Tintypes and daguerreotypes

As a photo lab owner and national lecturer on photographic processes and photographic preservation, I often come across folks that are very confused about the types of family photographs they own. I often hear them tell us that they have a daguerreotype when in fact what they own is a tintype or visa versa. The differences between the two are significant, yet easily discernible if you know what to look for. Hopefully, this document will explain the both processes and show you the differences between them.

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre is credited with the discovery of the first photographic process in France in 1839. Daguerre was aided in his discovery by another Frenchman named Joseph-Nicephore Niepce. In 1827 Niepce and Daguerre formed a partnership and collectively worked on perfecting the world's first practical photographic process. Several years after Niepces' untimely death in 1833, Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process. Daguerreotypes were popular from 1839 to 1860.

The daguerreotype is the only photographic process that used a thin coating of highly polished silver on a copper support. The silver was sensitized by exposure to fumes of iodine. After the camera exposed the plate, it was developed by exposing the plate to fumes of heated mercury. The surface of the daguerreotype was very fragile and that is the reason why glass was used on top of the plate. The typical construction of the daguerreotype was to use a highly buffed copper plate that had been coated with silver. After processing, this plate had a decorative mat placed over the surface of the plate. The mat was usually made of brass and was used as a spacer as well as for decorative purposes. Mats came in several shapes and designs. A piece of glass was placed on top of the plate and mat which protected the plate from rough handling. This glass cover plate was not as pure as glass is today and you might find the glass "sweating." This does not indicate that the defects are in the daguerreotype itself. A photographic conservator can replace the glass and it will greatly improve the quality of the image. This "sandwich" was held together by a "preserver." The material used to make the preserver as well as the designs on the preserver changed over the years making the dating of the daguerreotype much easier. The most popular preserver was a malleable brass frame which held all the components together. This was then sealed to keep out any sulphur bearing gases and oxidants. Without this seal, pollutants could attack the silver and oxidize the surface. This would be seen as a bluish purple formation around the interior edges of the mat. This "sandwich" was then placed into a case that protected the entire daguerreotype. Over time, exterior cases changed from plain and utilitarian to highly decorative cases.

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. Exposure times varied according to the time of day, the season and the weather. Shortly after the process was announced to the world, Antoine Claudet introduced a process that shortened the exposure time thus making it more practical for portrait photography.


A tintype is a photograph made on a sheet of iron instead of a piece of paper. In 1856 Hamilton Smith patented the process for producing tintypes. Most tintypes were brownish in color and the most common size was about 2 ½ " x 3 ½". Tintypes were popular from1856 until the early 1900's. Tintypes were also called ferrotypes and melainotypes. Many tintypes were put in cases making it more difficult to differentiate them from a daguerreotype. Many tintypes were placed in a paper or cardboard frame while others were used in jewelry or in photo albums. The photographer would frequently clip the corners to make the insertion in the paper or cardboard frame easier. You may find very small tintypes (about postage stamp size) in a photograph album. These were called Gem tintypes. Some schools had photographic albums for their graduating classes and they used the Gem sized tintypes for insertion in the albums. Tintypes were produced in the millions in the United States and are very commonly found today. Just like daguerreotypes, some of the tintypes were cased. Being cased makes it more difficult to distinguish the tintype from a daguerreotype.
After processing, most tintypes were varnished to protect the surface from abrasions and atmospheric conditions. Today you will find that many tintypes that were varnished are experiencing a cracking in the varnish coating. From the time it was introduced to the early 1900's tintypes were the preferred photographic process used by itinerant and street photographers. Tintypes were made mostly for portrait photography because of their relatively low cost and rapid development times. However, the image quality was not quite as good as other photographic methods.

The most popular sizes of tintypes and daguerreotypes are listed below. However, one should not assume that these were the only sizes produced. There were tintypes and daguerreotypes that were made into jewelry, small (?) boxes, etc.

  Full plate 6 1/2" x 8 1/2"
  Half plate 4 1/2" x 51/2"
  ¼ plate 3 1/8" x 4 1/8"
  1/6 plate 2 1/2" x 3 1/2"
  1/9 plate 2" x 2 ½"
  Gem 1/2" x 1"

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Direct any inquiries to Dave Mishkin, photos@maine.com