Last weekend I cut and edged my glass plates. To ensure that photographic emulsion adheres to the plates through all the processes involved in developing an image, the glass must be free of any coating applied during it’s manufacture.
Last weekend I cut and edged my glass plates. To ensure that photographic emulsion adheres to the plates through all the processes involved in developing an image, the glass must be free of any coating applied during it’s manufacture.
There are various methods of cleaning that might be used, from detergent to acid etching. I chose a middle course of soaking the plates in a strong detergent solution followed by scrubbing with wire wool scouring pads and sugar soap wipes. After rinsing with clean water and leaving them to air dry I gave each plate a final clean with isopropyl alcohol.
This weekend I set about subbing the plates. The purpose of subbing is to ensure good adhesion between the hard, smooth surface of the glass and the relatively soft, delicate layer of photographic emulsion such that the emulsion will not lift during processing.
I made up a solution of gelatin dissolved in hot water to which was added chrome alum as a hardening agent. The prepared subbing solution was kept at a temperature of around 45ºC by water bathing both the mixing jug and the tray in which the plates were to be immersed. Once coated the plates would be allowed to dry completetely before being packed together for storage with pieces of baking paper between them to prevent sticking or damage.
With my plate rack set up on the draining board and my coating tray in a water bath in the kitchen sink I set about the task of dipping each of my cleaned glass plates in the subbing solution. Once dipped, I held each plate up to allow the excess to run off before placing it in the rack. As I held the plates up I became quite aware of the individuality of each one. Small marks in the glass, whether imperfections in manufacture or as a result of the laborious cleaning process I had opted for, glinted in the sunlight coming through the kitchen window and little gelatinous bubbles were forming as the solution thinned out and began to dry.
Having been hand cut, the edges and notch of one plate differs from the next, the manual cleaning process had placed marks unique to each on the surface and now the subbing solution was adding a further layer of individuality. In the final stage of preparation, hand poured emulsion will complete the unique individual character that each plate will give to the image that will be made on it. It will be interesting to see the interaction of these plate ‘imperfections’ with the action of light on the emulsion during an exposure.
The subbing will harden over the coming days and the plates should be good to store indefinitely, not that I intend to keep them that long! I’m keen to put them to use but I will give them a week or so before coating with emulsion. Even then, the coated plates will need to dry for at least twelve hours before use and from what I have read elsewhere the sensitivity to light of the emulsion will improve if left for a few days after coating. But all that is for another day, in a week or so.
Today I set about cutting glass as the first stage in preparing dry glass plates that I will expose in due course in my cameras.
Today I set about cutting glass as the first stage in preparing dry glass plates that I will expose in due course in my cameras. I have eight pieces of 2mm glass from old 8″x10″ photo frames, fifteen 75mm x 50mm glass slides and a dozen 75mm x 25mm glass slides. The slides are all 1mm thick.
For the photo frame glass I have 5×4 plate holders but frustratingly no camera yet to load with them. The Countess has a set of sixteenth-plate holders requiring 1/16″ glass so the larger glass slides will be cut down to fit these. For any left-over glass, my plan is to make pinhole cameras to fit.
I had hoped that the photo frame glass would be true 8″ x 10″ but in fact they were 7 5/8″ x 9 3/4″ so could not be quartered to fit my 5×4 holders. Plates for the holders are held top and bottom so need to be a full 5″ on the long edge. However they do not need to be a full 4″ wide. My solution was to cut one plate 5″ x 4″ and two 5″ x 3 15/16″ for the 5×4 holders and one 4 3/4″ x 2 3/8″ plate for use in a pincam I made for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day 2014.
The 75mm x 50mm slides were trimmed down to the 2 5/16″ x 1 3/4″ needed for The Countess’ holders while the 75mm x 25mm slides were left uncut for use in custom pincams – they have a usable area of 50mm x 25mm.
Taking a tip from sheet film, to simplify identification of the coated side of the finished plates I cut a small triangle off the corner of each plate. When coating the plates I will coat the side facing me when I hold the plate in portrait orientation with the cutout top right.
The finishing touch was to rub off the sharp edges which I did with 240 grade wet and dry paper. The cut edges were all mostly ‘clean’ and unlikely to do any harm if handled carefully but I felt it worth rubbing them down anyway and they do feel better for it.
The next stage will be to thoroughly wash the glass and remove any surface treatments that would inhibit adhesion of the subbing layer. I plan to use sugar soap wipes for this, relying on the mechanical/detergent action to provide sufficient cleaning and keying. Time will tell! Once cleaned the plates will be coated in a gelatin and chrome alum subbing and hardening solution and dried, ready for coating with emulsion. This is as far as the process can be taken in the light. Once subbed, every ongoing process must take place in a darkroom or camera.
Back at the end of April when I booked on to the Dry Plate Workshop at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow …
The Dry Plate Workshop
Back at the end of April when I booked on to the Dry Plate Workshop at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow, it was as a result of a spur of the moment decision in response to a Facebook link posted by a friend a couple of days before the course began. It caught my interest and with nothing else planned it seemed like a fun way to spend my weekend.
So on Saturday 30th April I turned up and met my classmates Arpita, James and Oonagh. Two other would-be attendees had cancelled so the four of us benefitted from even more of workshop leader Debbie’s attention.
Debbie introduced the weekend by telling us about her background and experience with dry plate negatives before we got hands-on. She led us through a full day of preparing, subbing and finally coating glass plates with liquid emulsion which we left to dry in the darkroom overnight. On the Sunday our plates were ready for use. We spent the day between darkroom and studio, initially assessing the sensitivity of our plates to establish exposure times and then photographing each other with 5×4 large format cameras. We finished the day developing our plates and they were left rinsing to be subsequently dried by Street Level staff and posted out to us a few days later.
Decision and consequence
To simply say that I had nothing else planned for the weekend as a reason for signing up is a bit glib. The dry plate process interested me as one that I might be able to follow up at home and make use of with my pinhole cameras and perhaps the Intrepid, the arrival of which is imminent. The workshop didn’t disappoint and there was the bonus of being introduced to the wealth of experience and varied knowledge of my classmates. At the end of it I had a decision to make and as with any decision, there would be a consequence.
I could have gone home, waited for the plates that I’d exposed to be sent to me and simply kept them as souvenirs of an enjoyable weekend that extended my knowledge of photography. End of story. Or, I could have taken what I had learned, kept in touch with my new friends and set out on a new adventure of recreating and experimenting with, the processes to which I had been introduced.
I chose the latter. I already make at least some of my own pinhole cameras and process my own film and paper to create images. The workshop showed me it’s only a small extra step to make my own sensitised media in the form of coated dry glass plates too. Not just that but my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of using liquid emulsion in various other ways. I would only need to gather a few bits’n’pieces of kit and figure out how to fit it all in to available space and time. What could be simpler?
First off I bought a book on Amazon: Silver Gelatin – A user’s guide to liquid photographic emulsions by Martin Reed & Sarah Jones. It’s a comprehensive manual and an inspiring book that both reinforced much of the coursework and offered alternatives to some of the processes we had been shown. In particular, the book suggests less risky ways of cleaning and keying the glass than the etch process we used. While acknowledging that etching is probably the most archivally sound of the methods available it is one I’d rather avoid if possible.
I ordered from Silverprint, SE1 emulsion and the gelatin and chrome alum that are mixed together to make Subbing and Hardening solution. A search on eBay came up trumps for a job lot of the 5×4 holders that would be needed to load the plates in a large format camera and I was able to share some of these with my classmates. It was a real surprise to receive from Oonagh the gift of The Countess, a sixteenth-plate camera and James provided a batch of thin glass slides that I could cut to size and prepare for use in it. I have some picture frame glass that can be cut and prepared for use in the 5×4 plate holders for the Intrepid when it arrives. All I need is a diamond tipped cutter, readily available on eBay, and I’ll be good to go!
So I have or soon will have, all the equipment I need to prepare plates and expose them in cameras. I just need to prepare the plates. The preparation of the glass is straightforward and doesn’t need a darkroom, just a wooden rack to set them on (eBay again) while they dry. The glass has to be cut to size, cleaned of any surface treatments that would inhibit adhesion of the emulsion and then coated with subbing and hardening solution. Once dry these can be taken into the darkroom to pour or brush on the emulsion. To make efficient use of materials I’ll need to prepare plates in batches.
It’s this last stage that gives me a problem: Once coated, the plates will have to be laid out flat and kept in the dark until the emulsion has dried before they can be packed in light tight bags just like regular sheet film. This takes several hours but my darkroom is of a temporary nature, a small shower room blacked out for the purpose. I need a way to store the coated plates while they dry. After some thought I returned to eBay and found a small office filing unit with five shallow drawers that will fit on my temporary darkroom worktop. Each drawer will hold six or possibly more 5×4 plates giving a batch capacity of at least thirty. The drawer fronts will be easily covered with a dark cloth to prevent light from entering and the unit should be relatively easy to move.
Emulsion, once prepared for use, has to be kept at a fairly steady temperature of around 40ºC for pouring. This is normally achieved by water bathing. I think Oonagh plans to experiment with a small slow cooker to establish how effective a water bath it could provide. I await her results with interest.
With just a couple of eBay purchases still to arrive, I’m living with the consquences of my decisions and am almost ready to take the next step in preparing my own dry glass plates. Now to set aside a weekend for the fun to begin continue!
It was back in 2010 that I was introduced to pinhole photography. A group of friends with whom I regularly met up for photowalks decided to celebrate Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD)
To make a pinhole exposure is to open a door on serendipity. Every exposure is an experimental exercise in imprecision.
It was back in 2010 that I was introduced to pinhole photography. A group of friends with whom I regularly met up for photowalks decided to celebrate Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD). WPPD has been held on the last Sunday of April each year since its inception in 2001 and there is a website with a gallery to which participants may upload one of their pinhole photographs taken on the day.
Like many hobby photographers I had entered the 21st century ditching my film equipment for the emerging technology of digital photography. Many cameras, tens of thousands of images and crammed full hard drives later I was beginning to accept that I had developed an addiction to shooting and chimping at every opportunity.
I turned up for our 2010 WPPD walk with my latest digital camera set to its pinhole effect filter. Almost everybody else had tin cans,wooden boxes or their old film cameras adapted for pinhole and all loaded up with photo paper or film. Everybody else made just a few careful images while I snapped away at a couple of hundred or more.
We met up again a few weeks later to compare our pinhole photos. I had already consigned most of mine to the bin. The effect filter had rendered all of my photos with exactly the same digi-faux-grain vignette that rendered them completely soulless. Actually, come to think about it they weren’t far off soulless to begin with! While I had been staring at a computer screen my friends had been tinkering in darkrooms doing alchemy and producing works of art that could be handled, passed around and admired. Their photographs had a softness and were vignetted but each had a unique character and depth that reflected the care that had gone into their making. They had soul and I loved them.
2012: Pioneering inspiration
I was off galavanting somewhere so missed pinhole day 2011 but by the time WPPD 2012 came around I was rediscovering the enjoyment of photography with film and was ready for the annual pinhole day photo walk. We met up to visit Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh wherein may be found the gravestone of David Octavius Hill, he of the photographic pioneer duo Hill and Adamson. This time I had my bodycap adapted Olympus OM1 and a repurposed Coronet box camera bought on eBay for just £1.49!
I wasn’t able to meet up with the group for a WPPD 2013 photowalk and although I was getting increasingly back into film photography, pinhole was still something I mainly thought about as a pinhole day activity. We may not have met but I set up the OM1 to take a pinhole photograph of garden implements in the shed.
By WPPD 2014 I had definitely taken the bait and bitten deep on the barbed hook of pinhole photography. I’d bought a Harman TiTAN 5×4 pinhole camera and was experimenting with constructing my own cameras. My exposures were being made on film, regular photo paper and my favourite, Harman Direct Positive paper. My pincam for the group outing was specially constructed for the day, made from foamcore board and fitted with a tripod mount, sighting pins and a sliding shutter! Unfortunately it didn’t hold the paper quite flat and I made the mistake of using glossy paper so light was bounced around inside, creating interesting flare effects and a bit of fogging … on the other hand, what was it I said about serendipity?
During 2014 I was invited to submit photographs to the Edinburgh Lo-fi Photography Group’s exhibition that year. For this I produced Continuum. The project was deeply engaging for me and led me deeper into my understanding of pinhole photography as an expressive art. My blog Understanding ‘Continuum’ gives some insight into my thinking as the project developed.
I tried my hand at pinhole street photography for WPPD 2015! This time I had constructed a matchbox pincam loaded with 35mm film. It was an interesting experiment which produced interesting results that I quite liked. I have a mental list (read that as you will) of projects and things I’d like to follow up on. Street pinhole is on the list!
During 2015 I was asked by a community group based in Leith if I would run a pinhole camera construction workshop. There seemed little point in constructing cameras without using them so when eventually in January 2016 we found space to hold the workshop in Leith School of Art it had developed into a talk and demonstration, camera construction, picture taking and photo developing event. I even made a temporary darkroom out of plastic piping and bin bags especially for the day! We had great fun, some amazing images were produced and hopefully some of the participants went away enthused to take it further.
For WPPD 2016 I went back to the pure simplicity of a tin can. I punched a pinhole directly into the side of a coffee can, about one third from the top to give an image with a low horizon line. Just a strip of black electrical tape sufficed as the shutter and a piece of Direct Positive paper wrapped around the inside would record a curved plane image. We met this year in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden and I am very pleased to have made this image of the wonderful Victorian Palm House in the gardens.
Where to next?
For more than two years now my ‘go to’ camera has been a pincam. My work has been exhibited, I’ve run workshops and I’ve introduced my grandchildren and one or two others to the fun of photography and the magic of image creation in the darkroom. That’s not to say I’ve put all other forms of photography to one side. I still use 35mm film and digital cameras and through pinhole I’ve begun an adventure into the wonders of large format photography.
I’m looking forward to preparing and using glass plate negatives for both pinhole and lens images in a large format camera. Looking forward too to using a pinhole on a large format camera and to make salt prints from large format negatives. Alongside that I am already working on quite a large project producing unique images of little harbours as seen through the little apertures of pinhole cameras. And it’s still just a hobby!
When I make pinhole exposures time seems to stand still. Yet time never does, as the images show.
I’ve been keen to take the Countess out for a stroll to see what she can do since receiving her as a gift from Oonagh. The opportunity came last weekend when I also had a day off work on the Monday. It’s been a while since I had the TiTAN out too, so a weekend of photo fun was planned.
Since receiving her as a gift from Oonagh, I’ve been keen to take the Countess out for a stroll to see what she can do. The opportunity came last weekend when I also had a day off work on the Monday. It’s been a while since I had the TiTAN out too, so a weekend of photo fun was planned.
Once the domestic chores were out of the way on Saturday, I set about preparing cameras for an outing. I gave the Countess another thorough clean and rubbed down some of the rusty ‘patination’ on her plate holders so that they could be operated smoothly. Then I cut and loaded pieces of Ilford MGIV RC Satin paper which would create paper negatives from which I would later make contact prints. A stack of 5×4 film holders were loaded with Harman Direct Positive paper for the TiTAN and finally ancillary kit such as changing bag, spare paper, tripods and light meter were laid out and packed ready for a sharp exit on Sunday morning.
Sunday dawned fine and dry, if a little misty, and with fair weather forecast I set off early for Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife. My plan was to get there early enough to find a parking space, take a walk around the harbour and then up the coast to Cellardyke, returning to the car to reload the film holders and have a bite to eat before heading down the coast to Pittenweem and perhaps St Monans.
All went to plan and the day was as fine as had been forecast. A gentle easterly breeze kept the temperature comfortable and a light, high mistiness diffused the sunlight to give perfect conditions for photography. The tide was out when I arrived so I wandered the beach around the Dreel Burn, giving both the Countess and the TiTAN their chance to play.
Here’s the Countess, perched like a pinhead atop my tripod, getting in the first shot of the day with a view of the picturesque churchyard and quayside of the little harbour at the mouth of the Dreel Burn.
Below is an enlarged image of the contact print I made from the paper negative.
The houses and church made an attractive background so I walked a bit upstream to find a spot where the long pinhole exposure of the TiTAN would smooth out the flow of the water and show their reflection. The TiTAN was positioned low to get the best effect.
This is how the TiTAN saw the scene, flipped the right-way-round in software.
Moving on towards the main harbour area, Anstruther’s fish bars were already busy and the distinctive aroma was filling the air! It so happened that I’d chosen to visit Anstruther on the day of the 2016 Thistle Run, a rally from the Falkirk Wheel to Anstruther for Minis of all vintages. The rally aims to raise money for charities, not least of which is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The main car parks and the quaysides were being filled up with scores of Minis and the RNLI were setting up stalls on the quay beside the lifeboat station. I was glad to have got there early and parked out of the way!
I set up the Countess to take a photograph of the Anstruther lifeboat but I realised too late that I had omitted a vital step in the image-making procedure. Once set up on the tripod with the bellows open and the focussing screen in position the aperture needs to be opened fully so that the brightest possible (i.e. least dim) image can be seen on the screen. Once the lens is focussed (more on that later), the aperture needs to be closed down to the taking aperture, and the shutter cocked. The focussing screen is then replaced with a plate holder and the darkslide removed before the exposure is made by pressing the shutter lever. The darkslide is then replace so that the plate holder can be removed.
It’s a fiddly process but one that should become second nature with experience. I have not had sufficient experience. On this occasion I missed out the step of shutting down the aperture. The lifeboat was inside the station and the required exposure for my chosen aperture of f/32 was fifteen seconds. With the aperture fully open the negative was grossly overexposed! Lesson learned.
Anstruther houses the Scottish Fisheries Museum and in the harbour is berthed the restored historic Fifie fishing boat, Reaper. The TiTAN made this image of her. It’s worth noting that the images made on direct positive paper are created in-camera and as there is no intermediate negative to print from, the image is reversed. (The image at the top of the post has been ‘flipped’ in software to be the right way round after scanning the original.)
At the harbour mouth I was setting up the TiTAN to photograph the Chalmers Lighthouse when I heard a commotion in the water behind me. I turned round to see a pod of eight or nine dolphins just offshore making their way down the Forth. Unfortunately the wide angle and long exposure of pinhole cameras are not conducive to action photography!
On the way back I stopped to set up the Countess to take a general shot of the harbour. I was approached by a very pleasant lady who simply asked me if I was a press photographer taking photos of the Thistle Run cars!
At this point I need to explain that as a presbiopic astigmatic hypermetrope, focussing on that screen is impossible without the help of a loupe or other focussing aid. Even then there is very little room for maneouvre. The focus adjustment is a bit jerky but there is a detent for what appears to be infinity focus. I’ve taken to setting the aperture to its minimum of f/32, trusting to depth of field to avoid blurry images! It all adds to the fun and is good practice for the Intrepid which is due to join my collection very soon.
The walk to Cellardyke was pleasant and interesting along the narrow streets stretching through the fishing village as it hugged the coastline. Villagers’ washing lines are strung out along the harbour quayside. At low tide the harbour is a sea of seaweed and it was low tide when I got there.
As happens on my photowalks my estimates of how long I’ll take are always optimistic. I never learn. By the time I returned to Anstruther the RNLI stalls were in full flow and I was lucky to get a burger and a drink for a late lunch. The RNLI is funded entirely by donations and lifeboats are crewed by volunteers who drop what they’re doing and put their lives on the line every time a shout goes up. They deserve whatever support they can muster.
Pittenweem was my final photo stop for the day. A couple of miles from Anstruther in the other direction from Cellardyke this is a working harbour with fish market and boats from all around Scotland berthed at its piers. I had just two remaining sheets of paper loaded for the TiTAN and made that do for the day.
My iPhone’s view of Pittenweem and below as it was seen by the TiTAN.
The TiTAN’s angle of view is much wider, which contributes to the characteristic vignetting, the image is softer due to diffraction of light as it passes through the 0.35mm aperture of the pinhole and the image is reversed on the Direct Positive paper.
The TiTAN has been my go to camera for a couple of years or so and Direct Positive paper is my favourite media to use with it. The Countess is new to me and already I’m in love with it too. It arrived unexpectedly and as a result of a spur-of-the-moment decision to join a dry plate workshop at which I found new friends and embarked on a new photo adventure a little bit different but which fits in with how I like photographic things to be. They are soon to be joined by the Intrepid, the result of a crowdfunding project to develop an affordable 5×4 field camera. I’m looking forward to preparing and using dry plate glass negatives with both the Countess and the Intrepid. I’ll have a harem of cool cameras!
My quest to photograph the harbours around the Forth estuary is part of Little Harbours, a long term project which really qualifies for a blog post of its own, and in due course it will.