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How to Make Cool Tintype Photography

Tintype photography is one of the earliest forms of alternative photography processes.
We didn’t always use digital or film cameras. If you start looking into the history of photography, you’ll find many cool processes and inspiration sources. We suggest the 19th century.
Tintype photography is just one of many. In this article, we’ll show you how to make this interesting type of photography.

A tintype photography portrait of a man with folded arms
Adrian Whipp –

What Is Tintype Photography?

A tintype image is a photograph made by making a positive (opposed to a negative) on a thin sheet of metal. The metal itself is coated with a dark lacquer or enamel. This in turn holds the photographic emulsion.
The photographic emulsion is the important part. This is what used to hold the light sensitive materials. Some photographers used glass and others have been know to use mirrors.
These tintypes are also known as melainotypes or ferrotypes. Currently, these types of alternative process photography are enjoying a revival. This is partly due to its interesting development and signature look.
Tintype photography is relatively simple to create. You need a darkroom, chemicals, and some time to spare.
A cool tintype photo of a skull against dark background

History of Tintype Photography

Tintype photography was used mainly between 1860 and 1870. It was popular among itinerant photographers and street photographers.
The process survived well into the early 20th century, and even the 21st as more and more photographers are using it today.
The best part about tintype photography is its portability. Like daguerreotypes, they were usually photographed in a studio setting.
This allowed the photographer to use the adjoining darkroom to process the images. Due to the dark lacquer, these plates could be used outside in the open air.
Unlike other chemicals in different alternative processes, this lacquer didn’t need to dry for it to work. It was resilient enough to allow a treatment, an image and development in a few minutes.
Due to the process, photographers could work from booths at fairs and carnivals. This is also what allowed photographers to capture the American Civil War.
During the mid-sixties, the invention of the Albumen print took the attention away from the tintype. Here, chemicals were used to treat paper to form a negative, from which to print positive images.
Tintype photography did survive for another four decades, mainly as a carnival novelty.
If you wanted to know what the first commercial photography process was, you’ve found it.

A photo of a statue made using the tintype process

What Do You Need for Tintype Photography?

If you are interested in trying out this tintype photography, you need to know there are two different processes. There is wet and dry.
Typically, these images were used with a 4×5 or 8×10 large format camera. You can use it with any camera format, but bigger iron plates are easier to handle.
Both these processes created an underexposed negative image. The areas with the least amount of silver appear to be transparent and black against a dark background.

Dry Process

The dry process was the most convenient, allowing it to become the most commonly used. Instead of wet collodion emulsion, this tintype process used gelatin emulsion.
This was applied to the iron plates long before the plate was to be used. It would have time to dry, which allowed photographers to pack them for later use.

Wet Process

The wet process involves applying a plate with collodion emulsion, which is why it’s also known as the wet-plate collodion process. This is what supports the silver halides, the light sensitive material that creates the image.
This occurs while the plate is still wet, sitting in the camera. After this application, a chemical treatment was applied to reduce the crystals into microscopic particles of metallic silver.
The size of these particles depends on the duration of light, as well as its intensity, which results in an image.
NB: Just a quick word on photographic grain. If an image was captured in a low light setting, the silver halides and resulting metallic silver particles grew bigger to absorb the light. These particles were easier to see, resulting in what we call ‘grain’ or noise. The stronger the light, the smaller the silver. 
The densest areas of silver appear gray due to the reflected light.

A sepia shot of a person demonstrating the wet plate tintype process
Bob Shimmin

Creating Wet Process Tintype Photography

In terms of tintype photography equipment, here is the list:

  • 4×5″ large format camera – The camera holds the plate to capture the scene;
  • Film holder – 4×5″ film holders worj well as they are light tight;
  • Red Light – To stop you processing your image before you mean to;
  • Engraving plate – The metal used for trophies works the best;
  • Collodion – Get a premixed solution if you don’t know what you are doing;
  • Silver Nitrate – This is what captures the light;
  • Wet plate developer – This develops the chemicals into an image;
  • Wet plate fixer – This fixes the image and stops the development;
  • Varnish – This protects the image;
  • Silver Nitrate bath – Used to hold the silver nitrate when we add the plate;
  • Apron & Rubber gloves – Silver nitrate stains everything;
  • Light source – Studio lights or natural light;
  • Developing/fixing trays – holds the plate while it develops and fixes.

First Stage of Preparation

Don’t forget to wear gloves while handling all materials.
Find as many plates as you want to create images. Measure them to make sure they are going to fit your film holder.
Make sure you have all the equipment ready, in a clean environment. Ensure any areas are covered with newspaper. Silver nitrate stains everything.
Place the three trays in close proximity; silver nitrate bath, developing tray and fixer tray. Having an area to varnish will also help.

‘Pouring the Plate’

Fill the silver nitrate bath with silver nitrate and dilute the crystals in water. This is your first fix bath (fixes the silver with the collodion).
Next, pour collodion (cellulose nitrate) onto the plate. Move the plate around to ensure the collodion covers it evenly and completely. Pour any collodion back into the bottle.
Place the plate into the silver nitrate batch and leave there for five minutes. This forms silver iodide. Next, turn the red light on and any other lights off. This needs to be done as the plate is now light sensitive.
After this time, take the plate out of the bath and into your film holder. You may see the plate change to a creamy colour.
Now it is time to shoot.

A person demonstrating the wet plate tintype process
Harry Taylor

Taking the Image

Tintype has an ISO of 1. Yes, 1. Not 100. Not 50. 1. So, we need a lot of light to capture a scene. A light meter will help you if you are using either natural light or studio lighting.
You will also need a device to convert the exposure readings. Some light metres will only drop to ISO 6, so use your phone.
Make a test first with a series of exposure times. If the image is too faint, then you need a longer exposure.
I use a free mobile app called ‘Pocket Light Meter‘. You can set the ISO to 1, and also set the Exposure Correction (hidden in the settings) to 2 2/3.
In my office, this would give me an exposure time of 4 minutes and 33 seconds @ f/5.6. Ensure you hold the cell phone with the app running above your camera.
Summary: ISO 1, f/5.6, 4 mins 33 secs, ExComp. 2 2/3. 

Developing and Fixing

Once the exposure has been made, head back into your darkroom space. Turn on the red lights and pour the developer (pyrogallic acid) on the plate. Alternatively, you can place the plate in a tray to develop.
Once you are happy with the contrast of the image, turn the lights on and transfer the plate to the fixing tray. The plate will look bluish at this point.
Keep moving the fixer (potassium cyanide) over the plate. Eventually it will reveal the image.

Final thoughts

After drying the image/plate. Look for signs of overexposure (loss of detail in well lit areas).
Any streaks are a sign of underdevelopment. It needs to stay in the developer longer.
A wet plate tintype portrait mid-process

Tintype Artists

Alex Timmermans – Fine Art

Alex Timmermans is a self-taught photographer who gained a strong liking for the alternative process of tintype. He found that working on the wet plate photography process brought back the unpredictable nature of photography.
Through Petzval lenses, he captures beautiful stories using his collected, large studio cameras.
The plate size of one of these is 24×24″.
You can see his stunning images on his Instagram and website.
Screenshot of Alex Timmermans tintype artists Instagram page

Instagram | Website

Black Art Tintype – Portrait

Black Art Tintype is a tintype photography website by photographer Scott Basile. He photographs in and around San Diego, California.
I love the fact that he makes double exposures through his wet processes. Tintype portraits are definitely his bag, and he makes them look beautiful.
Screenshot of Black Art tintype portraits Instagram page

Instagram | Website

Collodion Photography – Still Life

For wet process still life photography, look no further than Collodion Photography. He covers still life, specifically flowers and their arrangements beautifully.
He uses a 4×5″ large format camera to capture his tintype images on glass. They serve as stunning inspiration for any who want to follow in his footsteps.


Ian Ruhter – Landscape

For landscapes, you have to look over Ian Ruhter’s amazing work. He makes up part of the team ‘Silver + Light’, capturing tintypes from the back of a van.
He actually creates some of the largest wet collodion shots in the world. The one you see below is a shot of a 27×36″ tintype, found by travelling and searching some of the best locations.
It’s great to see so many people showing passion for a process that started 180 years ago.
Screenshot of Ian Ruhter tintype photography Instagram page

Instagram | Website

Lisa Elmaleh – Musicians

Lisa Elmaleh is yet another tintype photographer who focuses on people. This can be one of the most difficult subjects to capture, as the wet process can yield an ISO of 1.
This means more light is needed, so the shutter speed becomes ten seconds long.
Here, Lisa captures musicians from the south of the US. She focuses on folk musicians, so expect to see a lot of banjo’s, violins and beards.
The colours that come with these tintypes are magnificent.
Screenshot of Lisa Elmaleh tintype portraits Instagram page

Instagram | Website

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