Watch Tin-Type Photographic Magic Unfurl on Stage

If you think film is like the dinosaur of photography, wait until you see this process bring an image to life. The wet-plate collodion process was invented back in the early 19th century. It’s one of the first really useful methods of capturing an image on a sensitive surface and then developing it into a positive. The drawback is that you have about 10 minutes to complete the whole process from making the tin-plate sensitive to light, making the exposure, and then developing it. Michael Shindler, a tin-type photographer, demonstrates the whole process by making an image of host Adam Savage and transforms the stage into one giant studio and darkroom:

The wet-plate collodion process is one of a kind. If you’ve ever wanted to get yourself immersed in the process of image making this is as close to photographic bliss as you will ever get. Very few photographers still make photos using this process.

Coating the Plate

Shindler used a metal plate, which in this case is a sheet of aluminum with black enamel coating on it. The first step was to coat the plate with liquid nitrocellulose solution. The solution contains Cadmium Bromide and Ammonium Iodide.

wet plate collodion process

Coating the aluminum plate with liquid nitrocellulose solution

Making the Plate Light Sensitive

The solution Shindler poured on to the plate isn’t light sensitive. But it becomes so once the plate is soaked in Silver Nitrate for about three minutes. The salts (Cadmium Bromide and Ammonium Iodide) in the nitrocellulose solution react with the Silver Nitrate and forms Silver Iodide and Silver Bromide on the plate. These are light sensitive salts.

Once the plate begins to turn white, Shindler brings it up and mops up the excess silver nitrate.

Taking the Exposure

The next step is to load the plate on to the camera and make the exposure. The light sensitivity of the plate isn’t great. In normal photographic parlance it’s somewhere around ISO 0.5. Back in the old days, photographers would use an exposure of four to eight seconds to get a good exposure in bright conditions. In this case, Shindler was shooting with battery powered lights so a blinding flash is all he needed to make a decent exposure.

tin-type photography

Loading the plate on to the camera

Pouring the Developer

Next, the developer is poured on to the plate. Shindler uses simple developer and restrainer for the process. The development happens really fast—in about 15 seconds. The image appears like a negative at first.

developing a tin-type negative

Developer poured on to the plate

Rinsing the Plate

As soon as the image begins to appear Shindler rinses the developer off to stop the development.

Pouring the Fixer

Now’s the time to pour the fixer. The fixer rinses away all of the silver salts that were not exposed and developed. As the fixer is poured the image disappears briefly and then comes back as a positive.

Developing an image shot using wet plate method

Now’s the time to add the fixer

Here’s the final image.

'The camera adds a good twenty years' sends the audience into fits of laughter as the wet plate magically transforms into a portrait of Adam Savage

‘The camera adds a good twenty years and sends the audience into fits of laughter as the wet plate magically transforms into a portrait of Adam Savage.

Isn’t it just magic? It makes you fall in love with photography all over again.

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