A step back in time

A brief visit to a time before silver gelatin dry plates became the photographic norm.

The appeal to photographers of the silver gelatin dry plate process was that once prepared, plates could be stored in the dark until needed. Once exposed, the plates could be stored again until it was convenient to develop them. Introduced in the 1880s, the use by photographers of gelatin dry plates lasted for over a century until commercial production of the plates ceased in the 1990s.

Prior to dry plates, photographic images were created using collodion wet plate processes. Collodion is a clear, syrupy solution of cellulose nitrate in ether and alcohol. When poured onto a suitable substrate such as tin or glass and then sensitised with iodised silver nitrate solution it becomes sensitive to light such that it can be exposed in a camera to record a latent image. The image is subsequently developed, fixed and once dry, is protected with a coat of varnish. The process from pouring to fixing needs to be accomplished in the ten to fifteen minutes that the sensitised collodion remains ‘wet’ and so the photographer has to have his or her whole processing paraphernalia to hand when the exposure is made.

For the past couple of months I’ve been experimenting with gelatin dry plates and still have much to learn. However an Ambrotypes Workshop at the St Andrews Photography Festival led by Brittonie Fletcher caught my eye. It interested me enough to book my place and take that step back in time to learn more of the earlier process. Ambrotypes are a variant of the wet plate collodion process, producing a positive image on glass which is viewed by reflected light when held against a black background.

And so it was that I met with my classmates for the day, Paul and Fiona, together with Brittonie and her assistant Pippa. The venue was a pop-up tent darkroom on the library lawn of St Andrews University. After a little talk on the place of ambrotypes in the history of photography and what we would be doing, Brittonie set us on the task of preparing our glass plates before introducing us to the cameras and to the contents of the darkroom.

Preparation involved thorough cleaning of our plates with whitening (calcium carbonate) mixed with a little spirit. The residue was rinsed off with distilled water and left to air dry. Once dry the edges of the plates were given a light coating of albumen (egg white) to help the collodion grip the plate. While we waited for the plates to dry we checked the function and cleanliness of the plate holders into which the plates are loaded to make exposures in the camera, and prepared the developer, stop and fix chemistry for the darkroom.

Within the darkroom was a trestle table set out to follow the process we would be using: pour the collodion, sensitise the plate, clean the back of the sensitised plate and load it into a plate holder. At this stage the holder is taken to the camera, exposed and then returned to the darkroom. Back in the darkroom, remove the plate from the holder, pour developer over it while held and gently agitated above a tray for 12-15 seconds, move to the next tray to stop the development by pouring distilled water over it, place in the tray of fixer and leave there until the image clears. The plates now need to be thoroughly washed to remove all excess chemistry and two more trays filled with distilled water are used for this. Finally, leave the plates in a rack to air dry.

Except for the stages of pouring the collodion and sensitising the plate, the process is essentially the same as is used in most developing processes. I have some experience of developing film, paper and glass plates so it was with the collodion-specific stage that my main interest in the workshop lay.

The technique required to pour collodion is similar to that of pouring gelatin emulsion and so I already had a feel for what to do. However I found collodion to be more fluid than emulsion and it was easier to ensure corner to corner coverage of the plate before pouring off the excess. The smell of ether was quite evident even though our darkroom tent was well ventilated. There was little doubt as to the risks faced by nineteenth century photographers in their quest for images while working with a potentially explosive material in an anaesthetic atmosphere!

Over the course of a most enjoyable and informative day we produced at least three plates each and I think we achieved a 100% success rate with no failures and well exposed plates all round. My three plates were left drying and I will get them in due course from Brittonie, to finish off with a coat of protective varnish.

Ambrotypes are intended to be viewed against a dark background, whether by painting the back of the plate or by mounting the plate in a frame on backing material such as black velvet. I’ll have to wait and see how well they will scan so that I can post them here or in a separate post.

I just couldn’t resist turning up for a photographic occasion without a pinhole camera! The header image for this post is a pinhole image of the darkroom tent in situ, exposed on glass coated with SE1 emulsion and loaded in a homemade foamcore pincam. It is not an ambrotype image!

Not so mellow yellow

A tale of photographic disappointment, discovery and unexpected pleasure!

My weekend was one of discovery. That’s my word for the disappointment of something not working as expected but for which the reason is found and a lesson for the future is learned.

The meetup

I’d met up with a group of friends who were on a quest to make cyanotype photograms on the beach, developing the prints in the salt water of the sea. Much as I was interested in their endeavours, I am still focussed on mastering my new Intrepid camera and exposing my glass dry plates. So while they did their thing, I did mine.

The day was bright enough with the light dissipated by high grey cloud in which there was shape and texture to be captured. The low contrast light was fine for SE1 emulsion which doesn’t have the exposure range of film emulsions, so I was looking forward to making a few images without intrusive harsh contrast.

I have two lenses for the Intrepid: a 150mm and a 240mm and a yellow filter which fits the filter thread on the 150mm. It occured to me that the filter might be useful to bring out the shape and texture of the clouds. That’s what I would do if making photographs on regular film and so I mounted the filter on the 150mm lens.

As it happens I made six exposures, three with each lens. The less than ideal light for cyanotypes meant that my chums were taking a while to make their photograms and so I was unhurried as I picked my subjects, able to carefully choose my viewpoints and take my time to ensure the exposures were accurately made. What could go wrong?

And so to the darkroom

It had been a good day and I was excited to get the plates developed so I set up the darkroom as soon as I got home. Developing the plates doesn’t take long but they need to be very well rinsed and then left for some days to dry completely.

There were two mistakes made that day. The first had already been made although I had yet to find out what it was. The second was the dilution I used for the Ilford Multigrade in which to develop the plates. Regular dilution is 10% (1+9) and only a week ago I had discovered that SE1 emulsion develops far too quickly in this. Better to use a 5% (1+19) dilution which gives time to watch the image as it appears in the tray of developer. For some daft reason I made up a 10% regular dilution. Not a huge mistake but it would mean I was unable to develop by inspection.

Incidentally, the reason for SE1 emulsion developing so much faster than regular manufactured photo paper is that the emulsion in manufactured paper is further coated to provide protection but that coating also slows the uptake of developer. SE1 is primarily a print emulsion but with no ‘supercoat’ and usually being more thickly and less uniformly coated, it rapidly absorbs developer with a response to match!

Plates 1, 2 and 4 had been exposed with the 150mm lens fitted with the Y(K2) yellow filter, and plates 3, 5 and 6 with the 240mm lens. I developed the plates one at a time, finishing the process of develop, stop and fix for one before beginning the next. Fixing takes quite some time and varies with the thickness of the emulsion.

Plate 1:

The world’s smallest operating lighthouse on the pier at North Queensferry, carefully composed and given an exposure of 1s @ f/32.

I slid the plate into the developer and waited. And waited. Nothing happened. I left it in the tray for eight minutes. Nothing happened. Stop bath then into the fixer where it cleared to just a light fog – probably due to the length of time I’d left it in the developer. There was no image. Nothing.

Undaunted, but a little puzzled as to what had gone wrong, I moved on to Plate 2.

Plate 2:

An old wooden raft, rotten and anchored by old railway bogeys lying alonside the pier, framed with the pierside derrick and the piers of the Forth Road Bridge in the background. An exposure of 10s @ f/32 and some use of front tilt to deepen the plane of focus.

Just as with the first plate, I slid the plate into the tray of developer and waited and watched for something to appear. But once again, nothing happened! I began to feel a sense of panic. My mind raced through the memory of setting up, focussing, setting aperture and shutter, cocking the shutter, removing the darkslide and making the exposure. I was sure, absolutely certain I had followed through every step in the proper sequence.

At this point I realised my mistake with the developer, but that would have sped up, not slowed down development. The developer was fresh so nothing likely to be wrong with it. I was totally stumped. Never mind. The next plate was exposed with the 240mm lens. If it developed OK I could look to the 150mm lens and it’s shutter, or the plate holder in which Plates 1 and 2 were loaded for an answer.

Plate 3:

A close up of a photogram being exposed on the beach. Paper coated with cyanotype solution, found objects from the beach laid on top and all held down under a sheet of glass. Exposed for 4s @ f/22

cyanotype on the beach by SE1 on glass
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, G-Claron 240/9 lens in Compur 1 shutter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 4 sec @ f/22

I knew now that the strong developer dilution would render an image very quickly, if one was there at all, and this time I was not disappointed. It was all I could do to drain it of developer and place it in the stop bath before it went near totally black! But I didn’t care, this was now a problem solving task and I had an image from the 240mm lens.

Plate 4:

This would confirm whether the problem lay with the 150mm lens. Plates 1 and 2 were in the same holder so perhaps the holder was the problem. If this plate has no image on it I could reasonably narrow down the fault to the 150mm lens assembly.

North Queensferry harbour, low tide, boats grounded in the foreground with leading lines to the backdrop of the magnificent Forth Bridge. I really, really wanted this image to have been recorded. In my mind it is the exposure of the day but sadly that is where it remains.

Nothing happened. No image.

By this stage I was past caring. I knew I had a problem with the 150mm lens and although the last two plates were exposed with the 240mm lens, they were going to develop uncontrollably fast in the over-strong developer. I went ahead anyway, if only to prove to myself that the 240mm lens was performing OK.

Plate 5:

The mud-covered ribs and backbone of an old boat uncovered at low tide. The tonal range of the scene was barely three stops. With the low contrast light I had little expectation of an interesting image but I’d liked the shapes and made the exposure of 8s @ f/16 anyway.

The image turned out much as expected but with the addition of these weird light leaks that I actually really like!

old ribs
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, G-Claron 240/9 lens in Compur 1 shutter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 8 sec @ f/16

Plate 6:

From the same plate holder as Plate 5. This was another image I really looked forward to seeing and again what I envisaged is spoilt by light leak and fogging, yet when I look at it with these imperfections they add something serendipitous that I quite like! 40s @ f\45 but I really need to take a close look at the state of this plate holder.

bracing structures
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, G-Claron 240/9 lens in Compur 1 shutter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 40 sec @ f/45

 Agony and Analysis

With the darkroom restored to its original sanitary function, I left the plates rinsing and went off to check out the 150mm lens.

I sat down with the lens and checked every aperture setting and every shutter speed, with and without cable release attached and couldn’t find any fault. There have been no problems with the lens at any other time. I had just one more thing to check out – that Hoya Y(K2) Yellow filter.

The reason was already hanging around in the dark recesses of my brain and it was now apparent that I needed to take two photographs, one with and one without the filter to prove it.

Regular film is panchromatic, i.e. it is sensitive to all wavelengths of the visible spectrum which is why it can only be handled in total darkness. SE1 is a print emulsion and orthochromatic, i.e. it only responds to wavelengths towards the blue end of the visible spectrum which is the reason it can be handled under a red or orange safelight. Was it possible that the yellow filter was actually acting as a safelight? Time for the Shed Test.

The Shed Test

The following evening on my return home from work I set up the camera in the garden and made the two-exposure Shed Test. The light was a bit different, blue skies replaced the grey clouds of yesterday and it was later in the day.

First, with no filter and 15s @ f/22, then the second with the yellow filter and the exposure compensated by one stop to 30s @ f/22. Then back to the darkroom to find out if my theory was correct.

I developed the unfiltered plate first and was very relieved to see an image appear. The second plate, filtered, was almost blank. Indeed the very faint image that appeared is likely due to there being more blue light today than when the failed exposures were made yesterday.

The filtered plate on the left and the unfiltered on the right and the yellow filter that made the difference!



The Shed Test - yellow filter
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, Sironar-N 150/5.6 lens in Copal 0 shutter with Yellow Y(K2) filter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 30 sec @ f/22
The Shed Test - no filter
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, Sironar-N 150/5.6 lens in Copal 0 shutter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 15 sec @ f/22


I’m still a bit surprised that a yellow filter which has only a mild contrast enhancing effect on panchromatic material should have such a dramatic effect on orthochromatic material, but there it is. Lesson learned!

I now have some plates that I actually quite like just for their serendipitous imperfections. An unexpected pleasure and a pleasant surprise!

I also have several plates that I’d like to recycle if possible. With no hardener added to either the developer or the fixer my thinking is that it should be possible to wash the plates in hot water and scrape off the emulsion. Once cleaned up it should be possible to re-coat the glass with fresh emulsion.

Let’s just call it a win-win!

Waste not, want not

What would I do with the emulsion left over from coating my glass plates?

There was a small quantity of Silverprint SE1 emulsion mixed 5+1 with Photo Flo left over from coating my glass plates. All of the prepared plates had been coated and I didn’t want to waste the unused emulsion. My solution was to coat some paper which I could then use to make contact prints once the glass plates have been exposed and developed.

All that I needed was a goat’s hair Jaiban brush (no metal parts which might react with or contaminate the silver-based emulsion) which I found at a reasonable price in a local craft supplies store. I had a few sheets of The Langton art paper left over from a pad I’d bought some time ago and cut these down to give a border of about 1cm around a 5×4 glass plate. Everything else I already had from coating the glass plates.

In the darkroom I laid out my workspace while the emulsion was liquifying in a hot water bath. The ceramic feeding cup, kept warm in another water bath, has a wide enough opening to dip the brush into the emulsion. The cut paper was laid out on cardboard, just in case I got messy and then my shallow drawer unit where I would lay out the coated paper to dry, keeping it in the dark. The SE1 emulsion, being light sensitive, was not opened until everything was ready, the room light was off and the red safelight was on!

When brushed onto paper a little emulsion goes a lot further than when it is poured onto glass! I had only used about half before I ran out of space in the drawer unit. That’s good because I can find out whether I’ve brushed on too much or too little and come back later to do another batch.

I left the paper for a couple of days to dry in the drawer unit, although I suspect it would have been sufficient just to leave it overnight. Under a red safelight the dry paper was packed in opaque black plastic bags for storage until needed. I expect to expose and develop it in much the same way as normal photo paper.

Chill out, catch up and throw away

A weekend in the East Neuk of Fife for photography, fun and friendship.

Something for the weekend

I took the opportunity of having a couple of days off work to book a weekend away in the East Neuk of Fife with my wife and a camera or two (not necessarily in that order!). The idea arose from an invitation to meet my friend Oonagh, who like me has been pursuing the idea of dry glass plate photography, that we might catch up and compare notes on our progress.

Oonagh and I had arranged to meet in Crail on Saturday morning. A day’s outing to Crail is well within reach for me but it’s a picturesque town that begs a longer stay and so it was that my wife and I booked in to The Hazelton Guest House in the centre of town for Friday and Saturday nights. The welcome was warm and friendly, the accommodation was clean and very comfortable and the Breakfast (yes, I did spell that with a capital ‘B’) was simply the Best Breakfast anyone could wish for. I make mention of it only because we so enjoyed our stay there and would wholeheatedly recommend it.

Friday: Getting there slowly.

We meandered up the coast on Friday, stopping off for a wander around St Monans and again a little later in Cellardyke where we had a large pot of tea between us and four ‘Jammie Dodgers’ to share. Of course, wherever we went I was really only interested in photography. Still learning the ways of The Intrepid, I had with me a full set of film holders loaded with Fomapan 100 Classic sheet film, a full set of plate holders loaded with my own glass plates hand coated with SE1 emulsion and a box of spare plates should I need to reload! Wanting to keep the plates for Saturday’s playtime I chose to expose the Fomapan film on Friday.

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This was the first time I’ve exposed film in The Intrepid and I must say I’m very pleased with the results. It takes time, perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes, just to set up the camera for each shot but it’s a process of becoming absorbed in the scene. Under the dark cloth the screen is bright and clear enabling careful composition and determination of focal point. Once set up it’s just a case of waiting for the light or whatever is to determine the moment when the shutter is released. My wife is very patient and usually carries a thick book with which to pass the time, usually from a distance!

Saturday: Crail

We met by the harbour as planned on Saturday morning and over coffee and cake the intricacies and effectiveness were discussed of detergent cleaning versus sandblasting or etching in the preparation of glass plates to take photographic emulsion. Oonagh and I are both at about the same stage on our glass plate experimentation but whereas I am pursuing this purely as a hobby interest, Oonagh plans to use the processes as a part of the work she is doing towards achieving her Masters in Fine Art and so what’s good enough for me might not be so for her. Nonetheless we have much to learn from one another and value each other’s input.

Discussion over we left my wife to her book and went off for some photographic playtime around the harbour. So often these days someone lifting a camera to their eye to take a photograph is seen in some way as threatening or intrusive behaviour. Not so it seems, when the camera is a large format field camera and the photographer disappears beneath a dark cloth from time to time to attend to focus and composition, popping out to measure the light and to make adustments to the settings on the lens! I suspect we were both as much the subject of others’ photographs as they may have been of ours and our cameras were often a talking point.

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When the time came for Oonagh to return home, my wife was nowhere to be found. I went in search of likely places: to the art exhibition in the town hall where in response to my explanation that I was looking for my wife some wag asked, “Would mine do?”, and to the museum where I got a more direct response in similar vein, “Would I do?”! Having turned down both offers I was relieved to find her pottering around at my next port of call, the pottery. Oonagh had departed leaving me with a bottle and we needed to discuss what to do with it. Crail is well endowed with many pleasant cafes and we retired to one of them for the discussion over a little sustenance and refreshment.

The bottle was one of several such, a part of Oonagh’s Masters project, and I had agreed to throw it away! Containing ten beachcombed objects and a hand-written letter it was all sealed up in preparation for a sea journey.  Hopefully in time it will be be found and opened, the letter read, some thought given to the objects within and contact made with Oonagh. We spent the afternoon searching the coast for a suitable place to launch it, eventually settling on the Kilminning Coast wildlife reserve a mile or so east of Crail and almost at the most easterly point of the Fife coast. From here we hoped the bottle would be carried out from the mouth of the Forth Estuary into the North Sea and wherever the currents might then take it. It was a bit of a clamber over the rocks but we made it while the tide was still ebbing, photographed the launch and watched while the bottle disappeared from view.

I’ve celebrated the launch of the bottle with a wee poem and a couple more photographs in a separate blog, The bottle and the deep, blue sea.

Sunday: A pinhole image then homeward

After our second morning’s Breakfast we emerged from The Hazelton into another bright, warm morning and rather than head straight home we again made for the harbour where I intended this time to take some pinhole photographs. I had not been too pleased with images from a few weeks ago taken with the camera I had originally made for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day 2014 and have since fitted it with a new pinhole.

The results this time were much more pleasing even though in one of the two I made, I hadn’t slid the shutter open quite far enough. One of the ‘joys’ of any non-digital based photography (except perhaps, Polaroid) is that the image is only revealed long after the moment has passed. Unfortunately I have only a part of what looks like one of those ‘might have been a good one’ images!

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The Techie Stuff

Most of the photographs shown in this blog have been taken as part of a learning curve and the technical detail may be of interest to some readers. So here it is all rolled up at the end so it can be easily ignored by those who have no interest in it!

The images of St Monans and Cellardyke harbours were made on Fomapan 100 Classic sheet film developed in fresh Ilfosol 3 at 1+9 dilution for 5 minutes at 20ºC. Stop was Ilfostop (1+19, used), fix was Ilford Rapid Fixer (1+4, used) then fresh water rinses and a final rinse with the addition of 5ml PhotoFlo. I used a Mod54 insert in a Paterson tank with agitation by rotation of the twirl stick continuously for 30 seconds then for 15 seconds per minute.

With one exception, the plate images were made on glass prepared for subbing with gelatin and chrome alum mixture, by washing in a strong detergent solution, rubbing with wire soap pads then cleaning with Isopropyl Alcohol. The prepared glass was coated by hand-pouring an emulsion comprising five parts Silverprint SE1 to one part PhotoFlo. The plates were developed in fresh Ilford Multigrade paper developer at 1+19 dilution and at a room temperature of about 16-17ºC. Development at this dilution and temperature took two to four minutes dependant on the thickness of the emulsion. Each plate was rinsed in Ilfostop before fixing in Ilford Rapid Fixer until clear. The thicker the emulsion, the longer it took to clear. No hardener was added to the fixer. Rinsing was initially in a tray with gently running water for about five minutes, transfered to a tray of fresh water for ten minutes, transfered to a tray of Ilford Wash Aid (1+4) for twenty minutes then finally to a second tray of fresh water for thirty minutes. The plates were left for a day or so to air dry. Once dry the back surface of each plate was cleaned of emulsion overspill with a craft-knife blade then rubbed with a dry paper towel.

The exception was the image titled Harbour wall jumping at Crail which was made on a plate prepared and coated by one of the attendees at the workshop I attended in Glasgow back in April. Preparation for subbing was by etching and the emulsion, which was brushed rather than poured, was either SE1 or Foma combined with a quantity of Ilfotol.

The bottle and the deep, blue sea

What will the finder wonder as on these things they ponder?
The bones, the wood, the shell that tell of life now gone.
And all the man-made objects that just go on and on.

Bottle #6

A letter on white paper, rolled tight and bound with wire
Ten objects found on beaches, purpose served now worn and tired
Now bobbing on an ebb tide in the estuary flow
Bound for who knows where, perhaps no-one will ever know.
But should it ever come ashore, be found and opened, what’s in store
For the inquisitor who wonders what these objects might be for?

Two sticks: one wood, one USB
Two bones: one notched, one bleached that lacks sinew
A stopper for a bottle, a sparkling many-coloured shell
A length of twisted metal wire, red metal flattend tube
And polyester braided rope unravelled at its unbound end
Then last of all the sweetie pack, one shilling and sixpence,
The mint that won’t be hurried near half a century hence.

What will the finder wonder as on these things they ponder?
The bones, the wood, the shell that tell of life now gone.
And all the man-made objects that just go on and on.

Launched  on behalf of artist Oonagh Devoy at 5:15 pm on 30th July 2016 into the Firth of Forth from the shoreline at Kilminning Coast Wildlife Reserve, East Neuk of Fife, Scotland.

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