A Century of Historic Photographic Types
The Historic England Archive is a great place to discover historic photographic types. Here we illustrate 15 processes and formats created during photography’s first century.
The images we’ve chosen show places and people documented for a variety of reasons. All contribute to our understanding of the nation’s historic environment.
In 1839, after years of experimentation, photography was announced to the world. Two different ways of making photographic images using a camera were declared. The first was Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s (1787-1851) daguerreotype. The second was William Henry Fox Talbot’s (1800-1877) photogenic drawing.
Photography quickly became an established science, art form and means of communication. In its first century, a host of photographic formats and processes were invented. Photographers used them in different ways and for different purposes.
Photographers evolved from wealthy polymaths and inventors to professional practitioners and snap-shot amateurs. The photographer’s lens targeted almost anything. Some professional photographers specialised in portraits or architecture; others took a broader approach. Amateurs have left us with more intimate views of public events and private moments.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any daguerreotypes and so our journey through photography’s first century starts with William Henry Fox Talbot’s paper negative process.
- Paper negative (1840–1860s)
- Salted paper print (1840–1860s)
- Cyanotype (1842–1920s)
- Albumen print (1850–1895)
- Lantern slide (1850–1950)
- Stereoscopic photograph (1850s–1930s)
- Wet collodion negative (1851–1885)
- Carte-de-visite (1854–1870)
- Ambrotype (1855–1865)
- Silver gelatin glass plate negative (1880–1950s)
- Platinum print (1873–1930s)
- Silver gelatin print (1885–present)
- Cellulose nitrate film negative (1887–1950s)
- Autochrome (1903–1935)
- Cellulose acetate film negative (1920s–present)
Paper negative (1840–1860s)
News of Daguerre’s invention forced Talbot to announce photogenic drawing. Talbot’s invention was the first negative-positive photographic process. This innovation dominated photography until the rise of the digital camera in the late-20th century.
In 1841 Talbot patented an improvement of his photogenic drawing process. It became known as the Talbotype or calotype (from the Greek, meaning ‘beautiful picture’).
To make a calotype, writing paper is treated with solutions of silver nitrate and potassium iodide. This creates a sensitised sheet that can be placed in a camera for exposure. After exposure, the sheet is developed with chemicals to reveal a negative image. Talbot’s earlier process exposed the sheet to sunlight until an image became visible. To stop further development and to fix the desired image, the paper is immersed in water or sodium thiosulphate. After it has dried, the negative can be used to make positive images on sheets of sensitised paper.
Prints made from calotypes look softer and less sharp than daguerreotypes. Daguerreotypes were made using polished metal plates rather than paper. However, the calotype’s great advantage was that multiple prints could be made from a single negative. The daguerreotype process created a single, unique image. To reproduce it, it had to be re-photographed. The paper negative remained popular with many photographers, especially amateurs, well into the 1860s.
Salted paper print (1840–1860s)
A salted paper print is a photographic print made from a sheet of paper that has been coated with a solution of sodium chloride (the chemical name for salt). It is dried and then coated with a solution of silver nitrate to make it sensitive to light.
To make the print, the paper is placed in contact with a negative and exposed to sunlight. A soft, matt image that is a tonally reversed version of the negative appears on the paper. The print is then washed and fixed to inhibit the fading of the image, and then dried.
This type of photographic print was also an invention of William Henry Fox Talbot. Along with his paper negative process, salted paper prints remained popular from the 1840s to the 1860s.
Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792–1871) invented the cyanotype process in 1842. Herschel was an astronomer, mathematician and chemist. He was one of photography’s most influential characters.
Herschel invented several processes and improved others. He discovered the ‘fixer’ sodium thiosulphate. He also coined the terms ‘photography’, and ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ in their photographic context.
The cyanotype is so-called because it produces a cyan-blue coloured print.
Early advocates of the cyanotype used the process to make camera-less photographs, or photograms. One significant user was the botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799–1871). Atkins was an acquaintance of both Talbot and Herschel. She made cyanotypes of botanical specimens and was one of the first publishers of a book illustrated with photographs. Her ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’ first appeared in October 1843.
Cyanotypes use the light sensitivity of iron salts rather than silver salts. Paper is coated with a mixture of potassium ferrocyanide and ferric ammonium citrate and then dried. A photographic negative or an object is placed on the paper and exposed to light. The paper is then washed in water to leave a chemical mixture called ferric ferrocyanide or Prussian blue. The dried print reveals a stunning blue photographic positive or the impression of an object enveloped in a rich blue background.
Albumen print (1850–1895)
The albumen print was the most popular form of photographic print in the second half of the 19th century. It was invented by the French cloth merchant, photographer and publisher Lois Désiré Blanquart-Evrard (1802–1872). Albumen prints were used by amateurs and professionals for artistic and commercial purposes.
Albumen prints are photographic prints made from paper coated with a solution of egg white and sodium chloride. A coat of silver nitrate solution is then added to form a light-sensitive layer on the paper. When dried it is placed in a printing frame in contact with a negative and exposed to sunlight to print out. The print is then washed, fixed and dried.
The glossy surface of the albumen print produces a smooth, sharp image as the albumen forms a layer on top of the fibrous paper. The albumen print was often used to make cartes-de-visite, cabinet cards and stereocards. These formats helped popularise the collection and distribution of photographs in the second half of the 19th century.
Lantern slide (1850–1950)
A lantern slide is a photographic transparency. This is a photographic positive on glass or film prepared for viewing using a projector. Slides usually comprise a piece of glass containing the image and a second piece of glass placed over the top for protection. The two are bound together using gummed tape.
The term lantern slide derives from the device used to project the images, the magic lantern. The first such slide projector was invented in the 17th century. It used candles to ‘magically’ illuminate hand-painted images onto walls. Before electricity, limestone and kerosene were also used as light sources.
Photographic lantern slides were introduced in 1849. They were soon used as a tool for education and for popular entertainment. They were shown in classrooms and for mass audiences in theatres, meeting halls and churches. Sets of slides produced by firms such as York & Son could be collected and viewed at home. Children’s lanterns were popular Christmas presents.
Stereoscopic photograph (1850s–1930s)
Like lantern slides, stereoscopic photographs, or stereographs, were a form of home entertainment. Their popularity peaked and troughed from the middle of the 19th century until well into the 20th century.
Sir Charles Wheatstone’s (1802–1875) studies of binocular vision inspired stereo photography. Stereographs use two images of the same subject. They are made using a camera with two lenses placed the same distance apart as the human eyes. A device called a stereoscope is used to view stereographs. When looked at through a stereoscope, viewers are presented with the illusion of a three-dimensional image.
Soon after Talbot’s discovery was made known in 1839, Wheatstone contacted his fellow polymath. Talbot worked with the artist-turned-photographer Henry Collen (1797-1879) to produce photographic stereographs for Wheatstone to view using his stereoscope.
A decade later Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) invented a compact stereoscope. This enabled stereoscopic photography to take off as a commercial enterprise and popular pursuit. Brewster's stereoscope could be mass-produced, and one was put on display at the 1851 Great Exhibition. It was enthusiastically received by Queen Victoria and the visiting public. The demand for stereoscopes and stereographs rocketed.
Wet collodion negative (1851–1885)
The sculptor and photographer Frederick Scott Archer (1813–1857) invented the wet collodion negative in 1851. It was a major step forward for photography, superseding the daguerreotype and the paper negative processes.
Archer’s process uses glass rather than paper as a support for the light sensitive chemicals. Collodion is a viscous liquid made from dissolving nitrocellulose (gun cotton) in alcohol and ether. It is poured and spread over a cleaned glass plate, which is then dipped in silver nitrate to make the plate sensitive to light. The plate is placed in the camera while still wet, hence the name of the process. The exposed negative is then developed and fixed. A coating of varnish is added to protect the image from damage. Like the paper negative, many prints can be made from one negative.
The process was complex and had to be performed in a short space of time. However, wet collodion negatives had a relatively short exposure time and produced a detailed image. It remained the dominant process until the gelatin dry plate was introduced in 1871.
The French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819–1889) patented the carte-de-visite in 1854. Named for their resemblance to visiting cards, these small photographs were mass-produced. They principally featured portraits and topographical scenes.
Disdéri’s invention enabled multiple images to be produced on a single wet collodion negative plate. The use of a camera with four lenses and a sliding plateholder meant that eight exposures could be made on a single plate. These were then printed on albumen paper, cut and mounted on thick card. Each card measured around 4 inches by 2½ inches (102 millimetres by 64 millimetres).
Cartes-de-visite proved extraordinarily popular, especially those featuring portraits of well-known figures. Whilst the craze began in France, it soon spread to Britain. In the week following his death in December 1861, 70,000 portraits of the Prince Regent were sold. It was not until the introduction of the larger cabinet card in 1860s that the popularity of cartes-de-visite declined.
The ambrotype is also known as the collodion positive process. This is because an underexposed collodion negative would appear as a positive when viewed against a dark background.
The process for creating an ambrotype is similar to the wet collodion negative process. As a thinner, less dense image is sought, the exposure time is shorter. The developed and fixed negative shows a milky grey-white negative image. When a dark backing is applied, either by painting on black lacquer or by using dark cloth or paper, the image appears as a positive.
Ambrotypes were often placed in frames or cases with protective cover glass and brass surround. Their popularity peaked in the second half of the 1850s. They declined with the introduction of the less expensive tintype and carte-de-visite formats.
Silver gelatin glass plate negative (1880–1950s)
The silver gelatin glass plate negative revolutionised photography. The photographer and physician Richard Leach Maddox (1816–1902) invented the process in 1871. It was later improved by others. As the negative plate was 'dry', it simplified photography. Photographers no longer had to contend with chemicals and mobile darkrooms when working outdoors.
The process uses a glass plate support coated with an emulsion of silver bromide suspended in gelatin. After exposure in the camera, the plate is developed and fixed before printing.
In 1878, the photographer Charles Harper Bennett (1840–1927) found that heating the gelatin increased sensitivity. This reduced exposure times to a fraction of a second. His discovery heralded the age of ‘instant photography’ that could make moving objects appear frozen in time and space.
The silver gelatin glass plate negative could be mass produced. It could also be purchased well in advance of it being used and it didn’t need to be developed immediately after exposure in the camera. The invention increased the ease and convenience of photography as a commercial profession and as a popular pursuit for amateurs.
Platinum print (1873–1930s)
In 1873 William Willis (1841–1923) patented the platinum print, or platinotype, process. Further patents for improved methods were obtained in 1878 and 1880. Willis worked with his father to discover a process that would give photographic prints greater permanency.
Willis’ process is based on the light sensitivity of iron salts. The paper is sensitised with a solution of iron salts and platinum. After it is exposed to light through a negative, the print is developed using chemicals to remove the iron salts. In the exposed areas the platinum salts are transformed into platinum metals, resulting in an image that is embedded in the fibres of the paper. The finished print has a matt finish and soft, grey-black tones.
Willis’s Platinotype Company placed ready-sensitised paper on the market in 1880. Its permanence and aesthetic qualities made the platinum print popular. This was especially so with photographers who wanted to convey beauty rather than document reality.
Silver gelatin print (1885–present)
The silver gelatin print was invented in 1873. It was created by Peter Mawdsley (1824–1909), a photographer and maker of photographic materials. It became more popular than the albumen print by the end of the 19th century. By 1885 silver gelatin printing paper was commercially available.
Silver gelatin prints are made using paper that has been coated and sensitised with silver chloride or silver bromide suspended in gelatin. This layer often sits on a layer of baryta (barium sulphate) that coats the fibres of the paper and enhances the highlights of the image.
Two types of silver gelatin paper were available: printing out paper (POP) and developing out paper (DOP). POP produces an image when exposed to sunlight through a negative. DOP uses artificial light and chemical developers to reveal a latent image.
Like silver gelatin glass plate negatives, silver gelatin papers could be factory-made. Both made the life of the photographer less complex and helped to make photography more accessible.
Cellulose nitrate film negative (1887–1950s)
The flexible film negative was the leading negative format in the 20th century. Cellulose nitrate film was the earliest type of flexible film negative. It was first introduced in 1887 and offered a lighter, flexible alternative to negatives that used glass supports. The film could be manufactured as a single sheet in various sizes and in roll form.
Cellulose nitrate film negative comprises a photosensitive gelatin emulsion on a transparent plastic support. The support is made of cellulose nitrate (cellulose treated with nitric acid). Exposure to light in a camera produces a chemical change, creating a latent image in the emulsion. The film negative is developed with chemicals before printing. Often, an enlarger is used to create a larger print from the smaller format negative.
It is easy to understand why cellulose acetate film negative was popular. Its sensitivity made it suitable for instantaneous photography. It also paved the way for smaller, lighter cameras. However, it does have some serious disadvantages. Cellulose nitrate film is an unstable support. When it degrades, it releases noxious gases, including nitric acid. It is also flammable and can auto-ignite.
The Autochrome, or Autochrome Lumière, was the first commercially successful colour photographic process. It was invented in 1903 by the photographic equipment manufacturers and motion picture pioneers, Auguste (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948).
An Autochrome negative has several layers. At the base is the glass support. Above is a layer of potato starch granules dyed in equal quantities orange-red, green and violet-blue. This is sandwiched between layers of protective varnish. Above is a photosensitive layer of silver suspended in gelatin, topped with another protective layer of varnish.
The process uses a screen plate made up of the primary colours, red, green and blue. This is placed in front of the photosensitive negative. The purpose of the screen is to transmit only the light corresponding to the three colours. Other colours are absorbed. Following exposure, the negative is used to make a positive transparency. The transparency is placed together with an identical colour screen. It appears as a coloured image when viewed with transmitted light.
The Autochrome was an immediate success when it came on the market in 1907. Despite having limitations, such as a long exposure time, it continued to be the most successful colour process until the 1930s.
Cellulose acetate film negative (1920s–present)
Cellulose acetate film negative was introduced in the 1920s, created in response to the instability of cellulose nitrate film.
Similar in form to its predecessor, it is a flexible transparent plastic sheet or roll made from cellulose acetate (cellulose treated with acetic acid). The plastic support is coated with a layer of photosensitive gelatin emulsion.
Despite being safer than cellulose nitrate film, cellulose acetate film can also degrade. When it does, it releases acetic acid and gives off a strong vinegar odour.
In the 1950s cellulose acetate film negative faced competition from the much more stable and stronger polyester film negative.
Like the silver gelatin print, flexible film has endured beyond photography’s first century. In some quarters it continues to survive alongside the ubiquity of the digital image.
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