If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Early photography: making daguerreotypes

The daguerreotype is a one-of-a-kind, highly detailed photographic image on a polished copper plate coated with silver. It was introduced in 1839 and became the first popular photographic medium. Created by Getty Museum.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf green style avatar for user FinallyGoodAtMath
    What kind of molded thermoplastic existed in the 1800s?
    (13 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Deborah
    Are there any recorded health problems that occurred from working with mercury?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky sapling style avatar for user annabel
      This was quoted from another website (I tried to water it down, but as you can see, it's still pretty long):

      Blood mercury analyses in the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for 16-to-49-year-old women showed that approximately 2.3% of women had blood mercury concentrations greater than 5.8 micrograms per liter.

      This percentage represents an estimated 1.4 million women of reproductive age who have blood mercury concentrations that may increase the risk of learning disabilities in their unborn children.

      Based on this prevalence and the number of U.S. births each year, it is estimated that more than 75,000 newborns each year may have increased risk of learning disabilities associated with exposure to methylmercury.

      The photographers and helpers must have had protective clothes/suits on- or why would Khan Academy put their photographers at risk to make one of their videos?
      (5 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Eos: Goddess of the Dawn
    How long did it take to prepare the plate for a picture and how long did it take for the picture to be developed (not sure if that's the correct wording)?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Blue Spice Man
    Can liquid mercury sometimes can be dangerous?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Blue Spice Man
    What is the speed of a camera flash?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Gabrielle Pantano
    Wouldn't this plate not have developed because it wasn't done in a darkroom?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Christian Lumley
    Was the invention of photography embraced by Realist painters?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf blue style avatar for user Ellen B Cutler
      The invention of photography was embraced by many painters but also feared. Famously, the head of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris exclaimed "From today photography is dead!" But artists like Delacroix in France made photos and collected them, particularly figures and nudes, to use as a sort of "sketch" in putting paintings together. The landscapist Corot experimented with a kind of photographic process called the cliche-verre. Academicians like Gerome used photographs of people, places and objects to bring authenticity to his paintings of the Middle East. In America, the landscapist Bierstadt had a photography business with his brother before becoming a painter and likely used photographs in his process. Many photographers, like Nadar, were close associates of advanced artistic groups that included writers like Baudelaire and painters like Pissarro and Monet. So yes, there was a complex use of photography.
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Shengyu Chen
    holy this takes a long time
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Even in my time, we have become accustomed to things coming much faster. Photos used to take a week to come back after you dropped off the film. Mail used to take days to get from sender to receiver. Even to input a telephone number when you wanted to make a call required dialing (not punching in) the number. Things have gotten better, to be sure. Some have only gotten faster.
      (1 vote)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben
    is that an electric chair?!
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Steven Zucker
      No. But it is meant to hold the subject very still to produce a sharp image given that light was allowed to enter the camera for an extended period of time. If the subject moved, the image would be out of focus. This particular image is also meant to poke fun at this sort of contraption and is a bit of an exaggeration.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] On Monday afternoon August 19, 1839, the French Academy of Science held a special meeting to publicly disclose the formula for making daguerreotypes. The technique's inventor, Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, had sold his formula to the French government so that it could be made freely available to the public without patent restrictions. The new medium seized the public's imagination. Daguerreotype mania swept through Paris and across Europe. All who saw daguerreotypes for the first time were equally impressed. Viewers took them to be completely faithful depictions of nature. As quickly as railroads and steamships could travel, news of the invention spread around the world. Nowhere was the daguerreotype more popular than in America, a young democracy and a mecca of progress. The Daguerreotype Studio attracted a wide cross-section of Americans. People from all walks of life could now afford to have their portraits made and they did. For all their popularity producing daguerreotypes was a labor intensive process, requiring a lot of equipment and skill. The daguerreotype plate is made of copper faced with silver. To secure it and make it easier to handle the plate is placed silver side up on an adjustable block. In order to prepare the plate for exposure, it has to be polished. In this modern demonstration of the daguerreotype process, the daguerreotypist applies a small amount of white powder called rotten stone to a cloth moistened with dilute alcohol. The daguerreotypist applies the alcohol and rotten stone to the surface of the plate using a consistent motion. The daguerreotypist sprinkles a fine, red powder, known as rouge on to a long padded stick. The plate is then buffed using the rouge. Polishing the plate in the same direction improves viewing of the highly reflective surface. The plate is the buffed a second time with a clean, padded stick in order to increase its reflectivity. It is now ready to be made light sensitive. In the dark the daguerreotypist places the polished plate face down in a sensitizing box which contains a small amount of iodine crystals. In about 15 to 45 seconds fumes from the iodine react with the silver, coating the plate with silver iodide, this process would then be repeated with fumes from bromine, or quickstuff. From the sensitizing box, the daguerreotypist removes the plate, now coated with bromoiodide of silver. The plate is now light sensitive and ready for use in the camera. The daguerreotypist places the light sensitive plate in a plate-holder with the coated side down. It is then secured into place. The viewing glass is lifted out of the camera and replaced with the loaded plate holder. The dark slider's removed to make the plate accessible for the exposure. To make the exposure, the daguerreotypist removes the lens cap. Early exposure times were notoriously long and sometimes uncomfortable, often taking more than 20 seconds. To ensure that the sitter did not move during the exposure, an 1840 Boston newspaper recommended the following, "his head should "be placed on a semi-circle of iron fitted "to the back of the chair, his arms "may be arranged at pleasure. "He should fix his eyes on some well-defined "object in any direction which he may prefer. "Now, if everything is arranged as it "should be, your portrait will often "be made in even in less than 20 seconds "and in the most satisfactory manner." In the dark the daguerreotypist develops the plate. A few ounces of liquid mercury are very carefully poured into a flaring, iron vessel, heated by an alcohol lamp. The exposed plate is removed from the plate holder and placed face down in the mercury chamber which is heated to approximately 175 degrees Fahrenheit. After mercury vapor reacts with the sensitized silver the daguerreotypist removes the developed plate. The daguerreotypist then fixes the plate, making it safe for viewing in normal light by pouring on it a solution of hyposulfite of soda. This removes the excess bromoiodide of silver not acted upon by light in the camera. After it has been thoroughly washed, a guilding stand is used to finish the plate. A weak solution of chloride of gold is gently heated over an alcohol lamp. This hardens the plate and adds to the beauty and permanence of the image. After a final cleaning of the plate, the daguerreotype is assembled for safe-keeping and display. The plate is put into a shallow-hinged case that includes a decorative mat and preserver both of brass and a glass cover with taped edges. Daguerreotype studios presented their wares in a variety of cases, ranging from simple leather or cloth-covered wood to elaborate examples of inlaid mother of pearl and molded thermo-plastic. Their assembly was an example of industrial age production. The work was often done by women and children, as in this factory, one of the largest of its kind. It is estimated that by the mid-1850s in the United States alone, approximately three million daguerreotypes were produced annually, representing a retail industry of seven and a half million dollars. In 1849, an American author concluded, "In our great cities, a daguerreotypist is "to be found in almost every square. "It is hard to find the man who has not "shadowy faces of his wife and his children "done up in morocco and velvet "among his household treasures."