Is the Wet Plate Photography Process Dangerous?

Wet plate photography is an old technique that still has a number of fans today. But is the process dangerous to the photographer?

Analogue photography has an allure to many of us; the tactile experience is rewarding in an increasingly digital world. Even though I know it isn't the case, when I take photographs on film, I feel more as if I'm plying a skill than when I take the same sort of photographs with my digital camera. However, loading film into a camera, taking a shot, and rolling the film on, really isn't difficult. There are older techniques that have seen a surge in popularity in recent years.

One such technique is wet plate photography, also known as the collodion process. It is a time-consuming and difficult procedure that was invented around 1851 by a fellow Brit, Frederick Scott Archer. The original method is as follows:

The process involved adding a soluble iodide to a solution of collodion (cellulose nitrate) and coating a glass plate with the mixture. In the darkroom the plate was immersed in a solution of silver nitrate to form silver iodide. The plate, still wet, was exposed in the camera. It was then developed by pouring a solution of pyrogallic acid over it and was fixed with a strong solution of sodium thiosulfate, for which potassium cyanide was later substituted. — Britannica

In this video, Markus Hofstätter walks you through his wet plate process and how he takes steps to avoid the inherent dangers of such a photographic method. Despite wearing masks, working in well-ventilated rooms, and taking necessary precautions with the chemicals, he still gets blood tests twice per year to ensure his liver function is at the right level and there isn't cadmium present. Hofstätter is somewhat of an expert on wet plate photography and this video taught me just how dangerous it can be — something I hadn't realized!

Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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It can be, but more people die from selfies.

It's good to know how to avoid anything that brings you in danger. Mostly it's not that much of a deal to work with the right safety measures. It's the same for everything, like shooting selfies ;)