Back to: Nineteenth-Century Texts
Online Exhibitions | Helios | American Art Home


"Professor Draper on the Process of Daguerreotype and its application to taking Portraits from Life"
Philosophical Magazine, September 1840

In the first experiments which I made for obtaining portraits from the life, the face of the sitter was dusted with a white powder, under an idea that otherwise no impression could be obtained. A very few trials showed the error of this; for even when the sun was only dimly shining, there was no difficulty in delineating the features.

When the sun, the sitter, and the camera are situated in the same vertical plane, if a double convex non-achromatic lens of four inches diameter and fourteen inches focus be employed, perfect miniatures can be procured, in the open air, in a period varying with the character of the light, from 20 to 90 seconds. The dress also is admirably given, even if it should be black; the slight differences of illumination are sufficient to characterize it, as well as to show each button, button-hole, and every fold.

Partly owing to the intensity of such light, which cannot be endured without a distortion of the features, but chiefly owing to the circumstance that the rays descend at too great an angle, such pictures have the disadvantage of not exhibiting the eyes with distinctness, the shadow from the eyebrows and forehead encroaching on them.

To procure fine proofs, the best position is to have the line joining the head of the sitter and the camera so arranged as to make an angle with the incident rays of less than ten degrees, so that all the space beneath the eyebrows shall be illuminated, and a slight shadow cast from the nose. This involves obviously the use of reflecting mirrors to direct the ray. A single mirror would answer, and would economize time, but in practice it is often convenient to employ two; one placed, with a suitable mechanism, to direct the rays in vertical lines; and the second above it, to direct them in an invariable course towards the sitter.

On a bright day, and with a sensitive plate, portraits can be obtained in the course of five or seven minutes, in the diffused daylight. The advantages, however, which might be supposed to accrue from the features being more composed, and of a more natural aspect, are more than counterbalanced by the difficulty of retaining them so long in one constant mode of expression.

But in the reflected sunshine, the eye cannot support the effulgence of the rays. It is therefore absolutely necessary to pass them through some blue medium, which shall abstract from them their heat, and take away their offensive brilliancy. I have used for this purpose blue glass, and also ammoniacosulphate of copper, contained in a large trough of plate glass, the interstice being about an inch thick, and the fluid diluted to such a point, as to permit the eye to bear the light, and yet to intercept no more than was necessary. It is not requisite, when coloured glass is employed, to make use of a large surface; for if the camera operation be carried on until the proof almost solarizes, no traces can be seen in the portrait of its edges and boundaries; but if the process is stopped at an earlier interval, there will commonly be found a stain, corresponding to the figure of the glass.

The camera I have used, though much better ones might be constructed, has for its objective two double convex lenses, the united focus of which for parallel rays is only eight inches; they are four inches in diameter in the clear, and are mounted in a barrel, in front of which the aperture is narrowed down to 3 1/2 inches, after the manner of Daguerre's.

The chair in which the sitter is placed, has a staff at its back, terminating in an iron ring, that supports the head, so arranged as to have motion in directions to suit any stature and any attitude. By simply resting the back or side of the head against this ring, it may be kept sufficiently still to allow the minutest marks on the face to be copied. The hands should never rest upon the chest, for the motion of respiration disturbs them so much, as to bring them out of a thick and clumsy appearance, destroying also the representation of the veins on the back, which, if they are held motionless, are copied with surprising beauty.

It has already been stated, that certain pictorial advantages attend an arrangement in which the light is thrown upon the face at a small angle. This also allows us to get rid entirely of the shadow from the back-ground, or to compose it more gracefully in the picture; for this, it is well that the chair should be brought forward from the back-ground, from three to six feet.

Those who undertake Daguerreotype portraitures, will of course arrange the back-grounds of their pictures according to their own tastes. When one that is quite uniform is desired, a blanket, or a cloth of a drab colour, properly suspended, will be found to answer very well. Attention must be paid to the tint,—white, reflecting too much light, would solarize upon the proof before the face had had time to come out, and owing to its reflecting all the different rays, a blue or irradiation would appear on all edges, due to chromatic aberration. It will be readily understood, that if it be desired to introduce a vase, an urn, or other ornament, it must not be arranged against the back-ground, but brought forward until it appears perfectly distinct on the obscured glass of the camera.

Different parts of the dress, for the same reason, require intervals, differing considerably, to be fairly copied; the white parts of a costume passing on to solarization before the yellow or black parts have made any decisive representation. We have therefore to make use of temporary expedients. A person dressed in a black coat, and open waistcoat of the same colour, must put on a temporary front of a drab or flesh colour, or by the time that his face and the fine shadows of his woollen clothing are evolved, his shirt will be solarized, and be blue, or even black, with a white halo around it. Where, however, the white parts of the dress do not expose much surface, or expose it obliquely, these precautions are not essential; the white shirt collar will scarcely solarize until the face is passing into the same condition.

Precautions of the same kind are necessary in ladies' dresses, which should not be selected of tints contrasting strongly.


Back to: Nineteenth-Century Texts
Online Exhibitions | Helios | American Art Home