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. 

This entire process (pouring the plate, sensitizing the plate, exposing the plate and developing the plate) has to be completed before the plate dries (hence the name, wet plate) within about 5 to 7 minutes. So you need to be standing near a darkroom and moving pretty fast. 
Once the image is created, the plate is washed and allowed to dry for 24 hours. Then I put a varnish shellac over the top of it to seal it. 
I can't imagine what it must of have been like to ty to make an image in a tent during the Civil War. The process is very intolerant to dust and dirt. I was ecstatic to make a somewhat decent image in my climate controlled laudryroom/darkroom , using electric studio lights and clean, running water. 
I have no idea where I go from here. I've challenged myself to make 100 great portraits. I've seen plans to make a mobile darkroom, so maybe someday I will be able to offer them outside of my makeshift basement studio. 
In a time when a pocket phone can make an awfully nice picture, and software can duplicate the affect, they are ridiculous in their way. But they are one of kinds. Labor intensive, finicky, hard to light, hard to focus, and hard to develop. They require a ton of gear and the handling of kind-of dangerous chemicals. 
But man, I do love how they look. 

Post script -- The firefighter is my nephew Justin, who was named Rock Island's firefighter of the year. The portrait was a little something for him. Special thanks to my old photo director Todd Mizener, who provided some of the images and the video for this post.


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