Wet Plate Photography Step-by-Step Guide

Wet Plate Photography Step-by-Step Guide

Wet plate photography that is also known as the collodion process is an old photography technique for developing pictures. Today, this technique is getting trendy again. More and more photographers try to use it for their images to get a film look.

What Is Wet Plate Photography?

wet plate photography

The wet plate collodion process is the way to take pictures. It was achieved by using panes of glass, covered with a chemical solution, as a negative. It was invented by Frederick Scott Archer who was a beginning photographer in Britain, in 1851. During the Civil War times, this was the main technique for taking photos, used by many famous war photographers. Besides, this technique is popular among modern photographers such as Josh LeClair from LeClair Photography.

The wet plate collodion technique takes a photographer a lot of time and patience. In comparison with modern methods, the wet plate technique is difficult to perform as you need to expose and process the wet plate before it gets dry for approximately fifteen minutes. Also, you have to do it in a special darkroom.

As a result, you get an unusual photo that you won’t be able to achieve using modern methods. If you like film photography and you are interested in the film process of medium and large formats, wet plate photography may provide you with unique and extraordinary photos.

Wet Plate Photography Kit

wet plate photography kit

If you want to try the wet plate photography technique, check out this list of the necessary equipment:

1. Protective clothes. In order to perform the wet plate process, you need to have gloves on and some protective clothing. In case you get silver on your skin, you will have a brown stain for several days. Also, you have to wear a mask that will protect you from inhaling chemical substances.

2. Equipment for Camera. First of all, you will need to have a large format film camera, such as Shen Hao HZX45-IIA, to shoot the scene.

Secondly, you will need engraving plates. Metal that is used for trophies will be the most suitable.

Besides, you will need a silver bath box that will hold the silver nitrate when you add the plate and fixer bath box for developing a picture. Also, get fixing trays that will hold the plate when it’s developing and fixing. It’s very convenient to purchase Wet Plate Collodion Kit that has all this equipment.

In addition, you will need to find a darkroom. If you can’t, be sure to use the space with good ventilation and red lights that will prevent you from processing photos before you actually need to do it.

3. Chemical substances. Collodion – the main chemical substance; Silver Nitrate – necessary for capturing the light; Wet plate developer – for developing chemicals into a photo; Wet plate fixer – for fixing a photo and stopping its development; Varnish – for protecting a photo.

Wet Plate Process Tutorial

The wet plate photography process requires a lot of manual work. Here is a detailed guide on how to create photos using this technique.


wet plate photography preparation steps

The most important part of the wet-plate photography process is the preparation of materials. This is what determines whether your photo will work out or not. That’s why I don’t recommend you to neglect it.

Step 1. Clean Plates

Dirty plates often lead to failure while creating such photos. Everything that is on a plate will be visible in your image. That’s why I advise you to clean your plates in the dishwasher using the highest temperature. After this, wipe them with grain alcohol and Rottenstone. Don’t forget to always wear gloves. When cleaning a plate, remove the excess Rottenstone by using more alcohol. After all this, your plate will be fully clean.

Step 2. Cover the Plate with Collodion

Pour some collodion on the plate. It has a thick and sticky consistency and will create a smooth film on the glass that combines chemical substances. Move the plate to get it fully covered by collodion. After that, pour the excess collodion into the bottle where it was.

Step 3. Put the Plate in Silver Nitrate Bath

Put silver nitrate into a silver nitrate bath. After that, place your plate there in order to make it sensitive to the light. Keep it there for five minutes. Then silver iodine will form.

Step 4. Put the Glass Into a Film Holder

Turn off all the lights except for the red one. This is necessary because the plate will be sensitive after the previous step. When you turn on the red light, you can carefully remove the plate from the box and clean the glass from excess chemical substances. After this, put your plate into the film holder. This wooden frame has a protective screen and blinds that will hold the plate and protect it from the light.

Step 5. Adjust the Focus

Place the model and adjust the focus. When you are working under a dark fabric, the light surrounding you will be blocked, and this will make it easier for you to set the focus. Once the light comes through the lens, the photo will be reversed inside your camera and you will see it upside down on the screen.

Taking a Photo

wet plate photography taking a photo steps

When the model is positioned and the focus is adjusted, you can take the holder from the darkroom and take it to your camera. After that, perform the following steps for taking wet plate photography:

Step 1. Place the Holder into the Camera

When the model is positioned and the focus is adjusted, place the plate holder into your camera. Silver nitrate will start dripping from the holder. It’s okay even if it’s in the camera. On top of the plate, there is a slider in the holder. Pull one of the blinds in order to let some light come onto the plate. After this, it will be ready for exposure.

Step 2. Expose your Plate

Expose your plate by removing the cap of the lens. In this way, the light will enter the camera and hit collodion that is sensitive to the light. Wet plate collodion has a film speed (ISO) of about 5. It means that to affect the plate, there needs to be some light. Because of this, you will have to expose the plate for about 20 seconds.

Step 3. Put the Film Holder in your Darkroom

Place the cap of the lens back on it and stop exposure of the plate. Put back the blind that you pulled before exposure. After this, place the plate holder in your darkroom.

Developing a Photo

wet plate photography developing steps

The last step of taking wet plate photography is developing the negative.

Step 1. Pour the Developer Onto the Plate

After exposing a photo, you have to return to your darkroom. Take away the glass plate under red light. In this way, you will start the process of developing the negative that was invisible to this moment. Pour the developer on the plate at once and accurately mix the plate for 15-20 seconds. When the developing chemicals are on the plate, the photo will start appearing.

Step 2. Wash the Plate

The next step is to wash the plate in water to get rid of the developer. Take your plate from the darkroom.

Step 3. Fix the Plate

Pieces of metallic silver will be still on the plate as the grains of silver halide aren’t affected by the light. Get rid of unexposed silver halide by putting the plate in the fixer bath and wait until it clears up. Generally, it takes from 30 seconds to 2-3 minutes. In the end, wash the plate for a minimum of 15-20 minutes in water (distilled will perfectly do).

Step 4. Cover the Plate with Varnish

In order to protect a photo, put some varnish on the plate. Pour it in the same way as you did with collodion. First of all, heat the bottle with the varnish and the plate using the flame. When they get warm, pour the varnish onto the emulsion side of your plate and make sure it’s fully covered. After this, pour back the excess varnish to the bottle. Your photo is ready know.

Freebies for Wet Plate Photography

If you want to avoid all these long steps and achieve a similar vintage effect in your photos within seconds, check out these freebies. Using them, you will get an amazing wet plate photography effect.

Soft Skin

sepia preset for lightroom sepia preset for lightroom

With this preset, you will achieve a stunning sepia effect. It will add warmth and nostalgic vibe to your pictures.


distressed overlay for photoshop distressed overlay for photoshop

Use this overlay to add a grunge effect to your photos and make them look as if they are wet plate shots. This overlay will make your sepia photos more compelling.


sepia action for photoshop sepia action for photoshop

With this action, you will be able to give your photos an old look. It adds a warm, yellow shade and makes photos more contrasting.

Tata Rossi

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