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Daguerreotype and Cyanotype Exploratory Essay

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2019

Statement of purpose

The history of photography cannot be complete without the analysis of the efforts of Daguerre and Herschel, the men behind the processes that revolutionized photography in the mid 19th century. These processes are daguerreotype and cyanotype.

This paper on photography will focus on the Daguerreotype and Cyanotype process in terms of the technology used, where the paper will tackle variables like film base, emulsion, chemicals used in development, camera type and so on. The paper will then look at the descriptive subject matter by focusing on the new things that were able to be photographed because of the discovery of the two processes.

The third part of the paper will focus on aesthetics in terms of how the processes changed the looks of photographs while the final part will focus on context where the paper will look at what was happening in the world at that time that might have influenced how the two processes were used.

Introduction to Daguerreotype and Cyanotype

Daguerreotype was among the earliest photographic processes used in recreation of images. These two processes are a radical departure from the other processes that were used in traditional photography.

In fact, the two were the first commercial processes of photography and were very popular in the mid 19th century because of how they changed the outlook of photographs and the way they made many other things to be photographed. Before the two processes were invented, not many things could be photographed because the existing methods of photography at tat time had many limitations.

Daguerreotype was invented by a French man called Louis Daguerre after whom the process is named (Coe 9). Daguerreotype became an instant hit in the formative years of the nineteenth century, but years after it was popularized, photographic technology underwent massive changes and the process became redundant after the negatives were invented because unlike daguerreotype, negatives allowed images to be reproduced.

Not long after Daguerre invented daguerreotype, another method was invented. This method is called Cyanotype. Cyanotype is a more recent photographic process that was discovered by John Herschel in 1842. The process was also known as the blue print process and in its formative stage; the process used iron salt-coated papers which were then used in contact printing.

The paper would then be dipped in water and the outcome was a white image placed in a blue. Cyanotype was more stable than daguerreotype because they process used iron salts rather than silver compounds and it became more popular at the beginning of the twentieth century especially in the manufacture of architectural blueprints.

Comparing and Contrasting Daguerreotype and Cyanotype


There are more differences than similarities in the way the two photographic processes work. Daguerreotype used mirrors that had been polished with silver halide as the main surface. The chemicals that were mainly used in the process were iodides, chlorides or bromides and they were used to render images on the silver plates.

The daguerreotype cameras were not as advanced as the modern cameras and they only produced positive images. They could not produce negatives meaning that a daguerreotype image did not have a capacity for reproduction. The image could only be recreated only one time.

The daguerreotype was quick and effective in taking portrait pictures and the subject would only pose for one to one and a half minutes to ensure that the image was captured. Daguerreotypes were laterally reversed images and the only way a correct orientation could be gotten was copying the image with a second daguerreotype or to make the daguerreotype with mirror or a reverse prism.

The film base of this process was usually mirror like and could reflect. Photographers would add color to enhance their effect. Fine pigments would be applied together with gum rubric to the final plate and light exposure for colored daguerreotypes had to be minimized because of the nature of the color pigments used.

Cyanotype differs radically with daguerreotype on the basis on the basis of the film base, emulsion and the chemicals used because unlike the latter which used silver salts as chemicals, cyanotype used the Prussian blue, aqueous ammonium citrate potassium ferri-cyanide in aqueous form.

Cyanotype did not use a mirror like film base. When producing a picture using this process, a paper or any other media that is used in printing was normally used (Goldberg 34).

The medium the process utilised had to be opaque and was laced with each of the aforementioned chemicals before the image was placed on the laced paper, pressed with glass then dried in the sun. When UV rays from the sun combined with the chemicals, they printed the image onto the medium in a greyish or dark bluish colour. The medium used in cyanotype had to be flat and not transparent unlike the former which used glass.

Depictive Subject Matter

It is no secret that the two photographic processes revolutionised the world of photography in the mid 19th century because they made it possible for more things to be photographed. Before cyanotype was invented in 1842, it was highly impossible to print images on paper. However, this process allowed images to be printed on papers and family portraits could be made with a new level of success.

Commercially, the process was used to make photographic proofs which could not be made using earlier methods of photography. Architecture also benefited from this process because it enabled copying of drawings used in architecture and engineering. Architectural plans could be made more easily using the cyanotype engineering process.

Cyanotype was a charming and an appealing photographic process which enabled production of aesthetic artworks which could be transformed in to beauty accessories for home and clothing. Cyanotype also made it possible for production of stereo photographs (Rosenblum 410).

On the other hand Daguerreotype, which was the first commercial photographic process, did not have immense contributions to photography as its predecessor, the cyanotype. The process produced images which were more beautiful with precision which was quite startling and it revolutionised the way portraits were made.

Earlier methods of photography did not have the capacity to produce high quality portraits and the discovery of this process enabled high quality portrait production. However, this process could not be used in architectural and engineering drawings because it produced a mirror image meaning that it had a bright reflective surface which could not be viewed in all types of lights.

This means that the surface this processed used limited its scope of application but the major disadvantage with this process was that it did not have a capacity for reproduction and if more copies were needed, one had to expose the subject to the process once again.

It could not be used in large scale photographic productions because it would have been a highly labour intensive process. That is why the process faded into obscurity in the summative years of the nineteenth century.


Did the two processes change the outlook of photographs? The answer is in the affirmative. Before the two processes were invented, production of quality and long-lasting photographs was a herculean task. The processes produced photographs that had low degrees of quality. The photographs also were also not beautiful because they lacked colour variations.

The discovery of the daguerreotype changed al this because for the first time, the element of aesthetics was introduced in photography. The process produced photographs that had a very high degree of clarity and startling levels of precision.

The beauty of the photographs that were produced through the Daguerreotype process created a flourishing market in portraiture because the process enabled photographers to produce an exact likeness of their clients. The used of the mirror like surface made the photographs more beautiful. The reflective nature of the surface enhanced the quality of the photographs though the image was highly fragile and vulnerable to damage.

The photographs had to be encased in glass for protection and this added their aesthetic value further. As photographers continued to experiment with the process, they discovered that the aesthetic nature of the photographs could enhanced by treating the plate with gold chloride which added tone to the image (Rosenblum 419).

Daguerreotype revolutionised the concept of artless art in the photographic through natural imaging. This overlooked the role of the artist’s hand helping the process to produce fine details that were extremely astounding and went beyond the precision of the conventional painters.

Technical improvements in the process improved the beauty of its outcomes and also allowed the process to be used for mass production of images, especially aesthetic portraits though its exposure time and other drawbacks did not go hand in hand with the aesthetic preferences of the later generations.

On the other hand, the cyanotype was not as aesthetic as the Daguerreotype but it was better than the traditional photography processes. The fact that the process used paper as the surface and ferides as chemicals did not make it as illustrious as the daguerreotype which used mirror as a surface and iron salts as chemicals.

However, the duplicative ability made it more acceptable to the people than the daguerreotype and the advantage of paper as the film base in cyanotype was that the image could be enhanced using other processes meaning that cyanotype was not a dead end process like the daguerreotype.

In fact the cyanotype led to the development of a new sensibility in photography by spearheading a wave of new aesthetics because of its formal and expressive abilities given that its photographic medium was highly adumbrated and anticipated.

The different levels of expression of beauty enabled by this process led to the success of cyanotype as a photographic process because the photographer was able to express empathy to the subject. This helped him to handle the print medium with a newer vision, character and mood creating circumstances that were able to go beyond the limited spectre of the ordinary image.


There were various cultural and social factors in the mid nineteenth century that influenced how the two processes were used in photography. The two processes were invented not long after photography was invented. The invention of photography was as a result of evolution knowledge in diverse sciences including physics and optics.

The innovations of the industrial revolutions had changed the mindset of the 19th century people of the world and the creation of the photographic image was one of the results of the receptive minds that had been created by the industrial revolution.

The discovery of Daguerreotype and the Cyanotype came at the peak of the industrial revolution and the two processes met people who were socially and culturally receptive and could afford to spend an extra coin on aesthetics (Rudisill 45). The industrial revolution created a demand for buildings for industrial and residential consumption and this led to the growth of the world of architecture and engineering.

This development called for an efficient method in which architectural and engineering plans could be stored into and traditional methods of photography could not offer the much-needed solution. The discovery of cyanotype was therefore a boon to the rapidly expanding architectural society because it provided a method of creating permanent architectural photographs and plans.


Both Daguerreotype and Cyanotype processes, though they are not widely used today, created a big revolution in the world of photography. The photographic principles that are used in the modern setting are improvements of these two processes and the other processes that were influenced by them.

However, cyanotype lasted more than daguerreotype because of its wide context of application, its ability to be easily reproduced and the nature of the chemicals it used. Daguerreotype could not last longer because it did not have the capacity to be reproduced and the chemicals it used were mercury laden and they at one time affected the health of the photographers.

Nevertheless, Cyanotype could not match the aesthetic quality of Daguerreotype especially because of the difference in the surfaces used. The mirror like surface of the daguerreotype gave it a high degree of clarity and precision which made it to triumph over the former in terms of beauty.

Finally, the two photographic processes reflect the influence of the industrial revolution to the 19th century society which changed the mindset of the people and opened room for experimentation and innovation. The prosperity brought about by the industrial revolution also led to high demand of photographic products both for domestic and industrial consumption meaning that the two processes came at the right time.

Works Cited

Coe, Brian. The birth of photography: the story of the formative years, 1800-1900. London: Ash and Grant, 1976. Print.

Goldberg, Vicki. Photography in Print. Writings from 1816 to Present. WA: Sage, 1990. Print.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A world of Photography. N.J. Abbeville press, 1997. Print.

Rudisill, Richard. Mirror image: the influence of the daguerreotype on American society. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971. Print.

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