Victorian photographs explored

Victorian photographs explored

If you’ve found an old family photo in the attic but don’t know much about it, Victorian photography expert Ron Cosens’ pointers can help you narrow down some details

Ron Cosens, researcher of cameras and images

Ron Cosens

researcher of cameras and images

Old photographs are fascinating but often pose questions such as ‘who?’ or ‘when?’. Photography started in 1839 with daguerreotypes, beautiful mirror-like images on polished silver plates. By the mid 1850s, ambrotype photographs became popular and remained so for several decades. These were produced on glass and both types of photograph are usually found in maroon leather cases or ornate ‘union cases’ made from shellac-based thermoplastic.

By the late 1850s, tintypes, which were produced on thin tin plates, became popular. Tintypes were cheap and instant and had a rather muddy appearance but were still used by UK beach photographers well into the 1900s.

All of these photographs were one-offs, without negatives, so copies had to be made by photographing the originals – with a subsequent loss of quality.

However, by 1860 the ubiquitous carte de visite became popular, a sepia photograph on albumen paper pasted onto a card mount measuring 4.25” x 2.5”. The process was much cheaper; it also allowed copies to be made. Suddenly photography was more readily available and the family album became a ‘must’ for many Victorians.

The carte de visite’s big brother, the cabinet card measuring 6.5 “x 4”, appeared in 1866 and both formats were phased out from 1906 when photographers started to offer postcard portraits that could be mailed to family and friends. Occasionally, photos were hand coloured, enlarged, over-painted and even framed.

For a great book on Victorian fashion see How to get the most from family pictures by Jayne Shrimpton (ISBN 978 1 907199 04 2).



  • Photograph on a silvered metal plate and held in a gold-coloured matte and frame; all in a leather-covered wooden case with velvet lid
  • Daguerreotypes are difficult to see unless looked at directly from the front
  • The lady’s cheeks have been very lightly hand tinted
  • Photographed by D T Lawrence (see name in the velvet) and taken mid 1840s to mid 1850s


  • Photograph on glass and held in a gold-coloured matte and frame; all in a leather-covered wooden case with velvet lid
  • Hand coloured, including the gold chain
  • Photographer unknown but taken early 1850s to early 1860s

Carte de visite

Carte de visiteCarte de visite back
Carte de visite

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  • Sepia photograph on paper stuck onto a card mount 64mm x 104mm
  • Full length pose at a distance using a head clamp, the base of which is just visible behind his feet
  • Simple props consisting of chair and drapes
  • Thin mount with square corners and simple, uncluttered design on the back
  • Printed design on the mount was used 1861 – 1868
  • Photographer advertised at this address from 1855 to 1865
  • The photo was taken, therefore, between 1861 and 1865; most likely towards the beginning of this period

Ambrotype – outdoors

Ambrotype outdoors
Ambrotype outdoors

  • Photograph on glass in a metal frame; all in a leather-covered wooden half-case with a ring for display purposes
  • Refreshments wagon in York of the Church of England Temperance Society (founded 1862)
  • The owners’ clothes indicate the 1870s. Ambrotypes were still in use at that time for outdoor work
  • Photographer unknown but taken mid 1870s

Tintype portrait

Tintype portraitTintype portrait back
Tintype portrait

  • Photograph on tin and stuck to the back of the mount – with the photographer’s details
  • Mount size (64mmx104mm) designed to fit a standard carte de visite album
  • Fancy design to enhance the small image
  • Image rather ‘muddy’ and lacking in fine detail
  • ‘While you wait’ service was also ideal for non-studio work (beaches, fairgrounds etc.)
  • Photographer advertised at this address in the early 1880s only

Cabinet card

Cabinet card
Cabinet card

  • Sepia photograph on paper stuck onto a card mount 107mm x 164mm
  • Lovely family portrait with the father as the prominent figure
  • Some props combined with a large painted background
  • Thick, light grey mount with rounded corners and no design on the back was used typically in the 1890s and early 1900s
  • Photographer advertised at this address from 1895 to 1899, therefore the photo was taken in the late 1890s.

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