Alexander Gardner, while running Matthew Brady’s Washington studio in early 1861, had the foresight to prepare for the Civil War. The great numbers of soldiers flooding into the city of Washington created a market for souvenir portraits, and Gardner was ready to shoot portraits of men in their new uniforms.
He had ordered special cameras which took four photographs at once. The four images printed on one page would be cut apart, and soldiers would have what were known as carte de visite photographs to send home.
Aside from the booming trade in studio portraits and carte de visites, Gardner began to recognize the value of photographing out in the field. Although Mathew Brady had accompanied federal troops and had been present at the Battle of Bull Run, he is not known to have taken any photographs of the scene.
The following year, photographers did capture images in Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign, but the photos tended to be portraits of officers and men, not scenes of battlefields.
Civil War Photography Was Very Difficult
Civil War photographers were limited in how they could work. First of all, the equipment they used, large cameras mounted on heavy wooden tripods, and developing equipment and a mobile darkroom, had to be carried on a wagon pulled by horses.
And the photographic process used, wet plate collodion, was difficult to master, even while working in an indoor studio. Working in the field presented any number of additional problems. And the negatives were actually glass plates, which had to be handled with great care.
Typically, a photographer at the time needed an assistant who would mix the required chemicals and prepare the glass negative. The photographer, meanwhile, would position and aim the camera.
The negative, in a lightproof box, would then be taken to the camera, placed inside, and the lens cap would be taken off the camera for several seconds to take the photograph.
Because the exposure (what today we call shutter speed) was so long, it was virtually impossible to photograph action scenes. That’s why almost all Civil War photographs are of landscapes or people standing still.