Wet Plate: A Workshop and a Breakthrough

March 18, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Two weeks into learning the wet plate collodion process, I'm delighted with my progress. I've had a breakthrough regarding my chemistry and varnishing, and I had a wonderful workshop with a talented wet plate photographer over the weekend.

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I intended to start teaching myself the wet plate collodion process back in March 2023. I ordered and mixed my chemistry, and then Life happened. Because of a variety of factors beyond my control, I wasn't able to start teaching myself wet plate until March 2024. Most of the chemistry I had mixed was just fine with this delay, with one exception: the collodion itself.

To elaborate: My silver baths were fine waiting in the dark for a year. I did notice that their pH had risen to 6, but this was easily remedied with the addition of a few mL of glacial acetic acid. Their specific gravity was perfect, sitting at right around 9.5-10% silver nitrate. My developer was old and stale, but developer is so cheap and easy to mix that it was no big deal to just make a fresh batch. The Old Work Horse collodion, however, was just too stale to try to use effectively. It was really old, really low contrast, and super fragile. Seriously, even staring at wet plate harshly was enough to cause some of the collodion to peel off! (Well, maybe not, but it felt like that.) I was getting crepe marks even on my "good" plates, and the circular white blotches were I was starting my pour were really discouraging.

I received a fresh batch of Old Work Horse Collodion from UV Photographics, and almost all of my issues have disappeared. The stuff is much faster: where my stale collodion required a 25 second exposure, my fresh collodion needs only 8-9 seconds of exposure. It's far less fragile -- I'm able to physically wipe off those horrible circular blotches, which means that they were caused by veiling. The old collodion was just too fragile to even think about trying this. And my images are much higher contrast now. I'm delighted.

I'm looking at this as a blessing in disguise: It was so hard to get a "good" plate using my stale collodion that I was forced to really work on my technique. I learned how to be extraordinarily careful handling a wet plate and how to develop them evenly.

When I shot my first plate using fresh collodion, it almost felt easy. The results were so much better than I had been seeing before! I still occasionally see white blotching on imagery when I put it into the fixer, but its actually possible to wipe those blotches off gently now.

I like how my plates are looking. Don't get me wrong: they're still far from perfect, but they're perfect for me right now at my stage of learning. And, this may be blasphemy, I actually don't mind subtle imperfections in my pouring and development. I want my plates to look handmade; if I wanted perfect and perfectly sterile imagery, I'd be shooting digital.

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With regard to varnishing, a photographer in the amazing Collodion Bastard Facebook group suggested that I try something different than the standard Sandarac Varnish. Specifically, I've tried -- and had amazing results with -- the Light-Shellac Lavender Varnish sold by UV Photographics. This stuff doesn't need to be pre-heated, and it flows more gently and easily onto plates. Varnished plates do themselves need to be heated, but the shellac dries very quickly. It's just a lot easier to use than the classic Sandarac Varnish recipe. It looks slightly different, since it's thinner and slightly lower gloss than Sandarac Varnish. I like it.

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I spent all of Saturday with an amazing wet plate photographer named Kathryn Mayo. She's a friend, and she was my Large Format Photography and Alternative Processes professor at my local (excellent) community college. Kathyn is, to put it simply, The Man. She's kind, patient, encouraging, and an amazing photographer. I've considered her a mentor for a few years now: She was the person who introduced me to the Lumen Printing process that I love so much.

I was able to watch Kathryn make some tintypes and an ambrotype. I was struck by the deliberate smoothness of her movements. I'm emulating her, and my plates have already gotten better as a result. She had great tips of process-hygiene -- how to efficiently and effectively clean one's glassware and equipment to prevent contamination issues. And finally Kathryn had some great suggestions about affordable studio lighting that was compatible with wet plate.

I had been relying on a couple of books and a video workshop by Quinn Jacobsen. These have been great to get me started. But there's no comparison between watching even the best video workshop and seeing a skilled wet plate photographer work with her hands.

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Finally, I'm ending with a truly horrible plate. There are so many things wrong with this plate that it's almost futile to list them. But I still love it. I'm posting this as a reminder to myself to embrace serendipity and to appreciate one's mistakes. Rather than just getting frustrated by them, it's possible to find joy and a fun image even when I've really blown it.

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