First Steps with Wet Plate Collodion

March 08, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Stained Fingers from Silver Nitrate Back in 2004, I fell in love with a photograph by Luther Gerlach that appeared on the cover of View Camera magazine.* Here's that image:

January/February 2004 View Camera

My mind was blown. At the time, I didn't own a view camera. I didn't even own a digital camera -- my only camera was a 35mm Canon rangefinder. But I knew that I wanted to make photographs like Luther Gerlach's. I bought the magazine and learned about this exotic thing called "wet plate collodion" that made these fancy-sounding things called tintypes and ambrotypes. I set a goal for myself that day to learn wet plate photography.

Well, it has taken almost twenty years exactly but I finally have the means and space to start teaching myself the wet plate collodion process.

Boy howdy, is this a humbling undertaking. I didn't appreciate how many variables were involved, how many delicate steps required manual dexterity, and just how many ways it was possible to screw up a tintype.

I started making my first plates about a week ago. On day one, I couldn't even get a visible image on my plates: I was seriously, seriously underexposing them.

On day two, I learned how difficult it is to coat, sensitize, and load a plate into my plate holder without scratching it to hell.

On day three, I learned what happened when a coated plate is placed into the silver bath before it has had a chance to dry sufficiently.

On days four and five, I learned that letting a coated plate dry too much before sensitizing results in really ugly marks on the photograph.

I'm currently struggling with finding the correct exposure time (a relatively easy problem to fix) and figuring out how to develop my plates evenly.

On day six, I learned just how easy it is to set one's plate on fire (and nearly set oneself on fire) whilst varnishing.

This is a difficult, difficult process. I'd rate it as more challenging that gum dichromate color printing, which is notoriously difficult. There's a really high amount of physical dexterity required to coat a plate, sensitive a plate smoothly, load a sensitized plate into a plate holder, and develop a plate evenly. In my experience, no other photographic process has been as challenging. I'm an experienced darkroom printer. I'm skilled at producing cyanotypes, Van Dyke Brown prints, gum dichromate prints, Polaroid transfers, Polaroid lifts, lumen prints, and challenging macro photographs on large format film. Nothing has kicked my ass the way that wet plate collodion is kicking my ass.

And I'm loving every second of it.

Here are a few of the best plates I've produced so far. They're all objectively bad. But I am so very proud of them!

Uneven development, comets, and a bad collodion pour.

img20240306_16061813The big white circular blotch on the mask is a result of letting the coated plate dry too much before sensitizing it.

img20240307_19453418img20240307_19453418Scratches on the plate incurred whilst loading it in the plate holder. Uneven development.

*RIP to a wonderful publication. I wish I had had the courage to submit some of my photographs to it before it stopped publishing.


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