How to Identify a Daguerreotype: 5 Considerations When Looking at Early Photography

Daguerreotype | Weather Vane

Lot 70: Sixth Plate Daguerreotype of the BROOKLINE Locomotive Weather Vane, Sold for $3,851

How do you tell the difference between a daguerreotype, ambrotype, and tintype?

If you’ve been browsing through the Early Photography Collection of Rod MacKenzie, you’ve seen these three types of early photography many times. Each has an interesting history.

Here are five questions to ask the next time you’re trying to identify an early photograph:

1. Is the image reflective or mirror-like?

Daguerreotypes have a reflective surface, almost like a hologram. When viewed from one angle, a daguerreotype appears shiny and light, and from the other angle it is negative with a more matte finish.

 2. Is the image whitish-gray with low contrast?

It could be an ambrotype or tintype. Neither will show the hologram effect of a daguerreotype.

3. Is the image on glass or metal?

Ambrotypes were developed on a glass plate, while tintypes were made on a thin iron plate. You can test to see if an image is a tintype by applying a small magnet to see if it attracts. However, this method is not foolproof. I’ve found a few ambrotypes that were backed with a metal plate which also attracted a magnet.

4. How is the image housed?

Daguerreotypes are typically found in a case sealed behind a thick piece of glass for protection, as the silvered image can be easily damaged.

5. What is the case made of?

The image’s case can tell part of the story as well. These cherished early photographs were usually placed in hinged wooden cases covered with embossed leather, and lined with silk or velvet facing the picture.

By 1852, an early resin-based thermoplastic case, which was called a Union case, was used.  Case manufacturing became a booming industry itself with various manufacturers producing beautifully molded case designs, based on the works of Old World Masters to contemporary artists, prints, and other works of art.  These cases can be just as collectible as the images they contain.

Rod MacKenzie’s collection will be sold in the American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction on October 30, 2011. Find out more about the stories behind the images, or view highlights from the collection.

12 thoughts on “How to Identify a Daguerreotype: 5 Considerations When Looking at Early Photography

  1. I have several pictures that I believe are glass negitives would like to have them printed but don’t know where

    • Hello Stephanie. First off. DO NOT CLEAN THE IMAGE. The surface of the picture whether it be a tin type, Ambrotype or Daguerreotype, has a thin layer of Emulsion on it or light sensitive material. Cleaning it will damage it. Not may damage it. it will damage it. Here is what I do. Scan the image to your computer. Play with it on photoshop or other editor to amp up the contrast. Despeckle it. Save it and talk it to the store to print. If they give you a hard time saying it is a professional photo and you have to have the original negative, tell them you do have the original. Because thats what those pics are. The actual negative processed as a positive image. One of a kind. You can even go as far as to make the image a mirror image of itself by flipping the image. Reason? because the image really is a negative and by flipping it makes it more like an actual photo. But never clean it. Do that with a photo editor.

  2. I have an american portrait in daguerreotype and I would like to know about its value.
    Please let me know how can I know it.
    Thank you

  3. I have a photo that is on some type of metal. I am interested in printing the image or at least cleaning the metal to reveal a clearer image. Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated

  4. I have several daguerreotypes from my husband’s family. His family tree can be traced back to Samual Adams, you know, John Adams’ cousin. Anyway, I have no idea as to what to do with them. Any ideas? My late mother-in-law thought I would love to have them. Not so.

    • Hello Ruth – if you think you might be interested in selling the daguerreotypes at auction, here is the link to submit the information and images on your item(s). Our Appraisal Department as well as the American Furniture and Decorative Arts specialists will be able to at least provide you with an auction estimate and some information as well as information on consigning with Skinner, if you wish! Or, if you’re local to us, you can always set an appointment to come in with your items as well. Thank you! http://www.skinnerinc.com/selling/sell-at-auction/

      • I have 2 tintypes that were probably from Ontario Canada as that is where the majority of my family tree is in the 1860s. I find they are hard to see the people in them because they are so dark. Do you know the history of the tintype photography done in Ontario?

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