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Against all good advice: how to build a large format camera for wet collodion work at home

Writer and photography / Elizabeth Graves

The unlikely story of how Elizabeth Graves built a large format camera, modified film holders by her own design to hold wet plates, mixed collodion chemistry without blowing up her home, used her garage door as a shutter, and (after several adjustments) got her homemade plates into a group gallery show in New York City.


In early 2009, I was getting the swing of wet collodion. I had taken a workshop in 2008, and was practicing every chance I could at the excellent wet collodion rental studio at RayKo Photo Center (see my article Wet plate collodion studio rental in San Francisco), where I had many productive sessions. I was making slow but steady progress toward getting the sort of ferrotypes that I wanted to produce.

A request for larger ferrotypes from an interested gallery changed my schedule, however, and I realized that I needed to practice every weekend until I could skillfully produce larger plates. But the rental studio wasn’t available to me every weekend, nor was a friend always able to assist me, which I needed when working outdoors. Plus, money was tight. I needed another solution.

Ingredients for a Solution

Working on wet collodion on my own would require many things that I was accustomed to renting or buying at the studio:

  1. a large format camera, capable of making plates up to 8×10
  2. a large format plate holder
  3. a good recipe for all of the chemistry
  4. chemistry, plus success at mixing it (includes warnings!)
  5. a spark-free darkroom with adequate ventilation for volatile chemical work
  6. metal plates
  7. lighting bright enough to work with slow collodion emulsions.

The lensLuck, money, hand tools, a strong tripod, and time aren’t on this list, but they should be, and my supply of each of these was uncertain. Pulling together everything on this list on my own and on a budget seemed impossible. Yet just six months later, I had all of these things, and in November 2009, plates I made at home were shown in a group show in New York City.

This article describes how I created the equipment I needed on a tight budget: it only discusses wet collodion processes generally. Look at the other great articles on this website for more about collodion.

Ingredient A: The Camera

The large format camera I had been renting was a modern, sophisticated, folding affair, one with a fancy frame, bellows (not quite long enough for my current project), a lens board, a lens around 250 mm, and a lovely ground glass screen. I looked at new and used prices for such equipment: the camera body without lenses could easily cost me more than US$6,000. I resolved to build a camera, even though I had never built a lensed camera before.

Bellow insertI am a fan of antique cameras: I appreciate their simplicity. At their most basic, cameras are just light proof boxes with a lens and one end and a means for holding light-sensitive media at the other. I had purchased Alan Greene’s lovely book Primitive Photography, which verified this impression and provided plans for a lovely pair of wooden camera designs. I own no woodcutting tools, so I used this book as a hint that my project was possible (if not probable), and set off in another direction.

At the very least, I’d need a camera with the following features: a lens, a shutter, the camera body/bellows, and a ground glass viewing screen.

The Lens

The Internet is full of discussion boards about photography in which students ask for advice on building large format cameras cheaply, and veteran photographers tell them that their efforts will only end in tears. Buried in those warnings, however, are discussions of industrial “process lenses” made for duplicating objects 1:1 for press printing, which can be had cheaply on auction web sites. Such lenses are very straightforward (relatively symmetrical), and I wouldn’t need to do any complex calculations or filtering to use them.

Within a few weeks of haunting the auction websites, I purchased a 250 mm process lens with a built-in iris aperture from an auction site for less than $80.

The Shutter

There are many fancy designs for shutters of many types: leaf shutters, guillotines, rotating shutters… Frankly, wet collodion is slow enough that a shutter could be operated by a sleepy, precise turtle with the right reach and opposable thumbs. For my first shutter, I actually used…. my garage door. Yes, my garage door, the automated sort with a button. I would open the door so sunlight fell upon my subject, focus, close the door, prepare the plate, put the plate on the camera, and open the door for the length of the exposure, then close the door. I’m not kidding. It works!

The bellowLater, when I switched to using UV lights, I simply turned the lights off with a darkroom timer, and then put a borrowed lens cap on before closing the dark slide.

The Camera Body and Bellows

Alan Greene’s book introduced me to the idea of extending a camera body with a wooden telescoping back, rather than employing bellows. The rear of the camera fits into the front half, and can be extended out as needed, while resting in a base. I took this idea as my starting point.

I had no wood cutting tools, and very little wood lying around, beyond a board with a tripod mount in it that I had used as a shooting platform. I considered going to a hardware store and having wood cut to order; I considered going to a plastics store and doing the same thing, but either way I knew I would not be able to make any fine adjustments if anything was wrong. So I went with something I’m good with: paper. I had gently used multi ply black matt board in my art supply closet. I’d used it to support presentations years ago: re-using it cost me nothing. I cut it to make two boxes: one for the front of the camera, and one for the telescoping back. I held the boxes together with book glue and black, acid-free art tape.

The front box uses the wooden tripod-mounted board as its base. It is about as long as the focal length of the lens (250 mm), which is appropriate for 1:1 work. The front wall is double-thick, partly for stability, and partly so the tiny screws (found at a hobby store) holding the lens will never be tempted to tear themselves out. The rear box is removable, and fits into the smaller one up to the point where I have installed a small barrier on the base.


Ground glass viewing screen

I didn’t have any glass handy, but knew I needed something frosted that I could hold at the same spot the film plane would rest in. Something light. Something like… more paper.

Paper instead of ground glassI used a sheet of heavyweight vellum – a very thick sort of tracing paper, popular with scrapbook makers and greeting card companies – mounted to a matt-board frame, that held it just as far from the lens as the film holder would. It is not as bright as ground glass – it is thicker and cloudier – but under a dark cloth (a small blanket), it is possible to focus with it.

Camera Testing

I didn’t want to rely on my first batch of wet collodion chemistry to determine whether I’d built the camera correctly: it would be testing an uncertain technology with another uncertain technology. Instead I purchased some positive paper.

Positive paper is just like conventional darkroom paper, but instead of printing from a negative light source, it prints from a positive light source, and uses slightly different chemistry for developing and fixing. Made in Eastern Europe, it is about ISO 4 – about the same as my collodion – and is available in 8 inch x 10 inch sheets, so it fits perfectly into standard film holders.

It worked on the very first try!

Assembly of plateholder

Ingredient B: The Plate Holder

Plate holders used by experienced collodion workers are complex affairs that can be accessed from both sides. If you haven’t seen one, you could think of it as a very thin box with two doors with a window in between: one door faces the lens of the camera, and is opened for the long exposures collodion requires; the window contains a space for the plate to be firmly held in place against corner wires; there is a spring to hold the plate apart from the back door and pressed against the wires; and the back door used for inserting the plate into its place in the window. The “window” part of this arrangement is necessary if you are working on a thick plate, such as glass, where a commercial sheet film holder (made to hold thin paper) might not have enough room to accommodate the depth of the glass, and so a hole must be cut through its center wall.

Assembly of plateholderI decided to only make ferrotypes, so my needs are simpler. The metal is very thin, just a few millimeters, so I don’t need a window in the middle of the film holder at all. I just needed a way to hold the metal flat in the film plane.

My film holder is made of:

  • a used sheet film holder I purchased from an auction site
  • a layer of scrap plastic sheet I purchased from an art supply store
  • black tape
  • brass fasteners
  • book binder’s thread.

Look at the photo to see how it all goes together. I cut a window in the plastic sheet, so it fit inside the film holder and around the plate like a window matt board. At two corners of the opening for the plate, I put in fixed corners to hold the plate in place; in the other two, I inserted fasteners near the corner, so I can string thread into place to hold the plate in once it is inserted. The plastic is taped into place, and ready to use. It holds the wet plate securely in all four corners – no spring or back door is required. (Also, no permanent damage is done to the plate holder – the plate holding assembly can be removed and the sheet film holder can be put to its original use.)

Ingredient C: A Good Chemistry Recipe

There are many fine recipes for wet collodion chemistry. I chose one that gave me an excuse to purchase a book I had wanted for a long time: John Barnier’s Coming Into Focus. This alt process instruction book is beautifully illustrated, very well written, and has some of the most lovely comparisons of POP paper toning recipe samples that you will ever lay eyes upon. This book, published in 2000 by Chronicle Books, has a chapter devoted to collodion by the famed Scully & Osterman. It even provides a list of labware you will need. What better excuse to purchase another alt process book could there be? I rushed right out to my favorite bookshop and purchased the book, which I recommend highly.

In addition to the recipes used in Coming Into Focus, I also dabbled with ferrous sulfate developer recipes used in John Towler’s 1864 the Silver Sunbeam, available on-line.

Ingredient D: Notes on chemistry, plus WARNINGS

It is time for WARNINGS! Unlike many types of wet darkroom photo chemistry you may be used to, certain components of wet collodion chemistry are extremely flammable, and can explode easily in the presence of sparks; certain components give off terrible fumes, which can make you dizzy, cause nausea, and render you unconscious. Ethyl ether in particular is hazardous not only if swallowed, but also if inhaled or spilled on the skin. To quote the Material Safety Data Sheet for ethyl ether, “Irritant. General anesthesia by inhalation can occur. Continued exposure may lead to respiratory failure or death. Early symptoms include irritation of nose and throat, vomiting, and irregular respiration, followed by dizziness, drowsiness, and unconsciousness.” Potassium cyanide (which I do not use) is also highly hazardous.

Even if you have never taken special precautions before, START NOW: this is serious stuff, and you need to operate with safety concerns foremost in mind with the volatile ingredients used in this process. Non-sparking ventilation, goggles, gloves, safety equipment, mixing the chemistry OUTDOORS, having a friend check in on you while you are mixing… All of those things and more. Okay? This isn’t stuff to leave around the house. This can’t be left within reach of children, dextrous pets, or clumsy relatives. These chemicals must be stored securely. Are you clear on this? Okay.

My main advice with respect to chemistry is to SHOP AROUND. It took me a while to save up funds for the chemistry, and it is expensive. My favorite specialists in alt process supplies did not have every ingredient I needed in stock, and so I had to utilize the Internet to do some searching for different suppliers. What I found surprised me: there were VAST price differences between suppliers for the same materials. Vast. Comparison shopping pays for itself quickly, even factoring in minimum purchase requirements and shipping costs. I wound up purchasing chemistry from about five different vendors over a few months, both from the specialists you know and from laboratory supply houses in my state.

Please also note that some of the ingredients are regulated, so you may have to manage legal paperwork to get supplies. I didn’t need to send anyone a copy of my business license, but I did need to fax my passport to one supplier, along with a declaration that I would not engage in certain specific nefarious activities. The fact that this was required, and that I was able to write that my purpose for purchasing the chemistry was “art,” made me feel hip for a brief period of time.

Ingredient E: A Spark-Free, Dark Place to Work

The collodion emulsion can be mixed in ordinary light. For mixing the emulsion, nothing beats the great outdoors. My bottle of ethyl ether gave me and my colleagues headaches while it was still sealed in its shipping box; there was no way I was going to work with that in an enclosed space. A sheltered outdoor patio was just what I needed. Banish smokers, stay away from equipment with pilot lights (such as old-fashioned water heaters and furnaces) and follow all the warnings that come with your favored emulsion recipe. Once the chemistry is mixed into emulsion, it doesn’t smell half so bad. The solution needs to be aged a few days, so plan accordingly.

The silver sensitizing, developing, and fixing steps need to be performed in a darkroom lit by safelights (the emulsion doesn’t see the full spectrum, so certain parts of the light spectrum are safe). I am lucky enough to have a drafty garage, so I was able to set a table and some trays up in small, drafty storage room lit with several bright red LED bicycle tail lights for developing. (I tested the bike lights, and none caused fogging of the plates, but they were bright enough to work with. Red LED bike lights are my new favorite kind of safelight.)

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a poorly insulated, drafty room for this purpose, or even a well-ventilated room with non-sparking fans, you should consider going old-school and making a tent. (This was my original plan, but the drafty room proved too convenient.) “Dark cloth” (commonly used in classroom window blinds to block out light when showing movies) is available in 2 meter+ widths from hardware and stores that carry other types of home fabrics. You can make a simple tent: tack it to a wall up near the ceiling, drape it around yourself and your table, tape the edges down around the sides of the table, and gather it up around yourself when you are working. Fresh air is just an expansive gesture away!

Ingredient F: Metal plates.

“Everyone” buys painted metal plates from Main Trophy Supply in Illinois. Ring them up, tell them what you are doing, and they’ll set you up. They know what alt process people are like. They cut plates to size, and charge VERY reasonable cutting rates.

Ingredient G: Lighting

Nothing beats the sun! The plates illustrating this article were all made with sunlight. If you already have a UV lightbox, you can use that with some experimentation.
Final print and object

Putting It All Together

In summary, here are the highlights of what I did at home. Keep in mind this came AFTER testing out the collodion process in a workshop the prior year, to be sure I was interested in committing more time to it.

  • I built a large format camera from matt board, tape, a lens (purchased from an auction site), screws and adhesives, a paper viewing screen, and some wood with a tripod mount in it
  • I bought a used plate holder and modified it non-destructively to hold plates
  • I bought a good recipe book
  • I shopped around wisely for chemicals
  • I mixed the volatile chemicals outdoors, and took appropriate safety precautions
  • I found that red LEDs can serve as safelights in a darkroom
  • I made ferrotypes!

In the end, I entered scans of the plates into a call for entries for a juried alt process show, and had two of my plates chosen. Success!

What I learned from building my first lensed camera

The process of building a large format camera was invaluable for me. Yes, I enjoy the bragging rights – and building an experimental LF camera definitely earns you those, even if it is a very simple camera. But there are many more benefits.

I feel that I really understand photography. Having built a camera, mixed all of my own chemistry from lab supplies, applied it to a plate (which is equivalent to making my own film), processed it, and varnished it – I feel completely removed from the passivity that modern photographic technology sometimes induces. I know EXACTLY what is happening inside that box. There is no one else at work when I push a button – there is no button.

I have an improved appreciation for cameras generally. Those fancy cameras I rent at the studio – they have such sophisticated movements! They have pieces that lock into place! They have well-lubricated rails to ensure that everything moves smoothly! I have a much better fundamental appreciation of all of those components now that I have worked without them. It’s like backpacking for us outdoorsy types: it’s AMAZING what you can do with some simple supplies in the wilderness, and when you return home, domesticity is filled with wonders. I am glad I can function in both realms with pleasure.

I have an improved appreciation for humidity. Yes, my matt board camera sometimes swells up when it’s really damp outside, and the telescoping function doesn’t work so well. I will likely seal the board with acrylic paints, and may also introduce a simple groove system with some silicon in it for improved ease of movement.

Ferrotype printI learned that assembled process lenses make optics easy to grasp visually. I had been intimidated by optical calculations before (‘let’s correct for chroma!’), but most of what I needed to know about my process lens I was able to figure out by mounting the lens to a board, and then using a sheet of paper to map out the extent of focusing at various apertures. Yes, I eyeballed it. The lens had been well-designed and corrected for anything I might need already – I just had to figure out how to use it for my purposes. (Yes, I’m thinking of making my own compound lenses going forward. In my spare time. While I’m resting.)

I learned that vertical baths are nice, but that everything you need to do to a plate in wet collodion, you can do in an ordinary darkroom tray.

I’ve learned that I like positive paper, which is very “contrasty.”

Yes, I’ve bought an even bigger process lens, and am coming up with new camera designs.

Elizabeth Graves is an artist working with cyanotype, vandyke and collodion and a keen experimenter with all sorts of alternative photographic processes.

4 thoughts on “Against all good advice: how to build a large format camera for wet collodion work at home

  1. Wonderful article Elizabeth, thank you
    Have you:
    a. gone further with your bigger camera?
    b. Thought about using something called sonna(sp) tubes for the body? These are the cardboard forms used to retain concrete poured fro bases of lamposts, etc & are available in a large number of sizes, cheaply… Home Depot & Lowes are among the ones who sell them.
    I made a 48″ 8×10 pinhole camera out of one…works like a charm.
    Good luck & keep in touch with all of us…

  2. Andy, I’m still using the same camera, though I have created other body extensions for it of various lengths (mostly shorter), and have sketched plans to build another out of acrylic plastic that will be more durable for field use, which I plan to build in 2012. I’ve read of others planning to use /Sono/ tubes, but have never seen the resulting cameras: I think they are a great idea, but there is some complexity in coming up with a good working interconnection between the plate holder and the tube, and in mounting the tripod mount to a round surface.

    Thank you, Christine!

    Christopher, most collodion workers I have met have modified existing (manufactured) plate holders to accommodate wet plate, rather than starting from scratch. The book I mention in the text, Primitive Photography, has detailed plans (included drafted drawings) for building two types of 8×10 camera, plus a wet paper media plate holder. The plate holder laid out in that book could easily be modified by you to hold wet plates.

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