Click here to Return to Home Page

The Daguerreotype Process

Louis Jacques Mande DAGUERRE (1787-1851)

The daguerreotype process was the first practicable method of obtaining permanent images with a camera. The man who gave his name to the process and perfected the method of producing direct positive images on a silver-coated copper plate was Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a French artist and scenic painter. Daguerre had began experimenting with ways of fixing the images formed by the camera obscura around 1824, but in 1829 he entered into partnership with Joseph Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833), a French amateur scientist and inventor who, in 1826, had succeeded in securing a picture of the view from his window by using a a camera obscura and a pewter plate coated with bitumen. Niepce called his picture-making process heliography ("sun drawing"), but although he had managed to produce a permanent image using a camera, the exposure time was around 8 hours. Niepce later abandoned pewter plates in favour of silver-plated sheets of copper and discovered that the vapour from iodine reacted with the silver coating to produce silver iodide, a light sensitive compound.

After the death of Niepce in 1833, Daguerre continued to experiment with copper plates coated with silver iodide to produce direct positive pictures. Daguerre discovered that the latent image on an exposed plate could be brought out or "developed" with the fumes from warmed mercury. The use of mercury vapour meant that photographic images could be produced in twenty to thirty minutes rather than hours. In 1837, Daguerre found a way of "fixing" the photographic images with a solution of common salt. Two years later, he followed the suggestion of Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) and adopted hyposulphate of soda (now thiosulphate of soda ) as the fixing agent.

Daguerre began making successful pictures using his improved process from 1837. On 19th August,1839, at a meeting in Paris, the Daguerreotype Process was revealed to the world.

In England, Richard Beard (1801-1885), a former coal merchant and patent speculator, bought the patent to Alexander Wolcott's mirror camera and employed the services of John Frederick Goddard (1795-1866), a chemist, to find a way of reducing exposure times to less than a few minutes, thereby making it possible to take daguerreotype portraits. On 23rd March 1841, Richard Beard opened Englandís first daguerreotype portrait studio in London's Regent Street. In June 1841, Beard purchased from Daguerre the patent rights to the daguerreotype process in England.

[ ABOVE ] A daguerreotype portrait of Louis Jacques Daguerre by John Jabez Edwin Mayall , a photographic artist who established a studio in London in 1847 and later set up a photographic studio in Brighton, Sussex. This daguerreotype dates from 1846.

[ LEFT] Apparatus and equipment for making daguerreotypes, from an advertisement published in 1843.


[ ABOVE ] An early daguerreotype studio, as depicted in a woodcut by George Cruikshank in 1842. This illustration shows the interior of Richard Beard's daguerreotype portrait studio at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London's Regent Street, the first professional photographic portrait studio in England, which opened in 1841. In this early period, Beard employed Wolcott's Mirror Camera, which used a concave mirror instead of a lens.

An Early Daguerreotype Portrait Studio (1842)

a. A daguerreotype studio was often situated at the very top of a building, which had a glass roof to let in as much light as possible.

b. The subject sat on a posing chair placed on a raised platform, which could be rotated to face the light. The sitter's head is held still by a clamp (x).

The stages of making a daguerreotype portrait

1. An assistant polishes a silver-coated copper plate with a long buffer until the surface is highly reflective (y). c. The highly polished plate is then taken into the darkroom, where it is sensitized with chemicals ( e.g. chloride of iodine, chloride of bromine ).

2. The operator places the sensitized plate into a camera placed on a high shelf (z). When the sitter is ready the operator removes  the camera cover and times the required exposure with a watch. [ In this illustration, the operator is using Wolcott's Mirror Camera, which was fitted with a curved mirror instead of a lens ].

3. The exposed plate is returned to the darkroom where the photographic image on the silvered plate is "brought out" with the fumes from heated mercury (d). The photographic image is "fixed" by bathing the plate in hyposulphate of soda. The photographic plate with the daguerreotype image is then washed in distilled water (e) and dried.

4. Finally, the finished daguerreotype portrait is covered by a sheet of protective glass and is either mounted in a decorative frame or presented in a leather-bound case and offered to the customer for close inspection. Early daguerreotype portraits were very small and to appreciate the fine detail these customers are using a magnifying glass.

Ten Steps in Making a Daguerreotype

Polishing and Buffing the Plate







1. Polishing and Buffing the Photographic Plate

A plate of silver-coated copper is cleaned and highly polished with a soft cloth, using pumice powder and oil. The plate is continually polished and buffed until the silvered surface has a mirror-like brilliance.

2. Sensitizing the Photographic Plate

The polished plate is sensitized by exposing it to iodine and bromine fumes. The plate is first suspended in an air tight compartment containing chloride of iodine until the surface of the silvered plate turns yellow. The iodized plate is then suspended face down over chloride of bromine fumes. The two chemicals combine with the silver coating of the plate to form a light sensitive surface. ( Some daguerreotype artists used a combination of chlorine and iodine vapours ).

Sensitizing the Plate



The Daguerreotype Camera

3. Loading the Camera

The sensitized plate is inserted into a light-proof holder with a protective slide and placed inside the camera.

4. Taking the Likeness

The subject is placed in front of the camera. If necessary, the pose is held with the assistance of adjustable head rests, clamps and posing stands.

The protective slide is removed and, when the photographer is satisfied with the pose and expression of the sitter, the lens cap is removed for a period of time until the image is captured on the sensitized surface of the plate.

Daguerreotype Exposure Times

1839  Daguerreotype half-plate & whole plate    15-30 minutes

1841  Daguerreotype ninth-plate & sixth- plate    20 sec - 90 seconds

1842  Daguerreotype ninth-plate & sixth- plate    10 sec - 60 seconds















The Posing Stand

5. Developing the Image

The image is "brought out" by suspending the photographic plate over a dish of mercury inside a fuming box. The mercury is heated by a spirit lamp and the fumes from the mercury combine with the silver salts to produce a clear image on the plate.


6. Fixing the Image

The photographic image is made permanent by bathing the photographic plate in hyposulphate of soda ( or sodium thiosulphite )



Fixing the image with hyposulphate of soda





Developing the image in the fuming box


7. Gold Toning or Gilding ( optional )

The image on the the photographic plate can also be toned and strengthened by treating the plate with gold chloride.



8. Washing the Photographic Plate

Finally, the photographic plate is washed in distilled water and dried.


9. Colouring ( optional )

The portrait could be coloured by hand. The surface of the plate was coated with a thin film of gum arabic and left to dry. The colourist would then breathe on the treated plate to make it sticky and with a fine paintbrush applied dry powdered pigment to the image.




[ RIGHT ] A hand-coloured daguerreotype portrait of a woman by William Edward Kilburn, who opened a studio in Regent Street, London in 1846. William Kilburn was famous for his hand-coloured daguerreotype portraits, which were compared to painted portrait miniatures.

10. Mounting and Presenting the Finished Daguerreotype Portrait

The finished daguerreotype portrait was surrounded by a gilt or brass mat, covered with a sheet of protective glass, and bound in a metal frame. The daguerreotype portrait was presented in a velvet or plush-lined, leather case, or mounted in a decorative frame.

[ LEFT ] A daguerreotype portrait of a man surrounded by a brass mat. [ CENTRE] A hand-coloured daguerreotype portrait in a leather case embossed with the name of Beard's Photographic Institution.[  RIGHT ] A daguerreotype portrait of a woman in a simple frame.

Click here to Return to Home Page



Thanks to Mark Osterman for his advice and suggestions regarding the section entitled Ten Steps in Making a Daguerreotype