Riley J.B. - Photographer & Alchemist

The Wet Plate Process

Photo by  Thomas Skrlj

Room. 305 is my wet plate photography studio within the former Shamrock Hotel in Ramsay, now known as NVRLND. If you haven’t heard of NVRLND I invite you to check out their website and to come to one of the monthly open houses. Artists of all disciplines inhabit the formerly sketchy halls of the hotel, each with their own self-contained art studio.

The Process

1925 Agfa Ansco 5x7 Universal View Camera w/ 1870 Fallowfield Petzval Lens

1925 Agfa Ansco 5x7 Universal View Camera w/ 1870 Fallowfield Petzval Lens

The wet plate collodion process is one of the very early photographic process dating back to 1851. Collodion is nitrocellulose (aka guncotton) dissolved in sulphuric and nitric acid and diluted with ethyl alcohol and ether. It is toxic and very flammable. The collodion (salted with iodides and bromides) is poured onto a metal or glass plate to form the base of the emulsion and dipped in a bath of silver nitrate for ~3 minutes. During this time silver iodide is formed on the plate making it now sensitive to light. And not just any light. It is sensitive to a a narrow spectrum of light on the blue side.

In the red light of the darkroom, the plate is removed from the bath and secured in a light tight plate holder that will go into the back of my large format camera and the exposure is then made. Collodion is quite slow when it comes to its sensitivity to light. As such, the exposures are typically long. 1-3 seconds in the open shade and up to 15 seconds in the studio with the help of continuous lighting and flash. I use a head brace to assist the sitter in remaining still for the duration of the exposure.

With a very high powered flash it is possible to make an instantaneous exposure, but I prefer the ethereal look given by a longer exposure.

Once the exposure is made the plate has to be developed before it can dry. Hence, the “wet” in wet plate collodion. I have converted the washroom in the studio into a darkroom where I pour developer onto the plate, watch and wait for an image to appear. When I feel the plate is sufficiently developed I stop the process with water.

Once developed, the plate is no longer sensitive to light and can be brought out of the darkroom. It looks like a white, cloudy negative at this point. The plate is then submerged into the fixer bath which is where the magic of the process is on full display. The image will clear and what is revealed is the final image. (Watch my video of plates going into fixer here)

Finally, the plate is varnished using gum sandarac (the resin from a cypress-like tree), 95% proof alcohol and lavender oil. Once varnished the plate is likely to last much, much longer than us. A true heirloom photograph.


Room 305 @ NVRLND
1048 - 21 Avenue Southeast
Calgary, Alberta

(By appointment only)