What Was the First Commercial Photography Process? Understanding Daguerreotype

What Was the First Commercial Photography Process?

The first commercial photography process was the Daguerreotype. And the best thing is that it is still being used today for some pieces of artwork. It’s interesting that this is one of the oldest processes in use today!

What is the Daguerreotype and When Was It Invented?

The daguerreotype technique was developed by Louis Jacques-Mande Daguerre in 1839.

Actually, Joseph Nicephore Niepce was the first person to capture an image with a camera, although it took many hours to do so and the technique was rudimentary. Daguerre was a painter before he became involved with Nicephore Niepce in a partnership.

What is the Daguerreotype and When Was It Invented

The silver plates were later utilized by Daguerre in the plate for image formation, but the process was not successful. However, he discovered the precise method for image reproduction after an accident.

One of the plates was placed into the cupboards for washing after the light exposure. When he opened the cupboard after a few hours, he discovered that the picture on the plate had been properly formed.

He studied it and discovered that the mercury vapor had caused this accurate picture formation. As a result, this calamity paved the road for one of history’s most significant camera discoveries [1].

In the mid-nineteenth century (1840), Henry F. Talbot manufactured a competing photographic technique. Instead of using metal plates, he used everyday paper that had been treated with salt and silver nitrate. His so-called Calotypes were not as sharp as Daguerreotypes, but they were more practical: they introduced photo negatives that could be duplicated.

The interesting fact is that Talbot had a dispute with Daguerre over a minor patent issue. Perhaps it’s why he also decided to capture Parisian streets with his camera.

As time went on, both procedures were eventually rendered obsolete as progress advanced, when Frederic Scott Archer developed the now-famous Collodion technique that combined the detail of the Daguerreotype with the simplicity of Calotypes. Pictures were produced on glass plates using this new technique.

Archer refused to patent his invention, considering it “a gift for the rest of humanity”. And in fact, that view proved to be quite prescient: The technique he helped create would lead to gelatin printing and, later, film, which revolutionized photo taking in the 20th century [2].

The Process of Daguerreotype

The daguerreotype is a direct-positive method that produces a highly detailed picture on a piece of copper plated with a thin layer of silver without the need for a negative. The procedure required extreme attention to detail. Until the surface looked like a mirror, the silver-plated copper plate had to be cleaned and polished.

The Process of Daguerreotype

The test plate was exposed to a drop of 3 percent potassium iodide solution, which produced a pale bluish tint.

The acid-sensitized plate was then placed in an iodine-filled box for 18 hours before being transferred to the camera.

After exposure to light, the plate was developed over hot mercury until an image formed.

To preserve the photograph, the picture was immersed in a solution of sodium thiosulfate or salt and then gold chloride toning was applied.

The earliest daguerreotypes were produced with a time of three to fifteen minutes, making the procedure unsuitable for portrait photography. The development of improved photographic lenses and modifications to the sensitization process eventually reduced the exposure time to less than a minute.

Although each daguerreotype is one-of-a-kind, it may be duplicated by redaguerreotyping the original. Lithography and engraving were other methods used to make copies. Daguerreotypes were utilized in popular periodicals and books to create portraits. At Brady’s studio, James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, had his portrait taken.

A later engraved version of this daguerreotype was published in the “Democratic Review” [3].

What Are the Advantages of a Daguerreotype?

  • While daguerreotypes are delicate and breakable, they can endure for eternity if properly preserved;
  • Because the picture plane is made of solid silver and there is no grain on the print’s surface;
  • The image quality is far superior to that of paper or film;
  • One of the most significant advantages of the daguerreotype is its superior level of detail;
  • The daguerreotype technique was particularly well-suited to portrait photography, which led to an increase in popularity that far outstripped the calotype;

Disadvantages of the Daguerreotype

The daguerreotype process has several disadvantages. The most significant disadvantage of the daguerreotype method is that it was not possible to duplicate an image. The pictures are created as positives rather than negatives.

Because of the length of time required, the daguerreotype technique could only capture still objects since it did not appeal to amateurs:

  • It was impossible to duplicate an image;
  • These pictures are very delicate if not preserved correctly;
  • The daguerreotype technique, on the other hand, was not meant for continuous movements. Because of the time needed to complete the process, it could only capture people who were completely still;

Daguerreotype Cameras

The first cameras used in the daguerreotype method were made by opticians and instrument makers, as well as sometimes even photographers.

The lens and the ground glass slider are located at the front of such a camera, while the rear is separated from the ground glass slide.

The sliding-box type of camera was the most popular.

The lens was positioned in the front box. A smaller, second box slid into the back of the larger one. The position of the rear box may be adjusted by sliding it forward or backward. Unless a mirror or prism were used to compensate for this distortion, a laterally reversed picture would result when the sensitized plate was put inside the camera with the lens cap removed to begin exposure. When developing film in a dark room, you had to remove the lens cover in order for it to start taking pictures.

Daguerreotype Camera

They’ve sent these cameras to many places across the world. However, only a few were in good working order when they got to their destinations. The rest of the cameras failed to function as intended. It’s possible that it’s due to shipping-related damage.

These were quite huge, unlike the latest digital cameras. The length was 10.5 inches when closed, with a width of 14.5 inches and a height of 12.25 inches. The length will double to almost 20 inches in the extended condition.

The inventor utilized plates with 6.5 x 8.5-inch dimensions. At the time, it weighed around 16 pounds. This camera model was in use for the next 10-12 years.

It was subsequently replaced by lighter version cameras utilizing compact bellows, which were used for another 10-12 years [5].

Major Issues with Daguerreotype Cameras

The Daguerreotype cameras are prone to certain malfunctions. There’s nothing unusual about that since it was the first mass-market camera on the market.

When you connect this camera to a computer, the image will be in reverse format. However, this problem was addressed later by utilizing a reversing prism or mirror in front.

Major Issues with Daguerreotype Cameras

The second disadvantage is that because the plate is actually positive, you get a direct image on the surface. As a result, the finished picture may not be transferred to paper.

Others modified the original daguerreotype camera to address many of these concerns later on [6].

Daguerreotype Plate Sizes

Many plates were modified in size to different levels than the “standards” in the clinic. The difference between 1 and 2 mm is usually not significant.

The sizes of European countries are somewhat different from those of English nations. The 6×8 Parisian inch size whole plate was the originator of the European measurements, whereas the English plates were based on inches (2.54 cm).

Daguerreotype Plate Sizes

The French inch of 1724 was not the same size everywhere (i.e., Preus inch = 2.615 cm, inch from Vienna = 2.634 cm). There are many more variations for the most and smallest sizes. These dimensions were not designated with a common term but rather represented the work of a manufacturer’s unique product.

The sixth and quarter plates were the most popular sizes:

The Davidson camera used them as well [7].

Read more guides about photography basics:


What was the first photographic process?

The invention of the camera obscura image projection and the realization that certain substances are visibly changed by light exposure date back to remote antiquity. Prior to the 18th century, there are no archaeological findings or narratives suggesting any attempts to record images with light-sensitive materials.

In 1717, Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered cut-out letters on a light-sensitive slurry and attempted to make the results permanent, but he never considered it.

Around 1800, Thomas Wedgwood made the first successfully documented attempt at capturing camera images in permanent form. His efforts resulted in photograms that were extremely detailed, but Wedgwood and his coworker Humphry Davy were unable to find a method of preserving them.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Nicephore Niepce was the first to successfully photograph an object inside a camera after several years of exposure, but at least 8 hours or possibly many days of exposure were necessary, and the early results were quite rudimentary.

Louis Daguerre worked with Niepce to develop the daguerreotype technique, which was the first publicly announced and commercially viable photographic process. The daguerreotype was simple to use and produced incredible images in seconds. In 1839, the world’s details were revealed for the first time, a birthday generally recognized as the inception year of useful photography [8].

How do you tell if a photo is a daguerreotype?

Here are 5 questions to ask the next time you’re looking for an early photograph [9]:

  • Is the picture reflective or mirror-like in nature? Daguerreotypes have a mirror-like surface, making them resemble a hologram. A daguerreotype has a glossy and light appearance when seen from one angle and becomes negative with a smoother finish when viewed from another angle;
  • Is the image whitish-gray with low contrast? It might be a tintype or an ambrotype. Although neither will have the daguerreotype’s holographic effect;
  • How is the image housed? Daguerreotypes are quite fragile and, because the silvered picture may be easily damaged, they’re usually kept in a case that’s sealed behind a thick piece of glass for protection;
  • Is the image on glass or metal? Ambrotypes were prepared on a glass plate, whereas tintypes were made on a thin iron plate. By placing a small magnet over an image to see whether it attracts, you can tell if it’s a tintype. This approach, however, isn’t completely accurate. There are a few ambrotypes that had a metal backing and still attracted the attention of the magnet;
  • What is the case made of? The cover of a photograph, like the case of a watch, might also reveal part of the narrative. These treasured early photographs were generally kept in hinged hardwood cases embellished with embossed leather and lined with silk or velvet facing the picture. In 1852, an early resin-based thermoplastic case called a Union case was employed for the first time. With different makers crafting finely molded case designs based on the works of Old World Masters to contemporary artists, prints, and other creative work, the business of creating cases became a successful one in and of itself. These cases may be as valuable as the artwork they protect;

How do you tell if a photo is a daguerreotype

What was the very first photograph ever taken?

The photo, simply labeled “View from the Window at Le Gras”, is claimed to be the world’s first surviving photograph. And it was on the verge of being lost forever. It was taken by Nicephore Niepce in a French commune known as Saint-Loup-de-Varennes between 1826 and 1827.

Taking photos used to be considerably more difficult. To preserve this fleeting moment, Niepce wanted to employ a light-sensitive substance so that the light itself would “etch” the image for him. After much trial and error, he discovered the ideal combination. He combined some sort of mixture of bitumen from Judea asphalt with another type of asphalt and applied it to the pewter plate, according to the University of Texas at Austin [10].

Did Richard Maddox create the first 35mm camera?

No, he developed a dry plate camera. Oskar Barnack is credited with the creation of the first 35mm camera. It was originally marketed as a “miniature” camera and had high standards and cutting-edge technology, making it the “quintessential miniature camera”, according to the popular historian Hirsch [11].

What was the first stock photo?

The invention of the half-tone and its use on a printing press allowed newspapers and periodicals to reproduce photographs rather than line art in the mid-1880s. Initially, photographers were employed by staff. However, independent free-lancers eventually took over.

The first stock photo was produced in 1920 when American photographer H. Armstrong Roberts ensured that everyone featured in “Group in Front of Tri-Motor Airplane” gave explicit consent to be photographed. The use of stock photos in this way allowed the image and others like it to be profitable. In order to save money on commission-based photoshoots, publishers and marketers began looking at stock images as a less risky alternative. H. Armstrong Roberts established one of the first major stock image collections in 1920 [12].

Useful Video: Early Photography – Making Daguerreotypes


  1. https://www.photographyaxis.com/photography-articles/what-was-the-first-commercial-photography-process/
  2. https://www.eyeem.com/blog/very-early-photography
  3. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/dag/medium.html
  4. https://www.ehow.co.uk/info_8130307_advantages-disadvantages-microfilming.html
  5. https://www.photographyaxis.com/photography-articles/what-was-the-first-commercial-photography-process/
  6. https://www.photographyaxis.com/photography-articles/what-was-the-first-commercial-photography-process/
  7. https://archfoto.tripod.com/dagsize.html
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_photography
  9. https://www.skinnerinc.com/news/blog/how-to-identify-a-daguerreotype-early-photography/
  10. https://www.businessinsider.com/first-photograph-in-history-2016-8
  11. https://iphf.org/inductees/oskar-barnack/
  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stock_photography