Old Photographs: The Evolution of Photographic Formats April 15 2021

Like any other invention, photography too has had its own exciting journey. The birth of the camera was just the beginning point of this process, and it has now transitioned into what photography is today. Today, photography is all about digital prints and fancy cameras. But have you ever thought about what the scenario was in the days gone by?

Today, we will be talking all about the different photographic formats spanning from the beginning of the 19th century until the end of it. As an ardent photographer, knowing where it all began is super essential – which is why you should give this one a good read. 

So, let's get started? Brace yourself for some amusing, awe-inspiring and "oh, that's so tedious" and "we have it so easy" moments through the post.


Old Photographs: The Evolution of Photographic Formats


Daguerreotypes (1839-1860)

The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic Daguerreotypy example

process and was a hit, particularly in the period spanning from 1839 to 1860. Also, this is an interesting fact about daguerreotypes – the inventor of this amazing technique was Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. The word 'Daguerreotype' was derived from his last name, 'Daguerre'. Let's understand what exactly made daguerreotypes a popular photographic format back in the 19th century.

The accuracy and sharpness of daguerreotypes are the two main reasons this process was so widely used in the days. It does not involve any photographic paper, but it has a mirror-like surface that is very fragile. This is also a reason why daguerreotypes are not flexible as compared to their photography-paper counterparts.

Numerous daguerreotype portrait photo studios popped up everywhere in the year 1840. Despite this, only the rich could afford the daguerreotypes, as they were super expensive. Even though daguerreotypes were mostly popular for portraits, the application of this amazing photographic format wasn't restricted only to portraiture. In fact, daguerreotypes were used for several different subjects, such as still lives, antiques, unique events, and even topographic and documentary subjects.

As with any other photographic format process, daguerreotypes, too, have the five main elements – polishing, sensitizing, exposure, development, and fixing. At the polishing stage, the silver side of the plate had to be polished to perfection. The nearly perfect mirror finished plate had to be free of contamination and other tarnish to make it fit for the sensitization process.

For the sensitization, this polished plate was then exposed to halogen fumes to increase the sensitivity of the silver halide coating. The sensitized plate was then carried into the camera in a dark plate holder, with no scope for light to peek in. The exposure time varied according to the sensitization chemical solution used, the brightness of the lighting, and the lens's light-concentrating power. The development stage involved exposure to fumes given out by heated mercury in a special development box. Later, for the fixing stage, the plate's light sensitivity was arrested by removing the unexposed silver halide with the help of mild sodium thiosulphate.

Daguerrotype Studio

A Daguerrotype studio

Despite this tedious process, the resultant image was as delicate as the dust on a butterfly's wings! Just imagine going through all these stages to produce such a fragile image. We do have it a lot easy these days, don't we?


Calotypes (1841-1860)

Calotype negative by Talbott 1841-44

Commonly confused with kallitype, calotypes are a completely different concept. Kallitype was a direct copying process and was based on the sensitivity levels of ferrous salts to light. Kallitypes were also synonymous with the Van Dyke process. Calotypes, on the other hand, are very different - and that is what we will be talking about in-depth now.

Shown as an example here is a calotype negative by Talbott, 1841-1844.

A calotype negative had a typical preparation process. The key component was the paper made of cloth. This cloth-paper had to be sized by gelatin and then treated with a solution of silver nitrate and soaked in a solution of potassium iodide. This whole process leads to the yellowing of the paper, which also explains why calotype negatives had a tinge of yellow to them.

After these initial steps came several hours of washing out and drying, and post all this effort, the print was still semi-finished, durable yet not sensitive enough to light. The process of sensitizing the sheet involved treating the sheet over again. This process was carried out under red light with a solution of silver nitrate – this time, with gallic and acetic acid.

While this newly sensitized sheet was still damp, it had to be exposed with special cassettes. You could also insert it between two pieces of thin glass. After exposure of several minutes under the sunlight at aperture 8, this exposure paper either had a slight shadow or came out completely clear.

Developing again required application of the same solution used for sensitization - silver nitrate with gallic and acetic acid. After this, the picture immediately appeared. However, it had to be developed to the required coverage with only gallic and acetic acid this time. This was done under a red light only. This picture was then rinsed with a sodium thiosulphate solution and washed out for around an hour.

The negative had to be transparent for copying purposes, which involved two main components – beeswax and a hot iron. For the process of copying, either salt paper was used, or the albumin process was followed. Salt and albumin papers were soft enough to hold the high-contrast calotypes, which was why they were always preferred.

More specifically, the salt paper was favored because the photographs on salt paper were not in the binder. They had a beautiful matte finish and yet, did not curl up. However, the picture ended up pale, as the fine silver particles were susceptible to degradation.


Ambrotype (1850-1865)

Ambrotypes are also known as 'positive collodions.' The process of

Ambrotype - 2 men and cello c.1860

creating an ambrotype involves steps from different photographic formats. Let's understand this slightly complex form of photographic format.

The critical component of an ambrotype was a clean glass plate. This glass plate was coated with a thin layer of iodized collodion. This was then dipped in a silver nitrate solution. This damp glass plate was then exposed in the camera, with an exposure time-varying from five to sixty seconds. The exposure time was increased, depending on the speed of the camera lens, brightness of the lighting, and some other factors.

Further steps included the development and fixing of this plate. This resulted in a negative, which was then held against a black background and then viewed by reflected light. This revealed a positive image in which the clear areas look black, and the exposed areas appear lighter.

This beautiful effect was further enhanced by backing a dark-reddish colored glass plate with black velvet. This resulted in the ruby ambrotype, which looked resplendent. The other effects included coating the glass plate with black varnish, which added a sense of depth to the image. Often, ambrotypes were hand-tinted. The untinted versions gave a monochrome, grey, or tan look to the photograph.


Wet Collodion Glass Plates and Albumen Prints (1851-1880)

This one is one of the most popular photographic processes used throughout the 19th century. So much so that this technique was used to capture most of the Civil War photographs. The wet collodion process also happens to be one of the earliest photographic processes. So what exactly made this process so famous and widely-used? Let's find out.

Albumen Print 1880s - Chinese Streetsellers Shanghai

Albumen Print 1880s - Chinese Streetsellers Shanghai

For this process, photographers had to create their own glass plates. These plates were then coated with a unique solution – a perfect mixture of cellulose nitrate (also known as collodion) and a soluble iodide. After this step, the plate was then immersed in a solution of silver nitrate. This had to be essentially carried out in a dark room. While this plate was still wet, it was exposed, developed, and fixed, all at once. These steps had to be carried out immediately to ensure a good quality photographic print. Lastly, a protective varnish was applied to the print.

Owing to this process's complex nature, many 19th century photographers had to use a portable darkroom. These darkrooms were essential, especially during field photography trips. Another amusing fact is that if you look at any wet collision prints, you will notice that they feature a thumbprint at any one corner. This is because the photographer who created the print held the plate at this very point!.


Tintype or Ferrotype (1853-1900)

Tintype - Two musicians

The technique used in the ferrotype photographic frame is the same as that used in ambrotypes. The only difference here is that instead of using a clean glass plate, the tin or enamel lacquered with black paint was used as a backing. Asphalt was often used instead of black paint. Due to the materials involved in creating ferrotypes, they are also known as melainotypes or tintypes.

Ferrotypes were widely used during the 18th century, and their usage dwindled in the 19th century. They did see a revival in the 20th century and were ultimately restored as a novelty and fine art form in the 21st century. In the earlier days, ferrotypes required a formal photograph booth for processing. However, in later times, this photographic format became accessible to all. So much so that photographers worked in booths or open fairs at carnivals too.

This was possible only because the lacquered iron support is sturdy and did not need drying at all. The ferrotype could be easily developed, fixed, and handed over instantly to the customer. Ferrotypes came in at a time when daguerreotypes were extremely popular. It also faced stiff competition from ambrotypes. The exciting aspect of ferrotypes is that it was widely used to capture a range of settings and subjects. It offered the flexibility no other photographic format would be able to deliver.

Ferrotypes were generated using two processes: wet and dry. In the wet process, a collodion emulsion containing suspended silver halide crystals needed to be formed on the plate before it could be exposed to the camera. Additional chemical treatment was introduced to reduce these crystals to microscopic particles of metallic silver during the exposure stage. The intensity and duration of exposure at this stage were critical, as that is what contributed to the image's clarity.

These dull-toned positive images had a charm of their own. When reflected by light, the densest areas of the image appeared grey, whereas the areas with the least amount of silver appeared black. Ferrotypes rendered the ability to employ underexposed images with shorter exposure times. This feature was particularly beneficial in portrait photography.


CDVs - Cartes-de-visite (1854 - Mid 1870s)

If there's something that made photography more accessible to the

Adelina Patti signed CDV

masses, it is this – the Cartes-de-Visite, commonly known as CDVs. Cartes-de-Visite was why the Victorian era witnessed its first great photography craze. The CDVs were nothing but small, albumen prints that were mounted on cards. The CDV closely followed the processing techniques of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Both the latter techniques were expensive and difficult to implement, and the CDV process simplified it all.

Example shown here is a CDV of soprano Adelina Patti, signed below by her.

The trend caught up in 1854 when Paris-based photographer Andre Adolphe Disderi patented the carte-de-visite format. All this technique required was a sliding plate holder and four lenses. The world witnessed this magical photography technique, and in no time, the CDVs were all across the world! The CDVs were extensively used during the American Civil War, as soldiers wanted to take little happy family pictures along with them while away.

The CDVs were inexpensive, small, and easy to produce, which is why cartes-de-visite became an international standard. The best part was that CDVs ensured that photography broke free from the confines of an indoor setup – instead, it gave way for adventurers to take pictures of their outdoor expeditions, too.

Thanks to this accessible format of photography, photographs of loved ones and celebrities, memorable life events, authors, and politicians became immensely in demand. Over time, larger cabinet cards replaced CDVs, and slowly and steadily, this marvelous technique continued to advance.


Gelatin Dry Plate (1871 - Early 20th Century)

Gelatin Dry Plate - Family on porch

Let's find out more about this interesting process that completely wiped out the usage of wet collodion plates. The popularity of this photographic format began in the 1880s when Geroge Eastman started mass production of plates. This company was named Eastman Film and Dry Plate, which eventually became Eastman Kidak.

The process, however, was invented by Dr. Richard L Maddox in 1871. The manufacturing of dry plates by Eastman's company only gave it a further boost. This method instantly gained an edge over the wet plate process, as it offered the flexibility of transporting and processing at a later date. The wet plates process was rigid and had to be completed in a single sitting.

Gelatin Dry Plates' popularity went on until the early 20th century, i.e., till the 1920s and 1930s. One rare series of Gelatin Dry Plates has also been discovered dating back to the 1950s. These plates were used to capture a unique subject – astronomy and all its wonders.

The dry plates consisted of silver halides, which were suspended in the gelatin binder. If you compare these plates with the wet collodion plates, the exposure time required for the former is lesser. This short exposure time gives the Gelatin Dry Plates a major advantage over the wet collodion counterparts. The gelatin dry plate process technique was developed and ultimately evolved into what we today know as the film roll process.


Platinum Prints and Cyanotypes (1873-1916)

Considering their wide use and popularity, these two processes need

Platinum Print of a woman c.1910

to be added to the most popular photography formats of the 19th century. Let's understand each of these individually:

The key element of the platinum print was the high-quality paper coated with iron and platinum salts. While this format was extremely popular in the 19th century, its fame reduced in the early 20th century. This was because the price of platinum rose steadily.

So why was platinum used in the first place? Platinum prints had no binder layer and had to be coated directly on paper support. Thanks to this, the ultimate photo prints had a beautiful gloss finish. Every element of the paper fiber, as well as the subject, were clearly visible in the final output. Considering the cost involved in creating these platinum prints, they held up pretty well. Even after years, the print still stays fresh and life-like.

The next process is the cyanotype – this is a peculiar print and can be easily identified thanks to its cyan image color. They are nothing but photogenic blueprints and became popular in the latter part of the 19th century. The trend continued until the early 20th century.

Cyanotype c.1910

Cyanotype, circa 1910

The reason why cyanotypes were popular was that they were an easy way to make contact prints to prove the negatives of photographs. Unlike platinum prints, cyanotypes do not rely on the sensitivity of silver. Instead, cyanotypes heavily rely on iron salts. The major drawback of cyanotypes is that they are fragile, extremely sensitive to light and fade away quickly. This is also one reason why platinum prints got an edge over cyanotypes, even though they were a lot more expensive.


Gelatin Silver Printing Out Prints (1874-1960)

Gelatin Silver Print c.1910

This photographic format was trending in the mid-1880s. It is a crossover between two different photographic formats, making it hard to distinguish one from the other. Like the albumen print, these were contact printed under the sunlight.

This photographic format's key component is the gelatin silver print paper, which comprises four elements – paper base, baryta, gelatin binder, and a protective gelatin overcoat. This paper base is lightweight, flexible yet strong enough to withstand wet processing and regular handling.

The gelatin silver paper holds light-sensitive silver halides. An enlarger is used for the exposure stage. This chemical reduction process helped accurately distinguish the clear and dense parts of the image. The image is visible in the development stage, which is carried out with a developer's help. In this stage, the developer transforms the silver halide particles into metallic silver. At this point, the image is visible, but there's still a lot to be done. The remaining unexposed silver halide had to be removed to make the print permanent. For this, the print is placed in the stop bath, which stops development.

Once the development is done, the undeveloped silver salts must be removed by fixing sodium thiosulphate or ammonium thiosulphate, after which the negative or print is washed in clean water. The drawback of Collodion Silver Printing Out and Gelatin Silver Printing Out Prints is that they are subject to deterioration. The reason behind this is the oxidation of silver particles that form a major component of this photographic format.


Cabinet Cards (1880-1924)

A progression of the CDVs, cabinet cards was towards the latter half

Johanna Schwartz - Actress

of the 19th century. While the technique and type stayed the same, the only differentiating factor between the two was the cabinet cards' size. The cabinet cards were larger, making them more suitable to capture vast landscape views. Otherwise, it was difficult to capture these vast scenes in a smaller frame. Why the name cabinet cards? Simple because they were visible from afar when placed in a cabinet!

A cabinet card can be typically identified by a couple of factors - its size, the extensive logos, and lastly, the photographer's advertisement on the reverse side of the card. While some of the cabinet cards have a black and white appearance, quite a few of them even have an unmissable sepia tone to them. Quite a few specimens of cabinet cards also feature a greenish cast. 

While the earliest cabinet card dates back to the 1860s, they mostly disappeared after the early 1910s, and the latest one has been traced down to 1924. 

Kodak noticed how the fad of photography had caught up with the masses. They took up the opportunity and created the first of its kind, super affordable Kodak Box Brownie camera in the year 1900. The reign of cabinet cards instantly began to decline as more people took to this new camera launched by Kodak.


Summing Up

If you closely observe photographic formats' journey, you'll notice how tedious the process was in the days gone by. Also, it reminds us of how blessed we are to be in this time and age. Today, we live in a time where we have top-notch photography equipment and accessories – each of which has been crafted to make our lives easier. The transition has been huge, and the progress of photography from where it began and where it is today is indeed worth admiring.


- Opera Singer CDVs & Cabinet Photos (unsigned)

- Composer CDVs and Cabinet Photos (unsigned)


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