AMBROTYPES, DAGUERREOTYPES, AND TINTYPES
Which is Which and How Can You Tell?
by Joelle Steele
When you find antique photographs that are encased or are on non-paper surfaces such as metal or glass, you may wonder just what it is you've got. Is it a Daguerreotype? A tintype? An ambrotype? How can you tell?
The earliest non-film, non-paper photographs were Daguerreotypes. They were made between about 1839 and 1860, although some continued to be made up until present time by those who admire this process. The image was set onto polished silver — this was a non-emulsion method — so they have a mirrored surface in which you can see your own reflection. You won't find this with any other type of photographic process. This highly reflective surface makes it a little difficult to see the image itself without turning it back and forth a little until it is at an angle where the subject matter is visible and clear.
The earliest Daguerreotypes were made on silver clad onto copper, and later ones were electroplated onto copper. Since silver tarnishes, Daguerreotypes had to be encased behind glass and then sealed to keep out air and moisture. If you have a Daguerreotype, it will be enclosed in a hinged case, and under no circumstances should you try to remove it from the case, as doing so can cause irreparable damage. The earliest Daguerreotypes had a gray or bluish coloration, but ones made in later years had more of a light brown tinge with some blue where they were tarnished. In most cases, the majority of the tarnishing will be around the edges of the plate.
Daguerreotypes came in some fairly standard sizes:
whole plate, 6-1/2" x 8-1/2"
half-plate, 4-1/4" x 5-1/2"
quarter-plate, 3-1/4" x 4-1/4"
sixth-plate, 2-3/4" x 3-1/4"
ninth-plate, 2" x 2-1/2"
sixteenth-plate, 1-3/8" x 1-5/8"
double whole, 10-1/2" x 13-1/2"
The images in Daguerreotypes were usually very crisp and detailed, but they were laterally-reversed, left to right, unless, in rare circumstances, a reversing mirror was used when the photo was taken. So, unless you have other non-Daguerreotypes of the person in your Daguerreotype, you might not ever know whether they parted their hair on the left or on the right, or if the mole was on their left cheek or their right, etc.
Ambrotypes were at the height of their popularity between about 1853 and 1870, although they continued to be made until well into the 1890s. They were more popular in America, and in Europe they were called "amphitypes."
Like Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes were often laterally-reversed and they were also mounted in hinged cases because the image was set onto an emulsion-coated glass and needed a background behind it, such as black paint or varnish directly applied to the glass, or japanned cardboard (black baked-on lacquer), black velvet, or a black varnished metal mounted behind the glass. Ambros are shiny but, unlike Daguerreotypes, they do not have the mirrored surface and they lack the sharp contrast of a Daguerreotype. Ambros tend to be rather dark throughout, even when tinted. If an ambrotype is not in a case, you can tell it from a tintype or Daguerreotype by the fact that it is on glass and is therefore transparent.
Ambrotypes can degrade over time, with the black paint or varnish cracking or peeling, giving it a blistered look, and the emulsion can darken further, causing additional loss of contrast. Ambros do not tarnish and so they do not have the bluish coloration found in tarnished Daguerreotypes, but when the background is damaged, the image appears to be destroyed, even though in many cases it can be restored. Most ambrotypes were made in the same sizes as Daguerreotypes so that either could be mounted in the same size cases.
Tintypes were popular during the same time as ambrotypes, from about 1853 until the 1890s. They do not have a reflective surface and only the earliest ones are found in cases. Their surfaces often show crazing and cracking that is not found in ambrotypes. Tintypes are very similar to ambrotypes except that tintypes had a silver halide emulsion coated onto thin plates of tin or iron and covered with black paint or varnish. They could be as dark as ambrotypes, while others had very good contrast. It really depended on how they were processed and what chemicals were added to enhance the contrast.
Like Daguerreotypes, tintypes were usually laterally-reversed unless prisms or mirrors were used to set the image in the right direction, or unless the image was transferred to another metal plate and reversed back to normal in the process. They are very durable photographs that have stood the test of time; many that were embedded on cemetery headstones are still in excellent condition today.
When they are encased, tintypes can resemble ambrotypes. Most were rather small — about the size of a paper photo such as the CV or "carte de visite," which was just a little bit bigger than today's business cards. Tintypes did not come in standard sizes. The smallest were about 1" x 1-3/8" or 1" x 1/2" in size and were called "gemtypes." Some tintypes were as large as 6-1/2" x 8-1/2." Since they were made of iron, a magnet can often be used to verify that what you have is a tintype.
Distinguishing the difference between Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes can be challenging, but with a little practice and patience, you should be able to tell them apart.
This article last updated: 11/27/2014.