Wet Plate Collodion – My First Few Solo Plates

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Since starting wet plate collodion at home I have made a total of 13 plates (including the failures / test exposures). Here are all of my scanned plates below. It’s vital to get the exposure spot on to get a good result. I’ve only managed this a couple of times so far. It’s all about experience and I feel I’ve learnt a lot fairly quickly, especially with the last four plates of my dad.

Here was my first attempt, the day after preparing all the chemicals and after leaving a plate in the silver bath overnight. These were made on aluminium black trophy plate (traditionally known as tintypes). I found developing the plate a challenge – I think these are all overdeveloped; I was looking to see an image on the plate whilst developing but I couldn’t – this resulted in me developing for much longer than I should have. I also overexposed the plates significantly as I tried to find my way!

Here’s the very first plate – exposed for a whopping 10 seconds at f/4.5 In my defense it was 5pm in Scotland on a cloudy day in May.
Alumitype 3

The area at the bottom right is interesting as the exposure/development looks quite good. I’m not sure what was missing there, perhaps it was developed for less time?

Having seen it was overexposed I attempted 8 seconds at f/4.5
Alumitype 4

Starting to look better, but I really need to cut the exposure a lot more. I halved the exposure to 4 seconds:

Alumitype 5

Looking much better, but I realised at that point that I was really exposing for far too long. So I tried one last attempt at 1 second:
Alumitype 6

Not bad for my first attempt and I learned a lot about exposure (overexposure). I was surprised at how short the exposure time had to be, especially considering the last plate was made at 18:30 and was still overexposed.

Two months later and I finally found some time to try again. This time I wanted to attempt ambrotypes. I sourced some glass from a local Scottish Borders artist and framer – I found out that 5×4 glass is easily sourced from a framer’s scrap glass bin – perfect!

I set up some of my old Star Wars toys to attempt a still life picture (I didn’t have any willing subjects at the time). My first exposure was 4 seconds at f/8
Ambrotype 1
Pretty good result first time! Far from perfect, I’m still practicing all the pouring (collodion and developer) and I started to get a strange marking on one edge of the plate. I also messed up the composition; I forgot to lock the tripod and moved it when inserting the plate holder. Oops!

Finally a willing subject – Abi – but this time I foolishly asked her to sit on the swing. I have no idea why I thought that would be a good idea, especially on a windy day. The exposure was 2 seconds and f/5.6 and inevitably the swing moved during the exposure. But I actually quite like how it looks.
Ambrotype 2

A week later and I found some more time to try again. I had two willing subjects this time – a nice, still (nearly) 5 year old and a fidgety, no chance of staying still (nearly) 3 year old. I found how strong UV is during direct sun light – 2 seconds at f/5.6 was way too much. Had I not learnt anything about exposure!? 😐
Alumitype 3

In an attempt to redeem myself I tried a picture of Jodie at f/7.1 and 1 second. STILL OVEREXPOSED! LOL
Ambrotype 4

Was I capable of underexposing? Let’s try a self portrait… it was much later in the day. This is f/8 at 1 second.
Ambrotype 5
Finally I had underexposed a plate! 🙂

My Dad came to visit us and I asked him to sit for me so I could try another ambrotype. I asked him to sit in a shaded area and it took a few attempts to find the right exposure.

Ambrotype 6
Clearly way underexposed at f/8 and 1s – the sun hitting the hill in the background looks reasonable though!!

I moved my dad and changed the camera position to eliminate the bright background as that would be a distraction once the exposure was correct.
Ambrotype 7
This time I opened the lens by a stop 1s @ f/5.6 – trousers are looking good(!) – I love how the skin is so dark; he has no head and only parts of his hands show up! 🙂

I moved the camera closer to eliminate the bright trousers
Ambrotype 7
This was f/8 and 4s – definitely some progress but skin tones are way too dark. The glasses appear to be absorbing UV light too and so are really dark. We took them off for the final plate…

Ambrotype 9

f/5.6 and 4 seconds – perfect!! Dad did a great job holding still for 4s, it’s perfectly sharp, and that’s without any head support at all. Removing the glasses was definitely necessary and the eye contact is really enhanced too. I’m really pleased with it.

My next big learning curve – varnishing! I tried varnishing my first plate (one of the duff ones) with sandarac a couple of days ago and the result wasn’t good at all; a really matte finish – it’s like the glass is frosted. Lots of experimenting required to find the best result. I need to try combinations of hotter plate, cooler plate, hotter varnish and cooler varnish… I wonder what the effect of how quickly I heat the plate after applying the varnish makes too. I definitely want to nail the varnishing process before ruining one of the good plates!

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