What Is Wet Plate Photography?

What is Wet Plate Photography?
Rene Böhmer

If you’re a film photographer or enthusiast, you have most likely heard of the wet plate photography process. Wet plate photography or better known as the collodion process was a technique used in the early stages of the photographic medium for developing images.

According to various history sources, the wet plate, collodion process was invented around 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer and Gustave Le Gray. The process was then modified and refined by many photographers throughout the decade and eventually became one of the main forms of photographic developing in the 1860s.

How Does Wet Plate Photography Work?

Wet plate photography uses a glass base to produce a negative image that is printed on albumen paper.

According to the official definition as explained by Britannica, the technique consists of:

“The process involved adding a soluble iodide to a solution of collodion (cellulose nitrate) and coating a glass plate with the mixture. In the darkroom the plate was immersed in a solution of silver nitrate to form silver iodide. The plate, still wet, was exposed in the camera. It was then developed by pouring a solution of pyrogallic acid over it and was fixed with a strong solution of sodium thiosulfate.”

Once the photograph was developed, it could then produce prints from the glass negative.

The History of the Wet Plate Process

When it was first developed, the process had several advantages. With being produced on glass, it was an inexpensive option in comparison to that of older techniques that required materials such as copper. Additionally, the time for development was quick, only needing a few seconds for exposure.

The wet plate process required the photographer to coat and develop the image before the plate dries. Historically, this led to somewhat of an inconvenience requiring photographers to develop on the spot by utilizing a portable darkroom.

Wet plate photography required the use of silver nitrate solution. Although a powerful chemical, it often caused issues when combined with other substances that resulted in an improperly produced image. Additionally, if the chemical was to drip off the glass plate it would leave impressions and stains.

One of the most interesting aspects of wet plate photography is its reaction to light. The process was only sensitive to blue light. This means that in the photographs, warm colors such as yellow or orange would appear dark while cool colors would appear light and white. For example, in photographs a red apple would appear black while a blue tablecloth would appear white.

The Uses of the Wet Plate Process

Wet plate photography was used to develop images from various niches – portraits, landscapes, architecture and artistic creations.

Perhaps the most famous depiction of history as told through the wet plate, collodion process were images of the Civil War.

Photographers such as Roger Fenton and Alexander Gardner were known for using this method to develop their photographs. Yet, because this process required on the spot developing, it is noted that each of these images captured most likely took at least 10 minutes to create. A somewhat rigorous process during the actions and movements of wartime.

Wet Plate Photography Today

Although the technique of the wet plate process was revolutionary in the 1800’s, it was eventually replaced by a more accessible and easier to use method of dry negatives.

Today, multiple photographic artists still utilize the collodion, wet plate process to create beautiful, artistic images. Although it is not a common practice for modern day film development, there is no denying that the images produced through this process are truly unique and captivating.

Many artists will share their personal process of collodion development and you can choose to make the technique your own by using tools such as tintypes or silver gelatin prints.

If you’re a film photographer focusing in the medium to large format film process, wet plate photography can be a creative and experimental way to reimagine your artistic work.