There are many, many processes in the world of Wet Plate Collodion photography and at every stage there are potential disasters lying in wait. It’s the exact opposite of iPhoneography but just like iPhoneography it is a means to an end. Great images, great art.
I’m lucky to have many great photographer friends as well as a wife who puts up with my nonsense ideas. So for my first weekend trying to create images I drafted in as many as were available to help as assistants and subjects. Luckliy they brought their cameras and their eyes along to help document the process. So sit back and grab a coffee and I’ll guide you through the prep for creation of an image.
1: My Camera has plate holders for halfplate (12 x 16.5cm), fullplate (16 x 21.5cm) and a special large square plate (230 x 230cm). The sheets of glass I bought were about 1.2 x .9m and I had to cut them down to these sizes. After you have the plate cut you need to burr down the edges to make them not sharp. Then they need a clean. A real clean. I used glass cleaner that was 1 part distilled water, 1 part calcium carbonate and 1 part isopropyl alcohol. It’s mildly abrasive and does an amazing job of cleaning the crud off the glass.
One the glass is clean it’s suggested you use an earbud and run around the rim of the face you are going to use with egg white. This helps stop the collodion from lifting off the glass and getting washed away/damaged in later parts of the process.
Then you pour the collodion mixture on to the glass. The idea is to get it to evenly cover the plate then you pour it off shaking the glass vigorously in order to avoid leaving any rivulets on the face. You can see it just heading towards the corner that I will pour the excess off in this image.
Once that’s done you wait a moment or two until the collodion starts to become tacky and at that point it gets placed in a bath of silver nitrate to gestate for 3-4 minutes. The bath is light tight and during this period the salts in the collodion react with the silver to make the surface of the glass light sensitive so from this moment on until the image is developed it all has to be in dark room conditions. To that end I bin bagged my downstairs showeroom/washroom and put some rubylith in the bags as little red windows as well as over the light above the mirror. So I could go red light when required. During this three-four minute period you can run over to the camera and prepare the victim/subject for their portrait. Adjust the focus and composition etc.
This is Miko getting ready for her portrait
Remember these cameras didn’t have zoom lenses or autofocus or anything like that and I don’t have original tripod so I had to use a projector stand I was given by a friend a few years ago.
Adjusting the bellows changes the focus on my camera. The longer the extension the closer I can focus. You can’t see the ratchet to move the bellows in these images as its at the back beside the focus plate. The lens I have is a 280mm F8 brass thing. Here is the view from my side of the glass.
OK so now we are getting close. Back in to the darkroom to get the plate out its bath. You need to clean the back of the glass at this point to make sure that you don’t get rivulets of silver nitrate migrating back on to front of the plate during the rest of the process. Once that’s done it’s placed in to the plate holder and you can head back outside to the camera to take the picture. The ground glass focus plane is slid out
then the back with the glass plate is slid in its place.
Then it’s time to pull back the dark plate to allow the collodion side of the glass to see the lens and allow an exposure. How long to expsore for is the problem though. Wet Plate Collodion doesn’t “see” the visible spectrum of light. It works on the bluer end of what we see up to and in to Ultra Violet. So there are no exposure meters for this. It’s a case of suck it and see. At the weekend we had exposures of 3 seconds to 15 seconds…and on the first day I really needed 1minute 20 second ish ones.
OK so now we have an exposed plate it’s back to the darkroom to develop. Pouring the developer is a bit of a minefield as well. You need to pour quickly and steadily, making sure you cover the entire plate in one quick pass.
Development time is 15seconds so you can imagine if you take 2seconds to run from one end of plate to next the first part will be 10% more developed than the end when it comes to stopping it by pouring a jug of water over the plate to wash off remaining developer. This is the second jug in fact…
Once its stopped the plate goes in to the fixer bath and then a little rinse before inspecting then leaving in a running water bath for 30 minutes or so to rinse off any remaining fixer.
After that it’s left to drip dry before the finishing processes of spraying the back black and varnishing the surface. Images of those parts to come along with finished item in part 3