Introduction: Daguerreotype Photographs the Old Fashioned Way

About: I'm an artist using the old Daguerreotype method of photography invented in 1839. Since there hasn't been a Daguerreotype supply shop for about 150 years or so, I have to make pretty much everything that I ne…

Step 0, Pronunciation: "DUG ARROW TYPE".

My name is Jonathan Danforth and I'm a Daguerreotype artist.

My Website has lots more information, go check it out, OK?

The Daguerreotype was the first patented photographic process. Patented by Daguerre in 1839 after ripping off substantial portions of the technology from Joseph-Nicephore Niepce in the 1820s and 1830s, the Daguerreotype was heralded at the time as an amazing invention. The Daguerreotype remained popular for only a short time (25 years or so at the most) because it was (and remains) expensive, irreproducible, and tricky to make in the first place. Why did a technology that had so much going against it stick around for so long? Daguerreotypes are beautiful in the way that diamonds are beautiful. Precious and rare is the Daguerreotype.

Silver + iodine + light + UV = photograph.

Check out the attached video clip to see what it looks like to hold a finished Daguerreotype in your (my) hand.

I'm dumping a lot of information about the process in the various steps so check 'em out.

Step 1: Getting Started

Get a shiny piece of silver or silver plate. I buy pre-plated pieces of copper from Theiss Plating (see my website) but you could plate your own if you want. There's no reason why you have to make pre-prescribed image sizes either. If you have a 4x5 view camera then make a 1x5" faux panorama or something... make a circle. Who cares? You're going to need to polish this sucker to a mirror finish so break out the bench grinder. The silver plate will be pretty thin so you want to use a non-abrasive polishing rouge on your new buffing wheels. I use red jeweler's rouge from Metalliferous in New York. Start by buffing the plate on a stitched wheel and then proceed to an unstitched wheel.

You should get pretty damn close to a mirror finish with this process. Most daguerreotypists will next go on to a hand-buffing stage. I use powdered black iron oxide on a velvet board. See image.

Step 2: Sensitizing (making It "film")

Once you have a beautiful blemish-free silver mirror plate, it's time to go to the darkroom.

Basically, you're making old-school film here. All modern film is based on the principle that silver halides are light-sensitive. What's a silver halide? Go ask Google. Simply put, exposing the silver plate to Iodine vapor in a darkroom turns your shiny silver plate into a heavy-ass hunk of film. Get it? The plate IS the film, therefore there is no negative, therefore this is a unique piece of art. No editioning of prints here.

My sensitizing box is made out of poplar, glue, Pyrex(C)(TM), and Lexan(C)(TM). The Iodine crystals go in the glass dish and, when not in use, the Lexan slides over the top of the dish to keep the corrosive fumes from turning various metals into various powders. Don't inhale Iodine fumes, quite exciting and dreadful things happen to the color and composition of your respiratory system. The Iodine crystals never get used up in this process. Just buy enough Iodine to cover the bottom of the glass dish that you're using and you'll be set for a long time.

You slide the polished plate face-down over top of the Iodine crystals. Depending on temperature, humidity, astrology, and voodoo, the plate will turn a pretty rosy purple after a minute or two. Every 20-30 seconds or so, I pull the plate out of the sensitizing box, flip on a light, and look at the color of the plate.

Why doesn't this screw up the plate? The ISO of a Becquerel Daguerreotype is about .0004. To fix the issue of exposing the plate to white light in the darkroom, just cram it back in the box over the Iodine for another 15 seconds or so.

Once sensitized, load the plate up into any ordinary modern film holder.

Because I'm tired of searching eBay for photography arcana, I have just reverted to taping the daguerreotype plates on to the septum of the film holder. Not very classy, I know but it works. I'm sure you can figure out a way to mount a silver plate to a film holder!

Step 3: Picture Time!

It is not necessary to use a view camera to make Daguerreotypes but it helps. Since there is no enlarging, your final image is only the size of the plate that you started with. My view camera can accept up to 8x10" daguerreotype plates which are quite excitingly expensive. There isn't any reason why you couldn't do this process with a 35mm camera and a postage-stamp sized silver plate.

Since Becquerel Daguerreotypes have an equivalent ISO of about .0004, the exposure times can take a little while.

I can give you a general rule of thumb but many variables effect the exposure including your polish. In FULL sun with a well-polished plate, you should be able to get 45 seconds at f/5.6. This would mean that you're reading EV16 on a grey card. That's REALLY DAMN BRIGHT. For comparison, an exposure based on EV12 on a grey card would be about 6 minutes, 45 seconds at f/5.6.

Becquerel Daguerreotypes also suffer from limited dynamic range. While modern slide film or digital cameras can give you 7-9 stops of dynamic range, you'll be limited to about 3 with Becquerel. If you're metering a scene and the sky is 5 stops brighter than your subject, you're in solarization-ville.

Check out the attached PDF showing my cheat sheet for exposure calculations. I use this in the field and then adjust based on experience.

Step 4: Time to Develop

If you thought that your exposure took a while then you're in for a treat. This step in the process is the main point of deviation from Daguerre's method. Becquerel discovered that you can use a red filter and sunlight to develop your Daguerreotypes. Cool, huh? The downside is that it takes about 2-3 hours of sunlight.

Buy a pad of lithographic sheet called Amberlith (I've never tried Rubylith... let me know if you do). You can get amberlith from any decent art supply store. Tape a sheet of the amberlith over your film holder with light-sealing masking tape. The point of this is that the film can't be exposed to any more white light or else you will fog the image. If you're not using a film holder, you need to invent some kind of carrier out of cardboard or something and transfer the exposed daguerreotype to the developing apparatus in the darkroom. You can do this part under safelight.

Set the aparattus in the sun for about two hours. If you don't have two hours of sunlight, use a tungsten or halogen lamp as close as possible to the red film. Pro tip: get a big box fan or else your amberlith will melt and ruin the daguerreotype and your day. If using a lamp, the developing time will be closer to three hours.

If all went well, your image should start to appear on the surface of the silver plate within 15 minutes or so. If the image takes longer than 30 minutes to appear, you've blown the exposure. Don't worry, I do it constantly. Try, try again.

Step 5: Clear Away Unexposed Silver Iodide

Once the daguerreotype has finsihed developing, you need to clear away any remaining unexposed silver-halides.

This is the wet part of the process. Under normal room light but not direct sunlight, remove the developed plate from the developing apparatus. The image will have some weird and cool colors to it. As far as I know, you can't preserve these.

Mix 35g of Sodium Thiosulfate (AKA "Hypo") clearing agent with 1000ml water. Pour the solution into a developing tray. Tilt the tray so that half of the tray is dry and place the daguerreotype to be cleared on the dry half. Slowly lower the tray back down to the table letting the hypo gradually coat the plate. You're trying to prevent bubbles from forming here because a bubble will destroy the image. Destroy=bad.

Agitate the clearing agent over the daguerreotype plate and watch as the unexposed purple, blue, and gold particles clear away and you're left with (hopefully) a perfect black and white image on your mirror of silver.

After the image is cleared, transfer the plate from the clearing bath into a bath of distilled water. Make sure that you repeat the part where you ease the water over the plate. Agitate the plate in the distilled water bath for a minute or so and then transfer the plate into a tap water bath. Run tap water into the tray for about three minutes or so to make sure that you've washed all of the chemicals off of the daguerreotype plate.

Step 6: Gilding (blowtorch!) [optional]

Finally we get to use the blowtorch! The surface of the daguerreotype plate is seriously fragile. You can wipe the image completely off the plate with your finger and a water drop will obliterate it too. Gilding helps to protect the image from tarnishing but the surface will remain relatively fragile.

The gilding solution is a combination of two solutions:
Solution A: 500ml distilled water to 1g of Gold Chloride
Solution B: 500ml distilled water to 4g Sodium Thiosulfate
Gilding solution: Add 125ml Solution A TO 125ml Solution B while stirring (in that order)

Remove the plate from the tap water bath, briefly rinse it in the distilled bath again, and transfer the plate to a gilding stand (see pic).

Pour an appropriate amount of gilding solution on the plate (50ml or so should do it for a 4x5" daguerreotype). Use your finger to move the meniscus of gilding solution around the surface of the plate so that the whole plate is covered. Don't touch the surface of the plate! Only move the liquid. If the gilding solution has been sitting for more than 24 hours, filter it a couple of times through filter paper.

Light your blowtorch and begin rapidly moving it back and forth on the underside of the plate at a distance of about 6-8 inches. If you linger, the image will get extremely black in that area and will be ruined. The contrast will slowly enhance after a few minutes of doing this. If bubbles start to form, you're too close and you're on the verge of ruining the plate.

Once the contrast has changed to your liking or the color has changed to your liking, pour on a generous amount of water from above. The plate will be perfectly cool to the touch after doing this so pick it up and put it in the distilled water bath (use the tip n' tilt method). Rinse as in the clearing step.

Step 7: Drying and Finishing

Dry the daguerreotype using a high-volume hair dryer. Don't use the kind of hairdryer that spreads out the stream of air, use the kind that's like a jet turbine. Remove the daguerreotype from the water bath and hold it in your palm as vertically as you can without dropping it. Aim the hairdryer as close to the image as possible starting in a top corner. Once you see the image start to become dry in that corner, push the remaining water down with the force of air towards the opposite bottom corner. This will give you the minimum of water spots.

Again, I can't stress enough that the image is extremely fragile. Dust, water, spittle from your exclmations about how wonderful you are, and lots of other stuff can ruin the image. Put it behind glass.

The easiest method would be to get a frame shop to cut you a black mat and a piece of glass beforehand. Feel free to explore framing options here but whatever you do, don't touch the surface of the plate or attempt to clean it in any way. Only remove dust by using a dry-air blower, never your own breath. If you don't believe me, check out this video!

Step 8: Conclusion

I learned this process after a couple of years worth of idle research and a 1-week seminar. I highly suggest that you see a demonstration of this process in person. It's not hard to do but you do have to have access to a lot of weird, custom equipment.

I'm happy to answer questions and provide more details where needed. Please visit my website, to see some examples, click on ads, buy custom brass mats, cases, and original art!