New tintypes

I haven’t shot a lot of tintypes lately, and this blog reminds me of that! Two of my good friends have been very patient sitters lately, and I’m posting all the portraits so that you can see how slight direction or camera tilt can change a portrait subtly.


I’ve also been working hard trying to achieve consistent results in Photoshop for my tintypes. There’s no easy to filter that brings a flat positive scan to the right tint for a tintype, so it’s a slow color-balancing process that I find immensely frustrating.


My latest acquisition is a 10×12 Vageeswari that is like my beautiful 5×7 on steroids. It’s quite funny to see them together as the 5×7 is dwarfed by the new one. I’ve had quite a bit of trouble finding a lens that will give me full coverage and is within my budget, and in the end I’ve compromised with a lens that should cover 8×10 for portraits. I wasn’t planning on using the full 10×12 capabilities anyway since my silver bath tank is only 8×10.

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Assignment for The Daily Telegraph’s Stella Magazine

A couple of months ago, I was assigned to photography author Beth Raymer for Stella magazine, a supplement in London’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper. Beth’s autobiographical first book, Lay the Favorite, has been made into a movie starring Vince Vaughan, Bruce Willis, and Rebecca Hall, who plays Beth, and Stella had exclusive first rights to interview her.

You can read the full text of the article online, and Beth’s latest article in The Atlantic Monthly here. I had a great day photographing her all around West Palm Beach. After some shots in her home and garden, we headed to the Palm Beach Kennel Club, where the staff were (mostly) extremely accommodating and welcoming. We did get chased out of the formal dining room for bringing in our own props — beer and pretzels — but apart from that, we had no problems.


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Girl in the woods

Black glass ambrotype. A second at f/11.


Ruby glass ambrotype. A second at f/11.

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Problems solved!

With a LOT of help from friends, I have sorted out my fogging problem. I had planned to do a long post to explain the troubleshooting process, but the process has faded into the mists of time (or my mind).

My first and biggest problem was that my darkbox was NOT light tight. Once I gaffer taped all the gaps, voila! 90% of my fogging issues disappeared. Things were still not perfect, though, and so I tried Mark Osterman‘s developer formula. This works much better for me than the formula I have been using. Same ingredients, just different ratios. I also finally caved and bought some proper full-strength Everclear — no more 151 proof or denatured alcohol for me.

I still have some edge contamination problems, but I think that’s just a product of my holder, which appears to be almost unique. I can’t find a book plate-style holder that fits my camera back anywhere, and will probably see if I can get one made to replicate it. It is actually a genius design, holding tintypes on one side and glass on the other.

This is one of my successful plates after making all the changes. The spots are from a bad developer pour (I am still working on my technique).

I bought some sandarac varnish from Bostick and Sullivan, and I much prefer this over the polyurethane spray I was using before. It’s worth the extra money, and–bonus!–it makes the house smell like lavender. It’s terribly messy, though.

Yesterday I shot two great ambrotypes (upcoming as soon as they’re varnished), as John Coffer advised that perhaps my trophy aluminum was contaminated. It has happened to him before that a student couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t get a clear plate, and it turned out to be the aluminum.  It may have indeed contributed to my problems but there were several variables.

I can’t wait to show you the ambrotypes.

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All is not well in tintype land. Since the first three plates I shot, things have gone downhill. I’ve sought help on the forums and I’m very lucky to have a very experienced teacher helping me troubleshoot (via email) but this is keeping me awake at night.

One problem was solved thanks to his basic list of questions: “What has changed from the last time you made clean plates? Location, temperature, chemicals, water?” My images were disappearing; the silver silhouette is visible at certain angles, but would fade as it dried. I don’t think it’s a very common problem.

Turns out it’s the water.

This is a great example of what I mean. Ignore the blue patches, that’s from not washing the developer off properly. The faded silver that you see is as the plate is drying. Yes, the plate is horribly overexposed but the image shouldn’t be disappearing.

The first three plates I made were using kitchen tap water; I switched to using outside tap water, which I think is reclaimed water from our local lakes meant for watering the plants, and I got this problem. Here’s an overview of some the plates I’ve shot that have turned out poorly:

They actually look much better on the photograph than in real life!

So, after switching water, I shot an exposure test plate yesterday:

No fading, but check out that cloudiness! Developer problems, maybe? Ok, I’ll mix up a new batch, this time with 151 proof grain alcohol instead of denatured alcohol (you can’t get the recommended 190 proof alcohol in FL without shipping it in):

This was shot for 3sec at f/11 at a different time of day than the first. The cloudiness on the left hand side is simply appalling. I’m expanding my troubleshooting range now, but first I have to shoot a test plate in my darkroom to check if it’s a chemical problem or if light leaks are to blame.

I will fix this. But there are a lot of things that could be to blame.

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Photo resolutions

According to the Today show, you have to be accountable in some way for your resolutions. So as a reminder to myself (and since I think I have about 10 readers of this blog, if you include me) here’s what I plan to do:

Make a giant edit of my work from the last 5 or so years. Digital, film, tintype, whatever. I want to throw it all in a digital catalogue and start sorting. I’m tired of putting my photos in their little format categories and having them languish on a hard drive. It’ll be 10,000 to 1,000 to 100, and then maybe 20. And maybe I’ll save a longer edit and make myself a Blurb book, as a reminder of how far I’ve come.

Post a photo a day. Or at least 3 a week. Old work, new work, whatever. And tell the story that goes with it, in words.

Learn how to properly edit my scans with Photoshop to squeeze the most out of them. And make friends with my scanner. We have a testy relationship at the best of times…love thy scanner is my new motto.

There’s three. I think that’s enough for now.


What a bummer

My second attempt was a bit of a failure. I set up the camera and my box, organised my chemicals, diluted some 10% silver nitrate solution to 9% (which requires a mathematical formula — V1 x C1 = V2 x C2, where V is volume and C is concentration), and was ready to go. I shot three plates, and they turned out cloudy, so I thought it might be the fault of my plate holder. It had warped a little after I coated it in polyurethane and left it outside in the humid Florida night to dry.

However, after drying, this is what the plates looked like:

One of my friends said that it’s a distinct possibility that the developer is the first problem, as it’s a month old, and apparently that’s too old. I’m also pouring badly, as the developer should be poured at one edge and allowed to flow over the plate so that the circle doesn’t appear in the middle where it first hits the plate.

The second problem may be that I didn’t keep it in the fixer long enough. I’m using Ilford Rapid Fix, not the potassium cyanide mixture that I learned with, and it requires more time.

Armed with this knowledge, I’ll be mixing up a new batch today and see if I have more success next week.

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My first solo tintype

I am so excited about this post that I woke up at 6am this morning thinking about all the information I want to include. Six months after learning wet plate photography on a workshop with John Coffer, I’ve finally put everything together in order to shoot on my own. It’s not something you can take up on a whim. You have to be committed from the start that this is something you want to do — there’s no trying it out (apart from a workshop).

The first step was buying a Vageeswari view camera, then a lens. My shopping list became overwhelming, so I made a spreadsheet with chemical quantities needed, prices, and online vendors, plus all the bits and pieces (like coffee filters and paper towels) that are needed when you’re in the darkbox.

I reached out so many times to experienced friends for help, and they never failed to provide me with a solution. And I found a friend who loves woodcraft and who converted my surveyor’s tripod, tripod head, and camera base so that they would work together. He also built me my lovely darkbox (pictures are obviously before the darkcloth was added).

I bought a traveling silver bath tank, as well as a helper tray for developing, from the wonderful Niles Lund of Lund Photographics, and then discovered last week that my 100ml of silver nitrate solution would not come close to filling the 1200ml of volume in the tank (duh). Cue an emergency purchase from Artcraft Chemicals. Advice followed that I needed to test the specific gravity of the solution as well as the pH (WAIL!), but luckily hydrometers and pH strips are both easily purchased in town – the first at a wine making/brewing supply store, the second at an aquarium shop.

The darkcloth was an absolute pain in the bum. It ended up costing more than $70 for iron-on sticky hemming tape and black cloth from my local craft store. In the end I had to call in the cavalry to seam the pieces with a sewing machine to form a tube. Adding insult to injury, I had to bastardize my beautiful darkbox by stapling the cloth inside it. My mother sewed straps on to the cloth so that it’s suspended above my head.

One last final panic: I used a sheet of aluminium coated in collodion to sensitize my silver bath, and when I pulled it out in the morning, silver coloured crystals had formed all over the edges of the plate and had come out of solution. I panicked. Silver nitrate is expensive, and I thought that I had done something to cause the silver to precipitate out of solution. A quick check of the forum revealed that it was actually aluminium crystals as silver would be black, and the crystals were bright silver in colour. I filtered the bath and washed out the tank, and all is well.The specific gravity hit 1.07 perfectly.

Finally, I got to work. The first pour was a bit of a mess, but I just wanted to test the camera and my solutions. And it worked! Look at it (f/2, 10sec):

It’s not perfect; there’s contamination along the bottom and some sort of developer/fixer issue along the edge, but I managed to mix collodion, developer, and silver bath well enough to make a photograph!

The second one, at 13sec, is an improvement:

Enough of an improvement that I decided to try a portrait. Is it a great composition? No. But my mom held a pose for 13sec and manages to look totally relaxed and comfortable. My new favourite model:

As you can see, crystals have formed again after drying, and I really am going to have to sort something out about the wire that holds the tintype in place in the holder. Advice will be sought once again from the forums and my friends. But it’s a great and successful start.

My Bausch and Lomb Series VIIa Protar lens is beautiful and sharp. I am astounded and delighted, as I bought it in complete and total ignorance and simply trusted Camera Eccentric‘s Seth Broder’s recommendations. SK Grimes fixed the shutter and mounted it to the lens board for me. I actually still have no idea how it really works. It’s convertible to 3 different focal length, but I’ve only managed to cock and fire the shutter, and change the aperture and shutter speed. I don’t need to worry about that right now, as I have to manually remove and replace the lens cap to make my long exposures.

Now I’m on the hunt for another 5×7 book plate holder for my camera, as I think the one I have will be killed pretty quickly by silver nitrate drips. They’re hard to find.

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Photography Round up

I encourage you to take a look at Raul Gutierrez’s work and his blog, Heading East. He’s having a print sale at the moment, so there are some incredible discounts available. I love his “Man on the Hotan Road” so much. Some of his prints are also for sale on 20×200 (and Christmas is coming up. I’m just sayin’.).I’ve been to the areas that he photographed in his “Travels Without Maps” series, so it resonates with me.

In unrelated photography news, Annie Leibovitz talked about her new book Pilgrimage on NPR yesterday (I ❤ NPR, I just do). NPR has created a slideshow of photos from it. I’ve just returned from the briefest of visits to the UK, where I visited Julia Margaret Cameron’s home, Dimbola Lodge, and I caught the interview yesterday just at the part where Leibovitz discussed some of Cameron’s work. With the visit fresh in my mind, I found it interesting to think of Leibovitz roaming the house recently, photographing fragments of Cameron’s life.

Their work has some parallels. They both photographed celebrities of their time and became known for it. Cameron moved in educated circles; her photograph of Charles Darwin is the one I always picture in my head when I think of him. Both women’s portrait work has, at times, been derided by art and photography critics, but also lauded.

Cameron lived an extraordinary life, one that begs for a screenplay. She was born and lived in Sri Lanka, where she returned until her death after fifteen years on the Isle of Wight. She took up photography in her forties and seems to have gone after it quite energetically. Dimbola Lodge was saved from demolition a few years ago and turned into a museum, but unfortunately it’s obvious that they lack funding. A hodgepodge of unrelated galleries (including a temporary exhibit of Shell Gas company advertisements from the early 20th century) create an amateurish feel, and I don’t think they do justice to Cameron’s legacy with the small prints of hers that they have on display. It’s a pleasant diversion if you’re on the island, but let’s hope they get some money for improvements soon.

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