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Wet Plate Collodion


Wet plate collodion
Wet plate collodion portraits by Steven Wilson

Wet plate collodion, a photographic process that emerged in the mid-19th century, holds a unique place in the history of photography. This article explores the intriguing origins of wet plate collodion, delves into the intricate process of creating these captivating images, and highlights contemporary artists who continue to embrace this remarkable technique. History but brief: The wet plate collodion process, invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851, revolutionized photography during the Victorian era. This technique quickly gained popularity due to its ability to produce high-quality images with shorter exposure times compared to earlier processes like the daguerreotype. Despite its numerous advantages, wet plate collodion had its challenges. The process required meticulous preparation and handling of chemicals, making it a complex and time-consuming endeavor. Photographers had to carry portable darkrooms to ensure that the plates remained wet throughout the process. The plates were also fragile and susceptible to damage, necessitating careful handling and storage. Please note that if you're starting from zero, with little to no equipment, this is not a cheap process. Here's a breakdown of what you will need and the costs: 1. Camera:

  • Large Format Camera: $500 - $2000 (depending on the brand, condition, and specifications)

  • Lens: $300 - $1500 (depending on the brand, focal length, and condition)

  • Tripod: $100 - $300 (depending on quality and stability)


2. Darkroom Equipment:

  • Darkroom Space: Cost varies based on availability and personal setup preferences.

  • Red Safelight: $20 - $50

  • Trays (for developing and washing): $10 - $30 each

  • Developer, Fixer, and other Chemicals: $50 - $100 (costs may vary depending on quantities and brands)

  • Graduated Cylinder and Beakers: $10 - $30

  • Thermometer: $10 - $30

  • Stirring Rods or Glass Stirrers: $5 - $15

  • Timer: $10 - $30

  • Funnel: $5 - $15

  • Squeegee or Silicone Blade: $10 - $30

3. Plates and Supplies:

  • Glass Plates: $20 - $50 (depending on size and quantity)

  • Collodion Solution: $30 - $50 (costs may vary depending on the size and brand)

  • Silver Nitrate: $50 - $100 (costs may vary depending on the quantity and quality)

  • Developer and Fixer Solutions: $20 - $50 (costs may vary depending on the quantity and brand)

  • Varnish Solution: $10 - $30 (costs may vary depending on the brand and quantity)

  • Cleaning Supplies (Lint-free cloths, compressed air, etc.): $10 - $30 Of course, wet plate collodion doesn't have to come in the form of the traditional portrait, a lot of artists are exploring various forms of application:

Arizona-based photographer David Emitt Adams uses a unique, 19th-century process to create detailed photographs on the bottom of tin cans.
Arizona-based photographer David Emitt Adams uses a unique, 19th-century process to create detailed photographs on the bottom of tin cans


THE PROCESS STEP BY STEP: Step 1: Preparing the Glass Plate

Clean the glass plate using a lint-free cloth or compressed air, ensuring there are no dust particles or debris remaining on the surface. Be thorough in your cleaning to achieve a pristine, dust-free plate.

Step 2: Coating the Plate with Collodion

  1. Pour collodion solution onto the center of the glass plate, using enough to cover the entire surface. The amount may vary depending on the plate size, but typically a few milliliters should suffice.

  2. Tilt the plate in different directions, allowing the collodion to flow and spread evenly across the surface. Aim for a thin, uniform layer without any streaks or uneven patches.

  3. Once the collodion has covered the entire plate, drain any excess collodion back into the container, being careful not to touch or contaminate the coated surface. Allow to dry.

Step 3: Sensitizing with Silver Nitrate

  1. In a darkroom environment, place the collodion-coated plate in a light-tight container, such as a plate holder or a specially designed box, to protect it from light.

  2. Prepare a silver nitrate solution in a separate container, following the recommended proportions and concentrations.

  3. Immerse the plate in the silver nitrate solution, ensuring the collodion layer is fully submerged. Be cautious not to introduce air bubbles or uneven submersion.

  4. Allow the plate to remain in the silver nitrate solution for a specific duration, typically around three to five minutes. This allows the silver ions in the solution to react with the collodion, forming light-sensitive silver halides on the plate's surface.

Step 4: Exposing the Plate

  1. Load the sensitized plate into a camera's plate holder, making sure it is positioned correctly with the collodion side facing the lens.

  2. Compose your desired image, adjusting the camera settings such as aperture and shutter speed to achieve the desired exposure and depth of field.

  3. Remove the plate holder's dark slide to expose the plate to light. The exposure time will depend on various factors, including lighting conditions, subject matter, and the desired effect. Use a light meter or test exposures to determine an appropriate exposure time.

Step 5: Developing the Image

  1. Immediately after exposure, return to the darkroom and transfer the exposed plate to a developing tray containing the developer solution.

  2. Pour the developer solution evenly over the plate, ensuring it fully covers the surface. Use enough developer to submerge the plate if possible.

  3. Gently rock the tray or use a soft brush to agitate the developer solution, facilitating the development process and ensuring even development across the plate.

  4. Monitor the plate closely as the image begins to appear. The development time can vary based on factors such as the strength of the developer, desired contrast, and tonality. Aim for a well-balanced image with good detail and tonal range.

  5. Once the image has developed to the desired appearance, remove the plate from the developer solution and proceed to the fixing stage.

Step 6: Fixing and Washing

  1. Transfer the developed plate to a tray containing a fixing solution, such as a hypo-clearing agent or sodium thiosulfate solution.

  2. Ensure the plate is fully immersed in the fixing solution, allowing it to clear any unexposed or undeveloped silver halides. Agitate the tray gently to aid the fixing process.


Holding Hands Wet Plate Collodion on Blown Glass by Lynn Bierbaum
Holding Hands Wet Plate Collodion on Blown Glass by Lynn Bierbaum


While we don't have a video-lesson on wet plates (yet), in our alternative processes academy we cover 10+ processes with a focus on surfaces. Learn more about it here.
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