Towards the birth of photography, photographers used glass and metal to capture images before paper was introduced. Wet plate photography was very famous since its invention in the late 1830s.
Nowadays, photographers are stepping back in time and trying this process again. Why don’t you follow our process and try it yourselves?
What Is Wet Plate Photography?
Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes were the first three early photographic processes to gain widespread popularity. They were used all over the States from its inception during the 19th century.
Daguerreotypes were invented first, then came the Ambrotype and lastly the Tintype. These are all called wet plate or wet plate collodion processes. You expose an image onto glass or metal where the chemicals are still wet.
Between 1951 and 1880, the wet collodion process was the predominant method in creating photographs throughout Europe and North America.
Now is the time for the resurgence of these alternative processes. We see the Impossible Project (now Polaroid Originals) and Lomography take place, revamping their older counterparts.
The wet plate process is no different. From Silver & Light, or Victoria Will, photographers use these processes to capture landscapes and portraits.
Creating Wet Process Collodion/Tintype Photography
In terms of tintype wet plate photography equipment, here is the list of things you need :
- 4×5″ large format camera – The camera holds the plate to capture the scene;
- Film holder – 4×5″ film holders work well as they are light tight;
- Red Light – To stop you from processing your image before you mean to;
- Engraving plate – The metal used for trophies works 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 wet plate photography 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 all 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 the collodion back into the bottle.
Place the plate in 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. You need to do this because the plate is now light sensitive.
After this, 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.
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 gave 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.
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.
And there you have it. Easy enough to create while leaving the creativity to you.
It may take a little practice to nail it every time, but wet plate photography is a fun and interesting concept you won’t get bored with.