A Glance At Victorian Photography

Photography is all around us. Imagine if it never existed; painting and drawing would be all the rage. Photography made it possible to develop a new field in the documentation process. Over the years the development of sharper, better and clearer quality photographs started 194 years ago by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in Burgundy, France when photography was invented. It was used over the years for photo development.

Photography was coming extremely accurate, detailed, cost-effective and creates vibrant blank-and-white images during the Victorian era. Many old-time photographic techniques that do exist came from the Victorian era in the short period of time between the 1830s to 1900s. New items to help develop a photograph were being introduced while old items like silver would go through many rejuvenations in usefulness. This is just a list of some of the most popular photography types from the Victorian era.

Daguerreotype photography

The first type of photography used silvered copper plates to develop their films into photographs around 1840s. Daguerreotype photography was a photograph technique from the late 1800s.

Boulevard du Temple is an early daguerreotype photograph created by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre in 1838. This image is in the public domain.

A daguerreotype is a single reversed image made as a direct positive onto a silvered copper plate. After cleaning and polishing the plate, exposure to iodine vapours created a light-sensitive surface that looked like a mirror. The plate, held in a lightproof holder, was then transferred to the camera and exposed to light. The plate was developed over hot mercury fumes until an image appeared. The plate was immersed in a solution of sodium thiosulfate or salt and then toned with gold chloride to fix the image. It was extremely fragile even after being fixed. They were prone to tarnishing due to oxidization and air pollutants which could darken the image. They were protected with glass and held bounded together with a small leather case. The photographs took three to fifteen minutes to develop.

Unknown Woman - Daguerreotype Photo
A daguerreotype photo of an unidentified woman by Mathew Brady between 1851 and 1860.
L’Atelier de l'artiste-Daguerreotype Photo
L’Atelier de l’artiste is an early daguerreotype photograph created by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre in 1837.
This image is in the public domain.

If the child had to be held for the photograph, the mother would wear a black veil hiding her face. The modern term of this technique is called the hidden mother. It was necessary for the long exposure time to take the shot so that they would suddenly move when they were positioned to be sitting. In other types of shots, they have the child sit upright would have the parent behind a black curtain or only showing their arm or hand in the final photograph.

Anonymous daguerreotype photographer in Great Britain, 19th century.

It was invented by Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre from France. He was a Romantic-era painter and printmaker who also had a hand inventing the diorama. The photography development technique is extremely accurate, detailed and sharp. It was used to photograph topographic, documentary subjects, antiquities, still life, natural phenomena and events. The earliest cameras used for the daguerreotype process were made by opticians, instrument makers and sometimes by the photographers themselves.

Ambrotype Photography

Daguerreotype photography was replaced with ambrotype photography in 1854. It was patented by James Ambrose Cutting. Ambrotype photography was printed on sheets of glass. Early photographs of this technique would have the photograph on a piece of glass with another piece of glass behind the photo. Later versions had the photo printed on the front of the glass with a black paper coating on the back making the negative image appear positive. The other name for this technique is positive collodion. It was used for around thirty years between the 1850s to 1880s. The downside to this process would be the mirrored image it would create.

Ambrotype Photograph - Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.
This photo is in the public domain.

Tintype Photography

This was a photography process that used iron processing. It’s technically called ferrotype but mostly known as tintype because of the implication of cheapness and tiny sounding the name is. Other names used were Melainotype and Melanograph. It was patented twice once in America by Hamilton Smith in 1857 and England by Willian Kloen and Daniel Jones. But was first patented by Adolphe-Alexandre Martin in 1853. They were very small photos around 2×3 inches and showed areas of rust where the image started to lift off. Tintypes were made with a thin sheet of iron coated with black enamel. The photos were also magnetic due to the iron, didn’t need mounting in a case to produce a positive image and were cheap to produce. Tintype is a variation of the positive collodion process with set photo plates.

Unknown couple in tintype photograph with chocolate sepia tones and hand painted rosy blush.
Unretouched original tintype of Billy the Kid taken around 1880. This photo is in the public domain.

An underexposed negative image was produced on a thin iron plate. It was blackened by either paint, lacquer or enamel then coated with a collodion photographic emulsion. The areas that had the least amount of silver corresponded with the darkest parts of the photograph. The dark background gave the image the appearance of a positive image. With this technique, photographers could prepare, expose, develop and varnish a plate in a few minutes. Some uncased tintypes were placed in a folded paper mat. These photos were popular among fairs, carnivals, sidewalk itineraries, and Civil War soldiers for keepsakes.

Albumen Prints

This is a variety of photographic paper prints that divided silver and gold images by egg white. Between 1855 to 1895, albumen prints were used until it fell out of fashion during the 1920s. The albumen paper was used for its formative period of photography. It was the first type of photographic paper invented by William Henry Fox Talbot during 1839. It was first published about in Photogenic Drawing, 1839 about photographic process. Paper is soaked in a diluted solution of sodium chloride. After the salted paper was dried, the paper would be sensitized by brushing on a strong silver nitrate solution. When the sensitized paper was placed in sunlight, an image of metallic silver would be formed. An experimenter described a printing process using paper coated with a mixture of equal parts egg white and water then sensitizing the paper with silver nitrate solution. This works with the reaction of the silver ions and egg white proteins.

A photo of the Launch of the Monarch, San Francisco, 1875
taken by Thomas Houseworth & Co., publishers, Mammoth plate albumen print.
A photo of The Horse in Motion, 1878,
taken by Eadweard Muybridge, (George D. Morse, publisher) Albumen print.

Then around 1849, a French photographer, Louis Desire Blanquart-Evrard, created an upgraded version of this technique with the chlorides of ordinary salted paper were dispersed in egg white a positive printing-out paper of great detail and contrast was produced. His discovery was first produced in the Bulletin of the French Academy of Science on May 27th, 1850. Photographers like this process making it the dominant photographic printing material by 1855. The popularity grew with the revolutionary techniques to use photographic negatives.

Wet collodion negatives had finer detail and a longer density range. The details in the photographs improved because of the image paying on the albumen coating on the paper instead of in the fibres of the paper. By the end of the popularity of the process, the paper was lighter has a mixture of linen and cotton. The tinted paper was used in this process with the addition of aniline dyes to the albumen solution. They were used for portraiture with pink as the most popular colour. Other colours available were green, blue and purple.

A photo of George Brinton McClellan and wife, 1826-1885
taken byGutekunst, Frederick. A part of the James Wadsworth Family Papers

Brownie Cameras

These cameras were produced by the Kodak Eastman company in the year 1900. It was the longest-running, simple to use, inexpensive cameras of the late Victorian era. It was a cardboard box camera with a simple meniscus lens that took 2 1/4-inch square pictures on 117 roll film. It was invented by Frank A. Brownell but the name comes from a cartoon series from Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox, The Brownies. They were perfect for amateur photographers mainly marketed to kids in school. The cameras were everywhere. It popularized photography for many people who could afford a two hundred dollar camera. The Brownie camera was $1 which in today’s rate $30 for a camera. Also, there was no need for a dark room with the cameras when people could just bring it to a dealer near them. The cameras went through a variety of evolutions. There were different versions of the cameras like collectables and travel sizes. It was discontinued in 1963.

A photograph of a delegate at the First National Women’s Conference
holds a brownie camera., 1977. Taken by Diana Mara Henry.
Unidentified male and female with a camera, 1900.
Lawrence History Center.

Mourning Photography

This type of photography was also used for mourning photography in the Victorian era. Having a photo taken was very expensive. Most of the time in the Victorian era a person would only be able to afford one photograph of themselves and it was usually after they died. The photograph was for the families of the recently deceased to participate in the mourning phases. These were sometimes referred to as Memento Mori photography which translates to “remember you must die” photographs.

The people in the photos appear in various stages of decay even if they were in a fire they were dressed up for these photos at the discretion of the family. The photograph was taken in whatever state the bodies were in. The important aspect was to have a momentum of what the person looked like around the time they died. The bodies were also very sharp looking in the photograph because they would not be shifting around or moving in the frame. They would be perfectly still for the photograph. The person would have to sit 60-90 seconds perfectly still before the smokey flash of light went off.

Left: Mourning card for Ester Mills – died July 30, 1902 – Geelong, Victoria
Right: Memorial card for Goode Norman of Myrtle Vale, Pennyroyal, Victoria – 1893
Courtesy of Kaye’s Imagery on Flickr

When printing became more affordable and widely available, Carte De Visite and cabinet cards were used to place in an area high visibility. Carte De Visite were photos mounted on cardboard at a size of 4 x 2.5 inches. The size we now associate with business card size (3.5 x 2 inches) was the size of the photograph. The camera that was used to get the photos took 4 to 8 photos at a time on the same plate. It was invented by French photographer Andre Adolphe Eugene Disdéri to reach the supply and demand for people wanting multiple photocopies. Cabinet cards were larger and thicker at 6.5 x 4.25 inches. The photos inside the cabinet cards were 5.5 x 4 inches. They were invented as the larger version of the carte de visite cards. It was especially popular around the time the first introduction of the photographic postcard. Both sets of cards were uniquely designed the place the photograph was taken, the photographer’s name or company name. Other types of cards used were mourning cards that would have the person’s name, date of death, age, and a peaceful saying on one side of the card. It was seen as a high profile funeral for others to see that you were invited and close to the family of the recently deceased. It was seen as a memento to be given to the attendees of the funeral. Some cards were photographed while other cards had embossing, gold imprints or with personalized messages from the sender.

Left: George Edgeloe and Emily Eleanor Edgeloe (nee Perry)
photo taken King William Street, Adelaide, Australia – 1890s
Right: Mr and Mrs Uren from Pilgrim Street, Footscray, Victoria – 1880s
photo taken by Bernhardt Studio, Bourke Street, Melbourne.
Courtesy of Kaye’s Imagery on Flickr

Why toners were used

Most photographs people see with silver photographs that might already have a tone applied to it either it’s a soft brown or a reddish-brown or a purplish-brown tone. There was a purpose to the application beyond making them look better. It was a protective coating against environmental problems and fading. If it was not in a protective case the photos scratched easily. But without the colours, the photographs appear ghostly to some. This was caused by the black-and-white photo being more sensitive to light except red. Therefore, reds can appear darker while blues can appear lighter than usual due to being overexposed. This is caused by orthochromatic film. The colours were added in to make them appear more appealing.


How to spot a ferrotype, also known as a tintype (1855–1940s) – Science and Media Museum
The Gift of the Daguerreotype – The Atlantic
A Victorian mourning card – The Cowkeeper’s Wish
Victorian photographic techniques – National Museum of Scotland
“Mirrors With Memories”: Why Did Victorians Take Pictures of Dead People? – MentalFloss
Why people never smiled in old photographs – Vox
The History, Technique and Structure of Albumen Prints by James M. Reilly – Cool. Cultural Heritage
Death and the Daguerreotype: The Strange and Unsettling World of Victorian Photography – Vice


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