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.