Well after a long time of dreaming, thought, planning, and dedication, I've finally got the Giant Wet Plate built and ready for use. It's been a lot of fun trying to make this project work out. It all started when I got the first piece of the project...the 6.3 20in. Air Ministry Aerial lens and thought of the possibilities it created.
HUGE thanks to Larry Baglio for helping me through the build and working out the details with me. It took us about an hour and a half to get it built the first time, but now that we've done it once, It might only take 15 minutes to set it up again.
I knew the lens had a huge light spread, so then it was just finding the enclosure that would work the best and go from there.
Christophe from New York Models was kind enough to send Vince(pictured below) over to the studio to make this test a good one. :)
Funny enough, the enclosure that worked the best turned out to be a "Grow Room" for weed....lol. The fun secondary benefits included some very nice openings that were meant for ventilation and lighting, but ended up working out as a great place to put the lens and the light. It's truly a light tight room and perfect for the shell of the Giant Wet Plate Camera.
Here's a shot of the inside with the lens and light. You can see the P-50 reflector in the shot above. The great thing about the placement of the light is that it's so close to the lens. This allows me to light up my subject with my Profoto Bi-Tube and 2 7a 2400 packs. It's 4800 watt seconds of power per shot. You can actually feel the air off of the strobe when it fires. It's pretty crazy the amount of light that it puts out. Collodion needs a lot of light to work, so this, plus a little extra time after the flash is enough to get a great image. The ISO is around .25 to 1.
The inside of the camera is also the darkroom. Because the plates are so big, they have to be tray sensitized(silver nitrate), developed, fixed, and washed.
The Siver Nitrate and development is done within the camera turned darkroom.
So strangely enough, the focusing and shooting of the camera are done INSIDE the camera. :) The backplate moves back and forth manually inside the camera to focus. You see exactly what you get right in front of you.
When zipped up, it's completely light tight.
Here's the start of the process, where you pour collodion on the plate...
I'm very excited about the possibilities the camera creates. I'm planning to continue my portrait series and eventually, take it on the road to do some big landscape Ambrotypes, Glass Negatives, and large Aluminum plates. The possibilities are endless...
Ok, I've become a little obsessed. I guess when you go off into something new, it starts off small, but ends up becoming more than thought it would be when you started. It's frustrating, messy, complicated, fairly expensive, but OH, SO enjoyable when it works out well. I didn't realize how much I missed the darkroom and getting my hands dirty until I found wet plate. The process is wonderful. It slows you down and makes you think about exactly what you want to do. There is no rushing into anything. My friend Rico Elvina was kind enough to come by one of my shoots and take a few photos to show what goes into making tintypes, ambrotypes, and glass plate negatives the way they did in the late 1800's.
Since then, I've been a little busy getting all of the tools I needed to shoot wet plate. You have to be 1/2 alchemist and 1/2 photographer. There's a lot of chemistry that goes into just preparing to shoot. Some of it is quite hazardous. Wear your safety goggles at all times making the chemistry. :)
A little video of me showing all of the chemistry needed in the process. I was mixing up a new batch of developer and collodion this day...shot on my iphone.
Ok, the music is a little dramatic, but I had to set the tone for the scene...haha. ;)
Preparing the plate with Collodion...
In the image above and below, I'm pouring collodion on the glass plate and am pooling the excess into my little patron bottle. This creates the base upon which the silver nitrate can attach to the plate and make it light sensitive. Patron bottles are the best thing to use as they are really strong and have a nice wide mouth...and you have an excuse to buy them full...hahaha. The box next to me is called a, "Dark Box". It's where you load the sensitized plates and develop them.
Showing my model, Anna the process. I Loved the coat she was wearing. It's very, "Game of Thrones". :)
While I'm waiting for the silver nitrate to take hold(3 minutes in the tank for ambrotypes), I get the subject in focus.
To focus, you push and pull the back plate until the image is in focus where you like.
The image is upside down and flipped horizontally as well. Type reads backwards in the final image.
Above: I've got a headlamp on with a red filter on it for use in the dark box. Collodion is not sensitive to red light, so it's the only light you can use to see what you're doing in the dark.
Me with my Anthony Imperial Climax 8x10 camera. The lens is made by Voightlander and is circa 1875.
The light I use is extremely bright. It sounds like a gun going off when the light fires. You have to use a LOT of light in wet plate, as collodion is about 1 ISO, or needs 8 times more light than a normal camera at 100 ISO.
Ok, my apologies in advance. :) It's not the most flattering photo I've ever taken...lol. This is me inside the, "Dark Box" developing the plate. This has to be done in a dark room or dark box. The good thing about the dark box is that you can put it in the back of an SUV and take this show on the road...
Now the fun part...fixing the image and seeing it for the first time.
To see the image, you have to put a glass plate negative or ambrotype in front of something black. The tank behind the image is the Potassium Cyanide Fixer. Really dangerous stuff. You have to be careful not to ingest it. It's poisonous. Respect the chemistry at all times...
Here are some of the plates I shot of Anna that day...
8"x10" Clear Glass Negative
8"x10" Ruby Glass Ambrotype
8"x10" on Black Aluminum
8"x10" on Black Aluminum
There was a second model the same day, but unfortunately we only got off 2 shots. Something was wrong with the chemistry. Her name is Kate and I hope to have her back again soon to finish up our shoot. :)
8"x10" on Black Aluminum.
I've just started this portrait series, "Faces". I don't know where it's going to take me, but I don't have too many parameters to confine it. My main focus it to shoot very natural images of people. Not a lot of hair/makeup. Try to get something in them to come out on the plate...strength, vulnerability, sadness. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Every now and then they let something out. Hopefully I can capture something in them.
Many Thanks to my good friend, Jesse Mata, who is also a wet plater and has given me so much help and support with this process. He has also lent me his 11x14 camera to play with...should be even more fun. :)
Would you trust this guy?? haha...I took this self portrait...my "Yoda in the woods" shot on John Coffer's farm. This was where I learned to shoot Wet Plate. I wrote about that experience here: http://jamesweberstudio.com/blog/?p=1376
Hey there everyone,These images are the first in my attempt to shoot a fashion editorial in one day using the wet plate collodion process. The stylist(Fredo) and I got together and decided on a few things. We wanted to do a story that had a Josephine Baker influence to it. We also wanted to give it a period feel, but using designers of today. For instance, the corset on her is made by THE BLONDS. Their works are usually seen on stars such as Christina Aguilera and other celebrities. In person, this piece is bright, silvery blue...not very period. It photographed in collodion wonderful though. Another of my influences in photography in general has been Paolo Roversi. His photography always has a timeless feel to it. I wanted to channel some of that, if you will. :)
In the end, we got much of what we wanted in the final look and feel of the images. The closeup image in particular is striking because of the collodion mistakes/artifacts in it. Sometimes the process reaches out and decides to change something. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not.
We shot about 25 plates in a day, which is a LOT for wet plate, but it's still way under what one would normally shoot. That's not even a traditional roll of film at 36 exposures...
I have to thank my friend, Jesse Mata as well, who helped pour the collodion and develop as well so we could keep it moving quickly. Without him, this shoot would not have happened.
8x10 Ruby Glass Ambrotype
Technically, it was a success as I was able to use strobes for the first time with repeatable results. In previous testing, I found that one to three strobes at full power just wasn't enough light. I ended up using 4 Profoto 7a packs tied to 2 profoto bi-tubes, generating 4800 watt seconds of power per head for a total of 9600 watt seconds of power per flash(only one needed). That, mixed with a little time exposure of 5 seconds or so to add in some of the ambient light(2000k Arri), and there you have it. As this was my first test in this kind of shooting, I believe it was a successful one. I'm looking forward to planning another one and taking the next one of few steps forward...possibly on location next time to give it more atmosphere. I have to thank Jesse Mata profusely as he assisted me during the shoot, helping pour plates and develop so that we could get more shot in the day. The only thing I'd like to change next time is doing it with fresh chemistry. I'll have more latitude in my exposure times and power needed.
8x10 Clear Glass Negative
8x10 Ruby Glass Ambrotype
8x10 Black Glass Ambrotype
8x10 Ruby Glass Ambrotype
Photography by James Weber
Styling and Art Direction by Fredo
Hair and Makeup by Chuck Jensen
Model: Gift @ 1.1management
Wet Plate Assistance: Jesse Mata
Video: James Sullivan
It's quite a process getting ready for wet plate shooting. There's setting up the Dark Box, getting all of the chemistry together, setting up the fixing/washing area, getting the plates ready, etc...but there's no other style of shooting that is like it.
Here's some photos from the set:
I'm shooting with an Anthony Imperial Climax 8"x10" Camera. Behind me is the dark box that I built as a DIY project. It's where I sensitize the plates with silver nitrate and develop the plates as well. It's a mini-dark room.
Here's some of the plates that we shot throughout the day. It's a mix of Black Glass and Ruby Glass Ambrotypes and Clear Glass negatives.
So...let's just say that it doesn't always work out the way you want it to. Kind of a life-ism, possibly, but many times true in Wet Plate Photography. I was on vacation in upstate New York and had the chemistry on hand...had the camera in the car, but no dark box and no red light. Without the darkbox and light, there would be no wet plate shooting...but I HAD everything else...so....I thought I'd give it a shot and create a quickie, cheap Dark Box with light.
I headed to the dollar store and the hardware store. For about $60, I build my darkbox and had a flashlight with an untested red tupperware filter...see below. Collodion is not sensitive to red light, thus you can have a red light on in your darkroom and not expose the film. Usually you need a red glass filter over your light.
So this is my DIY Dark Box Project that Almost worked and a few very interesting plates that came from it...
Ok, so at the dollar store, I found some red tupperware lids that had an opening as wide as the flashlight that I bought. I thought it was perfect!. I had no idea if this was good enough, but I thought it was a shot.
Here's the quickie dark box that I created out of some simple cardboard and packing tape.
add in a large tarp for the light proofing and there you have it! Darkroom in a box. :)
Ok, so all was well. I had the chemistry, the dark box, the camera, materials...let's find a destination.
I was in upstate New York, near Naples and I remembered a really old cemetary there that I drove by that was near our bed and breakfast. I thought it would make an interesting backdrop. My wife and I took off and found it. I found a tombstone that I thought was interesting. The name on the tombstone was LYON. This person was alive from 1815-1902. There happened to be a LYON Street in the town of Naples as well, so I'm sure this individual's family had something to do with the town's origins. It was also one of the more beautiful tombstones in the cemetary, half of which contained graves of people born in the 1800's. Since I was shooting an art form that was also born in the 1800's, I thought it would be an appropriate place to document.
So here's the moment of truth...was my red tupperware filtered light good enough, or not the right red(it was only tupperware...)
Let's just say that it didn't go as planned...
Both of these images have been flipped in photoshop so that you can read it. In the original plates, the words would be backwards.
The red tupperware over my flashlight ended up not being good enough. It was exposing my plates from the beginning. Interestingly enough, they're still beautiful. The cross, in both photos shows up and the tombstone's LYON also shows up.
So, a miss for a nice wet plate, but it was a learning experience. They are quite interesting plates even with them being as flawed as they are. Since this time, I've built a proper dark box and I'm SUV Ready for travel. :)
[The group of us at John Coffer's Farm studying Wet Plate Photography. I'm on the left in the back...]
I’ve been a professional photographer for around 18 years now. In that time, I dedicated 6 wonderful years in the U.S. Navy as a photographer. This is truly where I fell in love with photography as a process and an art. Back then, it was all film. Black & white, color, darkrooms, chemicals..it was crusty and dirty, but it was fun! The processes were harder to do, but really satisfying when it was done right. When I was in the darkroom and I saw the image coming up from a print in the developer, it really was magical.
Well, time has marched on and things have gotten simpler and more accessible to the masses. Digital has come of age and photography has become…truly…easy. Now, I’m not saying anything about anyone’s talent, or eye, or anything related to their photography being good or bad, I’m just talking about the process.
We’ve come a long way, but there is something to be said for taking the long road, or the road less travelled. Taking your time and doing things by hand. I was in search of just such a thing when I visited the farm of John Coffer to learn from him the skills and techniques needed to shoot Wet Plate successfully.
Instagram has proven to society that what it wants is what we once had…what once was. Borders on images, light leaks, scratches on film, different color temperatures, square formats, polaroids…all of it. We, as a society, are eating it up. What we are trying to get is what we once had, but easier, simpler, NOW. We are living in the very spoiled age of instant gratification. Anything we want is at our fingertips, to a point that if something takes too much time, it gets discarded and a faster, easier route is looked for.
I found out about wet plate photography and was completely enamored with it.
It’s name, Wet Plate Photography, comes from the fact that you have to put a wet chemical, collodion, on a surface(glass, tin, aluminum). Then, you have around 10 minutes to shoot and develop that plate(time depends on the heat/environment) before it dries up. After it dries up, you don’t get an image. So it’s challenging in the field, but very do-able. The final result is so unlike any other form of photography. It’s beautiful.
Each glass negative, ambrotype, or Tintype made takes around 30 minutes or more to make from start to finish. It slows you down and makes you think about what you’re shooting.
My trip to John Coffer’s farm in the woods was born out of a desire to get back some of the simple joy it is to see the image come up again in front of me, get my hands dirty, and create something from nothing. I didn’t realize I missed it until I started buying polaroid and film again. The analog nature of it was giving me something that digital just didn’t. I didn’t want it, “simple”, anymore. I wanted to put the magic back into photography.
So what this post covers is my journey to John’s farm and some of the experiences and photos taken during my time taking his class. What I can say unequivocally is that is was a profoundly eye opening experience and one that I would like to share.
This is just the first step, the first experience, in what will be an ongoing exploration of this early art of photography.
It all started with a long drive, just me and Delilah(My Zipcar)
Definitely one of the things I miss living in the city…trees, mountains, fresh air, wide open expanses.
At the lodge now…loving the sky.
I‘m off to Coffer’s now. You know you’re getting close when you hit the dirt roads. He’s a little bit off the beaten path.
We have arrived. This is also John’s only form of communication. He doesn’t have a phone and he’s proud of it. U.S. Mail all the way…
So This is where it all happens. The tent in the middle has a darkroom, a sink, and is filled with all kinds of historical cameras, lenses, and old tintypes. This is where he did most of the teaching, although we shot all over the farm.
This is what John rode around in for 11 years pulled by Oxen at 2 miles an hour. He was recreating the life of a 19th century photographer. It’s got a full darkroom inside. If this thing could talk…
The deep sink for washing and fixing the plates.
This is called a, “Dark Box” and is what you use in the field to develop your plates. It’s basically a portable darkroom. I need to build one that can fit in the back of an SUV so I can take this show on the road.
These are all the chemicals you need to do wet plate. On the left, in the box is your Silver Nitrate bath. The yellow liquid is your developer, then the little bottle is Collodion, and lastly, a jug of water to pour on your print to stop developement.
Here’s a few shots of John’s home and some shots of the farm…
This is John fixing the plate he shot of the class.
This is the first portrait I did of John. It’s also my first plate. We started out small as it’s easier to get a handle on how to put the collodion on the plate that way. It’s a 4×5 tintype. You can click any of the images in this post to see them bigger.
This is me fixing the second plate I did of John. It was shot on Ruby Glass.
This is the image in the above video that I shot of John. The Ruby Glass prior to me shooting it(below).
John, shot through the ruby glass filter…teaching away.
In general, the farm is awesome. As I live in New York City, I need my nature fix to get me balanced. He’s got many animals on the farm. Horses, a donkey, cows, bulls, a cat or two…and lots of chickens. I have come to appreciate how cool chickens are during my time at John’s. They will just randomly follow you around the farm. They’ve just got one thing on their mind…food.
I found out they like Doritos, donuts, pretty much anything that we consider food, they’re good with.
With that in mind, for one of my plates, I decided to dedicate one to, “The Chicken Whisperer”. See below. The chicken actually stood pretty still for this…lol.
Here’s the “Chicken Whisperer” getting fixed. I had thought I was shooting vertically, but I had put the plexi holder in horizontally. Fortunately, I had framed him up in the center and still got a good image…lol.
This is the glass plate negative(clear glass) that I shot and the albumen print made from that glass plate(below).
Below is the albumen print, “cooking” in the sun. Very cool process to create your own photographic paper from egg whites(albumen) and silver nitrate.
So after lots of instruction, we were off shooting what we wanted to on the farm. I set up a few shots in the woods. This is the first time I’m getting to use the camera I bought. It’s an Anthony Climax Imperial Camera, 8×10 camera. As I have not gotten a tripod for the camera, I used one of John’s wooden benches to get some lower angle shots.
Getting my Luke Skywalker in the swamp moment.
Another little solarization in the bottom right hand corner. You can see the nice swirly bokeh in the top of the shot. That comes from the Petzval lens design in the old brass lenses. This lens is a Voightlander. I love it as I plan on doing portraits with it and it has a very short depth of field when the bellows is extended.
So John was telling me, when I asked about putting the camera back into the bull’s pasture to be careful as they like to, “investigate” things as a bull had knocked his camera over once before. Of course, I didn’t listen. Now, I had to go get the bench, place it, then go back and get the camera. This is what I saw when I got back. They were “investigating” the bench. It’s a good thing I had not brought the camera out there yet.
My last two plates I shot at the farm were of John and his girlfriend Ann. I’m very excited by these as I’m looking to do more portraits via glass plate negatives and tintypes.
As we were in his house learning to do albumen prints, I saw him from the side and thought a profile photo would be nice. You can see the head brace in the shot as well. I think the exposure here was 4 seconds in open shade.
And one of Ann…
I love both of these. Ann has such character. The beauty is in the little details, and also in the mistakes. The top left hand corner of John’s did not get processed very well, so when I took it out of the dark box, the sun hit it, then I fixed it, solarizing the corner a little. The blue line on the right is where the collodion was a little thick and did not quite develop. So, technically, there are some issues, but that’s also part of the fun. You never really know how it’s going to turn out until you develop and fix it.
Finally, we get to the Mammoth Plates. John has a 20×24 camera that we each got to shoot. It was much more difficult to prepare, shoot and develop. I was wanting to go big, but I think I’ll be shooting 8×10 for a while. There’s plenty of time for that later.
This is me pouring collodion onto the mammoth with John’s help. Not so easy.
Here’s my 20″ x 24″ Mammoth plate image. So I was going for a little, “Cowboys and Aliens” here. John was a good sport to put on the glasses, grab one of his vintage guns, and get into the act.
At the end of the day, we all gathered around the fire and cooked up some brats, had a beer, and relaxed. It’s a lot of work carrying around those cameras, tripod(or bench in my case), setting up the shot, getting the plates poured…going to shoot it…going back to develop it. Finding out it’s not right, and doing it all over again. Then finally, Fixing it, washing it, drying it, and varnishing it. It really is great fun and I’m already planning my future shoots.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this look into my first experience shooting Wet Plate Photography.
Now where’s that DSLR of mine…gotta go make some money to pay for all the chemistry and materials now!