Old Photography Process: Collodion Wet Plate

Posted in Old Processes
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Collodion Wet Plate Process, or, widely known as just Collodion process was introduced to public in 1850s by Frederick Scott Archer, and by the end of the decade it had almost comletely replaced daguerreotype as the main technique of capturing images. It’s a process of pouring a collodion onto a plate of thin iron or glass, then placing that plate into a camera and exposing it, and developing it while it is still wet, which named the entire process. In the next thirty years collodion process had been replaced by glass plates with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin – gelatin dry plates.

Although process takes time, it’s complicated, demanding and expensive, it seems to regain its popularity among contemporary artists and there are many photographers around the world that still cherish the art of a wet plate and have regular exhibits.

Compared to earlier photoraphic processes , I’m free to say that collodion process has many advantages, mostly because it took the best of all of them. While daguerreotype produced one of a kind positive, and could not be replicated, with wet plate it is not the case, it is possible to make unlimited number of copies from a single negative. The other thing is its way cheaper than daguerreotype, mostly because it doesn’t use silver-plated copper but the glass.

The main problem tih wet plate, though, is that it has to be done entirely while the plate is still wet. That means that photographer has no more than 10 minutes to finish the process, and while from today’s perspective it seems like more than enough, it’s very short amount of time for such a complex process and it requires portable darkroom.

Since collodion is a mixture of Ethyl Ether, Ethyl Alcohol, nitrocellulose and trace amounts of an iodide and bromide, silver nitrate might causes lot of problems. It’s very reactive and easily becomes saturated with alcohol, dust, bromide and various organic matter. It loses effectiveness, causing plates to fail to produce an image in a mysterious ways.

In the first part of the process it’s very important to clean the plate and pour collodion before putting it in silver nitrate bath in order to become light sensitive. At this time the lights in the darkroom should be off except for the safelights which are red at a very very low power. It takes a lot of light to affect the plate, due its low film speed (ISO) that’s around 5, so there’s no risk that safelight will destroy it. Putting a plate in a plate holders is a next step, but make sure that silver nitrate is not dripping causing troublesome build-ups in the camera as well as the stains. When you go back into the darkroom, plate should be put in a developer for about 10-15 seconds until you start to see your image appear. Wash off developer and use a fixer and develop.

What you should know if you try wet plate in a domestic environment is that silver nitrate will turn your skin black and that it’s very dangerous to your eyes and might cause blindness if it comes to a direct contact with an eye.