One Negative, Many Positives

Many years ago – the 1830’s to be vague, a man experimented with chemicals whilst also studying optics and the colour of flames. He had a history of experimentation having blown himself up several times at school – a fact that did not prevent his headmaster from recording that he would go far if he continued his scientific studies. By 1830 he had written a dissertation on Coloured Flame suggesting that the colours produced when different substances were burnt were due to their atomic structure – an assumption that would eventually prove to be true as others worked on the perodic table of elements. He also wrote about Monochromatic Light – although it is doubtful that he had ‘seen the light’ at that stage regarding what was to become his major achievement.

In the 1820-30’s two Frenchmen, Dageurre and Niépce worked together to create a means of capturing an image of the view seen through a camera – something only previously done by painstaking drawing. Eventually, they discovered that silver iodide could be exposed to the light to capture such an image though sadly Niépce would die in the very year that one was finally produced – 1833. Dageurre continued to perfect the process which he announced to the world in 1839. The images produced by their process became known as Daguerreotypes and remain some of the best early photographic images.

Unknown to Dageurre and Niépce in England William Henry Fox Talbot was also working towards permanently capturing images from cameras. His early experiments with saltpeter and chemicals suitable for blowing himself up now bore fruit in an understanding of the properties of Silver Iodide, Gallic Acid and Silver Nitrate. However, his final work was rushed when Daguerre went public in 1839. Forced into the open Fox Talbot presented evidence of his work dating back to 1834 to The Royal Society and followed it up with technical details later the same year. This often happens in science, if one person publishes it becomes necessary for another working in the same field to publish in order to ensure that their work is not passed over. A good example was Charles Darwin who was forced to publish his Evolution theories on the advice of Huxley after reading the thoughts of Wallace.

So two processes appeared that would capture an image from a camera and in a short time they would be joined by a third. We had the Daguerreotype. Fox Talbot christened his Calotype – though it was also known as Talbotype. In 1851 Archer’s collodion process would become the third. The Daguerreotype and Collodion processes had one big advantage over Talbot’s Calotype – the images held far greater detail as they were created and fixed on a plate of steel or glass. Daguerre’s process had one major disadvantage – it was one shot. The image produced was not reproducable. The Collodion process also had a major disadvantage in that the plate was coated with wet chemicals, the photograph taken, and the images fixed – all in around 15 minutes. Once the chemicals started to dry out the ability to make an image was lost, so the photographer had to carry around a portable dark room! Calotype had its disadvantages also – the negative was ok but the image had to be created as a positive on sensitized paper – initially as a contact print. Needless to say the grain of the paper took away much of the detail within the image.

Over a couple of decades though, each process was improved. Daguerreotypes proved to be a Darwinian evolutionary dead end – without the possibility of making several copies of an image they passed out of common use very quickly and were commercially dead by 1860. The Collodion process remained in common use for longer though efforts to make it a dry process were never entirely successful – it remains a minority interest today especially among those photographers trying to recreate 19th century scenes. Despite its short comings the Calotype process became the accepted standard for commercial photography. It’s key advantages were ease of use and the ability to make as many copies from one image as you wished. Over time Negative film improved and special photographic papers were developed to make the results better. Even in today’s digital era it is still used commercially and by enthusiastic amateur photographers. You can now choose your film stock and paper to enhance your intended artistic result. I wonder if Fox Talbot anticipated that?

Image of an Original Photo by Fox Talbot taken in his home at Lacock Abbey.   Courtesy of National Museum of Photography, Film and Television collection via Wikipedia

Image of an Original Photo by Fox Talbot taken in his home at Lacock Abbey in 1835. Courtesy of National Museum of Photography, Film and Television collection via Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain

The same scene today - note the same trees still visible through the window and the National Trust's example Mouse-Trap cameras in the foreground.

The same scene today – note the same trees still visible through the window and the National Trust’s example Mouse-Trap cameras in the foreground.

The National Trust at Lacock Abbey houses an exhibition about William Henry Fox Talbot and his work. It also stages photographic exhibitions.

For proper detailed descriptions of each type of process please visit Wikipedia 🙂



  1. Love the title, and the detail, of this post thank you Martin!

    • Thank you Patti – Most people visiting Lacock Abbey go for the Harry Potter connection… I went for the Fox Talbot connection. The museum gives a good account of his life and doesn’t neglect Daguerre, Niépce and Archer in telling the story. They had a wonderful exhibition of modern black and white work on display in the gallery upstairs too. My wife and I were impressed by some shots and at odds when viewing some of the others – which tells you that they were highly artistic 🙂 Lacock and its Abbey are well worth a visit!

  2. fascinating info thanks Martin … I had no idea!

  3. Whoa! GOLD star, Martin! Your image along side Talbot’s… wow… I think this is absolutely BRILLIANT! I love it!!! 🙂
    As you’ve probably noticed I’m particularly smitten with wet-plate images. My wife and I are hoping to go back to school at some point (if we can get in) to work on MFA’s… and I would LOVE to attend a school with an instructor who has experience working with collodion. I just have to try it at some point. The biggest reason I still haven’t is that I could use a few more pointers on the does and don’ts of the chemistry (particularly if I’d be using a fixer that contains cyanide, etc. – although I’ve read that some folks use a fairly stock Ilford fixer). Well, that and I don’t have a place to store (or work) with those materials, at the moment. 😦 Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have a period lens and/or a large format camera with bellows, either, or course! 😉

    • Replica period cameras should be ok Bob – the early ones were just a box with a lens anyway much the same as a camera obscura. I’ve watched your fascinating experiments with Collodion look-alikes so I’m not surprised that you’d like to try it for real 🙂 Even stock Ilford fixer should be treated as a poison, so don’t go sucking your thumb 😉 I hope you are both able to pursue your wish to get an MFA. My wife has a media degree but rarely bothers to use a camera. I, of course, have never done anything other than art in secondary school – all my photographic skills are self taught. There are times when I wish that I still used film cameras and developed my own black & white photos but there is nowhere for a darkroom in the house any more. Digital is just another area of learning isn’t it – and there are so many different processing ideas to try 🙂

      • I hear you, Martin. If I’m ever able to work with collodion I would prefer to build a camera. I suspect I could handle a two-box sliding body, although I’d prefer to build a set of bellows, too. From what I’ve put together they seem to help create that wild / extremely shallow depth of field I’ve seen in period work (and which I absolutely love). It might be tricky, but I’ve seen a few patterns out there. Sadly, building a Petzval lens is just a bit beyond my pay-grade, though. 😉
        Hahaha… I’ll try to resist the urge to ingest any chemistry. 🙂 I know there’s a huge range of toxicity when it comes to photo chemistry (although it’s all worthy of handling with respect). I’ve only worked with b/w processing (and had it on good authority what we were using is about as safe as it gets – for most people). On the other hand, I’ve heard most color chemistry is extremely nasty stuff. And there’s something about even hearing ‘Potassium Cyanide’ that makes my skin crawl.
        For being self-taught you could be teaching, Martin! My wife (who is a grade-school art teacher) would like to pursue an MFA so she could teach at the university level. My interest (while I would love to teach if I wasn’t so shy) is more selfish. Not that I would apply to schools that don’t provide massive scholarships (so, sadly, I have a far better shot of winning the lottery than admission).

      • There’s no doubt in my mind that you have the skills to build a camera Bob and it sounds like a part of the project you could start on now! The main reason for shallow depth of field was that the lens had no shutter or other means to close down the aperture so the lens was used wide open. The moving box and subsequently the bellows came about to allow the camera to be focused on near and far objects. A ground glass screen would be placed in the slot where the photographic plate would be placed and the lens moved back and forth until sharp focus was achieved. Then the plate was substituted and the desired exposure carried out. On the very earliest shots shallow depth of field was not vary apparent as they were often of subjects more than 30 feet away and in those most items would be in sharp focus with a simple lens – the oldest know Daguerreotypes were shots of streets from upper storey windows. I’d suggest checking out second hand shops and junk stores where you might find an old spyglass or something similar that you could cannibalise to creat a suitable lens (you might even find an old Magic Lantern with which to project your Collodions!) 🙂

        I never got around to doing Color processing – couldn’t ensure a totally dark room. Black & White was easy – just turn on the red light and any stray white light gets subsumed. The only thing that had to be done in total darkness was loading the film into the developing tank and I did that in a changing bag 🙂

  4. I’ve never previously heard any description of the evolution of photography. This was very intriguing. And I loved seeing the two views–Talbot’s and your own. I wonder if photographic evolution would have been any different had Niépce lived. You have such a diverse pool of knowledge, Martin!

    • Hi Debra – I doubt that Niépce’s death changed much. Each of the photographic media ideas was developed (excuse pun) in a vacuum – neither knew what the other was doing so there would have been no reason for Daguerre and his partner to change the system they were perfecting. Equally, if Fox Talbot had seen the superior sharpness of the Daguerreotype would he have ceased the development of or changed his own process – I doubt it. The only person who had any real opportunity to change and make his process better was Archer – by that time the details of the other processes were available to all.

      I have a lot of interests Debra – I know a little and if I choose to write about it I go and research to fill in the gaps 😉 Posts are, of necessity, short. Hence I recommend that my readers go away and read about the people and processes on wikipedia and other information sources to get the full picture (oops – another pun) 🙂

  5. Martin, that is quite a coo. What a fantastic juxtaposition! The light is exactly the same, though the camera is vastly different. I love what you’ve done here, and really enjoyed the historical write up. Great post.

    • Thanks Kate – I occasionally like to stray into that territory that you have made your own… The less trodden paths of English history 🙂 I suspect that Fox Talbot was sitting down when he took the shot whereas I was standing but so little has changed in the intervening period! Except, of course, the cameras, lenses and the almost total disappearance of the film that Fox Talbot invented. I think that Fox Talbot recognised progress for what it is and would not have begrudged our current digital media – he’d have just seen another challenge to develop improvements to 🙂

  6. That is one inspiring story. To look back at the past and appreciate how things have evolved opens our eyes to fresh possibilities.

  7. This was absolutely fascinating. Who knew?
    I’m with Spilled Ink Guy, the juxtaposition of those two images, Talbot’s and yours, is kinda mind-blowing.

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