Tintype Celebrity Portraits at the Sundance Film Festival

Digital photography has its many virtues, but when it comes to really getting inside the process of watching an image come alive, there is little to compare with the old methods. Before digital there was film and before film there was the wet plate collodion process—a truly elaborate and complicated process. There is still a rare group of people who use this method. Thanks to them, the process is still alive. Celebrity photographer Victoria Will is one of those rare wet plate photographers:

The wet plate process, also known as the tintype, is a really old technique. It dates back more than a century, right back to the dawn of photography. It’s a method that involves smearing a tinplate with the exposing agent (thus the name wet plate). The photographer gets a small window of only 6–8 minutes to take the plate, make the exposure, and develop it. No wonder it’s virtually unthinkable for commercial shoots in the 21st century.

Graflex Super D camera

The Graflex Super D camera at work

Will has been shooting at the Sundance Film Festival for the past four years. So, when she was approached for the fifth year in a row to photograph the stars appearing at the festival, she decided to do something out of the ordinary. She decided to shoot using the wet plate method. To complement the process she uses an old Graflex Super D camera.

tin-type photography

Victoria Will at work in her tin-type studio at the Sundance Film Festival

Focusing is a bit of a challenge with this camera, so Will prefers to pre-visualizes how she wants the model to pose. This helps her save critical minutes, so she can get the shot and then develop the plates within the 6–8 minute window.

She photographed a number of celebrities who were kind enough to give a sitting and bear the overpowering amount of light that flashed via the Profoto Octabank for each of the exposures. Just in case you’re wondering why so much light is required, the tin plates have a sensitivity of around ISO 0 to 1!

wet plate collodion portrait of kevin bacon

An incredible amount of light is needed for tintype photography.

It’s so inspiring to see old techniques at work in the age of digital photography.

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