In the year 1839, a French artist and chemist by the name of Louis Daguerre changed the world forever when he unveiled an astonishing new invention: the daguerreotype. For the first time in history, people could capture exact images for posterity by mechanical means. If you’re a history buff, a photography enthusiast, or both, you’ve likely heard of the daguerreotype before. But how much do you actually know about this early photographic process? Would you like to learn a little more about your camera’s great-great-grandfather? Then read on!

Louis Daguerre

Louis Daguerre

By the time Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype to the masses, he had already been working on it for a decade. It all started in 1829, when Daguerre was introduced to the brilliant inventor, Nicéphore Niépce. Niépce had already had some success capturing images produced by a camera obscura using a process he termed heliography. The two men struck up a correspondence, and eventually began working together to come up with an improved photographic process. After Niépce’s death in 1833, Daguerre continued to build on their research and adapt their experiments. Eventually, he managed to develop a photographic process that produced much sharper images in a much shorter time than Niépce’s original heliography, and the daguerreotype was born. 

Temple of Athens Daguerreotype

Temple of Athens Daguerreotype


Here’s how it worked: First, the daguerreotypist would thoroughly polish a silver-plated copper sheet until they achieved a near mirror finish. Next, they would sensitive the sheet by exposing it to halogen fumes. This step had to be carried out in darkness, or using a safelight. 

Then, the daguerreotypist would place the sheet in a light-tight plate holder and insert it into the camera, exposing it by withdrawing the dark plate and removing the cap from the camera lens. As light hit the sensitized plate, a latent image would begin to form. After deeming the exposure process complete, they would ensure the plate was once again light-tight, then remove it from the camera. 


The daguerreotypist would develop the latent image until it was fully visible by exposing the plate to heated mercury fumes. Finally, they would strip the plate of its light sensitivity by removing the unexposed silver halide with a mild chemical solution, thereby fixing the image in place. 

In 1839, this was revolutionary. Never before had a photographic process been made publicly available.* Consequently, the daguerreotype (a term which came to mean both the process and the image it created) became popular quickly, and was widely used throughout the 1840s and 1850s.

Photography History Daguerreotype

It wasn’t long before technological advancements in the field of photography rendered the daguerreotype somewhat obsolete. It was a slow, arduous process, and the images it created were very delicate and easy to damage—so there was much room for improvement. 

The Ruins of Fort Ticonderoga Daguerreotype

The Ruins of Fort Ticonderoga Daguerreotype


However, Daguerre’s invention is no less important for its relatively brief tenure as the leading photographic process. It was a monumental milestone in the history of photography, and created a solid foundation from which new photographic technologies would soon be built. So, spare a thought for the likes of Daguerre and Niépce next time you snap a picture, and remember that you couldn’t have done it without them. 

Looking for photographic services a bit more modern than those provided by Monsieur Daguerre? Contact Michael Grecco today. A bicoastal advertising photographer based out of New York and Los Angeles, Grecco has the vision and experience you need to make your photo-based dreams a reality. You can reach him at (310) 452-4461 or info@grecco.com.

Talbot Photographic Technology

*It should be noted that shortly after the daguerreotype was announced, English scientist William Henry Fox Talbot asserted priority of invention based on his own photographic experiments, which he began in 1834. When Daguerre released the details of his process, it became clear that it was very different from Talbot’s. Talbot would go on to make significant advancements in photographic technology, but that’s another story.