Ambrotypes – a beginner’s view

Emma Bjorndahl has recently learned a new skill – making ambrotypes. She shares her passion and frustrations with this process.

Ambrotype Emma Bjorndahl

Ambrotype by Emma Bjorndahl. Wet plate collodion plate.

As of this year, ambrotypes have become my passion. With the unexpected, frustrating, and downright disconcerting amount of variables in the process, it truly feels like magic when I get an image that contains exquisite detail and lovely imperfections. The best advice I have been given is, document everything. Write down timing, mix of chemistry, quality of light and check the temperature before you start. Temperature is to chemistry what wine is to cheese, they go together. Not being one of the methodically gifted I have begun a blog to document my process and keep my head above water on some of the more technical issues that seem to continually arise like the sun in the east.

This is some of what I have learned from my hands on gung-ho approach, with more zest than finesse. Timing and temperature are everything and if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. I have poured collodion on my arm, had plates fall into my camera, nearly burnt the house down and watched in despair as a beautiful image vanished into a chemical swirl right before my eyes.

The first glass plates I made had no image at all. I was continually faced with a stubborn yellow murky plate. It dawned on me that the watery sunlight filtering through the window didn’t contain enough UV light. So I packed up and took the sitter outside which dramatically cut down the exposure time. The images began to come up and I felt slightly euphoric.

Wet plate colldion by Emma Bjorndahl

Ambrotype by Emma Bjorndahl. Wet plate collodion plate.

This quickly became despair as I watched the images vanish within a couple of hours as they were rapidly eaten away. I documented this process, which was fascinating in it’s ephemeral heart rending fashion. I hadn’t washed the plates or left them in the fixer for long enough. I now take the precaution of changing the fixer occasionally if I have done a lot of plates.
During one nightmarish session, the emulsion just started peeling away. It curled up insistently, as I desperately tried to hold the edges down, new cracks would appear. I had left collodion sitting in the sun, it had become a slightly goopy consistency and this was the end result. None of the chemistry likes to get too hot (particularly collodion), Fortunately I haven’t repeated this mistake.

Ambrotype Emma Bjorndahl

Ambrotype by Emma Bjorndahl. Wet plate collodion plate.

A mixed blessing is impurities, while part of the attraction, frustrating stains can just pop up with no clear origin on the face of a sitter. I now make sure I carefully wash all my instruments in between shoots. No matter how carefully I work, by the end of a long shoot, there tends to be a delicious chemical stew.

Ambrotypes by Emma Bjorndahl

Ambrotype by Emma Bjorndahl. Wet plate collodion plate.

On a technical and safety note, keep chemistry marked clearly and keep the collodion separate from everything, in my first session I inadvertently put two brown bottles together, I was unpleasantly surprised when I was all set up and ready to go but couldn’t find the collodion and found myself pouring developer on the plates…

Through my mistakes and successes I am continuously learning new things about this temperamental, magical process. I have been told by a reliable source that some prolific photographers in the 1870’s managed approximately 70 plates a day. I average two good plates a session. I am hoping, with practice and diligence to bring my average up to three.



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