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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Gear Up For B&W

Quick guide to the essential equipment you need for taking and printing the best black & white photos



Wet Darkrooms

A number of black-and-white fine-art photographers still use film and a darkroom (their own, or a rental, but those are harder to find than in the days before digital) in the Ansel tradition (although Mr. Adams likely would be shooting digitally were he active today, for the added control and image quality digital offers, along with the elimination of the need for smelly, toxic and environmentally unfriendly chemicals).

There's also a growing interest in older photographic processes, such as collodion, calotype, cyanotype, bromoil, gum dichromate and more—both among photographers and portrait customers looking for something different. For example, photographer Victoria Will won an award for tintypes she shot of celebrities at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The Penumbra
Foundation (penumbrafoundation.org) offers education in historic photo processes dating back to 1839. Alternative Photography (alternativephotography.com/wp) provides lots of good information on alternative photographic processes. Arca-Swiss U.S. distributor Rod Klukas (rodklukas.com/269/the-wet-plate-process) offers information and good links to information and videos of some of these processes.

Materials and instructions for these old processes are available from sources such as Bostick & Sullivan (bostick-sullivan.com), Photographers' Formulary (photoformulary.com) and Rockland Colloid (rockaloid.com). Some of these involve hazardous chemicals, so be sure to read the instructions, wear a proper mask and gloves, and use proper ventilation.

The collodion, or wet-plate, process combined the benefits of its predecessors while eliminating the drawbacks: It featured the good detail of daguerreotype, the reproducibility of calotype and shortened exposure times from minutes to two to three seconds. The process can yield a negative image (ambrotype) that can be used to make prints if you use glass as the base or a positive image (tintype) if you use a tin or an aluminum plate as the base. You create the collodion by dissolving guncotton (nitrocellulose) in ether and alcohol (hazardous
chemicals!), and spread it evenly on the base. Then, in a darkroom, you sensitize the plate in a silver-nitrate bath for three minutes. Put the wet plate in an old light-sensitive film holder, put that in your camera and take the shot (ISO is about 5) before the emulsion dries. Then, process the plate in the darkroom as you would a black-and-white print.

If you're intrigued, explore these websites for more information. And to see the work of a photographer using the wet-plate process in the digital age, check out "On The Road With Ian Ruhter" in this issue.