5 Rare Types of Antique Photos You Should Collect

Could you see yourself hanging up an old photograph of a stranger? Most people choose to hang onto photos of their ancestors, but there’s also a market for certain types of antique photos. 

Antique photograph collectors are on the lookout for quirky or unusual characters. They also collect niche genres like hidden mother photos. Other photography enthusiasts collect especially early photographs that are prized for their rarity and quality. If you are just getting started with antique photos, here’s a primer of the most common photo types. 

Rare Antique Photographs

After reviewing these summaries, you should have an easier time identifying the general era and type of photos you stumble upon while antiquing. Nevertheless, if you’re in doubt, ask an expert. Even competent antique dealers sometimes confuse daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes.

*Some of the photo examples below are currently for sale. If you purchase any of these pieces using the affiliate link, we may earn a small commission. 


1. Daguerreotype

Date: 1840s – 1860s
Common Size: 2.75” x 3.25”
Base: Silver-plated copper plate

Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre invented this type of old photograph by exposing silver-plated copper to chemical fumes. Since daguerreotypes are fragile, they are usually stored in a case-like frame.

Identification Tip: Since these photos have a mirror-like finish, you will likely need to tilt the image at an angle under a light source to see it clearly. Daguerreotypes are the hardest to find and the most sought after of these five types of photographs. Some examples will have photographer marks on that plate that can help date and authenticate the image.


2. Ambrotype

Date: Mid 1850s – Mid 1860s
Common Size: 2.75” x 3.25”
Base: Glass plate with a dark backing

Ambrotypes are similar to daguerreotypes in that they are small and housed in a case. However, this type of antique photograph does not have a reflective, mirror-like finish because the image is transferred onto glass instead of metal. 

Identification Tip: Look for a photograph printed directly on glass, which feels different from a metal plate. When the dark backing of the glass wears off, you can see through the image. Being printed on glass is different than being covered by glass. Remember, both ambrotypes and daguerreotypes are often enclosed in a glass case.


3. Tintype

Date: Mid 1850s – 1890s
Common Size: 2.75” x 3.25”
Base: Iron plate

Tintype photographs were transferred onto an iron plate and were also initially stored in hinged cases. In later decades, people stored tintypes in paper sleeves. Photographers sold this style of photograph at festivals because these photographs had more longevity than the previous two types. 

Identification Tip: Tintypes are not reflective like daguerreotypes, and they usually aren’t found inside a decorative case and were more often put into photo albums. When tintypes are found in decorative cases, they are easily confused with daguerreotypes.


4. Cartes de Visite

Date: 1860s – 1870s
Common Size: 2.5” x 4”
Base: Cardstock

These antique photos were the first to be printed on paper. As technology advanced, an albumen print method was used to transfer a photo to a thin sheet of paper. The photographer then adhered the paper to thicker cardstock for durability. This antique photograph was lighter and less fragile, so it served as a type of trading card. For instance, soldiers in the Civil War would get several cartes des visites printed and give them to family and friends.

Identification Tip: Cartes de visite are usually smaller and less detailed than cabinet cards. Earlier examples were printed on thinner paper and had square edges. Later examples had thicker cardstock and rounded corners. 

Read Also: 10 Clever Gifts for Antique Lovers


5. Cabinet Cards

antique cabinet card photo
Cabinet Card of Boy and Dog / List Price: $195

Date: 1860s – 1900s
Common Size: 6.5” x 4.25”
Base: Cardstock

Cabinet cards are very similar to cartes des visites since they are also albumen prints. To distinguish between the two, look at the size, thickness, and whether or not there is a logo. Cabinet cards are larger, thicker, and are usually heavily branded by a photography studio on the backside.

Identification Tip: Cabinet cards could have beveled or scalloped edges and varied in color. Darker cardstock colors were used in the later decades, and different borders can further date the photographs. 


At the turn of the century, Kodak invented an accessible camera, and the evolution of photography changed rapidly. Photographs taken after 1900 are significantly more common (and less expensive) than the previous types. However, this extended access to photos during this period help people research their genealogy. 

If you’re interested in looking at old photos (and not purchasing them), check out our collection of fun photographs from the Library of Congress.

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