LOUIS DAGUERRE: He Did It With Mirrors

By Bill Dobbins

Abraham Lincoln was one of the many celebrities of the age who sat for daguerreotype portraits.

Evolution often proceeds in fits and starts, with many extinctions and dead ends.  This is true in the biology of life.  And it is true in photography as well.

Edgar Allan Poe: Quoth the author, take my photo.

The knowledge of how to project and image onto a surface using a lens has been available for centuries.  Starting around 1800 there were a series of attempts to chemically fix such an image.  One of the earliest successful attempts was by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who introduced the Daguerrotype in 1839 – a system that would dominate photography for decades until superseded by the sliver-halide process.

dag studio
The daguerreotypist in his studio.

According to Wikipedia:

To make the image, a daguerreotypist would polish a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish, treat it with fumes that made its surface light sensitive, expose it in a camera for as long as was judged to be necessary, which could be as little as a few seconds for brightly sunlit subjects or much longer with less intense lighting; make the resulting latent image on it visible by fuming it with mercury vapor; remove its sensitivity to light by liquid chemical treatment, rinse and dry it, then seal the easily marred result behind glass in a protective enclosure.

It goes on to explain: The image is on a mirror-like silver surface, normally kept under glass, and will appear either positive or negative, depending on the angle at which it is viewed, how it is lit and whether a light or dark background is being reflected in the metal. The darkest areas of the image are simply bare silver; lighter areas have a microscopically fine light-scattering texture. The surface is very delicate, and even the lightest wiping can permanently scuff it. Some tarnish around the edges is normal.

dag cam 2
The daguerreotype camera worked like most others: lens projecting an image onto a plate at the rear.

An advantage of the Daguerrotype is its permanence.  A disadvantage is that is that it creates a single original and it isn’t possible to produce copies.

The daguerrotype mostly died out in the 1860s but it has never completely gone away.  In fact, this is a system that is still occasionally used by photographers for specialized purposes today.

Subjects needed to hold still for long periods for daguerreotype portraits. Shooting still lives this was not a problem.


Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com
Poet Emily Dicknson
Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Photos of soldiers during the Civil War were sought after in part because many never returned from battle.