The following is a brief overview of the Daguerreotype process. I posted a thorough explanation with photographs a'plenty over at Instructables.
What a Daguerreotype is Like to Hold
Many things have been written about the amazing history of photography, the Daguerreotype, and the effects of photography on humankind. Certainly, the Daguerreotype has a fascinating history and there's a place for those that wish to keep that history alive. I, however, am not a historian and I'm not very interested in the place of the Daguerreotype in history. I'm an artist and I chose the Daguerreotype as my medium for many reasons. None of my reasons includes anything about dressing up in period clothing. I have a strict "no top-hats" policy.
While it is my intent to have my images simply speak for themselves, many people, nonetheless, are curious about what a Daguerreotype is and how I make them.
The Daguerreotype was the first patented photographic process. Patented by Daguerre in 1839 after ripping off substantial portions of the technology from Joseph-Nicephore Niepce in the 1820s and 1830s, the Daguerreotype was heralded at the time as an amazing invention. The Daguerreotype remained popular for only a short time (25 years or so at the most) because it was (and remains) expensive, irreproducible, and tricky to make in the first place. Why did a technology that had so much going against it stick around for so long? Daguerreotypes are beautiful in the way that diamonds are beautiful. Precious and rare is the Daguerreotype.
The process breaks down like this:
Get yourself a high-quality copper plate and cut it to size. I use thick, heavy engraver's copper and cut it to 4x5 inches.
Polish the copper plate, check for blemishes
Plate the copper with pure silver
Polish the silver plate to a mirror finish, check for blemishes
Sensitize the plate over Iodine crystals in a darkroom
Load into a camera plate holder
Develop Daguerreotype using sunlight and red-film (this is called the Becquerrel process which frees me of the requirement of working with a bubbling hot pot of Mercury)
Clear the Daguerreotype in Sodium Thiosulfate solution
Wash the Daguerreotype in tap water and distilled water
Gild the Daguerreotype using Gold Chloride solution and a blowtorch
Wash the Daguerreotype again in tap water and distilled water
Dry the Daguerreotype
Encase in glass with mat for preservation (I put them in cases or in frames).
The surface of the Daguerreotype plate is extremely fragile. The image is made up of, essentially, an extremely fine layer of dust that's chemically bonded to the plate. You can obliterate the image by touching the surface of the plate, getting the slightest bit of water on the plate, etc. By placing the plate behind glass, you can safely handle the Daguerreotype and show it to all of your friends.
The process above has been greatly simplified! Step 4 alone can take several attempts to get right and step 8 takes two to three hours to complete! I beg of you not to undertake making these images yourself without having proper instruction from a working Daguerreotypist. I learned from somebody that has been making Daguerreotypes for years and it would have taken me far longer to figure it out otherwise.
You can talk to me about custom framing options for your Daguerreotype, this isn't the kind of thing you can take to Michael's or your local frame shop. I have designed a beautiful case for my Daguerreotypes that mimics the appearance of classic cases and they're available in a number of finishes from luxurious fabrics to exotic wood, and fine leathers. Each case, like the Daguerreotype, is hand-finished by me and is a custom job just for you.
Please contact me for information about having me create a beautiful one-of-a-kind Daguerreotype for you or as a gift.