Tintype, also known as ferrotype or melainotype, is a photographic process popularized in the mid-19th century. This unique form of photography was widely used during the American Civil War.
It continued to be a popular medium of portraiture until the early 20th century. Although replaced by more modern photographic techniques, tintype photography is still appreciated by photographers and collectors.
Cover: Tintype of two girls in front of a painted background of the Cliff Houseand Seal Rocks in San Francisco, circa 1900
History of Tintype
The history of tintype photography can be traced back to the mid-1850s. The process came from Adolphe-Alexandre Martin, a French professor, and photographer. Tintype involves creating a direct positive on a thin metal plate. It is coated with black or dark brown lacquer, exposed in a camera, and developed immediately. The resulting image is a one-of-a-kind photograph that is both durable and long-lasting.
Tintype photography became popular in America during the 1860s and 1870s. It was an inexpensive and quick process, used to produce many copies of an image. This made it a popular medium for portraiture. Photographers were able to travel around the country taking photographs of everyday people.
Improving on the Ambrotype
Ambrotypes had many advantages over earlier photographic processes like daguerreotypes. But they also had limitations. One of the main drawbacks was its fragility as the image was created on a glass plate. Also, Ambrotypes had a slow exposure time due to the collodion emulsion used in the process. This made it difficult to capture sharp, clear images of moving subjects. People or animals were almost impossible.
While both ambrotype and tintype photography were important processes in the 19th century, the latter had several advantages. These factors made tintypes a popular choice for itinerant photographers. Other photographers produced large numbers of images quickly and cheaply with tintypes.
Union soldier (Sgt. Samuel Smith, 119th USCT) with his family, circa 1863–65
Advantages and Disadvantages
One of the key advantages of tintype photography is its durability. The metal plate on which the image forms is virtually indestructible. They can last for centuries with proper care. This has led to the survival of many tintype photographs from the 19th century. They are an invaluable resource for historians and collectors.
Another advantage of tintype photography is its unique aesthetic. The process creates a distinctive, grainy image with a high level of contrast. The lack of sharp detail and the blurred quality of the image gives tintypes a dreamy quality. that is difficult to replicate with modern photographic techniques. As the collodion could dry (dry plate tintype), photographers could work further away from home.
Despite its many advantages, tintype photography also has some disadvantages. One of the main drawbacks of the process is its limited tonal range. Because of the emulsion used, tintypes have a very limited range of tones. Dark shadows appear with bright highlights. This can make it difficult to capture subtle gradations of light and shadow in an image.
Another disadvantage of tintype photography is the need for specialized equipment and materials. Creating a tintype photograph requires a specially designed camera. A darkroom equipped with the necessary chemicals and equipment for development is also necessary.
Although limited, tintype photography has continued to attract a devoted following. Today, many contemporary photographers are experimenting with the process. One reason is to create unique and evocative images that capture the essence of the 19th century. Collectors continue to seek out vintage tintype photographs.
They are valued for their historical significance and unique aesthetic. Tintype photography is a fascinating and unique photographic process. It has a rich history and a special place in the world of photography. Despite its limitations, the process continues to attract many.