Week 18, Wet Plate Collodion

Though technically not a ‘roll’ it still uses old-school stuff (really old) and was a hoot to take a workshop about. So for this week, I took a Tintype workshop using wet plate collodion with Jill Enfield. This is one of the oldest photographic processes, developed by Frederick Scott Archer around 1851. I’m sure many of us film fans are familiar with the process, at least on a general level.

For this workshop, I took three cameras. My Holga 120 (wee tiny plates, so cute and cuddly), my Graflex Speed Graphic (not quite 4×5 as the plate holder is smaller), and my 100 year old Kodak Empire State No. 2, 5×7 (prob closer to 4.5×6.5 with the holder). We used modern metal that comes sealed from the factory and cut our plates to size. This metal is used for things like award plaque engraving plates.

The general process is 1) cut your plate to size, 2) slowly take off the plastic coating revealing a fresh, clean surface, 3) apply the collodion, letting it tack up a little 4) sensitize (under safe light) your plate in a bath of silver nitrate, 5) place in plate holder with dark slides, or in the case of the Holga, directly in the camera, 6) expose, 7) develop (under safe light) with a very small amount ~10-20ml, developer, 8) stop (simple distilled water), 9) fix, 10) dry, 11) varnish.

I found the developing step to be the absolute hardest of the whole process. You need the developer to cover the entire plate as quickly as possible and stay in contact with the plate, but only for 15-20 seconds. Much more and the developer can burn your image. If you don’t get enough coverage (as you will see) your plate has non-developed areas. But it sure was a lot of fun and a group of us from the class hope to start regular gatherings.

One word of caution, the collodion uses ether and it is stinky and also highly flammable. We id all of this in a darkroom equipped with a sparkless exhaust fan or very large open area with fresh air. Because the plates need to stay wet, most of our shots were around the workshop location.

First success, Holga

First success, Holga

My BMW 2002, Graflex

My BMW 2002, Graflex

Paper Mache statue, Kodak 5x7 (cropped w/ tin snips).

Paper Mache statue, Kodak 5×7 (cropped w/ tin snips).

Outdoor lounge, Kodak 5x7

Outdoor lounge, Kodak 5×7

We also tried doing some digital transfers, which is somewhat similar to the digital negative process in other alternative printing process, except in this case you use a color positive. The image is printed out on Pictorico OHP transparencies, then gently placed on a sensitized plate and exposed using a normal darkroom enlarger. I had trouble with the ‘gently placed’ part and the collodion stuck to my plates and basically resulted in not many usable plates. This one was interesting enough to keep.


All the plates are (of course) as they show up on the plate, so they come out of the camera upside down and flipped side-to-side. For the scans I did not bother to flip them since that is not how the plates look in person. Also, the ‘colors’ in the 2nd plate are from the developer, which is iron based (ferrous sulfate). I rather like it, but the undeveloped parts on all the plates show I need to work on my developer pouring skill.

3 thoughts on “Week 18, Wet Plate Collodion

  1. I’ve taken two different weekend workshops where we went various places and camped and learned this process. Doing it outdoors is really fun, but challenging. You’re right, the pouring technique is hard! I’d love to pursue this process because good results are so beautiful, but it’s not really practical to do yourself. Love the last one!


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