Getting Started with Wet Plate Collodion: 2013 Edition

Posted by on Aug 12, 2013 in Classes & Workshops | 2 Comments


When you start doing wet plate photography, whether you are creating tintypes (positives on metal) or ambrotypes (postives/negatives on glass), you might experience a new sense of freedom.

The freedom comes from the fact that you no longer have to worry about supplies like film, memory cards, and batteries. You can make everything with a set of chemicals and some simple, raw materials.  You can say goodbye to dealing with the complexities of both hardware and software, because you are now in control of your own creation, from start to finish. Because of this,  some consider wet plate photography to be the pinnacle of DIY photography, and these days, people are embracing it to the maximum extent.

Things have changed quite a bit since we offered our first wet plate workshop back in 2008, right around the time when World Wet Plate Day began.  These days, wet plate photography is getting a lot more attention and becoming more mainstream. So many people are practicing it in a variety of ways, getting more creative in its application. So, we thought it would be cool to write about some creative solutions to the practical concerns of starting wet plate photography from scratch in 2013.

Cameras for Wet Plate Use

Of course, if you are looking for hardcore authenticity, a large format camera is a good choice. People have experimented with cameras both large and small, old and new. The great thing about using a large format camera is that they are very versatile and can be modified to accommodate any type of plate you want (especially a wooden field or studio camera).

However, some photographers have figured out how to use more accessible alternatives as well. Using a medium format camera with a film back such as a Hasselblad or Polaroid camera will make the adaptation much simpler and more accessible. Want to go really low-tech? You guessed it! Some photographers are using a plastic camera such as the Holga to really loosen the controls.

Wet Plate Photography Lenses

While using a medium format camera like Hasselblad will allow you to use super sharp lenses with modern optics, using a versatile large format camera will allow you to choose from an array of antique lenses from the heyday of wet plate photography.

Since the typical exposure of a wet plate image is a couple of seconds, a lens with a 1/8000 sec shutter speed is useless anyhow. This is partly why modern Matthew Brady-wannabes are hunting for old barrel lenses with a fast f-stop, which were made for these kind of portraits.

They typically have a “swirling effect” to the photographs, in which the center is super sharp, but the perimeter of the image emanates in a radial pattern. If you are after this kind of look, look for a “Petzval” lens. You will find many sources for these lenses.

Wet Plate Holders

If you are going to use a medium format camera with an existing film back or Polaroid back, the solution is pretty much self-contained. All you need to do is make sure that it can take whatever substrate you are using.

If you are using a large format camera, you can find old dry plate holders on Ebay. Or, you can convert a regular film holder into a wet plate holder.

If budget is not an issue, you can buy a brand new wet plate holder in a variety of sizes.

Setting Up a Darkroom for Wet Plate Photography

You can think of wet plate photography as something like a Polaroid before its time. Why? Because you can (actually, you have to) process the images right after you take them. What does this mean in the practical sense? It means that you need to be really close to your darkroom so that you can process your plates right away. So the location of your darkroom will dictate what you are able to photograph.

If you are a studio portrait photographer, you will need to have a space next to your shooting studio. This was how things were set up back in 1800′s.

If you want to venture out outside of your studio, you will need some sort of portable darkroom. Some photographers have converted trailers, vans, and RVs into portable darkrooms (with wheels!).

While this may be a complete solution for some, your solution does not need to be so capital-intensive. Take a look at this simple but effective portable darkroom by John Coffer, one of the masters, which is very low tech and doable with some DIY skills.

While it is definitely convenient to have your darkroom next to you, it does not have to be literally next to you. You just have to be mindful of how quickly a plate dries once it is coated. So you could go around the corner from your darkroom to photograph, like we did when we photographed the Don Quixote statue on 2nd Street and Girard Ave.

Wet Plate Photography Applications

The applications are as many as you can name. In this process, you’re limited only by your imagination! People have done so much with the wet plate process lately. What started as a hobby among civil war reenactors has taken off, and people are now taking the process to new places. With the amazing amount of resources available, now is truly the best time to jump into wet plate photography.

Conclusion: Just Do It!

If you’ve been hesitating about learning about wet plate photography because of the perceived barrier of entry, we say, just do it! Even if you can’t afford an antique wooden camera with authentic lenses, you can DIY it with a Holga and a cheap portable darkroom. Let yourself get swept up by the infinite possibilities this antique hands-on process has to offer.

Related Classes

  • Making Tintypes – learn the wet plate process from start-to-finish in this weekend intensive with visiting artist Craig J. Barber.

2 Comments

  1. order prohormones
    May 16, 2014

    Another awesome post on your blog, keep up good work!

    Reply
  2. Tom Allen
    September 24, 2015

    I’ve been looking into large format and tintype photography for a little while, now. It just seems to be the next step after my self-reintroduction to medium format film. Your post has a lot of great information to help me along that path. Thank you for the enjoyable and informative read.

    Reply

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