Tin Type: The 19th Century Business You Can Start Today

The old business of tin-typing, making genuine old-fashioned tin-type photographs using cameras, processes and plates, is still economically viable today.

| March/April 1975


Costumes are optional but desirable and, in Doug's experience, a real help to the business. They add to the period look of the pictures and seem to be especially interesting to the public.


Alternatives are where you find them ... on a Maine homestead, on a tugboat in the Caribbean, in a craft shop or home office. Doug Elbinger found his in the 19th century, with the help of a time machine he discovered sitting in a museum: an original Anthony camera, made circa 1860 to take tintypes.

Today, Elbinger is a tintypist ... a maker of genuine old-time tin type photographs using cameras, processes, and plates developed in the 1880's. At his studio in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, you can dress in authentic 19th-century costume, pose in front of the big wooden camera, look into the lens for 10 seconds and have your image recorded on a metal plate. Five minutes later your tin type photograph has been developed ... and you see yourself as you might have looked 100 years ago.

Before he found his calling in the past, Doug was a freelance photographer who worked his way through college with a modern day camera and later traveled the world for the major news agencies. Many such professionals take an interest in the history of their art, and Elbinger was no exception. Less typically, however, Doug didn't just collect early cameras and photos ... he actually preferred to spend his spare time taking pictures with antique equipment!.

Led by his interest in the subject, Elbinger studied early photography at the Smithsonian Institution and spent long hours in the darkroom attempting to translate old emulsion and developer formulas into modern chemistry. In 1972, after many failures, Doug made his first successful tintype. He was then firmly on his way to reviving what had once been America's most popular form of photography.

That's right, "most popular". Over a hundred years ago — before George Eastman came along with the little black box he perversely called "the Brownie" — photography was a wide-open field ... and the customer had a good many options as to how his image would be taken. The choices included daguerreotypes (silver and copper plates), ambrotypes (glass), photos on waxed paper or wet collodion, and many more. Most of the methods used were invented in Europe, and all of them were expensive.  

Predictably, our own country's contribution to the art increased the speed of development, lowered the price dramatically, and allowed everyone to indulge in the luxury of having his portrait made. The tintype — a uniquely American institution — brought photography to the people for the first time.  

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