Tintypes were first patented in 1856, and the process was a popular photographic method between 1860 and 1920.
History of the format
The basic steps of the process are a variation of the wet collodion negative process, utilizing a sheet of iron or tin instead of glass. Towards the 1910s dry plate variations where also mass produced.
This black and white copy negative (a modern photograph taken of the original tintype for preservation purposes) shows a man in a full suit and tie with a top hat and is dated to the 1890’s during the early onset of Tintype accessibility. Along with showing the posing style that was common for the period, this items clear varnish top layer has severely cracked, likely due to aging. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: NA-1264-15.
This black and white copy negative (a modern photograph taken of the original tintype for preservation purposes) is representative of two common tintype traits. The shoddy background, grass floor, umbrellas and outerwear of the subjects suggest this was taken in a mobile photography tent, likely at an outdoor event. The rough edge on the bottom further suggests this was taken on one large sheet and cut down to individual tintypes after exposure, likely one for each subject present. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: NA-2685-46..
How the format was used
One of the major appeals, which contributed to the tintype’s wide adoption as a format, was the high level of detail, relatively cheap components, and ease of production compared to other processes of the time. Additionally, the process allowed exposure times to be shortened to roughly four or five minutes, significantly faster than other processes of the time, which could stretch into the tens of minutes for a single exposure.
This black and white copy negative (a modern photograph taken of the original tintype for preservation purposes) shows a man smoking a pipe in a shirt sleeves outfit and is dated to the 1890’s during the early onset of Tintype accessibility. This item is representative of the posing style often present in portraits of the time period. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: NA-1264-14.
A tintype is created by suspending light sensitive silver halides in a tacky collodion binder on an iron support plate that has been coated with a dark lacquer. Utilizing the wet plate method of the era, a collodion solution containing iodide and bromide is allowed to flow over a lacquered and cleaned iron plate. Once a thin coating is achieved across the surface of the plate, it can then be plunged into a silver nitrate bath to sensitize it, put into a readied camera, exposed to light, and then immediately fixed to prevent further exposure. A common fixer of the time was a solution of highly toxic potassium cyanide. A thin coating of varnish was often applied to prevent physical damage to the exposure on the plate and many were additionally housed in paper frames and cases for added protection.
A tintype is often defined by its iron backing, impressive levels of detail, milky-white highlights and deep black shadows. Though most often black and white, pigments could be applied to freshly fixed plates to allow some mild coloration.
This black and white copy negative (a modern photograph taken of the original tintype for preservation purposes) shows a shirtless man in a boxing stance. Note the blurring present in the subject above the waist. Despite exposure times of 15 to 30 seconds, subtle movements could still cause motion blurring if a subject wasn’t properly supported with posing furniture. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: NA-1264-18.
Despite utilizing a solid iron backing and varnish coating, tintypes are susceptible to several deterioration phenomena. Mechanically a tintype can be susceptible to bending of the iron sheet (which was often small and thin) and scratching of the varnish coating through general handling. In humid environments, the iron plate itself can oxidize and rust, which can cause severe damage to both collodion binder and silver image itself.