antoine Claudet (a Frenchman active in London), and Thomas Richard Williams. There were also a good number of Daguerreotypists in the United States. Among these were James Presley Ball, Samuel Bemis, Abraham Bogardus, Mathew Brady, Jeremiah Gurney, Albert Southworth, Augustus Washington, and John Adams Whipple.


In most cases, these Daguerreotypists worked as portraitists, although some also took photographs of landscapes and cities. Wipple even practiced astrophotography. Seeing that the Daguerreotype cameras were large, and their process lengthy and expensive, taking them outside wasn’t very practical. However, some did it anyway and it resulted in beautiful images.


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The Moon by John Adams Whipple, February 1852, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


Finally, the Daguerreotype was succeeded by the wet collodion plate technique. Despite the fact that many photographers turned to newer techniques, some kept working with the Daguerreotype. Even today, there are artists who still experiment with this technique. These include Jerry Spagnoli, Adam Fuss, Patrick Bailly-Maître-Grand, and Chuck Close.


2. Calotype 

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Portrait of William Henry Fox Talbot by Jones Calvert Richard, circa 1845, calotype, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877) was educated at Harrow and Trinity College in Cambridge. He published many articles in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and physics. He also worked as a chemist, linguist, and archaeologist. He even briefly served in Parliament from 1833 to 1834, before becoming well-known for his photographic technique. In 1835, Talbot made his first photographic negative and wrote an article that documented this discovery. However, he largely abandoned his experiments and left his photographic work untouched for a while.


A few years later, Talbot received news about the French Daguerreotype, which inspired him to continue his own research. Fortunately so, during his new experiments, Talbot found out that the chemical gallic acid, from tree galls and barks, increased the sensitivity of prepared paper and created a latent image. In other words, a latent image is an image made on photographic film or paper that remains invisible until it’s chemically treated.


It was the first process that allowed photographers to create a negative—an image in which the shades of light and dark were reversed from which multiple positive prints could be made. In addition, the gallic acid speeded up the development process from one hour to one minute. Talbot named this new invention the Calotype, referring to the Greek word for beautiful picture. In 1841, Talbot went on to patent the Calotype—sometimes also called the Talbotype—and subsequently received a medal from the British Royal Society in 1842 for it.


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Miss Jane Webster and Miss Marrable by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, circa 1843-48, calotype, via National Portrait Gallery, London


When it comes to the technical process, the calotype process involves five steps. The first one of these was to iodize a high-quality sheet of paper by applying solutions of light-sensitive silver nitrate and potassium iodide to the paper under candlelight. Simply said, the paper would be treated with solutions of certain salts and metals. After the first step, the paper would also be washed and dried, before its surface was sensitized by the use of another chemical solution. The third step included putting the sheet of paper in the camera and exposing it to light.


Once the desired image was captured, the paper could be removed. It was important to then brush it with the same sensitizing chemical solution to bring out the invisible image to the desired density. Subsequently, the developed negative would be rinsed with water and then washed with a solution of potassium bromide again, before laying it out to dry. The washing was important as it removed any remaining silver, and fixed the image.


Now that the negative was done, positive prints of the image could be made with the use of the so-called salted paper print process. During this process, the translucent negative would cover a new, prepared sheet of paper, that would react to light. This sheet of paper would then be put in a printing frame, which was then taken outside in order to be exposed to light. Subsequently, the light passes through the lighter parts of the negative, making these go dark in the positive image. The result was a nice, warm sepia-colored image.


19th century photography adamson hill group portrait
Miss Ellen Milne, Miss Mary Watson, Miss Watson, Miss Agnes Milne and Sarah Wilson by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, circa 1843-47, calotype, via National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh


Regardless of the flexibility and ease with which the Calotype photographs could be made, this technique did not replace the Daguerreotype. The quality of the Calotype image was not as fine and sharp as that of the Daguerreotype. The main difference in quality between these types of photographic techniques was caused by the difference in the material of the negative. In a Calotype, the texture and fibers of the paper were visible, which made the image slightly grainy or fuzzy. In Daguerreotype photographs, this was less of an issue thanks to the use of polished copper sheets. Regardless of this, the Calotype remained popular in England and mainland Europe. The Calotype wasn’t as popular in France, the native country of Daguerre, as well as in the United States.


hill adamson free church calotype
The General Assembly Hall of the Free Church of Scotland during building with the castle and the church of Tolbooth St John in the background by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, circa 1843-47, calotype, via National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh


Some of the best-known Calotypists were the Scottish photographer Robert Adamson and landscape painter David Octavius Hill. As Scotland was exempt from Talbot’s patent, people could freely use the Calotype here. The partnership between Hill and Adamson was formed in 1843. During this year, Hill received a commission for a group portrait of over four hundred ministers of the Free Church of Scotland. Because there were so many people to paint, Sir David Brewster, a physician who had learned about the Calotype process from Talbot himself, suggested photography to Hill. Hill then reached out to Adamson, and their partnership began. Moreover, they photographed ministers and many other individuals as well as a number of cityscapes.


3. The Wet Plate Collodion 

julia margaret cameron parting
The Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1874, Albumen Silver Print from a collodion negative, via Getty, Los Angeles


The Wet Plate Collodion process of photography is often mentioned as the technique that revolutionized photography. It was the English Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857) who developed the process in 1851. Archer was a butcher’s son and he began his own career as an apprentice silversmith in London. However, he ended up working as a portrait sculptor. While making sculptures, Archer began using the Calotype technique. However, Archer was not content with the result of the Calotype photos, so he started experimenting with a variety of solutions and surfaces until he discovered the Wet Plate Collodion process.


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Major Edmund Gilling Hallewell by Roger Fenton, 1855, Albumen print from a collodion negative, via The New York Times


The wet-collodion process involved adding a soluble iodide (a salt) to a solution of collodion, which existed out of cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable compound. This mixture would subsequently be coated on a glass plate before it was dipped in silver nitrate to form silver iodide. Because of the fact that the silver nitrate created a light-sensitive layer, this dipping happened in a dark room. Only this way would the plate remain undeveloped. In addition, it was also important that the plate was still wet when placed in the camera and exposed to light.


Once the exposure was complete, the glass plate was dipped in pyrogallic acid, a substance derived from the gallic acid that Talbot used for his Calotype. Finally, the image was fixed by a solution of sodium thiosulfate. It was important to immediately develop and fix the treated glass plate since after the collodion film dried, it became waterproof and impenetrable by reagent solutions.


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Tasayac, the Half Dome, 5,000 ft, Yosemite by Carleton Watkins, 1861, Albumen Print from a collodion negative, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


What came out of the described process was a negative which could subsequently be used to print paper positives. The latter would mostly be done with Albumen paper, which was invented by the French Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1850. Albumen (egg white) was mixed with ammonium chloride and spread on a sheet of paper. Photographers could buy this pre-made paper for little money and easily store it away until they were ready to use it. When using the paper, they only had to sensitize it with silver nitrate before placing it over a negative and exposing it. Wet Collodian photographs that were printed on this paper were also called Albumen Silver Prints.


Archer later came up with a modification that made the Collodion process cheaper and even more simple. Instead of printing positives, the underexposed negative was backed with black paper or velvet to make it appear positive. This modification became known as the Ambrotype and was a very popular style of photography during the mid to late nineteenth century. The same applied to a version of the Wet Plate Collodion called the Tintype or Ferrotype, of which the base was black lacquered metal instead of glass.


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Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Félix Nadar, 1864, Albumen print from a collodion negative, via Vogue magazine


In general, Wet Plate Collodion photographs were valued because of their clarity and richness in detail. This way, this new technique combined the best features of the Daguerreotype and Calotype: clarity and replicability. A downside to the technique was that a darkroom tent and portable laboratory were needed for outdoor photography. Otherwise, the print wouldn’t be kept dark and wet. However, regardless of this, the Wet Plate Collodion dominated the world of photography for about two decades. It was used for tintype portraits and in the printing industry well into the 1900s.


The Wet Plate Collodion process resulted in beautifully clear images, which were either black and white, or otherwise a soft beige or taupe color. Some examples of well-known nineteenth-century photographers of the Wet Plate Collodion technique were the English portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron, the French photographer Gustave le Gray, the French photographer Félix Nadar, the Civil War and landscape photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, photographer of Western American landscapes Carleton Watkins, the British war photographer Roger Fenton, and the French portrait photographer Charles Nègre. The Wet Plate Collodion technique was used for more genres than the Daguerreotype and Calotype. During the 1860s, photography gained a documentary and journalistic function for the first time.


4. 19th-Century Photography Technique Called Gelatine Dry-Plate Glass Negative

getrude kasebier art thou 19th century photography
Blessed Art Thou Among Women by Gertrude Käsebier, 1899, Gelatine silver print, via Museum of Modern Art, New York City


The Wet Plate Collodion process involved the use of many chemicals and needed specific conditions to succeed. For example, the glass plate needed to be kept in the dark before use. It also needed to be wet upon exposure to light. This forced photographers to work very quickly. In response to what could be called the downsides of the Collodion process, the 1860s and 1870s saw the rise of individual experiments with other possible photographic techniques.


The main goal of these experiments was to find a dry substitute for wet collodion, which would allow plates to be prepared far in advance and developed long after exposure. In turn, this would free photographers from the task of preparing their own plates, and eliminate the need for a portable darkroom. In 1871, the English physician Richard Leach Maddox (1816-1902) came up with the idea of suspending silver bromide in a gelatine emulsion. A suggestion that formed the key to the development of the Gelatine Dry-Plate method.


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Equivalent by Alfred Stieglitz, 1926, gelatine silver print, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


Different from the Collodion wet plates, the gelatine bromide coating would dry on the glass plate, after which it could remain dry during and after exposure. For photographers, this meant that they could simply insert the plate into the camera to take a photo, and that afterward, they did not need to treat the plate with any chemicals. The fact that dry plates could be prepared in advance, led to the introduction of factory-produced dry plates in 1878. These dry glass plates were coated with gelatine containing silver salts. Subsequently, photographers could buy these commercially prepared plates in bulk. Mass production generally became possible from the 1850s onwards, thanks to industrialization. Mass production made photography cheaper and therefore accessible to more people.


Moreover, gelatine plates were sixty times more sensitive than collodion plates. The latter speeded up the process of taking a photo, which in turn freed the camera from the tripod and allowed the production of smaller hand-held ones. The Kodak Camera is a good example of this. It was introduced by George Eastman in 1888. Thanks to hand-held cameras, photographers could now move around more freely, which made it easier to photograph certain subjects and places. People also didn’t necessarily have to develop their own negatives anymore. Kodak, for example, offered a development service. They marketed their service using the tagline: You press the button, we do the rest. This led to the rise of amateur photography. The dry-plate technique remained popular until the early 1900s.


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My Little Sister by Edward Steichen, 1895, gelatine silver print, via Museum of Modern Art, New York City


The result of the Gelatine Dry-Plate technique included images with a wider tonal range and improved image quality. Generally, the photos had beautiful, soft black-and-white or sepia shades. Some of the well-known photographers who worked with the Gelatine Dry-Plate technique were Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Gertrude Käsebier, Sarah Angelina Acland, and the founding member of the Photo-Secession Movement Clarence Hudson White.


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Rebecca Salsbury Strand by Alfred Stieglitz, 1922, gelatine silver print, via Art Institute of Chicago


While the 1860s saw the rise of the first documentary and journalistic photographs, photography became increasingly used for commercial purposes after the invention of the Gelatine Dry-Plate technique. At the same time, the question of whether photography was a form of art or not was also intensely debated. As a result, the international Movement called Pictorialism emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century. Pictorialism not only represented a certain aesthetic but also formulated a few principles about photography’s role as art. Pictorialists like Alfred Stieglitz believed that photography should be understood as a vehicle of personal expression that was as important as other fine arts.

Author Image

By Isabel DrogeMSc Arts and Culture, BA Art HistoryIsabel is an art historian and writer from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She holds a MSc in Arts and Culture Studies and a BA in Art History, both from the University of Amsterdam. Isabel’s biggest passion lies with European art from the fin de siècle period. Within this field, her main focuses have been the Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession, the decorative arts, as well as the reception of marginalized artists. Currently, she finds herself very interested in art from the early and mid-twentieth century. When Isabel is not busy writing, she loves traveling, photography, web design, and being in nature.