The Alternative Process, Wet Plate and Collodion

First Plates on Collodion

My initial experience with wet plate collodion. Above is my first plate using this medium. Oh yes I’ve a lot to learn but it there’s a lot of joy in the process. Plenty of thought and preparation that goes into it. The pioneers of their days in the 1850’s  were really incredible. The two tintypes taken, Iris and myself were taken indoors using about 18 seconds exposure! I missed to clean the back of plates maybe or the old metal adaptor in the View Camera probably caused the white marks know as oyster shells. But hey I’m happy I manage to get this far.  Here below is my journey into wet plate!

Wet Plate, Making Time and Space

Wet plate photography really does fascinates me. I guess, the initial appeal is definitely the look and textures that the process brings. Of course with additional joy that no print or process will ever be exactly  the same. Added to this is that no electronics plays practical part at all in the whole journey from field to final print. It’s really is back to hands on, nature and sciences. This in itself is a definite excitement. To use the brain and to think again.

I’m being a serious black & white photographer specialising in landscape for nearly ten years now. The vision as a B&W artist is mainly, I see scenes in tones, form and shape. Monochrome speaks more to me in what I wish to say about the world.

So having said all this,  personally my biggest worries (and at a guess it maybe the same for other folks too). Do I have the time and space ? Well I’ve stop Facebook well over a year now and I hardly tweet a thing. Honestly I’ve very little interest in social media – it’s so noughties anyway! In the last while the TV and Netflix are also hardly required. I’ve six different cameras and plenty of lens etc… Gear and equipment are not something I wish to collect or even boast about. Usually I sell it or give it away if I don’t use. In fact I gave away my large format Epson Inkjet. Digital is losing my interest for some time now. I simple want to make again – using my hands. I rather be a master of my own creation than a slave to digitalisation.

What does turn me on to Wet Plate ?

Back to wet plate, So what I’ve read and seen in videos on YouTube so far is that there are quite amazing wet platers out there – just wow. Many offer  a wealth of information and misinformation too – sadly be warned! There are the breed who wish to live in the past and have everything as it was – period!

So the ‘live in the past’ breed of wet platers that are out there -and yes many of them are really “out there” so to speak in a sense! As interesting to read about them there are a  little bit bonkers (but aren’t we all!) Nonetheless there is a lot, I mean a lot to me learnt from them folks. Very much so.

The basics are so important and essentially for how to achieving successful wetplating. I’ve always believed the history of photograph to be fundamental in learn and for a source of inspiration. Some of today’s photographers forget this and seem to be without it.  Wet plate collodion is the second method of photography ever invented, dating back to 1851. But I’m not writing a history post there are plenty of those about. What I’m get at is the history and process are very much hand in hand.

The subject and medium together, this combination is what really appeals to me as an artist.  A couple years ago I bought a book by Sally Mann. Her images stayed with me. So getting on with in, my concept for wet plate is to capture the subjects that are important to me. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s time to photograph all the same stuff I did in digital again but using a new medium ? But why ? the same stuff – Yes.  Landscapes and water all over again for me and plus my wonderful children and those people around me who are special in my life.

Gavin on Wet Plate Collodion

“Gavin on Wet Plate Collodion”

How it is as an artist in the field

Thinking about it and examining how does one work in the field ?  Speaking for myself as a landscape photographer, I would normally capture about 20-30 images. These would be in digital RAW format for a given day at the very most. Looking at these images collected, they boil down to maybe 3-5 subjects. Each of these with usually slightly difference exposures, maybe a half or third stop difference. Also arranging orientation in both landscape and portrait format. (This is mainly for stock photography or when a client wishes the print in another orientation.)  Then minor adjustments mostly to composition either in the left or right directions by a wee nudge. Maybe to include or exclude an element. This is usually however I work in the field. I see the subject and decide by walking and  look around it. Taking into account of different angles. I usually do this very much before I setup the tripod and mount the body of the camera.  In weighting up whether it’s worthy of my time and does it speak to me. In speaking does it have a final vision – Can I imagine the final print in my head ? This the question. However this question is often answered  subconsciously once my mind is very much in the photographic mode and focused (pun intended!).

In my research into Collodion wet plate, I came across quite amazing people producing fabulous work. One book I’d recommend known as the ‘King James’ is the Alternative Photographic Process by Christopher James. A mother of book and a wonderful read and worth its cost most definitely. A Slovenian neighbour, Borut Peterlin, on his informative blog put me onto this awesome book.  Borut lives about 3 hours from me, in  Slovenia (I hadn’t met the man yet, I do hope too!). I think a much need workshop would certain help. An artist and a hands on kind of guy. No bullshit here as you’ll definitely find out on his blog called Topshit photography blog.

Wet Plate Photography where to begin ?

I could start using a medium format camera such as a cheap plastic Diana Lomography camera which the epic Ian Ruther demonstrates in this video.

But so after much research I figured I’d be in need of a list. The goal here is to make the process as simple as possible to get the principle ideas and of course to have some fun with the process. The plan is to purchase a view camera and lens. I’m familiar with using a view camera setup for large format photography. However this time around its for wet plate. I’ve decided to choose a Tintype plate to start with. Then hope to progress to Ambrotype – glass. The Tintype plate doesn’t involve going near paper or enlarger. This would allows me to see a result much sooner. Which should motivate and courage me to proceed at a later stage  to printing using glass negative plates – Ambrotypes. So baby steps is what I wish to achieve here!  Although used a 4×5 before I wanted something bigger so I could do contact prints using glass negatives. This excites me very much.


So I picked up a FKD 18cm x24 cm view camera from Russia on eBay. They’re quite sturdy and solid. It came with a 9x12cm adaptor. The smaller plate I’ll use for portrait. A Petzval 300mm f 5.7 lens for Germany. That’s about 75-85mm in 35mm equivalent terms when using smaller plates. (Just divide by 4 the focal length). The plan is to photograph portrait at first with my patience children and partner – wish me luck!

Petzval 300mm f 5.7 lens
Petzval 300mm f 5.7 lens

Safety Notice : The most important part of this project is understanding chemicals and respect for them. Safety precaution is essential. Protecting yourself and others. Apart from gloves, eye protection and your own airway. There also storing and disposing of chemicals to consider.  It’s especially important to keep young children and pets away from poisonous and dangerous chemicals. Understand and research each and every chemical in the process of wet plate photography.

I guess the best approach to start with wet plate is break it down into small projects and what’s doable.

The list of mini projects to with Wet Plate Collodium

  • Choosing the camera
  • Sourcing and choosing a Collodium to use and understanding it.
  • Collodium workflow including how to replenish and dispose.
  • Preparing Silver Nitrate solution.
  • Choosing a Silver Bath and understanding it. Safety and keep it clean.
  • Get plates – Blackened Alu or Glass
  • Modify the film holder to accept the wetplate.
  • Considering a darkbox
  • Get some large trays and a portable table.
  • Choose a Developer
  • Choose a Fixer

List of materials – Preparing a Wet Plate Tintype

  • Chemistry for plate : Silver Nitrate,
  • Collodium
  • 1L plastic bottle for Silver Nitrate (label it date, pH, hazardous)
  • Silver Bath
  • Gloves
  • Plate holders. (Should have one which comes with the view camera)
  • Dark room / Dark box  (see
  • Safe light (Headlamp with red light)

List of materials – for Developing a Wet Plate Tintype

  • Developer
  • Sink or Tray for the Developer
  • Wash – Water
  • Dark room / Dark box  (see
  • Safe light (use Coleman Multi-Color LED Headlamp)
  • Fixer
  • Sink or Tray for Fixer
  • Wash – Water

List of equipment 

  • View Camera
  • Lens and Board
  • Dark Cloth
  • Black plates


Artist Alex Timmerman

Alex Timmerman’s The Swan Lake image video below really shows the amount of work and considerable amount of plan that goes into making such an image. The entire process involves so many resources to achieve the artist’s vision.

Also from Alex Timmerman’s

Cutting Tin Types video. Whether it’s metal or glass. The prep of alternative process is really hands on.

How to do portrait in your back garden large format style!!

Clyde butcher is a veteran Large Format photography. Working mainly in the Florida everglades.



Please feel to comment on my post. I always love to hear from folks. Thanks Gavin.

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