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Tintype of two girls in front of a painted background of the Cliff House and Seal Rocks in San Francisco, circa 1900 Tintype portrait with Cliff House and Seal Rocks background.jpg
Tintype of two girls in front of a painted background of the Cliff House and Seal Rocks in San Francisco, circa 1900
Studio tent of ferrotypist J. Q. Galusha, 12,7 x 17,7 cm, USA, c. 1880-1900 Ferrotypie-tent van de fotograaf, RP-F-2009-99.jpg
Studio tent of ferrotypist J. Q. Galusha, 12,7 × 17,7 cm, USA, c. 1880–1900

A tintype, also known as a melanotype or ferrotype, is a photograph made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal, colloquially called 'tin' (though not actually tin-coated), coated with a dark lacquer or enamel and used as the support for the photographic emulsion. It was introduced in 1853 by Adolphe Alexandre Martin in Paris, [1] like the daguerreotype was fourteen years before by Daguerre. The daguerreotype was established and most popular by now, though the primary competition for the tintype would have been the ambrotype, that shared the same collodion process, but on a glass support instead of metal. Both found unequivocal, if not exclusive, acceptance in North America. [2] :51–55 Tintypes enjoyed their widest use during the 1860s and 1870s, but lesser use of the medium persisted into 1930s [1] and it has been revived as a novelty and fine art form in the 21st century. It has been described as the first "truly democratic" medium for mass portraiture. [3] [2] :51–55


Tintypes were particularly used for portraits. They were at first usually made in a formal photographic studio, like daguerreotypes and other early types of photographs. At the time though the process like the professional were called specifically ferrotype and ferrotypist respectively (not photograph|er). Later on tintypes were most commonly made by ferrotypists working in booths, tents, or the open air at fairs and carnivals, as well as by itinerant sidewalk photographers (with carts or wagons). Because the lacquered iron support was resilient and later did not need drying, a tintype could be developed and fixed and handed to the customer only a few minutes after the picture had been taken.

The tintype saw the Civil War come and go, documenting the individual soldier and horrific battle scenes. It captured scenes from the Wild West as it was easy to produce by itinerant photographers working out of covered wagons. They captured farming families in front of their new home (house portraits), emerging towns as well as the frontier landscape, for which large plates were used.

It began losing artistic and commercial ground to higher quality albumen prints on paper in the mid-1860s, yet survived for well over another half century, living mostly as a carnival novelty. [4] The tintype's immediate predecessor, the ambrotype, was done by the same process of using a sheet of glass as the support. The glass was either of a dark color or provided with a black backing so that, as with a tintype, the underexposed negative image in the emulsion appeared as a positive. Tintypes were sturdy and did not require mounting in a protective hard case like ambrotypes and daguerreotypes.

Technical details

Tintype portrait in a paper mat, taken at Pease's Nantasket Tintype Gallery, circa 1900 Pease's Nantasket Tintype Gallery group portrait.png
Tintype portrait in a paper mat, taken at Pease's Nantasket Tintype Gallery, circa 1900

There are two historic tintype processes: wet and dry. In the wet process, a collodion emulsion containing suspended silver halide crystals had to be formed on the plate just before it was exposed in the camera while still wet. Chemical treatment then reduced the crystals to microscopic particles of metallic silver in proportion to the intensity and duration of their exposure to light, resulting in a visible positive image. The later prefabricated, hence more convenient dry process was similar but used a gelatin emulsion which could be exposed in the camera dry.

In both processes, a very underexposed negative image was produced in the emulsion. Its densest areas, corresponding to the lightest parts of the subject, appeared gray by reflected light. The areas with the least amount of silver, corresponding to the darkest areas of the subject, were essentially transparent and appeared black when seen against the dark background provided by the lacquer. The image as a whole therefore appeared to be a dull-toned positive. [5] [ page needed ] [6] This ability to employ underexposed images allowed shorter exposure times to be used, a great advantage in portraiture.

To obtain as light-toned an image as possible, potassium cyanide was normally employed as the photographic fixer. It was perhaps the most acutely hazardous of all the several highly toxic chemicals originally used in this and many other early photographic processes.

Tintype portraits in an album, circa late 1800s-early 1900s Album of tintype and card photographs of Barnett A. Hook's family and social network, metal bands and gilt edges - DPLA - 2264163b2d4fe052a9306402f5a10c14 (page 33).jpg
Tintype portraits in an album, circa late 1800s-early 1900s

To overcome the uniqueness of each picture multi-lensed cameras and single-lens cameras with a movable back holding the plate were invented. Three men from from Boston are to name here. John Roberts first made use of multiple lenses, mounting as much as 32 of them on one camera. A twelve-lensed camera for example, developed in 1858, made a dozen 34-by-1-inch (19 mm × 25 mm) so-called "gem" portraits with one exposure. [5] A patent for a movable plate holder was registered by Albert S. Southworth in 1855. In 1860 both methods were combined in patents by Simon Wing, who promoted these cameras successfully and tried to enforce licensing, but failed with the Supreme Court ruling his patents invalid due to their use prior to his patents. [2] :56f Portrait sizes ranged from gem-size to 11 in × 14 in (280 mm × 360 mm). From about 1865 to 1910, the most popular size, called "Bon-ton", ranged from 2+38 in × 3+12 in (60 mm × 89 mm) to 4 in × 5+34 in (100 mm × 150 mm). [5]

Each tintype is usually a camera original, so the image is usually a mirror image, reversed left to right from reality. Sometimes the camera was fitted with a mirror or right-angle prism so that the result would be right-reading.


The process was first described by Adolphe-Alexandre Martin in France in 1853. In 1856 it was patented by Hamilton Smith in the United States and by William Kloen in the United Kingdom. It was first called melainotype, then ferrotype by V. M. Griswold of Ohio, [7] a rival manufacturer of the iron plates, then finally tintype. [8]

Ambrotype as a precursor

The ambrotype was the first use of the wet-plate collodion process as a positive image. Such collodion glass positives had been invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. Although it is a widely held belief James Ambrose Cutting might have named the process after himself, in actuality, "ambrotype" was first coined by Marcus Aurelius Root, a well known daguerreotypist, in his gallery as documented in the 1864 book The Camera and the Pencil. [9]

The tintype was essentially a variant of the ambrotype, replacing the latter's glass plate with a thin sheet of japanned iron (hence ferro). Ambrotypes often exhibit some flaking of their black back coating, cracking or detachment of the image-bearing emulsion layer, or other deterioration, but the image layer on a tintype has proven to be typically very durable, although the iron support might oxidize at its corners.

Success of the tintype

The only surviving portrait of Billy the Kid, Fort Sumner, c. 1879-80 Billy the Kid tintype, Fort Sumner, 1879-80.jpg
The only surviving portrait of Billy the Kid, Fort Sumner, c.1879–80

Compared to their most important predecessor, the daguerreotype, tintypes were not only very inexpensive, they were also relatively easy and quick to make. [6] A photographer could prepare, expose, develop and varnish a tintype plate and have it ready for the customer in a few minutes. Although early tintypes were sometimes mounted in protective ornamental cases, like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, uncased tintypes in simple paper mats were popular from the beginning. They were often transferred into the precut openings provided in book-like photograph albums like the later prints on cardboard.

One or more hardy, lightweight, thin tintypes could be carried conveniently in a jacket pocket. They became very popular in the United States during the American Civil War. Although prints on paper (see cartes de visite and cabinet cards) soon displaced them as the most common type of photograph, the tintype process continued to enjoy considerable use throughout the 19th century and beyond, especially for casual portraiture by novelty and street photographers. In contrast to the considerable amount of manuels, books and articles in journals on the different photographic processes, they were seldomly treating the ferrotype. Whereas Edward M. Estabrooke stated in his almost unique extensive monograph The Ferrotype and How to Make It, published in 1872, that the amount of ferrotypes taken would probably surmount the production of all other techniques combined. [10] His book and the introduction of low cost variants known as "Gem ferrotypes" and the invention of the photo booth in 1888, helped to sustain the tintype's longevity. [11] [12]

Contemporary usage

John Coffer, as profiled in a 2006 New York Times article, travels by horse-drawn wagon creating tintypes. [13]

In 2013, California Air National Guard member and artist Ed Drew took the first tintypes in a war zone since the Civil War, when he photographed Air Force pilots serving in the Afghan War. [14]

The contemporary photographer Victoria Will created a series of tintypes of Hollywood stars at the 2014 and 2015 Sundance Film Festivals, including portraits of Anne Hathaway, Nick Cave, and Ewan McGregor. [15] The portraits were later published as a book. [16]

Organisations such as the penumbra foundation still continue to use this technique, offering tintype photography sessions. [17] Their work has been featured in the New York Times. [18] [19]

Different utilizations and genres of ferrotype and their settings, arranged chronologically.

See also

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  11. Safier, Marcel (2015). "The Gem and Carte de Visite Ferrotype" . Retrieved 2019-05-21.
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  13. Wadler, Joyce (3 August 2006). "Born 150 Years Too Late". New York Times.
  14. Zhang, Michael (10 July 2013). "These Are the First Combat Zone Tintype Photos Created Since the Civil War". PetaPixel.
  15. Griffin, Elizabeth (29 January 2015). "49 Extraordinary Vintage Portraits of Hollywood's Most Famous Faces". Esquire.
  16. Coates, Tyler (18 December 2017). "This Photographer's New Book Celebrates the Lost Art of Tintype Portraits". Esquire.
  17. Martinez, Alanna (23 September 2014). "The Penumbra Foundation Proves Analog Isn't Dead With a Tintype Revival". Observer. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  18. Otis, John (18 December 2019). "Memorializing a New York Neighborhood With a 19th-Century Technique". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  19. Kilgannon, Corey (20 December 2019). "Why the End Is Near for an Automotive Shantytown". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2020-04-07.