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The modern tintype process

Writer / Tina Maas

The modern tintype is also known as ferrotypes outlined by Tina Maas.

Always be careful when handling chemicals. Read the health and safety instructions.

Note: The Modern Tintype is a liquid light process, that comes in a kit, much less toxic than the Classic Tintype process and more suited to beginners.

This old process was invented in the late 1800’s and was one of the photographic processes that made it possible for the general public to have their portrait taken. Because Tintypes were reproduced on metals, this type of photography was comparatively cheap and photographers started offering street photography whose quick results became very popular. Tintypes were very widespread in America at the time of the American civil war and one can occasionally still find tintypes from that period on flee markets, picturing pioneers that had their photo taken before going off to the Wild West or showing small multiple images that were used by the sitter as a type of early business card.

The Tintype is a positive image on a metal plate. The process is similar to daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, which were positive images on glass that could only be seen if you placed a background such as black velvet behind them, otherwise they were negatives. With most photographic processes the surface you use (in the most conventional way photographic white paper) will be the highlights of your image and the silver emulsion will represent the different shades of black in your image. With a reversal process the support surface has to be painted black first and the light sensitive emulsion that you coat it with will give you the highlights of your image. Because the emulsion has a yellow color the contrast within the image is usually not as strong as with conventional photography (black and yellow as opposed to black and white) and as a result the image looks old and a little faded, however this inherent quality can be one reason to specifically use tintypes. Sometimes the yellowish emulsion turns into different colors ranging from red brown to green and blue, which can create stunningly beautiful effects.

As a brief overview the tintype process involves obtaining suitable metal plates, cleaning and preparing their surface, spraying the plates with black spray paint and then coating them with light sensitive emulsion and subsequently exposing the plate and developing it in special chemistry.

I do by no means claim that I am an expert at tintypes and am simply sharing my experiences. I have to say that this is not really a technique I would recommend to absolute beginners or control freaks. I have found this process full of surprises and unexplainable “side effects”. Basically different things “go wrong” at different stages of the process every time I do it. Nevertheless, I have had beautiful results as well and I have to admit that I like that inability of control and the surprise aspect it brings with it. So if you are up for experimentation you can certainly get some unique results. And if you happen to know or find out better ways of doing tintypes please don’t hesitate to share this information, as any tips for improvement will be greatly appreciated.

What you need

To make Tintypes you need to order the tintype kit (or components from it) from Rockland Colloid Corporation in New York State: P. O. Box 376, Piermont, NY 10968, telephone: (914) 359 5559. I do not know of any other company that makes Ag plus emulsion or the indispensable reversal developer. I have been told that AG plus is just a silver emulsion with a lot more silver in it than the other liquid emulsions that Rockland makes, but has about the same amount of silver as “Luminos” Silver Print or Cachet’s “Black Magic”. You will need all your images as positives (slides or interpositives (large positives)) or alternatively use objects to make photograms. In addition to your general darkroom equipment you need metal if you want to create your own plates, black enamel spray paint to coat them and a brown storage bottle for the developer that you have to mix (it will last for about a week once mixed). The only chemistry you will have to mix is the reversal developer (it comes with instructions) and normal paper fix with hardener. The emulsion is already prepared and you only need to heat it up to use it.

1Plate preparation – metal base
You can theoretically use a wide variety of metals. I have tried only stainless steel and aluminum. I would recommend aluminum because of the heavy weight of most other metals, which makes handling and transportation afterwards difficult. You should choose a metal thickness that enables the individual plates to lie totally flat (otherwise the emulsion will run off the edges or concentrate in the middle of the plate during drying). I have found the required thickness of the aluminum sheet to be verging on the border of what you can still cut with metal cutting scissors so it may be worth getting them cut to size with a machine (some places charge a fortune though). Don’t forget to cut a couple of test strips when you are at it. The actual dimensions of the plates naturally depend on the size of your trays and your adventurousness. I have successfully done plates of up to 11×14 inches but would recommend starting with smaller sizes.

It is important to clean the metal surface with white spirit to remove any dirt and oily substances that will prevent the emulsion from adhering to it. One way of testing if the plate is clean is to check if water runs evenly over the plate without being repelled by it.

I have also been told that roughening the metal surface with a metallic wire sponge helps to prepare the surface so that the spray paint will stick well. (The image or spray paint lifting off the metal having been one of my problems)

2Spray paint
The plates have to be black for an image to show up. In the old days they used tar for this part but enamel spray paint works just fine. Matt or glossy spray paint will determine if your end result will be matt or glossy. Both have worked for me in the past. However, I tried to do tintypes in many different countries and have had problems with finding the right kind of spray paint. Spray outside in fresh air well away from white cars and ideally shaded from wind because dust and dirt will be blown onto your otherwise perfect plates and stick to the surface. Sorry to give all this obvious advice but it all happened to me…. One can of spray paint doesn’t cover that many plates by the way (around 5 plates of 11 x 8.5 inches) so if you are preparing a whole bunch of plates (which makes sense) get enough cans since it is terribly annoying to run out half way. The right kind of spray paint should dry in 15 to 20 minutes. Some spray paint gets scratched really easily so watch out for that. I am sorry if it seems like there are about hundred obstacles to overcome before we have even touched the chemistry. Just bear with me.

3Coating the plates
Again there are many ways to coat. I really like the AG plus emulsion that is supplied by Rockland Colloid. You may also work with normal liquid light emulsion but I have found it a lot more fluid and harder to coat with (runny and resulting in a very thin coat). The AG plus has a consistency of pancake dough and spreads nicely. But this all depends on individual preference. Until Rockland releases their secret recipe you will have to order the special reversal developer from them anyway. People have given me recipes to mix my own but it has not worked for me, so my advice would be: don’t waste your time on it.

Coating has to be done in the darkroom under red safelight (as dark as you can to avoid fogging in the long period during which you are preparing the plates). The emulsion is a solid gel at room temperature and has to be heated up to become liquid. For lack of a fancy hot plate I simply use boiling water and pour it into a measuring jug and then place the black emulsion bottle inside it. It takes a while for the gel to liquefy. To test if it is ready you turn the bottle gently upside down and you will hear the liquid moving (shaking the bottle produces air bubbles for those who are after that). I have found the temperature of the emulsion crucial to good and even coating. I would rather have the emulsion quite warm when it touches the metal because the plates are usually cold and cool the emulsion down. The last thing you want to happen is the emulsion turning back into gel while you are coating. You can use a hotplate to heat up the metal slightly or warm the metal with a hot hairdryer right before coating but this makes the process more time consuming. Personally, I pour a small amount of emulsion from the black bottle into a smaller container that I also keep warm in a jar of hot water in between plates. Some people like brushing the emulsion on (you will see brushstrokes) others spray it on. I just use my fingers to spread it (should wear gloves). As I said it is like pancake dough (the hotter the runnier) so I pour some into the center of the plate and then move it around with my fingers to cover all areas and then try to smoothen it out by tipping the whole plate over slowly into opposite directions. Some emulsion will run off the edges (the whole affair is quite messy really) so I usually place my next plate underneath the first and thereby catch most of the runoff (cover all your work area with newspaper first).

4Drying the plates and storage
Have a flat surface to place the coated plates on (I do not recommend leaning the plate against a wall because the emulsion will run down eventually). The emulsion has a kind of gray yellowish color in the dark; it is usually thinner around the edges, which is fine. If you want to save time use a hairdryer on the cold setting to dry the plates (warm will keep liquefying the gel). Be prepared for it to take a long time though (I have found 2-3 hours to be the average for 25 plates). If you air-dry the plates, switch off all lights and leave them overnight.

For safe storage place the plates in several light tight black photo bags or in a paper safe box. To protect each plate from the next I use kitchen towels in between them but it is crucial that the plates are totally dry (otherwise the paper towel sticks to them). Don’t wait too long between coating and exposing the plates because you are risking the emulsion becoming “fogged” or less sensitive.

5Exposing the plates
I have not experimented myself with putting plates into pinhole cameras or large format cameras. So I am only giving instructions for darkroom use. You can use only positives for the reversal process. Either use slides projected from an enlarger or do contact printing of interpositives (large positives made from sheet film).

Both color and black and white slides work well although color slides usually have a much longer exposure time. When working with the enlarger I open up the aperture all the way and start with a test strip of several 10-second intervals. Color slides will, on average, need double the amount of time because they are denser and darker. Some positives may need a 5-minute exposure. As a rule the exposure time increases with larger plates because the distance between the positive in the enlarger and the plate increases.

Contact printing usually requires less exposure time because the large positive is sandwiched onto the coated plate. Use a piece of glass to ensure firm contact during exposure. I have found the exposure times of contact printing an 8.5 x 11 inch image to be around 5 seconds at an aperture of 3.5. But this only gives you a brief guideline with what sort of setting to start experimenting with. It can be very frustrating in the beginning if you do a couple of test strips and you cannot find an image in either of them. There are many other decisive factors like your image size, enlarger type, your coating thickness and evenness and the density of your positive (the darker the positive the longer the exposure time) etc.

Because this is a reversal process you have to be aware of how to adjust your results. If you develop a plate without having exposed it, it should come out black (in the same way that normal photo paper would come out white). You can do a test before printing. So if your plates got “fogged” they will come out slightly gray. On the other hand, if you deliberately over expose a plate it will be the color of its emulsion: yellowish. So if the image on your last plate came out too light give it LESS exposure time. If it was too dark, INCREASE exposure time. It can be difficult to get your head around this because it is the exact opposite of normal printing which has become almost intuitive.

Every plate is an original. You can never draw definite conclusions from a previous exposure in the same way you do when you are working with industrially coated papers. I have printed the same image 5 times with the same exposure and gotten very different results. That is one reason why it is worthwhile preparing a lot of plates (so you can feel more at ease when exposing them). The test strips can only ever give you guidance as to what your exposure should be like. Their main function is basically to ensure you get a visible image. And bear in mind that the plates may change again when they dry, in my experience they have darkened quite a lot so print a little on the light side. Because of all the variables involved it sometimes seems impossible to feel that you have any kind of control over this process but if you print several versions of each image something interesting will come out. Just keep your expectations low and you will be positively surprised.

The developer is mixed from a bag of powder, which you dissolve in hot water, and a bottle of liquid that you add to the solution. The powder should not be brown when you open the bag, which means that it is old chemistry and you should get it replaced. After you add the liquid it smells very bad like ammonia, which is (unfortunately) a way of telling that the chemistry is fresh. Mix the developer according to the instructions and let it cool down well in advance.

You need 4 trays. One for the reversal developer. Then a water bath. Then paper fix with hardener and then water again. Stop bath is not used. Make sure your water (and chemistry) is cold. Even slightly warmer water than 20 degrees (70 Fahrenheit) will start washing the emulsion clear off your plate.

Work in red safelight at all times because the emulsion is very light sensitive. Darken the room more than a normal darkroom because the tintypes fog faster than regular black and white paper.

7After exposure place the exposed plate into the tray with developer and agitate gently for about 2 minutes.
You will not see an image, don’t worry this is normal. You may after some experience see the plate turn slightly gray. Since the plates are heavy, normal tongs are useless so I recommend using your hands (wear gloves). But be careful nevertheless not to smudge the now soft emulsion on the sides of your plate.

I have found a faint image to start appearing already in clear water. But don’t leave it there for too long (15 seconds to half a minute max.).

8Move it into the fix
You will see the image appearing miraculously. Leave it in the fix for 3 minutes under gentle agitation.

9Then wash out the fix under running water for 10 minutes.

By this stage the surface feels like leather when you touch it.

Have the plate drying face up on a flat surface. Any plates that you do not like can be reused after washing off the emulsion with hot water.

For any further questions or problems you are encountering email Tina Maas and I will try my best to help. Good luck to everyone and send in interesting results to AlternativePhotography.com.

Note: These tintypes are modern dry plate tintypes. There are several different types of tintypes, the the background is lead and the backing can be aluminum, copper, zinc, or almost anything, sprayed with gloss spray black paint.

A dry plate tintype was introduced to the public in 1891 – faster and easier than the wet plate tintypes. The rockland company kits are dry plate – not wet plate

Photo Imaging – A Complete Visual Guide to Alternative Techniques and Processes
by Jill Enfield
A definite resource for mastering alternative photo-imaging techniques with a great chapter on the tintype process.
Highly recommended

Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Buy from Amazon.com


6 thoughts on “The modern tintype process

  1. Hello ! I have much a piece of metal …Rockland ( Supplier)told me surface must be primed and then painted oil based black enamel….Have an old slide projector to use to expose..how does one determine length of exposure..I’ll do test strips but was wondering about a close estimation to aim for…?
    Also if anyone has used the kits how much do the chemicals cover…

  2. Under step 4 you say “Don’t wait too long between coating and exposing the plates.” Could you provide some rough guidance on what “too long” means? Hours? Days?

  3. Can anyone tell if it’s possible to project an image onto a coated large 3 ft by 5 foot piece of metal.?

  4. ~Can Anyone tell me if it’s possible to project an image on a coated piece of metal ? It’s3ft by 5ft….
    How would to develop such a large piece ?
    Thank you.

  5. Scott, I see no-one has come back to you on your questions. A long time has passed so I don’t know if you’re still interested, but I’ll attempt to answer your questions. The Rockland Tintype Parlor kit contains just enough emulsion to cover the eight 4×5″ plates included in the kit, with a small amount left over. To cover a large sheet of metal you’d need to buy a bottle of AG Plus or Liquid light large enough for your surface. You’d also need more developer than the Parlor kit includes, so get the separate reversal developer chemistry. An alternative emulsion is Fuji Art Emulsion.

    These emulsions set at room temperature, so you’d need to warm both the liquid and the metal plate sufficiently to get the emulsion to spread evenly. A glass rod would probably help to spread the stuff around. Projecting an image from a slide projector would be possible, but your exposure times would be very long. You would be able to get a rough estimate by metering off the projected image with the meter set to about ISO 4 or 5, but test strips will be essential. Also note that these emulsions are only sensitive to the blue end of the spectrum, so if your original image was a color image, you’ll get very little response from red and orange parts of the image, ie these will be largely black in the tintype.

    To develop a large piece like your 3ft by 5ft sheet, you’ll need to construct large dev, stop and fix baths. The easiest way is to lay four stout lengths of wood on the floor in a square, and then drape plastic sheeting over the top to form a basin. Build three of these. You’ll need to agitate the metal piece itself since the ‘trays’ can’t be moved.

    Good luck!

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