Converting a Toy Camera into a Wet Plate Camera

In this video, “Lights, Toy Camera, Action”, photographer Ian Ruhter defies traditional ideas of antique photography and brings wet plate photography to life with another brand new approach. Processes like wet plate, daguerrotype, and tintype photography, when viewed throughout history, have all relied on early technology and therefore extremely low sensitivity of the light-absorbing materials. This always meant uncomfortably long exposure times, and therefore necessitated the stiff, posed portraits of the 19th century. By combining these techniques with modern equipment such as strobes, Ruhter is able to create images unlike any other ever seen:

We reported on Ruhter previously when he created a pinhole camera out of his truck, and in this video he continues to push the boundaries of what photography means and what can be done with it. Here, he turns a cheap plastic Holga camera into a wet-plate powerhouse, employing his previously discussed technique, the wet plate collodion process. The principles are quite straightforward, but the execution is finicky and demands great care and strict attention to detail (you can read more about it here). Usually, wet plate photography is done with massive view cameras, but Ruhter knows that every camera behaves the same, and the design of a Holga features a perfectly square inset at the film plane that can hold a wet plate perfectly. He describes how to morph this $30 lomographic toy into an antique film dream, and it doesn’t even require physical modification of the camera itself, just some special tools:

  • First, use black tape to cover the window on the rear door; this would usually show the exposure number, but of course wet plate is only one one exposure at a time.
  • Get some 6×6-inch square black aluminum plates. You may need to visit a metal smith for these.
  • In a darkroom under only amber light, cover the front of the plate in collodion by pouring the solution over top and then draining off into a tray to achieve an even coating.
  • Place the plate into a silver bath and allow it to sensitize in complete darkness for about two minutes.
  • Fit the plate into the rear inset of the Holga and make your exposure.
  • Develop, stop, and fix the image.

antique photography

Of course this is an incredibly brief overview, and if you’re going to try this yourself we’d suggest doing a lot more research on the subject, as the chemistry you’re dealing with is very specific, and the exposure times are widely variable based on a number of different factors. Still, there’s nothing like a challenge to grow as an artist, and knowing the history of your craft so intimately will certainly give you a whole new appreciation for its challenges and triumphs, and for how it got to where it is today.

“To me, photography isn’t always about getting the perfect image, and when you’re shooting for yourself and it’s not a job, alls [sic] you gotta remember is just have fun with it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s your iPhone, digital, Polaroid, wet plate, you name it – just having fun.”

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