• Tom Lee

A Collodion Adventure

So, what do you do in the 1850’s when you want to go out for a trip with your camera? Well, if you were fortunate (and wealthy) enough to own one, you had to take your darkroom with you!

#Wet #plate is the process of capturing a photographic image onto a solid plate of glass (#Ambrotype) or metal (#Ferrotype/#Tintype). The surface of the material needs to be sensitized with chemicals so it can record the image, but the whole process (including development) needs to be completed before the chemicals dry, hence the name ‘wet plate’. Early practitioners were often referred to as ‘alchemists’ due to the fact that they mixed variations of the original formula from raw materials, many of which were highly toxic!

Louis Daguerre developed his #Deguerrotype process in 1839, closely followed in 1841 by the #Calotype developed by Henry Fox Talbot, but relied on paper negatives and were ‘one of a kind’ derivatives. This meant that they were expensive, and difficult to make. The #Collodion technique was introduced in 1851 by #Frederick #Scott #Archer and became the most popular kind of process right up to the 1880’s. The fact that many copies could be made from a single glass plate ambrotype made it popular with the #Victorians. Many of you may well be familiar with the Ferrotype (or Tintype), from which #American #Civil #War images were captured. The Ferrotypes were very durable and soldiers could carry them in a pocket of their uniform without sustaining significant damage.

I became a devotee of the process late last year and loved the more considered approach required to produce images in this way. The process is being revitalised by modern day practitioners and numbers are growing. Whilst making plates under controlled conditions either in the studio or garden, its easy when you have a #darkroom just a few feet from your camera. This however limits the sort of images you can take – so why not go on the road!

Whilst I’m quite #proficient on home turf, its another thing to be just as confident when working in the field. I won’t go into the finer details of the process, but will outline the general method as undertaken in my latest adventure…..

The first thing to do is make a list of gear necessary to undertake the process away from home. We don’t want to take more than we need so as to keep the weight down and make transportation easier. #Chemicals required are Silver Nitrate, Collodion, Fixer and water. Other items such as trays, camera, plates, beakers, table, trolley for carting it all and of course a darkroom. You may think that this would be more trouble than its worth, however, you can fit all of this into the boot of your car. Because this is an old process much of what you need will have to be adapted from items which are readily available and this is expressly true of the darkroom (or more specifically ‘darkbox’). Almost every photographer I know builds their own from scratch, albeit their functionality is identical.

The "Away' Kit

Once packed into the car I headed off to New Brighton to photograph a #Fort well known in the area. This was my first mistake! Whilst nice weather and plenty of UV rays around with which to make my exposure, The wind caused blowing #sand and it was difficult to keep the worksite clean of debris. Getting the gear to the site was easy enough though and I was all set to go after about 10 mins of set up.

Step 1 – Flowing the plate.

I use black aluminium laser engraving plate which has a plastic protective layer, easy to peel off and keep the substrate clean. The collodion mixture is poured on evenly and then immersed into a bath of silver nitrate for around 3 mins. This process is done in daylight and then covered by the darkbox.

Flowing the plate

Step 2 – Inserting into the plate holder.

Using a set of sleeves (similar to a film changing bag), I can then reach into the box and look through a ruby red window in the top. The collodion is now sensitised so cannot be exposed to blue light but doesn’t react to red. The plate has a sensitivity of about ISO 0.5-1 and you can take a bit of time removing it from the silver bath and placing it into the holder.

Step 3 – Take your shot.

The darkbox can now be opened and the holder placed into the large format camera. Remove the darkslide and expose the plate. Because the plate is sensitive to the UV part of the visible spectrum, you can’t use a lightmeter to determine the exposure. This is done by experience and ‘best guess’!

Framing under the dark cloth

Step 4 – Develop the plate.

Now its back into the box. Place the holder back into the top and close the lid. Use the sleeves to remove the plate and pour a small quantity of developer quickly and evenly over the image. It comes up pretty quick (about 15 secs) so you have to arrest the development with water. Once you have done this the image is stable and the remaining process can be done in normal daylight.

The Darkbox

Step 5 – Fixing the plate.

Open the box and place your plate into the fixer bath. It looks like a negative at this stage but after a little agitation the image will clear and ‘reverse’. After a few minutes you have a finished image which can be washed to remove all remaining silver and salts.


The final result is then dried and either waxed or varnished to complete an archival plate that will last hundreds of years. I don’t do this in the field, but will transport it in a plate box to do when I get back home.

Fort Perch Rock

So, a very pleasing morning up to now, however, the WORST was yet to come! Having spent almost an hour getting two images in the can, I was all set to move on to another site when I messed up big time. I accidentally tipped over my silver and fixer baths in the darkbox. This was total disaster. With no spare chemicals I could not refill my tanks and I did not want to risk cross contamination of my other gear. So pack up and go home was the only option left.

The work of the collodion photographer doesn’t end there however, with a few more tweaks and home modifications, I’ll be out on the road again just like all the other pioneers before me. Until next time…….

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