How to Identify and Date Photographs

In your collections, you will often come across photographs in a format that you cannot identify. These are primarily early photographs. By understanding the type of photograph you have, you can begin to learn when or why it was taken. Knowing the format is also helpful in finding out the best way to preserve the images. 

Photo formats changed depending on the technology and trends of the time. By looking at some common characteristics of types of photographs, you can determine its format and figure out a range of years that the photograph was taken. 

Ask yourself the following questions to discover what type of historical photograph you have: 

  • Is the image shiny like a mirror? Can you only see image from an angle? It's a daguerreotype. (Lucky you, these are beautiful and the first photographic format!)
  • Is image on a glass plate? Does image seem to have a slight depth? It's an ambrotype.
  • Is image on a blackened metal plate? Will a magnet attach to it? It's a tintype.
  • Is image on a thin card about 2 3/8" x 4"? It's a carte de visite.
  • Is image mounted on a card 4 1/4" x 6 1/2"? It's a cabinet card.

Most family collections contain cartes de viste and cabinet cards.

I've created a chart that lists photographic names, date ranges of popularity, and features to help you identify your formats. Download my Quick Guide to Common Types of Photographs and Images.

To learn the preservation secrets used by libraries, archives, and museums to protect their priceless materials (that you can also use for your family heritage items) read my book: 

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