What If I Were, 1850

“What If I Were in California in 1850?”

I’ve been wanting to try  a digital recreation of a Daguerreotype for awhile now.  They’ve always fascinated and creeped me out, and as I sit here on the other side of several hours of working on this photo, I can now safely say getting this look is HARD.

But first, some real Daguerreotypes, and some brief history…

The Daguerreotype was named after Louis J.M. Daugerre, a French artist and chemist who, after years of collaborative work, developed his first successful Daguerreotype in 1837.  Two years later, photography was officially invented.  You can read all about Daguerre and his photographic process here.

What I find fascinating is, of course, how they look.  Daguerreotypes are not developed from negatives, but instead “burnt” directly onto a plate coated in silver halide, which is then “developed” by heating the plate over a hot cup of mercury.  Yes, mercury.

The resulting image was extremely susceptible to damage, and usually protected in a frame, with a glass front.  Daugerreotypes were prone to oxidization, and simply touching them could easily cause damage, which is why we see all manner of burns, blackening, spots, scratches, and deterioration on surviving D-types today.

So with my image, I took a snap at Gold Rush Days, in Old Sacramento, since the costume was on and I had a moment.  I did this photo outside, although real Daguerreotype portraits were almost always taken indoors.  The sitter had to pose for between 10 an 20 minutes, which is why we usually see subjects sitting or leaning against a chair, and never smiling.

This image took me a long time, a lot of experimentation, and was quite a challenge.  It’s not a beginners “tutorial” type of image that can be easily done in Picnik.com, so I’m going to just list the basics for anybody who’d like to fiddle around in Adobe Photoshop and try out these techniques

  • Bottom layer – my photo, turned black and white, and with any corrected contrast, brightness, and exposure
  • Layer 2 – selective soft focus, with the background blurred, and face, arm, and hat in focus.  And important thing to remember about D-types is that the edges are often blurred or streaked.
  • Layer 3 – a dark grey-brown layer set to “Hard Light,” and at about 50% opacity.
  • Layer 4 – a dark steely blue layer set to “Subtract,” an at about 35% opacity.
  • Layer 5 – some very subtle, barely-there blue-ish color set to “Color Dodge,” and 22% opacity.  This creates some burning/deterioration around the edges.  It is erased away from the middle of the photo.
  • Layer 6 – a layer with brush strokes in a chaotic pattern, in a light grey color, set to “overlay” and 46% opacity.  This puts texture into the picture.  It’s very faint, and erased away from the face.
  • Layer 7 – knicks and scratches, speckled on by hand with a regular round brush, in no pattern.  Some are just dots, some are very faints lines.  Put as much or as little on as you like.

Starting image, black and white
The effect layers 3 and 4 (the brown and blue) have on the photo

The very last touch was a frame.  I used an existing frame from an image of a D-type from Wikipedia, and made sure the black around the edges of the photo blended nicely, with a little blur.

Here’s the final product.  I want to try again with Daguerreotypes because I feel that this one does not fully represent it.  Until next time, then… 🙂

Edit: I went back and added some additional “crap” to this photo, after I wrote this post.  It has two more layers – one is an image of a scratched metal plate set to “multiply” and with the texture erased from the center; and the last layer is another scratched metal plate image set to “color burn,” and again erased out to just the edges – it produces the chemical burning seen on some D-types.  I’m much happier with it now, though it’s still not “spot on.”


  • Time Traveling in Costume

    September 6, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    This is wonderful! I've saved your instructions to try this on my Adobe Photoshop. I recently copied an 1850s Bloomer gown we have in the San Diego History Museum collection, and even have a photo of the original gown being worn by the owner. And now I'm making a second gown in her sister's style from the photo. Now I can try making one of these photos of myself. You did a great job!

  • Lauren R

    September 8, 2011 at 9:42 AM

    It is that stare in old Dags that make them so creepy huh? I think some zombie daguerreotypes need to be made come October…:-)

    Val, I can't wait to see what you do! Remember…don't smile and look slightly crazed, hahah 🙂

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