Civil War Reenactment Photos Taken with Wet Collodion Plate Camera

Photographer Rob Gibson loves to make Civil War reenactment photos. But unlike most of his fellow photographers, Gibson’s decided to shelf the digital camera and go with something a little more era appropriate. Just like the clothes and props Rob Gibson‘s models wear reflect the 1860s, so does his method of photography. He is one of the few people practicing wet collodion plate photography today. Using this method since 1993, Gibson has learned the intricacies of the chemistry and photographic technique needed to capture wet collodion photographs:

The Challenges of Wet Collodion Photography

  • Single Shot Only. Unlike any 35mm or rangefinder camera, there’s no advancing to the next frame. The camera can only hold one plate at a time. This means for every shot you take you need another plate. And these plates cannot simply be changed quickly as each takes time to prepare and must be developed soon afterward.
  • Time Constraints. You can leave a roll of film in a camera for months at a time without seeing any difference in the quality of photos. Often it takes years for film to degrade. But there is a time constraint with wet collodion plates. They must be shot soon after being prepared, and they must also be developed shortly after being exposed. If at any point the plate becomes dry, the photo will be ruined.
  • Portability. Wet plate cameras didn’t exactly come with a camera strap. They may not be particularly heavy, but they are very bulky and a tripod is a must.
  • Exposure Time. Rather than a fraction of a second, wet plates often take several seconds to develop, even in bright light.
  • Chemistry. Special chemical mixtures must be made for the preparation, development, and preservation of the photo. As you can imagine, these mixtures aren’t available at your local arts & crafts store.
With wet collodion plate photography, you can watch the photo develop right in front of you

With wet collodion plate photography, you can watch the photo develop right in front of you.

“You can take a digital picture of somebody standing there in the best Civil War reproduction outfits or even original stuff. It’s never going to look like this. But you take one of these plates and say, ‘Wow, that’s it. That’s the real thing.'”

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