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How to identify old negatives and photographs

If you come across old negatives in your family possessions, perhaps you weren't sure what, or who, you were looking at. You may have wondered how old the negatives were.

There are different types of photographs and negatives. Identifying what type can help you date what you have and be your first clue in identifying the subjects of the picture. Early photographs were not developed from negatives, and instead were created in the camera itself, a process that took some time.

Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes were kept in protective framed photography cases. If you find these in your family keepsakes, don't get rid of them! In a future post, I'll explain how you can identify who that mystery ancestor is.

Daguerreotypes are identified if the images are on mirrored plates covered by glass. If you hold the picture in your hand and it appears shiny and reflective and even a little blurred and is best seen at a 45 degree angle, then it is probably a daguerreotype. They are extremely fragile so don't take the image out of its case.

Pictures accessed at and

A close cousin of the daguerreotype is the ambrotype. Ambrotypes have images printed on wet glass and then backed with a black varnish. Sometimes the backing flakes off and you can see through parts of the picture. This is a dead giveaway that you are looking at an ambrotype picture. Many of the ambrotypes I have come across seem to have a little coloring to the cheeks of the people in the picture. The pictures are usually clearer and there isn't the shine or reflection of the daguerreotype. However, ambrotype images appear 'flat' and may lack depth.

Ambrotype images accessed at and

A need for a less expensive photograph resulted in the tintype in the mid 1800's. Tintype images were produced on metal plates and were cheaper to produce. Often called the poor man's photograph, they were not always framed, but are lightweight and can be identified by the metallic look to them. Often spots and imperfections reveal that it is a tintype. If a tintype is in a protective case, it may resemble an ambrotype image. In that case, don't remove it from its protective case and just use a magnet to see if there is an attraction. Tintypes remained popular into the twentieth century.

Tintype images accessed at

As photography evolved, so did the developing process. The type of photography mentioned above were developed in the camera itself. But then negatives were born. The first negatives were made of glass treated with chemicals. The first glass plate negatives were gelatin dry plates. The image appeared as a negative image. This is an inversion where the dark areas appear light.

Image accessed at wikimedia commons.

Collodion wet plates came next and sizes ranged from 2"x3" to 5"x7".

Sensitized in a silver bath, they were developed and produced outside the camera as paper images that could be produced over and over. Copies could be made of photographs and distributed. Many old vintage postcard pictures were created from glass plate negatives.

1911 postcard courtesy of Springwater-Webster Crossing Historical Society

In case you are wondering, I too, pondered why the sender of the postcard chose to write their message upside down. You don't have to flip your device upside down. Here is the message:

Although the origin of film began in the 1800's, it wasn't until Kodak produced rolled black and white (and later color film) that it began to appear in the marketplace. Easily loaded into the camera, it became widely popular in the 20th century.

The first roll of film was developed by the Kodak company in 1889. The negatives were big, with only six frames to a roll. 46 mm wide film was popular in the 1940's and 50's with the invention of pocket cameras, like the Kodak 'Brownie'. Later, 35 mm rolled film became the most popular format for most of the 20th century.

Rolled film allowed consumers to drop off film at a photography studio or development lab and later, drug stores and supermarkets to be developed. When prints or slides were returned, so were the negatives. Reprints could be made from them.

In 1943, Edward Land came up with an idea for a camera that would load film and print a photo immediately. Eventually bought by Kodak, Polaroid cameras offered an immediate image - taking, developing, and printing photographs in one step.

Photo accessed at

The invention of digital photography has now rendered film cameras and the need for negatives to be obsolete. And most imperfections in a photo can now be corrected by a consumer using digital editing software. Pictures don't even need to be printed. They can be digitally shared, the most preferred way to 'publish' photographs in the 21st century.

It seems strange that our children and grandchildren may not know what a roll of film is, or what a polaroid camera looks like. As long as we are interested about preserving our ancestor's memories and unique family histories, we should be intentional about identifying and preserving our negatives and family photographs.

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