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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Old School For The New School

An analog wet-plate processing primer for digital photographers

This is your large, glass-plate ambrotype negative, and after the varnish has dried overnight, the plate can be used for prints. In the past, this most commonly was performed to albumen paper, which also can be handmade by soaking paper in a solution of egg whites and chloride. It must be dried and then floated once more in a tray of silver nitrate so that silver chloride coats the paper. The paper is dried once more and then placed in direct contact with the ambrotype negative in a frame and exposed to sunlight where it will develop as you watch. Wash it in water once you're satisfied with the exposure. Finally, the print is fixed in sodium thiosulfate and washed one last time.

Positive glass-plate ambrotypes and tintypes largely follow the same process, only potassium cyanide is preferred as a fixing agent because silver particles look brighter against the background.

Taking A Wet Plate To Digital
There are several methods for making a digital copy of completed wet-plate negatives and positives, including flatbed scanners. Other methods require stripping of the collodion image and transferring it to paper or other substrates. While there are wet-plate simulations in Photoshop, most feel that the visceral organic quality to a wet-plate print is largely lost. There are a few methods for gaining digital versions of analog prints, however. A flatbed scanner with a lot of resolution is the most popular option, while the negative and positive glass plates also allow you to print large paper contact sheets for scanning, as well.

Cameras + Lenses

You can use or adapt most large-format cameras for the wet-plate process simply by adapting the camera back to a very big, removable wet-plate-holder back. Modern cameras are often much more expensive than older models available on the secondary market, but you gain a newer, lighter form factor with better controls and more control over depth of field and composition. Several companies offer wet-plate cameras, equipment and customization, including Black Art Woodcraft, Star Camera Company and Guillory Cameras. Popular wet-plate formats include 8x10, 14x14 and 20x24 inches, and you can downsize to smaller image plates, most commonly at 5x7-inch sheets. Popular camera brands include Century Studio, Ansco, Deardorff and Chamonix, but even a Brownie camera can be converted, but it's important to remember that the chemicals from the wet-plate process will drip and degrade camera equipment over time.

Good large-format lenses for wet-plate photography will have a very bright aperture; the more light, the better. Typical focal-length conventions apply, so your favored lenses will vary by subject matter. Popular older lenses for a "period" aesthetic include Dallmeyer, Dagor, Petzval portrait models, Cooke triplets, Plasmat lenses, Voigtländer Euryscop and Heliar lenses, and Kodak Ektar, Xenar and Tessar lenses. There are a few other gear considerations, like drying racks for the large plates and negative holders, which in this case are very large wooden storage boxes that are able to safely house several glass plates. And, of course, if working on location, you'll need a portable darkroom setup, too.


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