The History and Process of Wet Plate Photography

The wet plate collodion process is the granddaddy of analog photography. One of the earliest and probably the most popular systems of taking and then making a photograph, wet plate photography was accidentally discovered by an Englishman named Frederick Scott Archer. He, however, never patented his process. The process of wet plate photography could arguably be credited for the break out of photography as a serious vocation:

Wet plate photography is “probably one of the hardest types of photography to master,” according to the proponent of this technique, David Rambow.

A demonstration of the difficulty of this technique can be judged by a simple thing as the sensitivity of the film. It has an ASA of 2 and a normal exposure time indoors can be about 30 seconds.

black and white wet plate

Rambow’s love for photography flows from his love for history. His father was a history teacher. He went on to study history and then became the director of the Pipestone Country Historical society. The real spark that endeared him to wet plate photography was an accidental discovery of a collection of glass negatives. Intrigued with the process, he started his research into how it worked. He finally found someone who does this and learned the process from him.

Rambow says that despite the assistance from his mentor and the help he got from ancient 19th century textbooks, much of the process was hands-on and was learned by trial and error. Today, thanks to the internet, photographers who are interested in this technique has a much easier time learning.

To demonstrate, Rambow shows how an average picture is made, the process of prepping the plate, and how it is developed. It’s an interesting few minutes of insight into a very delicate method of image making. For a true connoisseur and admirer of the process, this is a must watch.

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