Wet Plate Tin Type Collodion
I've been messing around with a form of photography called wet plate collodion that had its beginning in the 1850s. It was made famous by capturing images of the Civil War. When you think of Abe Lincoln, the image you bring up in your mind is a black and white tintype.
It's been about as rewarding as it has been frustrating. Although you still use the photography exposure triangle or trinity (shutter speed, ISO and aperture) it's completely different than the photography we've all grown accustomed.
For starters, this is the camera I use, an 8 x 10 landview Calumet C1. It weighs about 25 pounds without the tripod, which I'm pretty sure could hold up a car if it had too. The camera is modern, mine was built in the 70s, but the design hasn't changed much since 1851 when Timothy O'sullivan and Matthew R. Brady recorded famous scenes from the Battle of Bull Run and Gettysburg.
As a rough explanation, you start with a piece of black metal (I use an aluminum, similar to what you would find on a trophy or plaque). You pour the collodion (cellulose nitrate) to coat the 'tin.' In the darkroom, it is then immersed in a bath of silver nitrate to form silver iodide. The plate becomes light sensitive and it's transferred into a light-proof film holder. In the picture below, I am loading a ready, 8x10 plate into a film holder. The plate will not pick up on red or yellow light, so it is safe to use a red led headlamp like I am wearing.
The film holder goes into the camera and with the help of some very powerful, old-school 4800 watt-second studio lights, you make an exposure. (As an aside, the lights I bring to weddings are rated under 640 watt-seconds) Outdoors, an image in the bright daylight might take minutes to properly expose. It's one reason when you look at images from this time frame, people are rarely smiling and often look ghostly, because it's impossible to stay still for that long of an exposure. In comparison, a typical shutter speed on a modern camera is fractions of a second to capture a scene.
The camera sees everything upside down and backwards, which can be a little confusing when lining up a shot. The video below shows the focusing process, which I use a loupe for a portion because the lens is shot wide-open, meaning there's not much depth of field and little room for error. I also use the loupe, because the doctors say I have what's technically called "shitty eyes" so I take help where I can find it.
I've been messing around with this process for almost a year now and am just now getting results that I am kind of proud of. There's no textbooks to consult. A lot of the knowledge that's been gathered comes by the way of internet forums, Facebook groups and such. I've found the people in the community helpful to a fault, but there's only really so much they can offer. There's a myriad of factors that determine exposure times, humidity heat or cold, the age of the collodion, the collodion formula, the developing time, it's really maddening. Modern light meters don't read low enough film speed to provide help. My lowest setting on my oldest light meter is 3 and wet plate collodion is somewhere between .75 and .25. Again, in comparison, I might shoot wedding formals at a 'film speed' of 200.
Once the image is exposed, the plate goes back to the darkroom where it is developed with Ferrous Sulfate and a latent image appears on the plate (which is what I am doing in the image above).
It is then placed in a fixing bath (shown in the video below) and the image appears as the unused silver is washed away. (I managed to drop the plate and my finger tore through the soft emulsion (which reminds me of the skin old pudding might develop on it sometimes) right before it went into the fixer. I lucked out as the hole doesn't really show up, but I was not happy camper.