Getting Started with Wet Plate Tintype Photography
by Lucas Mobley
I have dedicated most of my adult life to the craft of photography. I went to a top photojournalism school, spent a handful of years as a newspaper photojournalist and then started a successful wedding photography business in Seattle. In 2018 my partner Kathryn Stevens and I found ourselves based out of Leavenworth, Washington for the summer. She taught photography at a local community college and we traveled to weddings on most weekends. We lived on a blueberry farm out of my RV!
On social media I had been seeing some magical, hauntingly beautiful black and white images. The subjects’ eyes were piercing and the narrow depth of field in the photographs was unreal! These photos were shot with the very old process of wet plate collodion photography.
At the start of that summer I had the crazy idea that we should learn how to do this process. I knew nothing much about the process, but I ordered a massive lens made in the 1890s on eBay and we were committed. Several months and many thousands of dollars later, we made our first tintype plates outdoors on that blueberry farm. The plate was black and blank. But we had expected that —and in another month we were making plates with lots of flaws, but there was an image!
Wet plate collodion is a VERY temperature sensitive process and part of its unique look is because it is sensitive to invisible UV light. Daytime temperatures in Leavenworth were far hotter than our chemistry would allow, and many days there was a thick smoke cover from wildfires. Smoke blocks UV light, so those two factors combined made for a very difficult, yet great, learning experience!
We kept at it, and just a few months later we hosted our first two weekends of pop-up events, shooting portraits for paying clients in Seattle. We sold it out! We wished we hadn’t, because Kathryn and I worked as hard as we could with mixed results for 3 days each weekend, two weekends in a row! It was CRAZY! We made a few good plates but a lot of mistakes. We learned a lot!
That was two years ago. We have made a lot of plates since then and we are just starting to feel like we have real proficiency in this process. What I mean by that is we can now produce high quality consistent results in way less time, every time.
I can’t tell you how much this process has caused me to grow as a person and as a photographer! Most things that you need for wet plate photography can’t be bought, so you have to learn how to make them. Most projects you can conceive of have not been done. This is challenging, but pretty rad!
But more importantly, the images that we make are inspiring to me! It is very satisfying to spend several hours with one subject, making just a few images and to have a tangible, physical result at the end of the day.What is wet plate collodion photography?
Wet plate collodion photography was invented in 1851 by Fredrick Scott Archer and Gustave Le Gray. In a matter of years it became the dominant type of photography worldwide, largely replacing the first method of photography — the daguerrotype. Wet plate is a broad term. The most common method we hear about these days is the tintype. However most photographers these days make images on black aluminum, not tin. For the purposes of this article we will be talking about tintype photography.
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Here is a brief explanation of how the process of tintype photography works.
- Creating the film: A thin sheet of black metal is coated with collodion by flowing it over the plate with a very specific technique. The collodion contains small amounts of some heavy metals.
- Sensitizing the plate: The coated plate is submerged into a light proof tank of 9% silver nitrate for 2 to 4 minutes. The silver nitrate interacts with the heavy metals in the collodion to make it light sensitive
- Making a plate: In the dark, the light sensitive plate is removed from the silver nitrate and loaded into a plate holder. The plate holder can then be loaded into a large format camera to make one image. This must be done promptly before the plate dries. Depending on the weather the photographer will typically have 2 to 10 minutes to make an image.
- Developing the plate: After an exposure is made, the plate must be immediately developed in the darkroom. Developing is a very challenging step. Developer is poured over the plate with a very specific technique. The development process largely controls the contrast and tonality of the image
- Fixing the plate: Historically, and to this day, many photographers used KCN as a fixer. KCN is also known as potassium cyanide. Yep, it’s dangerous! We use ammonium thiosulfate; it is much safer and yields nearly identical results. Fixer interacts with the silver nitrate that has not been exposed to light and removes it from the plate. Areas that were not exposed turn clear. So if you are making an image on a black sheet of aluminum, they turn black.
- Varnishing: After the fixing step, the plate is very fragile. The slightest touch can destroy the image. After it dries, a protective coating of varnish is applied in a very particular way. The varnish is then cooked onto the plate to harden it and seal the image in. After that the plate should last 150 to 200 years.
That is a lot of steps! Each one of those steps is extremely nuanced and has a high degree of difficulty. It takes time, experience and guidance to learn. Each one of the steps has countless things that can go wrong. Mostly, the only way to have complete confidence in this process is to have had every problem that you can have. That way you have figured out why each problem is happening and how to fix it!
What is so inspiring about these slow processes of photography?
When you pull out a cell phone or a digital camera and make an image, that process does not demand thought. When you have to invest a year or more learning the tintype process and then you spend a couple hours setting up to shoot one image, you have a lot of time to think about your picture. It’s a very, very intentional process. I remember a friend saying that a picture should document a moment worthy of documentation. That is a great sentiment and a high standard! Tintype forces you to take time for that. It’s also a very collaborative process. Most of the time our subjects have head braces to keep them still for focus. The entire process of making one image can take anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes depending on how many subjects are in one frame.Making tangible art is important!
From 2006 through 2010, about 40% of my revenue was from wedding albums. Then I watched a steady decline in the number of clients who followed through with ordering their wedding albums. Nowadays wedding albums comprise 10% to 15% of my yearly revenue. It’s sad because many people have prepaid for part of their album, yet they don’t follow through with actually ordering it. At the same time, every few months a client from years ago emails to say they can’t find their pictures or that they have moved to a new computer and don’t know where they put their wedding pictures. I happily send them their photos again, but when all of their wedding photography is so intangible and easy to lose, it’s disheartening!
In this era we are bombarded with images. Ads are everywhere; images are all over social media platforms. The amount of time that we spend consuming each image is at an all-time low. Thus the amount of value we place on each image is also low.
The desire to create something unique, tangible and rare is one of the main reasons that I was so inspired to learn the tintype process. I get to spend a few hours with a subject and create one of a kind amazing artwork with them. I have no need for a computer or to spend my life editing images. At a typical wedding I will shoot 3000 images! That is insane. I would much rather spend a day and create 10 amazing tintypes.
Tintypes have tremendous staying power. My parents pursue genealogy as a hobby. They came across a tintype of my great great grandfather from 1853! It was 2x2.5” and still looked great! With a little luck, many of the plates Kathryn and I create will last that long also.
Creating is a collaborative effort.
Kathryn and I both view this type of portrait photography as a collaborative effort between the photographer and subject. We know the limitations and strengths of this process and the equipment we are using, but we like to leave the creative vision flexible.
In a very real sense we are creating a tangible image of a moment in time. We want that moment itself to be special and worth remembering. We do a lot of mindfulness and centering exercises to help our subjects be fully present in the exact moment we are going to capture. Kathryn is a yoga teacher and we are both zen meditation practitioners, so those experience sets help bridge that gap with our subjects.
The slow and methodical style of photography really works well with such a mindful approach. When we accomplish what we are hoping to, we end up meeting our subjects in the present moment and magic happens. I remember one subject that we were practicing with. Her name is Lindsey and she spent the better part of a day with us in Portland. We shot 8 or 9 plates over the course of that day. Our final plate was our favorite. It was not calculated or systematic, in the sense that her pose and expression were a joint effort that arose organically from our process. It was rad!
Tintype photography is insanely high quality.
Wet plate collodion is a grain-free process! It has ZERO grain. Also the size of your image depends simply on the lens and camera you are using. If you shoot on an 11x14 camera you are creating a piece of “film” that is 11x14 inches. Compare that to a standard 1x1.5-inch piece of "film" on a full frame digital camera. Think about how that will affect the quality. It’s insanely high quality!
The process requires a huge amount of light. For comparison, a standard film speed is 100 or 400. The collodion film we create has a speed of around .5 (yes, that's point 5). A typical daylight exposure would be 10-15 seconds. We shoot mostly in the studio and use studio lights to make our exposures. We have to use very, very powerful lights, but it works!
All in all this has been an inspiring journey. Kathryn and I feel like we have only begun to create some of the images that will inspire us. We are excited to see where this journey of creating images out of silver and light takes us!