Step by Step Guide To Wet Plate Photography
Guest writer Josh LeClair is a commercial photographer based out of Marquette, MI. After seeing the stunning work done by Ian Ruhter with wet plate photography, he decided to try it for himself. LeClair does it on on a much smaller scale using a holga camera.
Things you’ll need:
The chemicals I used are in the Complete Wet Plate Collodion Set for 4×5′ from Bostick & Sullivan. The package comes with a guide for mixing the chemicals that makes it pretty easy.
I found a old Graflex Crown Graphic 4×5 camera to shoot with, but you can use pretty much any film camera you can get a plate into (see Ian Ruhter’s film where he uses a Holga)
Mask: you must have a mask to protect you from breathing in the chemicals! I bought this mask from Bostick & Sullivan and it worked great. If you try to just use a mask from your local hardware store, it won’t work. As you can see in the video, I tried using one of those and had a nasty cough soon after.
Darkroom: I was lucky enough to use an actual darkroom. If you don’t have access to a darkroom just make sure whatever you use is well ventilated. The chemicals have a strong odor and will stink up more than just the room you do the process in.
Step 1: Clean the plate. I poured the collodion on a piece of 4×5 tin plate (There are a couple of different ways to do this but I found that pouring quite a bit in the center of the plate and then moving it to each corner works the best).
Step 2: Silver Nitrate bath. After the collodion is on, it goes into the silver nitrate bath where the plate sits for 3 minutes and becomes light sensitive. At this time the lights in the darkroom go off except for the safelights which are either red or amber and at a very low power. Wet plate collodion has a film speed (ISO) of approximately 5, so this means that it takes quite a bit of light to affect the plate.
Step 3: Take it to the camera, shoot the photo! Put the plate in an old film holder so that it’s light tight. Now you’re ready to take the image.
Step 4: Developing. Back into the darkroom, take the plate out, and cover the plate in developer. Rock it gently back and forth for about 10-15 seconds until you start to see your image appear. Then a gentle water wash until the plate washes off the developer. Put it into the fixer and develop.
The image below (shot on the tin plate) is actually inverted from what the plate really looks like. When you do wet plate photography, you’re technically doing a negative – that’s why some people shoot on glass, so they can print from the negative. Other people photograph on something dark, like black aluminum, so their finished plate actually looks like a positive.