• Tom Lee

Making a 5"x4" Wet Plate Holder Adaptor

So, where to start…..

Making my first exploratory venture into #wet #plate #photography (Tintype/Ferrotype and Ambrotypes), I realised I would need a specialist holder to fit into my Intrepid 5x4 #large #format camera. The entire wet plate process needs to be completed within about 15 mins, including the sensitising of the plate, image capture and processing, all the time that the plate is ‘wet’.

Victorian Tintype of a young gentleman

You can imagine that this could leave many ‘standard’ items of kit in a real state after several images have been processed. It’s therefore necessary to #modify existing items to accept the wet plate without damaging otherwise expensive film #holders and dare I say it, cameras.

Several manufacturers such as #Graflex, make specialist wet plate holders, but tend to be very expensive (in the 100’s of pounds). Other enterprising photographers ‘butcher’ an old film holder by cutting a window into the back with a surround to hold the plate in place. This can be tricky, and if you mess up you’ve binned a perfectly good holder also worth about £100. The trick is to make something easily without having to modify expensive holders rendering them useless for anything else.

I do a lot of #internet #research for almost everything I do, but tend not to take the information at face value and use what I find and adapt the information to my needs. I came across a YouTube video from America that seemed to describe exactly what I needed, however, it wasn’t until I started making my #adaptor, that several holes were evident in the ‘how to’ and not all instruction is created equal!

Let’s get to the good stuff…..

The original video can be found here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjurO_5AlcQ&t=113s

Needless to say, it’s quite comprehensive until I started looking at the dimensions he used for the wooden insert. This in no way corresponded to a 5x4” plate! Now we have to fill in the holes…..

Firstly, a sheet of 5x4” film does not measure 5” x 4” (it’s a generic size). The standard for 5x4” is actually something like 100mm x 120mm (slightly smaller), and the image size rendered on the film can be smaller again (110mm x 90mm). These dimensions can also vary considerably between camera models. The dimensions stated in the video, leave an aperture size of about 105mm x 72mm (a far cry from 5x4”). Secondly, when ordering your 5x4” plates for doing your #tintypes, they actually come at 5x4” size exactly. This means your plates need to be cut and trimmed to fit whatever holder you use (except if your producing 5x4” plates from a 10x8” large format camera).

Fujifilm PA-45 Instant Film Holder
Inside the PA-45

Let’s start by looking at the holder. The Fujifilm PA-45 instant back described in the video are easy enough to get hold of on eBay, but beware, prices vary enormously and many will end up coming from Japan, meaning additional customs duty when it enters the country. Mine cost about £23 but I had to pay another £13 customs and handling duty before they would deliver it (buggers).

Making the new insert…..

I wanted to maximise the area of plate that could be exposed when taking the image. This means that although the technique for making the holder in the video was sound, I had to adjust the sizes.

I started by measuring the aperture in the PA-45 holder and found that this measures 125mm x 91mm. This is therefore the maximum size of plate I can expose. Next, I measured the internal cavity of the holder to see what size wooden frame structure I could fit in without making it too flimsy or hinder the darkslide mechanism. This is when I found the next ‘hole’ in the methodology….

The video shows a spring at the bottom of the holder which helps eject the new wooden insert. My unit did not have this feature. Holders and inserts get modified over time and its possible that my holder was either a later (or earlier) model than that shown in the video. As it transpires, no drama here, the spring on the top will hold the frame in place and it can easily be lifted out without the need for an ‘ejection’ spring. My #dimensions for the wooden frame insert are shown below, and allows for the maximum exposure possible of the tintype plate. The wooden frame is however, constructed exactly as stated in the video. You can download a larger version of this image from the RESOURCE page on this website

Dimensions of the wooden frame insert

Another modification was the addition of a sponge cut and glued to the top part of the holder. This acts as a ‘pressure plate’ on the back of the tintype plate, stopping it from moving around in the frame. I think this is better than the plastic ‘thingy’ shown in the video. The last modification was to replace the plastic corner support mounts were with continuous plastic supports. When the plate is in the frame and the holder closed, the sponge in the lid places too much pressure on the thin plate causing it to rub against the darkslide. The last thing you want is your #sensitised #emulsion on the plate to smear! This is the case no matter what you use for the back of the plate.

The finished frame insert
Insert in the holder

The advantage of my design also allows for trimming only one side of the tintype plate. Plates these days are not made from iron as the originals were, hence the name Ferrotype. The popular name ‘Tintype’ was given to the process by the general populous, because they were relatively cheap to make. Today’s material is made from ‘trophy aluminium’ approximately 0.5mm thick and is easily cut with strong scissors, however I use my heavy-duty trimmer that delivers a clean and precise cut.

Trimming the tintype plate


With bespoke holders costing from £150, and a butchered film holder costing £104, my solution cost £46 for the PA-45 holder, shipping and import duty, flat black spray and epoxy glue, scrap timber and plastic (free), and a bit of spare time. The timber frame insert works a treat, and I’ve had no problem placing the wet plate in or out of the frame or the frame moving in the holder. Anyone with a bit of DIY skill can make something similar and hopefully others will benefit from these notes. Several inserts made in this way mean you don't have to clean and dry your holder every time you take an image!

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